As a child, calling Saago a fish out of water, even in jest, would have been a painfully literal observation. His strange, human-like appearance caused many Enterrans to say that he was cursed. His long azure hair and pointed ears marked him as an Enterran, but these did little to compensate for his other, unnatural features. While the Enterran Kings were all cut from the same cruel cloth, their subjects were a greatly diverse lot. Even so, Saago felt like a stranger among them. Whether they swam, slithered, or scurried, the general population was full of kind strangers and scoundrels alike. The Sea Enterrans, however, were a tightly knit group with no tolerance for the helpless. As a newly orphaned misfit, he could only wait in dread, now, for the day he was cast out of their ranks.
Saago curled up in a corner and wept.
A loud knock awoke Saago with a start. A shadow loomed over him. A comfortingly amphibian face was creased with concern.
"Hey, boy. Are you awake?" croaked the old Salamander Enterran.
Saago looked up at the sound of her voice. His eyes were wide and he watched with uncertainty as his only friend knelt beside him in the shambles of his wrecked house. She was used to her small charge's strange, unsettlingly human-like appearance. In the weeks since the raid by the Beasts which had left Saago an orphan, she had taken it upon herself to look after this small boy who had so often stopped by to help her with housecleaning and other tasks. Her own children had long since left, and she suspected that the boy's mother had sent him to keep him out of trouble. As time went on, they had struck up an odd friendship. Bullies were loath to risk her temper, so Saago also enjoyed a brief respite from their torment while in her company. But now the circumstances had changed. Saago was in danger, and she lacked the strength to protect him.
"What is it, Nan?" the boy whispered.
Rumors had stalked Saago from the day of his birth. His strange looks were a popular subject as gossip wound its way up to the King of the Sea Enterrans, Kraken. While most Enterrans were content to torment the boy and speculate about his true parentage, Kraken knew that such strange looks were an omen of frightening potential, and thus danger. This boy could become a threat to his position. Cast out to live on the shores of the Sea Kingdom, Saago grew up in a hostile environment. His only protectors were his mother and the nice old lady who lived by the woods. His mother looked like a proper aquatic Enterran. Her skin was covered by fine scales, though a pair of blunt horns and claw-like nails hinted that these traits were more draconic than fish-like. Still, she was a proper Lady of the Sea. Her son was another story.
Saago was dismayed to find that his soft, pink skin was unique in this land. Even their King sported steely scales and razor sharp fins, despite his similarities to the legendary demons called "humans." The amphibian and cetacean Enterrans sported slimy or rubbery skin that allowed them to move through the water with ease. He heard whispers that he looked uncannily like the mad Kings of the land-dwellers, or even the demons that once warred against them hundreds of years ago. He covered his face in shame when people began to point and hiss. He heard the name Ryuma mentioned. Soon, rumors began to circulate that he was some sort of half-breed, or that his mother was unfaithful. A particularly vile story involving his mother and the Reptile King reached him one day, and the very idea made him sick. He ran home sobbing, and his mother dried his tears, serenely assuring him that it was not true.
When the beasts raided the shore town, he came home to find blood and shattered glass, and nothing more. This time, there was nobody to dry his tears. He never saw her again.
Saago was eight years old at the time.
Nan regarded the boy trembling before her, wondering how she could do this without breaking his heart. After a moment, she crouched beside him and drew him into a gentle embrace. Saago sniffled and clutched at her shawl, his tiny fists trembling. She sighed and stroked his hair, mindful of the boy's sensitive horn buds.
"You can't stay here any longer, Saago."
Saago rocked back with a bewildered cry, "How can you say that, Nan!?"
The old Salamander just shook her head.
"I say it because I must. It is no longer safe here, child. Your mother was able to protect you as I cannot. Do not fear. You may be a tadpole, still, but there is potential for great strength." Nan gripped his shoulders tightly as she spoke with conviction, and Saago wanted to believe her.
"Nan… what do you mean?"
The Salamander regarded him thoughtfully.
"You know that you look different from us. This is a gift, not a curse. In my youth, I traveled to other kingdoms. You look like those frightening demons, but that is only because you will become strong. Like the Kings. Like the Demons. They share your strange, flat face and smooth skin. There were heroes and villains, all very strong, and all with your shape. Do not fear," she whispered urgently. "You are weak now, but you will become strong. Find allies. Be kind. You could have the power of a King one day, but do not become as cruel as one. Be strong, be kind. Do not fear."
Saago bit his lip, but he finally nodded. It took only a pathetic few moments to gather all of his belongings.
Nan smiled as the boy stood by the door. "I have something for you, little tadpole. Even an old crone like me had to fight once, and I think you'll need it more than me."
Saago gasped as the old Salamander reached behind her and pulled out a sword. A weapon was a common sight, as most Enterrans carried them for protection. But THIS sword was a thing of beauty- two shimmering blades emerged, curved like dragon fangs, from either end of a single hilt. Saago took it reverently as the amphibian then removed the sheathe that went with it.
"I'm too old to fight anymore, so it's really just for show," Nan explained as Saago strapped it on. The belt was too big for his waist now, so he slung it over his shoulder instead. The leather belt fit snugly over his simple, thin green shirt. Nan nodded in approval, before unfastening her shawl and draping it over his shoulders. Another belt turned it into a cloak that nearly touched the floor. The whole ensemble looked much warmer, and it would protect him from the elements.
"It's a bit big for you, but you'll grow into it. You have provisions?"
Saago nodded, glancing down at the small duffle bag he held.
"Good. Now go, before the sun climbs too high. Good luck."
Saago choked out a thank-you as he turned. He took off at a run, afraid to look back.
Saago hoped to reach the nearest town without incident. Being a child, he could hope for the pity of a stranger, but he knew he'd also be a laughably easy target. As bitter as the thought made him, he knew he should probably make for the kingdom of the Beasts. Daihangar was rumored to be one of the more tolerant Kings. He was less militaristic than Rusphine of the Bird Tribe, and his kingdom was the closest. Dokkaku's insect subjects and Ryuma's reptiles were largely left to their own devices, unlike Rusphine's strict militaristic rule, but those kingdoms were simply too far away.
It was a miracle that Saago encountered a pack of cheerful canine Enterrans headed for one of the bigger cities. Their route would bring them to a large border town, which was Saago's destination. Saago's strange, flat face prompted the friendly muzzles to curl into snarls, until the alpha male, Alu, decided that he was no threat. Seeing that he was a lost child, Alu begrudgingly offered to let Saago travel with his pack. Saago was wary of the kindness of strangers, but he realized that he would probably never be this lucky again. He spent the trip playing with the pups of the clan. When they broke for camp near a broad river, Saago gleefully helped the pack fish for dinner, and the resulting catch was impressive. It was nice to use his skills to help out, and after that, the pack was much happier to have him along. One of the adolescents even offered to spar with him, though the resulting session could hardly be called a match. It was fun, and his partner was gentle because Saago was still woefully unskilled in battle. He did learn how to hold and swing his blade without hurting himself, something he had been afraid to try on his own. His strange head-fur, he learned, was called "hair" among most other Enterrans, and it was quite common among those with warm blood, which Saago himself seemed to be.
"Are there others like me?" Saago finally asked one of the pack members, a Labrador minding the puppies.
She cocked her head, thinking for a moment.
"Not exactly like you, no… Hmm, we did run into one boy from the Monkey tribe, though he was not of their blood. Looked all pink and hairless like you, but he's a hooligan like them. You should steer clear of that one, pup," she warned. "He's nothing but trouble!"
Saago nodded, but he couldn't shake the notion that he should find this boy regardless of the danger.
Saago finally arrived in the border city, a bewildering jumble of tents, shops, and patched up shells of old Human dwellings from the days before the war. The canine pack did not ask him to leave, but when he decided to part ways, they did not try to stop him. He couldn't suppress a smile, however, when they wished him well on his travels and gave him some directions. Perhaps it was the protective instincts of mammalian Enterrans toward their offspring that prompted them to take him in when the aquatic Enterrans had only scorn. Whatever the reason, Saago decided that if he never returned to the Sea again, he would be happy. He might miss Nan, but he didn't think he could stand to live there again.
Saago made his way to the trader that the dogs had recommended. Border towns tended to host a variety of Enterrans of many species, so he wasn't too surprised to see a friendly Magpie Enterran behind the counter. The avian tilted his head before leaning forward so that he could scrutinize Saago with a glimmering eye. The poor boy wasn't even tall enough to see over the counter.
"Um. Are you Mr. Hakar? Sir?" Saago asked hesitantly. "Alu's pack said you were the best. I was told to come to you if I wanted these appraised…"
At this, Saago reached beneath his cloak to unfasten a pendant which had belonged to his mother. He reached up and placed it carefully on the counter before digging out rings and other trinkets that he'd salvaged from the wreckage. The attackers had been slavers or assassins, because they had spent little time searching for valuables to steal, taking only those treasures which were on display and leaving the hidden things intact.
