Emiko couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “I remind you… of yourself…?” She shook her head and clasped her hands in front of her. “H-how? How is that, is that possible? You’re so much stronger, s-so much better than I am!”
With another pause, Emiko listened to Uris taking a deep breath, before she seemingly relaxed. “Do you think it was my physical capability that I was referring to?” Uris whispered. “Let us not speak of this any further. We must depart if we are to make it to the Valley through the pass.”
“But—“ Emiko felt the light presence of Isla on her shoulder, and she turned to her with words at the edges of her lips. Isla shook her head. Emiko frowned, and looked between her and Uris, who had begun tying more things down into her modest wagon. Emiko felt awkward as the escort pulled out a tattered tourist map and gave it to her. The escort told her that it was their optimal route to reach the edge of their domain before they were on their own. Another elf came running and had her brother’s bat in his hands. Emiko quickly but reverently grabbed the bat and hugged it close.
After a moment, Emiko placed the bat into her wagon and began unfolding the old map, only for Uris to snatch it from her hands. “Let me be our point,” Uris said simply. “I am sure I am a much better navigator than you could ever be.”
“I, I did some backpacking,” Emiko said meekly. “I was able to, I know how to work a map and compass.”
Uris looked at Emiko for a long moment before harrumphing and giving the map back. “Perhaps you are not as incompetent as you look. I shall scout ahead, then.” She waved to the escort, who bowed and moved away, leaving them alone in a small courtyard. Emiko watched Uris turn back to her and cross her arms. “Well?” she asked. “Shall we move? Or will we remain here all day?”
Emiko gulped and fumbled the map open. It was honestly a little bit of a surprise to Emiko, as she had thought that most items of this kind had decayed with the rest of the world. Unfolding the map, she blinked. Examining their path once more, she felt her heart constrict and something coil in her stomach as she realized this was the first time she had looked at a map since she had left her home, and realized where she was.
“Fuji…” Emiko whispered with fear. “W-we’re going to Fujisan…?”
Uris’ frown was nearly imperceptible as she huffed. “What is it now?”
Emiko looked up from the map and gulped. “This says, says that the Mount of Stars is here.” She pointed to a spot on the map. Uris shook her head.
“What is your problem with that?” Uris asked. “Are you only getting scared now?”
“This isn’t some mystical mountain,” Emiko explained. “It’s Tateyama. I’ve… I’ve been, before…”
“Then you should know the trails,” Uris said approvingly. “You are well on your way.”
“No,” Emiko said. “I-I can’t believe that, I mean, I thought that the Valley of Change was new, that the Mount of Stars was something else, b-but—“
“So you did not know it was a place you knew,” Uris said. “I do not see the problem here.”
“I thought you knew, Emiko,” Isla said apologetically. She bowed in the air. “I apologize if you think I have been misleading you for the time we have been together.”
Emiko shook her head and smiled weakly at Isla. She didn’t know how she could put it into words. The memories she had with that mountain. The many times she had looked up to it while she had been traveling within the city, and then with Isla and Atsui, if only as a landmark. As a guide. If she had known that the Valley of Change would lead to Tateyama… She crinkled the map in her hand and shut her eyes. “Th-there isn’t. A problem, I mean. There isn’t.”
“Then?” Uris stepped away from Emiko and grabbed her bow from the wagon. “Will I have to also wait for your tears to fall?”
A pang of invisible needles struck Emiko, and she bit her lip hard. “No, l-let’s go.” With a map in one hand and her wagon handle in the other, she began walking. “We, um, we go to the road and follow it. West, with every fork in the road. Keep the ocean to our right when we do. Th-then, we’ll, ah, we’ll head off west into the foothills.” Emiko took a deep breath and felt herself droop with wariness. “It’s going to be hard.”
“T’is nothing for an elf. I will forge ahead, for I know these woods, and the route they have suggested. I will not stray too far, so do not worry that fragile heart of yours.”
“Oh, okay…” Emiko murmured, but it was lost to the wind as Uris leapt climbed and leapt into the trees, disappearing into the foliage. Feeling a little lost, Emiko brought the map back up and tried her best to focus as it trembled in her hands. Growing frustrated, she began to crinkle the yellowing paper, before a set of tiny hands rested on her own.
Isla began to glow a little stronger as she soothed Emiko. “Oh light,” she began, “Which breaks the dawn and shines on the morn, calm this troubled soul. Sunrise Salve.”
Emiko felt the cold tension building in her chest ease, and her hands calmed as they felt warm for the first time since she woke. Smiling gratefully at Isla, she felt her vision go a little blurry. “Thank—,” she tried, her voice cracking. “Thank you, Isla.”
“Uris is troubled,” Isla said. She sighed. “Maybe you should speak to her once she has calmed.”
Emiko started walking, trying to hold onto the warmth she felt for as long as she could. As she did so, she glanced up at the rustling leaves and needles that made up the canopy. “I… I hope I can talk to her. She… she reminds me of myself too.”
All she could do was hope that Uris would listen to her.
