Luka rounded the pillar. He caught a glimpse of the mud doll before it dived underneath the sand. Disappointment welled up within him, and he propped an arm against the stone column while breathing hard.
"D-damn! She's leading me in circles..." Luka heaved a sigh before sliding his rear to the ground with his back to the pillar. He dazedly eyed the pink-orange streaks painted by the low-hanging sun. The sunsets here were noticeably prettier than that of Ilias Village. A nice little thing on top of a mound of inconvenience.
Hey, hey! Don't give up yet. There's still blood in ya, Sylph said, not impolitely.
Indignation colored his cheeks red. "I wasn't… Gah!" The Hero wrestled himself into a standing position and rubbed his eyes. Afterwards, he took four steps forward and glared at the unending dunes. It then struck him for the thirteenth time that he had no idea how to find Gnome. An overwhelming sense of hopelessness threatened to escape him in the form of a scream.
The scream came out as a tittering squeak when Luka felt a slight tremor rising from the earth. At first, he drew Angel Halo and widened his stance while whipping his head side to side. But the tremors were too light, and the odd aura of serenity that permeated the area…
Luka spun around to face the pillar. "Gnome?" he asked.
As if summoned, Gnome's head popped out of the ground where he had been sitting. Wide, impassive green eyes stared questioningly at him. For some reason, he felt embarrassed. "Uhm," the Hero started, "Hello—"
"Gnomey!" Sylph shouted. She left Luka's being in a swift breeze, forming herself a little ways above the earth spirit. "Y-your body! Who took it!? I'll eat their guts like noodles!" The fairy grabbed a handful of her own hair and began chomping on it, murder in her eyes.
Gnome stepped out of the ground with the casualness of someone exiting the bath. Luka took a step back.
"Oh, you're fine. Thank the Six..." Slyph sighed in relief, her hair spilling from her lips. Then, she pointed. "Hey, I think your boobs got bigger!"
Gnome swatted her, sending Sylph crashing into the ground. She laid there like a squashed insect. Without skipping a beat, Gnome started burying her.
Alarm spurred him into action. "Oi, I need that!" Luka stepped forward, gloved hand outstretched.
The Hero froze when Gnome snapped her unblinking stare at him, as if realizing he was there for the first time. Then, she dug up Sylph and tottered over. She presented the twitching body with cupped palms.
Sylph appeared fine, if unconscious. "Thanks," he said uncertainly as he took his biggest reason for winning back. "I, uh, know this is sudden, but can I have your power?"
Gnome gave a long, unfaltering look before extending a hand.
Luka blinked. "A handshake?"
She shook her head and gestured to her hand with the other.
"My gloves?" He didn't quite get it, but he had a faint idea. Luka nestled Sylph behind the collar of his cloak. He tried to ignore the hair tickling his chin as he slipped the glove off.
Gnome seized his naked hand. The Hero noticed how unyielding her palm was, as if her flesh consisted of smooth stone rather than… well, what hands were normally made of. However, he wasn't allowed to dwell on it. The earth spirit had begun to pull and squeeze his fingers. An odd sense of shame heated his body.
Hopefully she doesn't get carried away, Luka thought. Gnome finally released his palm and began to circle him. He struggled to keep her in his line of sight. She doesn't seem talkative, though. Communicating might be hard…
She says you smell nice, Sylph chirped.
That sense of shame flared as he noticed the lack of weight behind his collar. Y-you and Alice keep saying that. His vision darkened and his body relaxed as he focused on the image in his heart. Sylph slid into view. But you never tell me what I smell like.
She shrugged. Fresh laundry.
Ah. Luka paused for a second. Wait, you can understand her?
Hey, I know Alice is a woman and all, but even I get what she's saying!
No, not Alice! I mean—
"Gnome!" he yelled, coming to life. Luka pushed the spirit away, who had been tugging on his belt. "D-don't touch that!"
Gnome didn't so much as change expression when she was shoved, though her arms remained outstretched. Deliberately, she tucked them against her body and bowed.
Luka put on his glove. "A-apology accepted, I guess." He defused himself with a deep breath before glancing at the sheathed Angel Halo by his hip. "So, do we fight now or..?"
Yep, yep! That's what she's saying, the fairy said. Gnome nodded in confirmation. Loser has to do whatever the winner tells them. Even naughty stuff like building sand castles.
He stifled the urge to ask when Gnome showed the first hint of emotion and blushed. Instead, the Hero widened his stance and drew Angel Halo. Its red glaring eyes bulged and strained under the desert sun.