Hakar clacked his beak in consternation as he noticed Saago's trembling lip.
"In a moment, boy. What has you so upset? If you were with Alu's pack, I know you were treated well. They're a nice enough lot."
Saago sniffed, scrubbing hastily at his eyes.
"No, they were very kind, Sir. I just… I don't know what to do," he wailed, looking up with watery eyes.
The Magpie softened. This boy couldn't be any older than a chick. At Hakar's prompting, Saago began to tell his story between sniffles and hiccups.
Once concluded, the trader offered him a handkerchief to dry his tears.
"Now, I know it seems like things are terrible for you, son. And you have been dealt a pretty bad lot," the bird conceded, "But the only way for things to get better is to make 'em that way for yourself! You're in a tough spot, but I think you'll do fine if you can find work."
"Now then, I'll go ahead and take a look at these. Don't tell anyone, but I'll throw a little extra in to help you get on your own two feet, kid."
A while later, Saago left with a full wallet and directions to an inn. He got a room for the night and indulged in the first proper bath he'd had in days.
The next morning, he returned to Hakar's shop at the bird's request. The Magpie greeted him and revealed his plan:
"How do you feel about working for me, boy? Can you read and write?"
Saago grinned and nodded.
"Wonderful! I was thinking it would be nice to have someone who can help me with the inventory, that way I can spend my time dealing with customers and transactions," Hakar explained. "If I catch you stealing, though, you'll be out on the street, so don't think I'll tolerate any mischief!"
Saago shook his head emphatically. "I wouldn't do that, sir! I'll work hard!"
The Magpie nodded, and that was that.
Over the next few days, Hakar went over a great number of things, trying to find out which tasks Saago was best suited for. His math skills were more than sufficient for doing the inventory and counting out money. Saago's hands were small but nimble, so he began to teach the boy how to mend fabric and jewelry, as well as tinker on all sorts of objects. Saago soon developed a fondness for machinery, particularly old Human technology. After a week or so of training, Hakar surprised Saago with a small sum of coins.
"I can't have you working for me without payment, kid. You have a lot to learn, but you're smart and have the skills. I have faith that you'll make me proud."
Saago felt his eyes began to water, and he darted forward to embrace the surprised avian. After a moment, he felt a hand pat his back. It was the first time he'd felt safe since he'd lost his mother.
Saago went back to the inn and gathered his things. Hakar had done some rearranging to create living quarters for his new apprentice. Though small and cramped, it was safe and warm. Saago spent evenings learning, reading every book that Hakar owned, with his master's permission. Once he had exhausted the bird's small library, he turned to tinkering. Hakar gave him broken toys and jewelry to fix in his spare time, since he enjoyed the task. His small hands allowed him to work with precision, and his flat, snout-less face allowed him to bring objects right before his eyes to inspect them. Soon, Saago discovered that he had a passion for his work.
Hakar wasn't able to pay Saago much, but he supplemented it by letting the boy stay for free and share his meals. Customers took note of his shy apprentice and often questioned the new addition. Hakar would simply shrug and say that he wouldn't turn down such a promising lad just because he looked funny. While Saago's presence might have caught the eyes of those with less than honest intentions, his master was too well-liked, and so master and apprentice continued to enjoy this comfortable arrangement.
After a month had passed, Hakar led Saago to a shed out back. It normally housed tools and Hakar's only vehicle. Saago was shocked to find a second machine housed there- a strange vehicle in a state of serious disrepair.
"Consider it a present for you. I bought it because I can always use the parts for scraps... but, I was thinking you might like to see if you can repair it. If you can, it's yours. No slacking or letting this interfere with your other duties, though! It may take a while, and I don't think you're big enough to ride it yet, but you young'uns do tend to grow like bean sprouts!"
Saago took up this new project with enthusiasm and the occasional help from Hakar when he needed to move heavier parts. Progress was slow, but he came in every night covered in rust and oil and bubbling with happiness.
A year of hard work and diligent learning passed without incident.
Winter was giving way into spring, and traders and travelers were flocking into the town at a steady pace. A festival was to be held in two weeks' time, and Saago was elated. He hoped that he would be able to find and buy some parts that were needed to repair the broken vehicle. It looked like it used to be a motor scooter, though he planned to convert it to use a hover drive, like most modern vehicles. The paint was long peeled away, but the metal framework was sturdy. It appeared to have robotic components, and he couldn't figure out where the wheels used to go, but he was certain that it would all become clear as he worked.
While his master was primarily a trader who saw the value of being able to buy and repair broken items to sell at a higher value, Saago was developing a lust for knowledge. He would ask endless questions about everything they bought and sold, and as he grew more confident, he would even make conversation with the customers to hear their tales and adventures. The influx of foreign strangers was a matter of great excitement for the young Aquatic Enterran- they were a source of new knowledge, and he still kept hoping to one day meet another like himself.
As the spring festival approached, Saago spent more of his free time exploring the city and meeting new people. While Hakar wasn't a fighter, he had instructed his young charge in basic safety skills. Saago knew to stay in public areas where there were many other Enterrans about. He knew not to go into the alleys or be alone with or talk to a stranger. He knew to closely guard his valuables and never let them out of his sight. At nine, he was old enough that Hakar allowed him to go to the market on his own once Saago had demonstrated that he could look out for himself on the short trip there and back.
Today, however, was not going as planned. Saago was returning with fresh fruits, which were a rare treat for him because they were so hard to come by back home. The streets were quite crowded, though, and he was jostled constantly. He found himself pushed in the wrong direction by the crowd as he attempted to weave through it, like a minnow trying to swim upstream. Eventually, he realized that he was by some empty stalls. He dusted himself off and had just begun to look around to get his bearings when he was grabbed roughly from behind.
An adolescent weasel Enterran shoved Saago down behind a stall, where he would be out of sight. Saago cried out in alarm as his assailant was joined by a scarred Anole lizard Enterran. The lizard searched his bag and hissed in disgust when he realized it held only fruit. He turned his attention to the squirming young Aquatic Enterran.
"Well, little demon child… You think you can just waltz in here like the rest of us normal folk, eh?"
The weasel cackled and kept Saago pinned. "Ah, should we teach him a lesson, since 'e doesn't have anything worth taking?"
The lizard crouched over Saago and yanked him up by his collar. With a shout, Saago kicked as hard as he could, ramming his foot into the Anole's soft belly, causing the lizard to drop him with a gasp. The weasel snarled and grabbed him by the hair, wrenching his head back. Seeing the horn buds, he dug his claws into them.
Saago screamed in agony, immobilized and helpless to stop them.
"Oooh, the little demon is sensitive. This will be fun…"
Saago shuddered, unable to move as his cloak was yanked off. He choked out a sob, wondering what they wanted with him.
Fortunately, he never found out, because a black and gold blur came out of nowhere to slam into the lizard. The weasel dropped him in surprise, and he curled up where he lay. He heard bone-cracking punches and shrieks, and he remained still even after they scrambled away. A hand touched his shoulder, and he flinched.
"Hey, they're gone. You're safe! I beat 'em up for ya!"
Saago finally sat up, if only because he was startled to hear the voice of a child even younger than himself.
His savior was sitting in front of him, grinning from ear to ear. A pair of pale blue eyes shone from a face like his own, if rounder and obscured by hair the color of dusty flower petals. Save for the color of his hair, this boy could have passed for human. Saago's heart fluttered in his chest as excitement and uncertainty filled his veins.
"So what's your name, anyway?" The strange boy asked.
"…Saago. Um… thanks."
The boy pursed his lips. "I've never seen anyone like you around. You look like me!" he exclaimed.
Saago took in the boy's calloused hands, his scrapes and old bruises, and decided that their looks were where the similarities ended. The strange boy wore a black, one-piece outfit that clung like a second skin. He had gold armor pieces strapped on top of it, and they looked like they had seen a few fights already. This was undoubtedly the boy that he had been warned about. Even so, this supposed troublemaker had saved his life without prompting, so he couldn't be that bad.
"You sure are quiet," the strange boy chirped. "Well, I'm Mushra. I live with the Monkey Tribe! I don't look like a monkey, but I'm STRONG!" And at this, he puffed out his chest and slapped a fist against it, reminding Saago more of a peacock than a monkey. Still, he knew it wasn't an empty boast, given what had just transpired.
"And I suppose you want to grow up to be the Monkey King?" Saago joked. He had heard things about the Monkey Tribe. Mushra certainly acted the part, and the whole picture he'd gathered of the way the tribe behaved was rather like something he'd read in a Human story book once. It was about a boy who could fly and lived in a land with rowdy children who never grew up and went on adventures that had Pirates and Mermaids. He had sometimes wished he could go there, even if it wasn't real. Such story books were a comfort in the early days, before he grew to truly enjoy his new life.
Mushra giggled, and Saago decided that he shouldn't encourage his antics. "Well, thanks for helping me. I should get going…" He reached for his cloak, and Mushra caught sight of the strange sword strapped to his back.
"Hey, how come you didn't fight back? You have a weapon!" Mushra scolded.
Saago busied himself with fastening his cloak to hide his embarrassment. "I don't know how," he finally admitted.
"Why don't you learn?" Mushra asked, baffled.
"I don't know anyone who could teach me," Saago muttered, growing irritated.
Mushra leapt to his feet. "I can! What if they come back?"
Saago was hesitant. "I don't know…"
"At least let me walk you home," came the emphatic response, and Mushra wouldn't take no for an answer. Saago sighed and let him tag along. And secretly, he wondered what it would be like to have a friend his own age.
The next day, Mushra walked into Hakar's shop. The bird eyed the excited Enterran boy with caution, but when he asked for Saago by name, Hakar went to the back to fetch his apprentice. When the bird reappeared with Saago in tow, Mushra was puzzled to see that the scrawny boy was wearing some kind of helmet. It didn't even come down to his ears, but it covered the top of his head and obscured his bangs. Still, armor was armor, and Mushra was just glad that Saago was inclined to be practical. He had seen how painful it was for him when the weasel was digging into his scalp.
"Mushra?" Saago gasped.
"Saago! I was serious about training, yanno. What if you get attacked again?"
This drew a sharp look from Hakar. "You were attacked? Why didn't you tell me?"
Saago looked at the floor, shuffling his feet awkwardly. "I'm okay, though. But that's why I told you about my… why I wanted the armor. Mushra saved me, Hakar. He says he can teach me how to fight."
At his, Hakar looked back to Mushra with a calculating stare. After a moment, he nodded, to Saago's surprise.
"I agree. I think we can find time for that, Saago. I wish it was a more formal arrangement, but I don't see the harm in this," Hakar stated. "Why not take today off, and get started? You've worked very hard, so I think I can stand to miss you for a day, kiddo."
Mushra gave a cheer and thrust a fist into the air. Saago allowed himself a tentative smile and went to fetch his sword.
As the days went by, Saago threw himself into these sessions with Mushra like he did with everything else. As he grew more comfortable around the diminutive fighter, he began to learn about Mushra's life. The boy didn't actually know how old he was, though Saago would guess he wasn't that much younger than himself, maybe seven or so. He didn't even remember having parents. He was taken in by the rowdy Monkey Tribe early on, though he was raised by the community rather than one or two surrogate parents. As such, Mushra's life was a bit unorthodox. He learned to fight from a very early age, and he was incredibly nimble and quick. His body was lighter than it looked, which allowed him to demonstrate impressive acrobatic ability. He fought unarmed as easily as with a weapon, and while Saago tried to learn effective unarmed combat, he had no gift for it. He did, however, discover a skill for dodging and strategy. He could often trick Mushra into doing things that left him wide open. He was swift, even faster than Mushra. Even so, it was hard for Saago to win when he was so lacking in offensive strength.
It wasn't until later, when Mushra was inspecting Saago's blade, that he made a startling discovery.
"Hey, see how these blades are shaped?" Mushra prompted, holding the weapon at eye level and gazing along its length.
"Yeah, they're curved. You just now noticed?" Saago teased.
Mushra scowled. "Not that, I mean the thickness of the blades. They're tapered from one side to the other, but the flat isn't… flat! It's curved! Like the edge of a wing!"
Saago was skeptical, but he leaned closer and finally took the blade to see what Mushra was talking about. Sure enough, if one were to line the blade up and look down its length from the tip, it became apparent that a cross-section of the blade would look like a teardrop instead of a wedge, and the edges slanted in opposite directions, like the blades of a fan.
Mushra whistled in appreciation of the craftsmanship it would take to pull that off.
"Do you want to try throwing it?"
Saago was hesitant.
"We'll do it on the grass, so the blade won't chip, okay?" Mushra pleaded, excitement making his eyes twinkle. Saago handed the sword back to Mushra.
"Why don't you do it? I'm worried what might happen."
Mushra grinned and rolled his shoulder before heaving it across the yard. It tumbled through the air and landed with a disappointing thud in the dirt.
"Awww…" Mushra groaned. Saago, however, watched with a thoughtful expression.
"Try throwing it like a disc, Mushra. Give a flick with your wrist."
Mushra looked doubtful, but he fetched the blade and gave it a try. This time, the blade whirled like a saw blade in a curved arc, sweeping out and diagonally down to embed itself point-first in the soil. Both of the boys gasped in appreciation.
"That was… SO COOL!" Mushra shouted. "I bet you could get it to come back to you!"
Saago blanched. "And cut off my head! No thanks!"
Mushra shrugged. "Well, you just need practice. We could probably make one the same shape out of wood or something. That way, you'd only knock yourself silly!"
Saago reached up to touch his helmet, even happier for the addition to his wardrobe.
While Mushra had taught Saago that one of the stupidest things you could do in a fight was throw away your weapon, it was another matter entirely if the weapon would come BACK to you afterward.
At one point, Mushra put his fists together and then drew them apart again. Between his hands grew a golden metal rod of sorts. Saago watched in amazement as Mushra extended it further until it became a proper staff. He gave it a flick, and blades came from the end, turning it into a spear.
"How did you do that?" Saago exclaimed in amazement. Mushra grinned.
"It's part of me. I put my power into it. I was wondering if you could do the same with your sword. That way, you could CALL it back to your hand! No head-chopping!"
Saago was skeptical. "Power? What power?"
Mushra shrugged. "Well, all of us Enterrans have power. You and me are prob'ly gonna have COOL powers later, like the grownups! But right now, it doesn't really do anything fancy."
Saago considered this for a moment. "I know my momma told me about powers and other stuff that happens when you grow up. Your body changes, and it starts doing things you don't want it to do sometimes. Powers can be hard to control at first. How can you do that when your powers haven't woken up yet?"
Mushra was taking all of this in with interest. "I never had anyone to teach me about that stuff, I just figure these things out on my own. I can… I can try to show you, but it's something you have to FEEL."
Saago nodded. "Please," he asked quietly.
Mushra reached out for Saago's hand, closing his eyes as he concentrated. Saago felt a tingle, then warmth from the fingers that covered his. The tingling seemed to flow INTO his hand, burning without hurting him. It faded after a moment, and Mushra opened his eyes with a grin. He let Saago go, and indicated that he should try.
Saago closed his eyes and frowned, trying to find the part inside of him that burned like that. After a long while of trying to will power into his hands, he gave up with a sigh.
Mushra frowned. "Well, what did you try?"
Saago thought for a moment. "I was looking for something in me that burned like that. But there's nothing."
Mushra nodded. "Well, my soul probably feels different. I feel fire when I look inside, but you need to look for something different. Where are you from?"
Saago wilted. "The… The Water Tribe. But I'm different from them, Mushra."
Mushra laughed. "Wow, really? But you don't look like a fish! You don't even have scales, Saago, or fins, or anything. I never would've guessed!"
Saago glared, flushing with shame. "I know! I know… I'm a freak. But I'm still one of them."
Mushra shook his head. "No, you're BETTER than them. You're nice! And smart! Who cares about them, anyway? So don't feel for fire, 'cuz that's pretty much the opposite of you, I think."
Saago realized that Mushra was only amazed, not disgusted, by the dissimilarity between Saago and his people. Taking his words to heart, Saago tried again.
Eyes closed, Saago felt inside himself for the core of his power. After a long silence, he felt a ripple. It was energy as cold and pure as a mountain stream, a calm and glassy surface that belied a violent current. He reached in, and like a spring welling forth, his hands were filled with a chill that burned like ice. Mushra gave an exultant whoop, and Saago opened his eyes to find that his hands were glowing.
"Wow, even I can't make my hands glow like that! You're awesome, Saago! Lemme go get the sword!"
Saago stared at his hands as mist began to roll off of his palms. Mushra returned and placed the hilt in Saago's upturned hand.
"Now try to push that energy into the blade."
Saago willed it forth. A moment later, the blade was glowing with a sparkle like sunlight shimmering in the morning dew. Suddenly, he was aware of the blade like it was an extension of his body. He knew it was there the same way he could feel his hand or his foot. With a gasp, he snapped off the transfer. The blade's presence was still there, but it was lessened now. He could sense that it would obey him. And suddenly, he found that he could manipulate it with ease, as though he had been training with it all his life.
"Now you feel it, right? I think you can probably keep up with me, now. Some Enterrans can make weapons out of their bodies. This is kinda like that, I think," Mushra explained. "Anyway, wanna go another round?"
Saago stood up, but then he wobbled and nearly fell over. Mushra darted over and grabbed his shoulder to steady him.