The earth spirit observed him for a moment before crouching down. She jumped, kicking sand into his face. Luka yelped in surprise and dropped his sword to cover his eyes. After he wiped the stinging sand out, he lowered his arm. There was Gnome, ten meters away. She pointed at him. Hollow-eyed mud dolls began to crawl out the ground around her.
Luka scowled at himself. Never, never drop your sword! He knocked the side of his head with a closed fist, and then pointed upwards. A gust of wind kicked Angel Halo into the air. He snatched it handle first and sprinted forward.
The mud dolls reacted. They broke into ungainly scurries, arms flopping about mindlessly. Luka met them at the half-way point. One leaped at him. He cut it down. Swerving to a halt, he spun and slashed at two more. The sword caught them mid-tackle, and they shattered. Pain split his side. He did a sharp intake of breath. Staring through the blue haze, he saw the mud doll that had rammed itself into his kidney. He elbow jabbed it, cracking its head with an empty sound like pottery. The golem released him and fell away.
Before he could catch his breath, five more clung on to him. Luka tried to shake them off, but their weight became impossibly heavy. He fell onto one knee. Then he collapsed, his stomach on the desert floor. A muffled moan escaped him.
Hmm, that isn't right. Luka, you're supposed to be belly up!
What… What does that have to do with this? He relaxed his muscles and fine-tuned his senses. The Hero could feel the wind and everything it touched. Gnome's draft began to approach him.
You'll get it when you're older. Sylph giggled, but her voice soured. Hey, why aren't you summoning me? I'm pretty sure you could've reached her if you used my awesome power.
That's because I'm waiting, Luka responded. Closer. She was getting closer. Almost there.
He could nearly see Sylph tilting her head. Waiting for what?
For this! Wind rushed through him in a powerful torrent. It built up and up again until it exploded outwards. The mud dolls' weight lifted, and he snapped upright.
Luka took a second to observe. Gnome had staggered, arms out in an attempt to keep balance. The air pressure was tearing the dolls apart with impunity, scattering their remains across the sands. This was his moment. He lunged forward with a shout and swung his sword.
The earth spirit intercepted it with her right forearm. A loud ringing sounded and a vibration ran up Luka's arm. She's hard! he thought before drawing back and swinging again. Gnome raised her left forearm and warded the attack. She stumbled, but didn't fall.
He kept hammering away. Strike after strike, blow after blow, he pushed against the growing numbness in his arms and pressed the assault. But Gnome never failed to block, and with a hardened glint in her eyes, she swatted Angel Halo aside.
A powerful tremor racked him, and the feeling in his arms faded away. H-huh? he thought stupidly, tripping over his own feet. I can't move? Panic swept through him. With perfect clarity, he saw as Gnome balled her small hand into a fist and swung forward. It hit him like a falling boulder, just under the ribs. Luka's vision blurred. He gagged. She kept the momentum going, and with a mighty swing, sent the Hero rocketing off the ground.
For the duration of his flight, he briefly wondered if he'll ever come back down. The thought was dashed from his mind when he hit the only visible portion of Safaru: the pillar. Luka collided against the tip of it, breaking the ancient stone. Jagged pieces dug into his back as he laid there, gasping for air.
Two broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and a punctured lung. At this rate, it'll collapse and suffocate you to death, Sylph reported, a bit on the cheery side.
That familiar white fog began to rise from his wounds, partially obscuring his upside-down view of the arid Safina region. His hellish grip on Angel Halo's handle tightened.
In other words, continued Sylph, you've been through worse. Go get 'er, tiger!
Luka inhaled, and the fog erupted from his wounds with newfound intensity. The pain drifted away, but he could still hear it. The sounds of bones snapping back into place and mending. Flesh and organs healing in an instant. He gripped the broken edge of the column with his free hand and pulled himself up. Now he stood, and down below, staring wide-eyed back at him, was Gnome.
They held their positions for a while. Gnome, frozen in place, and Luka, shrouded in fumes and standing atop a remnant of civilization. A lonely breeze reminded him that he was holding his breath. The Hero exhaled, releasing another intangible plume of the silvery substance.
Sylph? he said.
Can we try something a little different?
How different are we talking here? she responded, her tone businesslike.
Luka didn't bother formulating his thoughts into words. He crouched down, and the wind spirit's power began to spiral within him. It has to be more focused this time. The wall of air wouldn't help him against a heavyweight like Gnome. He has to rush her.