"Maybe tomorrow," Saago gasped. "I'm really dizzy."
As it turned out, Saago wouldn't see him again until the day of the Festival.
Saago was disappointed when Mushra didn't turn up the next day. Hakar suggested he take the opportunity to work more on the scooter out back. Deciding it was a good idea, Saago withdrew to the shed. When he took a break for lunch, he decided to head for the town square and take a look at what the vendors had for sale. On his way there, his eye was caught by a strange stone shimmering on the ground. Thinking a vendor had dropped it, he looked about only to find that there were no stalls nearby, and there was nary a single person in sight. Crouching down to inspect it, it appeared to be a polished blue gemstone. It had undoubtedly made its way here through one of the merchants, but nobody appeared to be searching for it. He reached out to pick it up, only for a voice to whisper in his mind
DO YOU WANT POWER, LITTLE BOY?
"…I… what? I suppose…" Saago responded, surprised into speaking.
I CAN GRANT YOU POWER BEYOND YOUR WILDEST DREAMS, SAAGO.
"How do you know my name!?" He gasped. This was so WEIRD.
IT IS DESTINY.
"Destiny?" That had a nice sound to it. Saago touched the stone.
With a flash of light, it vanished, only for a cold fire to converge on his forehead. He reached up in amazement to feel three polished gems affixed to his helmet. A quick test confirmed that they were stuck on and couldn't be removed. He grinned, and newfound confidence put a spring in his step.
The Spring Festival finally arrived, with no word from Mushra. Saago hadn't realized how much the boy's companionship meant to him until he was gone, and the new void in his life gnawed at his thoughts. Still, he tried to enjoy himself. His master gave him extra coins for the day, encouraging him to buy a treat for himself. Hakar hoped that this day would cheer him up a bit.
The smell of fresh pastries drew Saago over to a vendor selling bubbly pies and other treats. After handing the large cat exact change, Saago left with a small berry pie in hand. He was hard-pressed to feel miserable with such a tasty distraction! He wandered about, enjoying the music and talking to travelers. He even went over to an armorer who set up shop by the square, gazing in awe at the things he saw there. He didn't buy anything, but it was fun to look at the exotic blades and beautifully crafted leather. After several hours, he finally made his way over to a stall dealing in junk and machine parts, not all that unusual in this age, as there were always those with an interest in old technology. He saw with a grin that there was even a beat up old hover drive in the back! Saago had been saving his earnings for the entire year in the hopes that he'd be able to find exactly this! The hover drive was big, though, and he didn't know how he'd be able to carry it…
The vendor, a Rhinoceros Enterran appeared from inside of a tent, and Saago asked about the drive. He received a scowl from the owner and then a price just a few marks higher than his entire sum. He tried to haggle, but the vendor was stubborn. Shoulders slumping with disappointment, he turned away, only to bump straight into Mushra.
"Whoa! I've been looking all over for you, Saago!"
Saago was stunned, and elated. He flung his arms around his friend, nearly covering them both with berry pie. He pulled back and offered the remaining half to Mushra, who took it with wide eyes.
"I can have it?"
"Of course!" Saago exclaimed with a grin. He nearly regretted it when he witnessed Mushra's deplorable lack of manners, however. Even so, it was so nice to see him again!
"So what had you so bummed, anyway?"
Saago realized that he'd nearly forgotten all about the hover drive. He quickly explained his predicament, and Mushra gave a nasty grin.
"Let me talk to him, for ya."
A moment later, he motioned Saago over to the stall.
"This gentleman has GRACIOUSLY agreed to your reasonable price, on the condition that we transport and install it ourselves. Isn't that right?" Mushra was standing atop the counter so that he could look the vendor in the eye, twirling his spear idly. Saago was uncomfortable with this, but when the sour rhino nodded assent, he quickly shoved his remaining money across the counter. Mushra offered to help him carry the drive, though Saago couldn't help but notice the boy wince at the exertion.
By the time they got to the shed out back, evening was approaching. Mushra spent a few moments looking over the partially restored scooter.
"You really think you can fix this?" At this, Mushra prodded a bent plate, causing it to fall. "Oh, sorry!"
Saago just laughed and told him that it was a long term project, but he really thought he could do it. He paused for a moment, then decided now was the best time to ask the question that had been bothering him.
"So… where'd you go, Mushra?"
Mushra shuffled awkwardly over to a work bench and sat down. "I was in trouble. Some jerks found out that I beat up their buddies – that weasel and lizard – and chased me outta town," Mushra explained. "I couldn't fight back against that many. I barely got away."
Mushra gave a rueful shrug, followed by a wince. He rubbed his shoulder. Saago finally took note of the new scratches on the gold armor the boy wore over his black outfit- some kind of synthetic under-armor, Saago figured. His eyes were drawn to a more interesting addition, however. A golden circlet was hidden behind Mushra's bangs.
"Where'd you get that?" Saago inquired, pointing at the accessory.
Mushra looked surprised, as though he had forgotten about it. "Oh! I found a weird gem when I was on my way back here. I think a trader might have dropped it, but it said something about power and then turned into this band thing! I can't take it off."
Saago nodded. "It's a circlet. Actually, the same thing happened to me," and at this, he reached up to touch the gem on his forehead. "It told me this was destiny. I want to become strong enough to protect the people I care about."
Mushra grinned. "Well, I can help you with that part, at least!"
Saago frowned. "About that, Mushra; I don't like how you bullied the vendor just to help me. I was gonna go ask Hakar if he could help out, and I would pay him back later," Saago scolded. "That's the honest way! And it sounds like the dogs were right; you ARE a trouble-maker."
Mushra wilted, unexpectedly hurt by Saago's disapproval. "I only wanted to help! He wasn't being fair!"
Saago shook his head. "I know. But just because something isn't fair doesn't mean you can go around picking fights! You'll end up in a lot of trouble someday if you keep doing that. Now, let me look at your bruises. I think I can help."
Mushra nodded and unstrapped his gold armor, leaving just the black fabric underneath.
"Point to where it hurts," Saago instructed.
Mushra placed a hand gingerly on his shoulder. "They stomped on it before I could get away."
Saago nodded and reached out to touch it, brushing aside Mushra's hand. He closed his eyes, and concentrated. Soon, he could feel his hand grow cold again, and he held it against the bruised shoulder. Mushra gasped at the sensation.
"Whoa, it's cold! Your power is ice?"
Saago shook his head. "Water, I think. But water can be very cold. Ice is part of water. I think the gem is helping, because I don't feel dizzy this time!"
Mushra laughed. "Awesome! Thanks. Don't do that for too long, though. You'll still get tired."
At this, Saago tried to push some of his power into Mushra like the smaller boy had done during his demonstration. A surprised exclamation let Saago know he had succeeded. He opened his eyes and removed his hand.
"The cold stayed!" Mushra reached up to touch his shoulder in awe.
Saago felt dizzy again, and Mushra insisted that he stay put.
"I have something to show you! I'll be right back," the smaller boy commanded. Saago nodded and tried to catch his breath. He wouldn't try that trick again anytime soon, if it was going to leave him this tired.
Nearly half an hour had passed before Mushra returned, and the sun was setting in a glorious blaze of pink and gold. The colors reminded Saago of Mushra. As if on cue, a silhouette appeared, framed by the edges of the shed. Mushra ducked inside, carrying a large, shield-like disc.
"I thought we could take a look at mine, and maybe that will help you figure out how to get this hover drive installed!"
Saago blinked and looked more closely at the object Mushra was now holding before him. It was rather thick, and shaped in a hemisphere. The entire thing was covered in plain steel, with a plate on top for standing, with a strange vent on the bottom that Saago assumed was the means of propulsion. At Saago's nod, Mushra stepped back and tossed it down, where it hovered several inches off of the ground. He jumped on top of it, and it supported his weight easily. Saago clapped in delight. Mushra might as well be standing on a cloud, for the disc was light and maneuverable as well as compact. The two moved as one, and Mushra seemed to steer it with nothing more than thought.
"Where did you get that, Mushra?"
Mushra shrugged. "I don't remember. I think I found it a long time ago, or something. It only works for me, like my staff."
Sago hadn't seen anything like it before, but that explained how Mushra was able to control it so effortlessly. The hover board probably responded to his energy.
With a yawn, Saago realized that he was worn out from all the excitement of the day.
"I think I'm gonna go inside for the night. Where are you staying, Mushra? An inn?"
Mushra shrugged uncomfortably. "I can't afford that. Don't worry about me."
Saago was aghast. "You're not sleeping on the streets, are you!?"
Mushra frowned. "No, I have a tent. I sleep out on the edge of town, now that I got kick… now that I left the Monkey tribe."
The conversation was making Mushra uncomfortable, so Saago withheld any further comments after the hasty cover-up.
"Why don't you go get your things, and come back here? I wanna talk to Hakar."
Mushra returned with a travel bag containing a sleeping bag and a few other essentials. He walked into the shop to find that Saago had tracked down Hakar and was now pleading with him urgently.
"He's my friend! He can't just sleep out in the cold! There's still frost on the ground at night!"
Hakar was silent.
"Please, Sir. He can have my bed. I'm not asking for you to make arrangements for him- I'll share what I have. Please," and the last word was soft and plaintive as Saago begged.
Hakar finally sighed. "Well, you make a convincing case. He can't just sit around, though. He'll have to earn his keep somehow. Let me see if I can acquire another cot for your room."
Saago was overjoyed, and he ran over to Mushra and hugged him. The smaller boy was overwhelmed, but he finally managed a soft "thank you," as Saago stepped back.
Saago folded his arms and frowned in mock sternness. "Now, no troublemaking, Mushra. Mr. Hakar was very nice, so you have to be nice, too!"
Mushra nodded mutely.
Mushra could read and write, so Saago spent his free time teaching Mushra the same skills he had honed over the past year. Mushra was easily distracted and more interested in physical tasks than mental ones, however. Saago found that the easiest way to get Mushra to cooperate was to make a game out of the various chores. Mushra had a powerful competitive streak, and Saago merely smiled when Mushra emerged the triumphant "victor" from each challenge. As weeks wore on, Hakar decided to expand his work from only trade to include minor, cheap repair work and deliveries. Mushra was an excellent delivery boy, and he made quick work of it once Saago encouraged him to challenge himself by getting to each destination as fast as possible without damaging the goods. Saago took pride in his ability to repair gadgets and accessories, and the additional services provided enough income to support all three of them as long as they kept personal spending to a minimum.
Saago took it upon himself to impart a love of reading and knowledge onto Mushra. Unfortunately, the smaller boy had little patience for books and lore. Realizing that it was a lost cause, he instead devoted more time to sparring with the energetic boy. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Mushra worked out his aggression wearing himself out in their training sessions and therefore tended to stay out of trouble, while Saago was finally beginning to show rapid progress and combat ability. The next time Saago found himself facing would-be muggers, he managed to slip away unscathed after dodging their clumsy efforts. It was a victory for both young Enterrans.
Saago finally worked up the courage to try throwing his blade instead of swinging it like a sword. With an easy flick, he sent it soaring through the air. He willed it to return, and it completed its arc for the hilt to smack perfectly into his palm. Mushra watched in amazement, shocked that Saago had caught it on the first try. Saago had felt no fear, however, because his new affinity with this weapon meant he knew exactly how to manipulate it. He was no longer in any danger of injuring himself with it.
Weeks became months, and they soon had an entire year under their belts of working together. Saago was now ten, and Mushra was the age that Saago had been when he set out on this journey to begin with. Saago had been growing taller so quickly that Mushra swore he could see the difference every day. Mushra, on the other hand, seemed to mature very little. He remained short and baby-faced, much to his dismay.
Despite Saago's best efforts, he couldn't keep Mushra entirely out of trouble. As the Spring Festival approached yet again, travelers seemed to come from all over to visit. Saago was shocked to find that Mushra had already made enemies at such a young age, and a young gang of mixed Enterrans gleefully cornered them one afternoon.
"Not so tough without your Monkey henchmen are ya, you little brat?"
A Rat Enterran cracked his knuckles. "You thought we forgot about you? You won't get away this time, and your friend there will stay out of this if he knows what's good for him. I wouldn't want him to break a nail or something."
Saago knew from the rat's tone that it was meant as an insult. He looked from his long nails to Mushra's blunt ones and wondered why it mattered. Suddenly, a weasel pushed his way through their ranks, sporting a cracked canine tooth. "Hey, that's the little bastard we was educating when the shorty showed up and punched me! They're both monsters!"
At this, Saago froze. He realized that this was one of the thieves who had attacked him a year ago. Trembling, he reached out with his right hand, and his blade appeared with a flash of blue light.
"Ohoho, the little shrimp thinks 'e can fight us?"
The rat lunged, and Mushra jumped. Saago's arm whipped forward without a thought, and the rat reeled back with a shriek as a spray of blood erupted from his scalp. Mushra slammed down onto one of the other attackers, knocking him to the ground. Saago had sliced the rat's ear off, and the others were rethinking this plan when the blade thudded back into his hand.
Saago's eyes glared from beneath the helmet. Mushra rose and rounded on the rat. With a quick motion, he whipped out his spear and held it under the rat's chin.
"You want me to card you, Zek?"
The rat snarled, but remained still. Blood dripped down the side of his face. With a quick jerk of his hand, he signaled for the others to back away. Mushra held his blade steady, but he allowed the rat to retreat. When a sufficient distance was between them, Zek spat and turned away.
"This isn't over, freak."
Saago was relieved to see that Mushra didn't pursue them. Once they were out of sight, he slumped against the wall with a sigh.
"That was a close one."
Mushra kicked at the dirt in frustration.
"We could've taken 'em, Saago. You're a good fighter now!" The eagerness in his voice worried Saago. Mushra was developing an unhealthy love for violence.
"We're KIDS, Mushra. They were bigger than us, and there were too many. Fighting isn't always the best way out! I'm glad you didn't go after them, because I was really worried."
Mushra crossed his arms. "We'll just have to get stronger. We have to be strong enough to win."
"Or strong enough to walk away," Saago added softly. "If we're weak, we won't have a choice either way."
Mushra was too young to realize the wisdom of these words. He wanted POWER.
Mushra awoke one night to the sound of whimpering. Saago had been reluctant to talk about his past, but Mushra suspected that this nightmare had something to do with it when he heard the taller boy began to plead not to be left alone. After a moment's debate, Mushra got up and shoved his cot as quietly as he could until it was pressed beside Saago's. Climbing back into his own bed, he reached over to touch Saago's hand, and the older boy reacted by clutching at his arm desperately. Mushra sighed in annoyance, because it wouldn't be that comfortable to sleep this way, but he didn't pull away. When Saago awoke the next morning, he didn't comment on the change. Even so, this sleeping arrangement would become routine from that day onward.
Seasons passed and their lives carried on with little change. Training progressed easily, and Saago even found that he was able to disarm Mushra on occasion, though he couldn't bring himself to actually hurt his partner, even in a friendly match. Mushra was careful to pull his strikes so as not to do serious harm to Saago, either. Slowly but surely, Saago was becoming an even match for Mushra.
Mushra had grown some, but Saago continued to tower over him. Saago himself was clearly approaching the transitional stage between childhood and adolescence. His face had become thin and angular, and his body grew wiry and lean, a look which complemented his graceful movements. He still kept his hair shoulder length. Coupled with his figure, Saago had grown to look deceptively delicate.
While most Enterrans dismissed Mushra as a child and considered him no threat, Saago had begun to create a ripple of unease. It was commonly known among Enterrans that one's shape was an indication of one's power. The lowliest Enterrans often most closely resembled anthropomorphic animals. Besides walking on two legs, they seldom bore any resemblance to their ancient Human creators. But as one searched higher and higher through the pecking order, more human-like features were seen. The most powerful Enterrans of all, the Kings, were nearly identical to the dreaded Human demons of old. Only minute differences like wings, strange eyes, or armored skin distinguished them from the ancient enemy. Enterrans learned to fear those who bore human features, and rightfully so. Any Enterran who earned the ire of a King could only wish for a swift and painless death.
Saago was beginning to show exactly such a resemblance, and his strength had turned him into a threat. Even so, his kindness and cheerful attitude generally set others at ease. Business was running smoothly, and other than the occasional scuffle with local bullies, Saago managed to keep Mushra out of trouble for three full years.
Saago was nearly finished repairing the old motor scooter. As it turned out, it never had wheels to begin with. Instead, it boasted a pair of retractable robotic legs and a rudimentary A.I. system that allowed it to follow basic vocal commands and move on its own. Mushra had arrived to help him with the final step: installing the hover drive to allow it to fly. They had spent several days studying his flying disc, and Saago had spent the past year modifying the engine and interior to accommodate for the new system. He and Mushra carefully slid the drive into place and snapped all the connections home. Saago looked over his work, and nodded.
"I think it's finally ready."
Saago eased the metal cover back into place, and it snapped shut with a click. While he had restored the exterior and hammered out all of the dents, it still lacked a paint job. That could wait until they were sure it would work.
Mushra was watching all of this with a thoughtful expression.
"I wonder… Remember your theory about my energy connection? I think you should try it. You might even be able to channel your power through it later on, yanno?"
Saago nodded and rose to slide the vehicle out of the shed into the open space for testing. Nervously, he took a seat and grasped the steering mechanism. He pressed a button, and the machine whirred to life. After a moment, it rose into the air, earning an excited shout from Mushra.
"Go for it!"