Just as the wind was on the brink of erupting out, he forced it downwards. The current blasted out through the soles of his boots. Luka launched upwards. With a flip, he pointed himself down and reached to the sky with a hand. Another blast of wind, and he hurtled towards Gnome. She barely began to raise her arms before Luka brought Angel Halo down on her head. A dull thud rang, and she was forced to bow slightly. Still propped off the ground by his sword, he bent his knees and drove both feet into Gnome's chest. It was like hitting a brick wall. He stole a glance at her face. She didn't look hurt. She barely looked stunned at all.
Luka bounced off her, avoiding Gnome's swift grab. She didn't chase. Instead, she stared at her open palm blankly. The Hero took advantage and lunged forward. Gnome snapped awake and attempted a wild haymaker. He swerved around the blow and stabbed at her. It struck below the armpit. She didn't recoil. Instead, she reached out and grabbed Angel Halo. With a violent tug, she pulled him in and clocked him across the face.
It wasn't too bad, at least in comparison to the last one. But still, he was flung a good five meters before grinding to an unsightly halt, leaving a trench in his wake. Luka's vision was a blurry mess as he laid on his side. His right eye was already beginning to swell shut, and his lower jaw hanged open awkwardly.
Through some miracle, he had managed to keep his hold on Angel Halo. It rested before him, red eyes glaring accusingly.
How rude, he dimly thought. With a low exhalation, he began to prop himself up on his elbow. But a terrible cramp seized him, and he fell down again. There, he rested on his side while listening to the wind. Gnome wasn't approaching him.
Guess that trick won't work a second time. Thin wisps of fog leaked from the corner of his mouth. He rolled onto his stomach and pushed himself up. Once he was standing, he reached for the tiniest bit of inner peace. The fumes flared in response. The swelling around his eye soothed, and his jaw slid back into place.
Luka turned back around to face Gnome, who was staring at him with a titled head. Crinkles formed underneath her eyes, as if she was smiling. Then, she pointed at him.
The ground beneath the Hero began to shift. It upheaved and squirmed, nearly causing him to fall on his rear. As he windmilled his arms, he thought, Oh, come on! I thought I was finally getting through to her!
Huh? She just said you're doing great, Sylph quipped. One last attack. If you manage to survive this, she'll lend you her power!
A massive mound of sand was rising from behind Gnome. The earth spirit maintained her pose with stony eyes.
Luka finally found balance when the desert floor stopped moving. He took his eyes off his feet and back at his opponent. What he saw made him gape.
Towering above him, and casting a dark shadow across the land, was an enormous hand and arm of sand. It was trembling but held together.
He glanced from the hand to Gnome. Her brow was furrowed with beads of sweat dripping down her face. She narrowed her eyes when their gazes met, as if trying to say, "I'm going to attack now. Be ready!"
Gnome curled her pointing hand into a fist and swung forward with her entire body. The limb of sand followed suit. It lost its shape and crumbled into a tsunami of desert. The wave parted before hitting Gnome and then swiftly closed around her.
All Luka could see was that coarse, irritating substance. He widened his stance. His cape splayed out behind him. He brandished Angel Halo.
"Syyyylph! Help me, please!" he shrieked in a voice shriller than he'll like to admit.
On it! Blow, blow, fight the powah! Sylph chanted.
Wind swelled within Luka's being before raging outwards. It collided against the oncoming sand wall, and the two elements wrestled in a thunderous display. The air pressure began to spin, dragging sand with it into a cyclone.
Luka locked up. He could feel the weight on the barrier as if it was his own body. His muscles screamed against the pressure, but he desperately clung to Sylph's power. Not enough. He couldn't hold on like this. Muscle fibers snapped and veins broke open. The wind howled in his ears. It didn't like being handled so roughly.
I'm sorry! I don't know another way! With that thought, Luka threw his head back and let loose a strangled shout, forcing the wind out. The barrier blew up. Sand blasted away in a tremendous shower.
He blinked, and his arms fell limp. Luka stood in the middle of a flattened area with a slight incline towards the middle. Gnome's hat stuck out from the ground like a growing tumbleweed. He watched for a moment, but she didn't move.
The sun was nearly below the horizon, and the first chills of night seeped under his clothes.
Luka hugged himself with his free arm. "Did I… Did I win?" he said hesitantly.
Yippee! Gnomey's here, Gnomey's here! Sylph sang. Hey, hey, Gnome— Welcome to Luka's head! There's plenty of space, but I wouldn't mind if you wanted to share rooms!