Saago nodded and coaxed it forward. The scooter responded instantly. Feeling a bit more confident now, Saago guided it in a circuit around the small yard. He brought it down to rest and felt inside himself for the source of his power, seeing if he could channel it into the vehicle the same way he had into his weapon three years ago. It seemed to be working, and he slowly felt something awake inside the scooter.
"Come on," he whispered.
The vehicle seemed to shudder, and with a heave, it leapt to its feet. Saago realized that he had somehow managed to wake it up. He tried to break off the connection, and found that he could not.
Saago's heart hammered in his chest as panic set in.
"Mushra, I can't stop!"
Mushra responded immediately, running over to yank Saago off of the vehicle. They collapsed onto the grass, and Mushra watched suspiciously as the scooter walked over to crouch beside Saago, as though concerned. Realizing that all was not well, he looked back to the boy shuddering in his arms. Cold mist was rolling off of his body, and Mushra could only watch helplessly as Saago sank into unconsciousness.
Most Enterrans did not experience the full awakening of their power until adulthood. By this time, they generally had attained a measure of control over their inner strength, so when it began to manifest in physical form, this was generally easily dealt with.
A smaller percentage, however, began to manifest powers at the onset of adolescence. These Enterrans often experienced wild and uncontrollable surges of power that wreaked havoc on those around them until they managed to get them under control. Some were able to leash this wild force, and others were not. Those unfortunate few were destroyed as the power ripped them apart, their bodies not yet strong enough to handle the extreme forces from within. Those who did manage to take control became some of the most powerful warriors on Enterra.
Saago had the misfortune to be one of those who manifest early. It was a harrowing 36 hours before Saago next awoke, but he found that Mushra had stayed by his side the entire time. Mushra kept him warm, fighting the deathly cold that tried to engulf his body. Saago's skin grew clammy and slick, and water began to flow from him in rivulets as he writhed. When he finally managed to sit up, Mushra hastily formulated a plan.
"Saago, come on. Listen to me, okay?" Mushra begged. "I think the problem is that there's so much power inside of you, it's trying to explode out. You have to do something with it, or it's gonna drown you!"
It was an apt metaphor, Saago thought, as he gasped for air.
Mushra's heart ached, and he was sick with fear for Saago's life. He'd heard about this sort of thing happening. It was rare, but survivable. He decided that he would have to take matters into his own hands. There was no time. He stood up and slung Saago's arm over his shoulder. He half led, half dragged his friend outside. He couldn't bear to lose Saago, the only real friend he'd ever had.
"Saago, you need to find a way to control this or it's gonna kill you! I won't let that happen, dammit!"
After a moment, he grabbed one of Saago's dripping hands and began to channel his own energy, leading by example.
"Come on, like we did before. You can do it. Try to force it out! You have to show it who's boss!"
Saago's breath was ragged and his vision seemed to be obscured by a thick fog, but Mushra's pleas finally reached him. With a scream, he wrenched away and held a trembling palm in front of him. A flash of light was the only warning Mushra got before a torrent of water blasted forth, pulverizing a section of the back lot's fence like an oversized hydro cutter. Mushra shuddered to think what might have happened if Saago had let that build inside of him for any longer. After a moment, the water sputtered to a stop, leaving a cloud of mist around them. Saago sank to his knees with a sob, but it was a sob of relief.
"Does it still hurt?" Mushra whispered as he knelt beside the exhausted teen.
Saago shook his head, but he sagged sideways and leaned against Mushra. He'd passed the test. He had survived one of the most frightening trials a young Enterran could face, and now he just needed to learn to control this new power. Mushra wrapped an arm around Saago, weak with relief. It would be rough, but they could tackle everything that followed together.
Over the next few days, Saago discovered that control over his new power was coming with ease. However, he never managed to reproduce the initial surge that had held so much destructive energy. At best, he could form shapes out of mist or squirt water from his finger. Mushra assured him that strength came with time and effort. That devastating blast was likely more of a preview of the things he'd be able to do at will someday. As it was, Mushra was a pillar of support even as this turn of events was creating a stir among the townsfolk.
Saago pretended not to notice the whispers that followed him as he and Mushra made their way back from a trip to a supply shop that specialized in vehicles. It sold paint, wax, and various substances needed to keep any machine running smoothly. Mushra didn't seem to notice the unfriendly atmosphere that hovered around them; he was more concerned with Saago's taste in paint colors.
"PINK paint? Really? If you're sure," came Mushra's skeptical remark. "You shouldn't just settle for what's cheapest, yanno."
Saago bristled. "What's wrong with pink? I happen to like that color!"
Mushra put up his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Okay, okay, sorry. I was just asking."
Saago shook his head and picked up the pace. He wanted to get out of there. He didn't like the unwelcome muttering any more than the whisperers liked him. It wasn't HIS fault that he was stuck in this town. Mushra jogged to keep up with his long strides.
When they reached the shed, Mushra went about setting up plastic sheets to protect everything else for when they began spraying the paint. Several long, messy hours later, Saago and Mushra stood marveling at their work.
"It's bright, but it looks pretty good," Mushra admitted.
Saago clapped a congratulatory hand against Mushra's back.
"Thanks for helping me. Now it just needs to dry over night."
The next morning, Saago gave the scooter a brief inspection before applying a coat of wax. By noon, he was ready to go. Mushra wanted to race right to the edge of town, but Saago thought it would be better to walk out and have the vehicle follow him until they were in a sufficiently wide clearing. It was a good plan, and the trip out was uneventful. The surrounding plains were the perfect place for a proper test drive.
Saago had just settled into place when Mushra shot past him in a blur, spiraling through the air with a laugh. Saago couldn't help but notice how naturally Mushra moved in the sky. It was a shame he hadn't been born with wings, Saago mused, because he seemed most at home riding the wind currents, for all that he was raised by the Monkey Tribe. Saago realized that Mushra was now waiting patiently, so he turned his attention to the road ahead. He had never driven a vehicle before, but he found that the controls for his were fairly intuitive. Between his theoretical knowledge from his repairs and a healthy application of guesswork and common sense, he was soon airborne and cruising over the plains. Mushra slowed to match his pace, acting as a spotter while Saago busied himself with learning the limits and capabilities of his machine.
On a hunch, Saago tried channeling some power into the thrusters to see what would happen. He was rewarded with a torrent of water that sprayed from the exhaust vents on the underside of the scooter, thoroughly soaking the ground beneath him. He had no idea what use this might have, but it was good to know regardless. After a bit more fiddling, Saago was satisfied that he had run the scooter through its paces. Mushra took his grin for what it was – a challenge. The rest of the afternoon was spent in friendly competition as they raced, testing speed and maneuverability. Neither could agree on a victor, but they turned back toward the town happily exhausted.
The ambush couldn't have happened at a worse time.
Their assailants were either very patient or very lucky, and the attack came from three directions. A ragged group of vermin formed a four-man pincer that converged directly before them, while the last pair snuck up from behind.
"Looks like your luck's run dry, freak."
Saago whirled around at the familiar voice. His heart sank as he took in the foes before him: all were brandishing weapons, and their leader was none other than a certain one-eared rat Enterran. They had planned this well, as a sling stone slammed into Mushra's knee, knocking him to the ground in his moment of distraction. Saago whipped out his blade and jumped down to protect Mushra until the smaller boy could scramble back onto his feet. The vermin closed in, and Saago and Mushra stood back to back. Now they would discover the true measure of their abilities, because Saago knew that their lives depended on it.
Mushra drew his spear with a flourish, and a familiar weasel decided to charge. There were six foes in total. Saago moved reflexively, effortlessly tossing his blade with grace and precision as Mushra rammed his spear through the weasel's belly, cleaving him in two with a shout. A card fluttered to the ground.
Saago didn't risk turning to watch. He reached out to catch his blade as it returned, leaving a second card in its wake. A stoat and the scarred lizard tried to tag team Saago, and he barely managed to dodge the stoat's notched sword, which slid just shy of his neck. He snapped his arm forward to slash the lizard's throat, and a soft gurgle was heard as another card fluttered down, accompanied by a clump of blue locks, shorn in the near-miss.
The stoat snarled and grabbed Saago by the throat, lifting him into the air. Saago gasped as the violent motion sent his helmet tumbling to the ground. Desperate, Saago thrashed as the stoat leaned in close, smug in his assumed victory. Saago lashed out and dug his long fingernails into his attacker's face, clawing at his eyes.
The stoat dropped the boy with a shriek, and Saago picked up his sword, carding the blinded foe with a single swipe. He reached for his helmet only for a stray blast of energy to carve a deep rend through it, charring the surface. Hastily, he pocketed the oddly dormant gem before rejoining Mushra.
Mushra was circling the rat and waiting for an opening, dodging blasts from the final opponent, a fox Enterran with a glowing gun of some sort. The weapon crackled, and Saago reacted on instinct, raising a hand to send a jet of water streaming towards the startled shooter. The weapon sizzled as the water soaked it, and a startled yelp was Saago's only warning before the gun exploded in a spectacular misfire. The rat made the mistake of turning to look, and Mushra lunged.
Two final cards joined their companions in the dust. As usual, there were no corpses, only the card-shaped souls to mark where their owners had fallen. Saago gathered them all respectfully, a bit bewildered by what had just transpired. He had never killed or carded anyone before, and he couldn't stop his hands from trembling. He picked up his ruined helmet as well, dismally lowering the warped and cracked metal over his head. He cared less about his partially cropped hair. They resumed their journey home, greatly subdued.
Hakar listened with increasing alarm as Saago and Mushra described the horrible encounter. With a lump in his throat, Saago offered the cards to Hakar, who took them gravely. At Mushra's soft gasp, however, Saago realized that there was still dried blood crusted beneath his long nails. He jerked his hand away and covered it, ashamed.
"Judging by your horrified expressions, I think you understand the gravity of this situation," Hakar admonished. "But I believe you, and this was a matter of self defense."
An awkward silence fell between them as they all realized that the tension had finally reached critical mass; their lives could not carry on as they had for the last few years. Saago was worried that Hakar might get caught in the crossfire if this trend was allowed to continue.
Hakar set the En-cards on the counter with a sigh.
"We'll talk more about this tomorrow," he concluded more gently. "You two should go clean up. I believe we all have some serious thinking to do."
Saago and Mushra rose and went upstairs without protest.
Mushra flopped onto the bed while Saago retreated to the bathroom. After the older Enterran didn't return for nearly twenty minutes, Mushra finally rose and went to investigate. He couldn't hear the shower running, so he knocked on the door.
"Hey, you okay in there?" Mushra asked.
"Actually, I could use your help," came the muffled response, to Mushra's surprise. He pushed the door open.
Saago was standing in front of the mirror, holding a pair of scissors and scowling at his reflection. The pile of hair on the floor told Mushra that Saago had been at this for a while now. Mushra realized that Saago was finally addressing his uneven haircut by cropping the majority of it off.
"You want me to cut your hair?"
Saago nodded, holding the scissors out for Mushra to take.
"I got most of it already. I just need help with the back now, since I can't really see what I'm doing there. Just chop it short like yours," Saago explained with a finality that made Mushra bite back his protests.
Mushra had actually liked the way the longer hair had looked on Saago, but he knew better than to argue. Mushra grabbed a stool to stand on so that he could see what he was doing. Saago had already dealt with his bangs and the top of his head, so Mushra just focused on cutting the rest to match the new, much shorter length. When he was finished, Saago thanked him quietly.
Mushra glanced at Saago's reflection, an ugly feeling twisting in his heart. In his youth, Saago had often worn high collared shirts. In more recent years, he had abandoned that look in favor of wide, low collars. As such, the bruising around Saago's throat was horribly conspicuous, and the sight of it filled Mushra with anger. Despite all of their hard work, somebody had still come that close…
Mushra glanced down at Saago's hands, finally taking a moment to examine the differences from his own. Mushra kept his nails short, and his hands were scarred and rough from years of fighting and hard living. In contrast, Saago's slender fingers were unmarked aside from the calluses he had developed from training. While Mushra couldn't claim to have inspected them before, he had always assumed that Saago's nails, like the rest of his body, were basically the same as his when they had met. However, in five years' time, Saago's blood heritage was beginning to show.
It was a commonly held belief that an Enterran's physical appearance was a reflection of their power. There were as many growth rates as there were species among Enterrans, of course, but physical maturity was often tied to the development of power. Saago's distinguished features seemed to exaggerate the disparity in age between them; Mushra had the body of a child while Saago was growing into a young man. Saago's hair still covered the little nubs that would one day grow into horns, so the most apparent change was the one that Mushra was currently studying.
Saago's nails were long and unusually hard, yes. But it was their thickness and tapered shape that made Mushra realize they were not nails at all. Rather, they were partially developed claws which would likely become proper talons in adulthood. Mushra had mistaken them for the long nails he'd seen on some vain individuals, a disguise likely maintained by regular filing, if the tool resting on the counter was any indication.
"Hey, Saago… Why do you blunt your nails? I would take advantage of every weapon I had, but you're handicapping yourself! Those claws saved your life," Mushra accused, letting his curiosity and envy get the better of him.
Saago glanced down at his hand thoughtfully. He was careful to regularly file the tips away until only a centimeter or so remained, a task made into a chore by their exceptional hardness.
"Well, they'd get in the way if I didn't," Saago pointed out as though stating the obvious. "I have to do a lot of fine manipulation for work. Besides, I can still use them to defend myself, and they've got the advantage of a concealed weapon if my opponents don't identify them as such."
Mushra saw the wisdom in Saago's reasoning, and he hopped down to clean up the mess they'd created. Once finished, he stepped back out into the hall to give Saago some privacy.
"Don't use up all the hot water," Mushra teased before shutting the door again.
Saago sighed, still upset and rattled by the fight. Mushra had seemed more concerned about Saago than the fact that they had just taken six lives. While the En-cards were still intact, there was little hope that their owners would ever be revived. Saago knew that it was possible in theory to revive an Enterran from their card-soul state, but he'd never heard of anyone accomplishing this in the present day. From what he'd read, this technology was mostly developed and used in the war 300 years ago, after which the humans became extinct and the restoration technology was lost, probably vanishing along with the robots. As such, the only fate a carded Enterran could look forward to was to be consumed by the living, made into slaves in the bodies of their enemies.
It was no better than death, since card-devouring was almost never done with the consent of the fallen. If anything, being reduced to an En-card was WORSE than death. Those with wicked hearts and a lust for revenge often considered it the perfect punishment for their enemies. The idea of it made Saago sick. He would prefer the finality and freedom of death, but such a decision would never be his to make. Unless the power of his soul could be used to protect those he loved, he could only pray that his card would be destroyed as well, should it ever come to that.
It was also not right for Saago to make that choice for anyone else. While he would wish his card destroyed to keep his soul from being devoured, he also knew that the cowards and power-seekers would value any impossibly small chance at life, even slavery, over the finality of death. As such, he would never intentionally destroy the card of another Enterran, barring a final request to do so.
Saago's mind was in turmoil as he continued to mull this over while he washed the blood and grime from his body. He knew there was nothing else he could have done, but he felt changed by the battle. He would never be quite the same, and it was at this moment that Saago realized his childhood had ended.
I'm a killer, Saago thought bitterly.
Mushra wasted no time once Saago returned to the bedroom, and he was cleaned up and back to his normal, bouncy self in little more than five minutes. One look at Saago's demeanor was enough to sober Mushra right back up, however. Sago was hunched forward, sitting on the edge of his bed with his face pressed into his hands. There were no tears, but Mushra somehow knew Saago's grief or loathing was directed at Saago himself. He'd never seen his friend this despondent in the time since they'd met, and it scared him.
Without hesitation, Mushra made his way over to the bed and sat down beside Saago.
"Saago, you did the right thing," Mushra murmured, wrapping an arm around the older boy. "We gave them plenty of chances to leave us alone, and they just wouldn't take no for an answer. You didn't WANT to card 'em, you just did what you had to when they cornered us. You're alive."
Saago just shook his head. "But that doesn't make it right! I overpowered them because I was just stronger, like they did to me before."
Mushra reached over with his other hand to touch one of Saago's arms, coaxing his hands away from his face.
"No, they hurt people because they LIKED it. You don't like hurting people, and that's how I know you're still a nice guy, Saago. Everyone ends up hurting people sometimes," Mushra said with growing passion. "But the difference is whether you do it when you DON'T have to, and if you LIKE doing it."
Saago finally turned to meet Mushra's earnest gaze.
"I hate it," he whispered.
Mushra nodded. "Good. That's how you know you're still you."
Saago smiled. "What about you, Mushra? You seem to have this all figured out."
Mushra shrugged. "This isn't the first time I've had to card someone. I like a good fight, but I don't go picking on people who are weaker than me! If it's them or me, I'm gonna protect myself. That's just how it is, Saago."
It was an ugly truth, but Saago realized that trying to deny this fact was like living in the fantasy worlds he'd envisioned as a child. It was unrealistic to expect that living came without a price. The world was violent and ugly. The only way to protect himself was to accept that he would need to become violent and ugly, too, when the situation demanded it.
"You're right," Saago admitted with a sigh. He reached over to ruffle Mushra's hair, which earned him a retaliatory elbow to the ribs. Mushra climbed over to his own bed, and Saago found that the heavy weight in his chest had eased a little.
The next morning, Saago and Mushra made their way downstairs to find Hakar waiting for them.
"You boys are in much better spirits, I see," the bird observed. "I have something for you, Saago."