Gnome's solemn and weighty presence gave a vague feeling of appreciation in response.
Geh. It's weird being able to feel her like that, Luka thought. He was now sitting down, the crook of his elbow resting on his knee. His bruises were already being knitted by those wispy streams.
Gnome prefers not to speak, so she'll make up with her raw passion and enthusiasm! Now everybody, lets celebrate by yodeling! On my mark, get set—
A slap sounded, and Sylph went quiet.
The Hero sighed at the blissful silence before clambering to his feet. Just before he could stretch, the air in front of him warped. Alice blinked into existence.
"Oh. You did it." The Monster Lord grinned. "Nice." She reached down and began tousling Luka's hair.
He felt a protest well up, but after a moment's consideration, he gave in. He leaned into it and mumbled an incomprehensible thanks.
"So, how does it feel?" Alice said.
Luka thought a bit. "Strong. Immovable." He paused, finger to his chin. "Reassuring."
She stopped, retracting her hand slightly. The Hero glanced up, seeing her bewildered face.
"What are you— No, you idiot! Gnome's power, not my hand!" Alice pinched her forehead and exhaled through her nose.
"Sorry, sorry..!" He coughed before adjusting his collar. Then, he craned his neck backwards and closed his eyes. There were the searching fingers of the wind; that he was used to. But no matter how he strained, he couldn't pick up anything that wasn't Slyph's power.
Then Alice's tail flicked against the sand. He felt it. The minute vibrations were amplified like crazy, and the tremors traveled up his legs and into his body. He shivered, and slowly spread his arms into a welcoming gesture. Now he saw. The earth was breathing rhythmically, each pulse syncing him further and further. Gnome was so close; so close to him and everything else.
Is this the earth's power? Luka thought. It's oddly peaceful. Like I'm one with everything that touches the ground.
Uh-huh. That's it, you little munchkin you, Sylph cheered. With this, nobody can ambush you now. Ain't that just dandy?
"Hm, that's right. With those powers combined, you might never be caught off-guard again." Through the faint vibrations, he could tell Alice was nodding.
"Also, Luka… C-can you stop with the creepy pose?" she muttered.
The Hero snapped out of it. "Hrk! My bad," he said self-consciously, lowering his arms. Realization hit him over the head immediately afterwards. "Wait— You can hear her?"
"Of course." Alice smirked as she jammed a thumb towards herself. "I'm the Monster Lord."
Luka's mouth fell open as he raised his hands defensively. "H-have you been listening to my thoughts the entire time we've been traveling together?"
"Excuse you?" Her smirk disappeared in favor of a scowl. "Who the hell do you think I am? Some sociopath with no respect for anyone?"
It took everything Luka had to not say anything. He simply stared pensively.
"Listen, Luka. Tamamo always told me that the mind is sacred. It's the last bastion of privacy that every living thing is entitled to. A perfect safe space." Alice folded her arms once more. "Violating that is something I would never do lightly."
"But then, how—"
"Sylph is loud," she interrupted. "Your actual thoughts are much quieter."
They made eye contact, and Luka saw at once that she wasn't lying. An odd, tingling warmth rose from his stomach to his chest. She… respects me?
An ear-to-ear grin split his face.
"Aah! No! Stop it with the freaky smile!" Alice threw her hands up. "Jeez, you're such an idiot sometimes!"
Luka winced and drooped a little. "R-right, sorry." He rubbed the back of his head for a while before perking up. "I guess we should get a move on."
"Eh?" The Monster Lord's expression went from annoyed to puzzled. She lowered herself to eye level. "Stars are coming out, you know. Aren't you tired from all that fighting?"
Now that she mentioned it, he has been at this for quite a bit now. Despite that, his limbs felt light and his mind clear. "No, not really," he replied while shaking his head. "Besides, the sandworm ate my bag. We couldn't camp even if we wanted to."
Alice bit her lower lip and drew herself to her full height. She drummed her inner arm with her fingertips before releasing a sibilant sigh. Then, her tail shot out and coiled around Luka.
He squeaked in surprise. "Alice! You have to ask first, remember!?"
She ignored him in favor of flashing a toothy grin. "Congratulations, Fake Hero! You unlocked fast travel!" With that, she tapped her forehead with her index and middle finger.
The world compressed and stretched as the two teleported away.
Author's Note: I'm back! This time around, I'll try and upload more frequently so that I can sleep at night.