At this, the magpie withdrew a large object covered by a cloth. He walked over and placed it in Saago's hands, indicating that Saago should unveil the strange gift himself. After a moment's hesitation, Saago drew the sheet away to reveal polished blue steel.
"A helmet? There's no way you could have found this on such short notice!" Saago exclaimed.
Hakar chuckled. "No, you're right. I was intending for this to be your birthday present, but you're getting it early due to extenuating circumstances," he confessed. "I knew you had just about outgrown your old one, and so I bought this and modified it myself, hopefully to your liking."
Saago looked down to inspect the armor more closely, noting that it boasted the same detail work as the ruined one. It was larger, perhaps a bit oversized. Upon turning it over to examine the inside, however, Saago saw that it was padded and contained adjustable straps to allow it to fit tightly, but comfortably, over his head. There was extra room at the top between this and the metal shell, which meant that he wouldn't need to stop wearing it even after his horns began to grow. He'd be protected until long after they grew in properly, so the crippling sensitivity would never be a weakness again.
"Thank you, Hakar," he whispered, blinking away tears at the thoughtfulness of the gift, moved by the overwhelming amount of care Hakar had taken to tailor it to Saago's needs. He lifted the helmet and settled it carefully over his head. After taking a moment to adjust the straps, he gave his head a shake and was pleased to find that the helmet didn't budge in the slightest. He reached into his pocket to pull out the strange gem, but as soon as his finger brushed against it, it vanished with a flash. A familiar coolness burned against his forehead as the gem assumed its old position on the new helmet.
Mushra groaned in mock-annoyance. "You shouldn't have given him another one! Now he's never gonna take it off!"
Saago laughed. "And why would I want to take it off? It's wonderful, Hakar!"
The trader was distracted, however. "Saago, where did you get that jewel? I had been meaning to ask even before it displayed such strange behavior."
Saago quickly recounted the tale, prompting Mushra to chime in about his circlet. Saago demonstrated the immovability of the accessories, and Hakar shook his head in wonder.
"They are likely ancient artifacts, since they seem to be magical in nature. Well, there's no going back, so just be cautious. I have no idea what they're capable of, and neither do you. You would be wise to remember that."
Saago nodded, and Mushra copied him after the taller boy nudged him. Hakar was satisfied, and he went to fetch breakfast.
It was with good spirits and full stomachs that the young Enterrans went to the market that day, and Mushra was dragging a willing Saago over to the armory. While modern technology was prevalent among the bigger cities, the ruins of human civilizations were often left untouched, and the Enterrans' predisposition for a simple lifestyle meant that futuristic machines and tools often found themselves surrounded by more primitive societies and tools.
The Enterrans as a whole were content to utilize existing technology when convenient, but they rarely showed any initiative for developing it further. Some things were seen as essential and were mass produced, but the majority of more esoteric technology was confined to antiques from the Human era. As such, most weapons were simple melee implements which could be mass produced even in rural areas, given that most Enterrans could create far more devastating weapons from their own bodies than human technology had ever achieved. Swords and staves were carried because it was not always desirable to use such excessive force.
Likewise, most armor resembled the sort that was worn in the medieval era, though the use of modern, synthetic materials was common. Even the most advanced technology could not produce armor capable of withstanding the sheer destructive power that many Enterrans could unleash. For this reason, most Enterrans wore light armor at most, and they only concerned themselves with being able to defend against conventional weaponry. Speed was far more useful, as evasion protected where the thickest steel could not.
Mushra's armor was perfect for the simple brawls he often engaged in, but it would serve little purpose against an opponent who could vaporize with a glance. Still, it was light and flexible, so he was unhindered. Saago's body was fragile in comparison, and he knew that body armor would hardly make a difference if he ever managed to take a direct blow. He was light on his feet, and unnaturally swift. His helmet was a special case, since his defense relied entirely on being able to dodge his foes. Even so, Mushra had convinced him that he should at least invest in some simple padding that would help deflect blows without slowing him down.
Saago refused any armor that would hinder his movement or needed to be strapped into place. He was, however, drawn to a more modern invention: a shirt which had body armor sewn into it. The armor covering of the model on display was thorough and would be too restrictive, but it gave him an idea. After a quick word with the owner, Saago returned home. His new scooter ensured that the journey was quick. He gathered up all of his clothing, a collection of mossy green shirts and leggings with a depressing lack of variety.
After a bit of friendly haggling, Saago surrendered the clothing to the merchant, who led him into the back. A craftsman greeted him, and Saago explained what he desired. The next hour was a blur as his measurements were taken and details were discussed, but he left with a receipt in hand and a triumphant grin on his face.
Two days passed, and Saago returned to receive the items he'd commissioned: all of the outfits had been given the same modifications. Every shirt now sported armor sewn into the shoulders, and the material was a light and resilient synthetic compound. He was dismayed to find that while some were a matching green, a few were brown. They didn't have enough of the same color, as it turned out, but Saago realized that the armor would be concealed by his cloak, anyway. The torso was untouched because he couldn't afford to compromise his maneuverability. Paper thin sheets of plexi-armor had been integrated into the lining of his sleeves over his forearms, which would protect him from glancing blows without weighing him down or sacrificing flexibility. He purchased some similarly reinforced, tight-fitting boots, and the ensemble was complete. The armor was practically unnoticeable, and while weak against direct blows, it would protect him from scrapes and cuts from environment and enemy alike. Saago could still move as easily as before, and the armor was streamlined and well hidden.
"I can't tell the difference," Mushra responded, pouting, when Saago showed off his modified outfit.
Saago grinned. "Good! It hardly counts as armor, anyway. Even human sports required more armor than this, but it's better than what I was wearing before," he admitted. "I need something I can travel in."
Mushra's eyes widened, and he looked almost betrayed. "Travel? Are you going somewhere?"
Saago bit his lip. "Well, I was hoping you would want to come WITH me, Mushra."
Mushra immediately perked up. "Well, of course! Do you even need to ask?"
Saago was secretly elated, and he couldn't hold back a smile. Mushra didn't even care where they were going, as long as Saago would let him come too. Saago realized that the possibility of parting with Mushra hadn't even occurred to him until that moment, and the thought of leaving him behind actually hurt. Fortunately, it seemed as though the feeling was mutual. Saago and Mushra had only each other to rely on, since their strange appearances caused others to distance themselves from the pair at best, inviting fear and loathing more often than not.
Saago realized later on that if Mushra had wanted to stay in the city, Saago was fully prepared to abandon his plan to travel if it meant doing so alone. He knew that he valued Mushra's friendship above his own needs. Even so, Saago began to wonder just when his gratitude and loyalty to Mushra as a friend had turned into such a powerful need to have the tiny young warrior at his side.
When Saago conveyed all of this to Hakar in private, the bird surprised him with a nod of understanding.
"Saago, if you decide to leave town, I won't stop you. Don't think I haven't noticed how everyone is talking behind your back and trying to shame you into giving up," Hakar began, gripping his apprentice's shoulders gently. Saago had grown so much since the day he'd first stumbled into the shop. He hadn't even come up to Hakar's elbow at the time. Now, Hakar found that he needed to look up to meet Saago's eyes.
"If I had been in your shoes, Saago, I would have left long ago. You've done admirably, and I think we've got Mushra to thank for that. He's been a good friend to you, and you've done a wonderful thing for that boy by taking him in," the old trader continued. "It's dangerous to travel alone, but you two can take care of each other just fine. Don't you lose him, Saago. A friend as loyal as Mushra is a rare treasure, indeed, and more valuable than all the jewels in the world."
With a lump in his throat, Saago realized that Hakar was giving him his blessing. He stepped forward so that he could wrap his arms around his beloved mentor, just as he had done five years ago.
"I'll miss you," Saago whispered, his eyes burning with unshed tears. "You've been like a father to me. I can't thank you enough."
Hakar gave him a squeeze before pulling away. "Don't waste your life, either. You can accomplish great things. Maybe you can do some good, change peoples' minds. You're a smart lad."
Saago nodded. "I've already told Mushra I was planning on traveling, but I guess I'd better break the news properly. He was devastated at first, thinking I was leaving him behind," Saago confided with a laugh. "But then I realized that I would rather stay here than go on without him… Is that strange?"
Hakar chuckled. "Well, it depends. If you see Mushra as simply a friend, it might be a bit extreme," he admitted. "But it is only natural to want to be with someone you love. He is your family now."
Saago felt these words resonate with something inside of him, and the final burden on his heart was lifted. Three days later, Saago and Mushra had gathered everything they planned to take with them, which was very little besides the essentials. Hakar surprised them with a wealth of provisions for their journey: dried food that wouldn't spoil, travel gear, camping equipment, tools, fuel, and the remaining sum of their earnings that he had set aside for the rest of that year.
"It won't last forever, but it'll get you far enough!"
It was a tearful farewell that finally saw them setting out on the third morning, and Hakar watched them vanish into the distance with pride.