They traveled for a few hours, and Emiko tried her best to enjoy the surroundings around her. Emiko caught herself humming a tune a few times, and she blushed every time. She had missed being able to do so, especially after her voice had given out, and she was glad to be able to freely speak once again, even if it was riddled pauses and errors. Isla had commented on it, and Emiko blushed.
“You are amazing at matching pitch,” Isla observed. “You truly are blessed with a wonderful voice.
Atsui, who had woken about an hour in, bobbed her head. “I can hear your music even in my head,” Atsui said. “You’re amazing, Emiko! I wish I could sing like you!”
Emiko blushed even harder. “I, well, I guess I could sing for you sometime,” she said. “I’m not the best, but—“ She looked at the ground. “I try. It’s been a while. I don’t think, I don’t know if I’d be good anymore.”
“Atsui is right, though,” Isla said. She landed on Atsui’s head and settled down, to which Atsui growled playfully. Atsui pet her head, and the growl turned into a purr. Isla looked back to Emiko and said, “A lot of music requires focus on many different aspects. The tone, air, notes, and even the person playing, can change the sound.”
With a wave, Isla explained, “Much like music, magic requires a focus on the many aspects of the spell itself, and there are different branches that go with different elements. Though Atsui and I use magic differently, the end result is the same. Mine may have more power and focus at times due to my naming of them, but you are able to cast even without the triviality of spell names. All you need is intent.”
“Intent?” Emiko asked.
Isla nodded. “At its most basic, magic is focusing through your element and configuring the needs for your spell. Of course, there is much more that goes one, such as your true intent. If you control water and wish for a spear, but do not want to harm your target, you may end up giving them a bath instead of impaling them.” She turned on Atsui’s head to more fully face Emiko. “Moreover, if you are experiencing a high level of emotion, you may overcharge a spell. If I were enraged, my Summer’s Day spell to dry and warm an area may end up scorching and burning instead.”
Emiko paled. “Th-that, ah, doesn’t sound good at all.”
“It isn’t,” Isla confirmed.
“I wouldn’t want to get scorched either,” Atsui said. Emiko blinked, and Isla giggled.
“You are practically made of fire,” Isla stated mirthfully. “Your stripes glow as hot as a smith’s forge.”
Atsui puffed her head up. “Thank you! I make sure I’m well groomed so I can warn people with my stripes when I’m casting.”
After a pause, Isla said, “That does not sound quite right, and there aren’t very many people left, if at all, but I suppose it is the best explanation we may get.” Patting Atsui’s head, she continued, saying, “Why do you not try casting a spell right now, Emiko? Your current known elements are our very own: light and fire. Perhaps attempt with light first, and think of illumination.”
Pocketing her map for the moment, she held her hand out. “So, I just, well, ask the light?”
Isla shook her head. “Remember, you are not an expert at anything yet. First, channel through Atsui. She is your magnet, your reservoir, and your conduit. Your medium.” She then patted Atsui’s head again. Second, have a strong focus on what you want. Then, put it into words.”
“O-kay,” Emiko whispered uncertainly. Looking at her hand, she thought of wanting to shine the path ahead of her. Frowning, she began chanting and said, “Uh, light? Please, ah, illuminate my road.” Above her palm, she felt a strange tugging, and a tiny ball appeared. Emiko gasped, and watched as the ball grew to the size of a pea before shaking and exploding. Blinded by the light, Emiko gasped, grabbing at her eyes.
“That is impressive for a start, but you need to remember your intent,” Isla said softly. Emiko whimpered and continued rubbing at her eyes until she was able to see… with a few blue specks in her vision. She looked to Isla and Atsui tearfully, who both looked at her. “Your words were uncertain. Your magic was as well. Your intent wasn’t to keep lighting the road. It was bright for but a moment.” Isla ticked off things one by one on her fingers and nodded. “Our bonds with you have given you a kickstart in channeling the magic, but you still need to work on it. Try making a ball of light that stays as we walk. Remember everything you want to put into it, and say the words.”
Emiko nodded weakly. “S-sorry,” Emiko said. “I’m still not very confident with, well… with speaking my mind. Or talking. Or anything…” With a sigh, she squinted as she grabbed for the map and looked at where they were. Looking up to Tateyama… Emiko gulped. She couldn’t think of calling it anything other than that. And, while it did pierce the heavens, she couldn’t think of it as the Mount of Stars. As a breeze rushed past her, she looked down at the fluttering map and tucked it away before facing the crossroads before her. “I… I guess we’ve made it to the edge of the elvish domain?”
There was a near imperceptible rustle of leaves and branches as a figure dropped right before them. Atsui immediately took an offensive stance and Isla shot into the air behind Emiko. They all quickly relaxed, however, when they realized just who it was.
“I could have struck you all down by now,” Uris announced. “Be more vigilant.” She shook her head. “You also certainly took your merry time getting here. I have already scouted the next kilometre. I have only seen regular fauna from this world and other worlds that have merged, so we should be safe, but I will travel with you on foot from her on out.”
“Thank you, Uris—“ Emiko began, but was interrupted by a scoff.
“I did not do this for you,” Uris simply said. “Do not delude yourself with any silly notions. This is only my duty.”
Isla frowned, Atsui growled once more, while Emiko felt herself droop in exhaustion. A strange weight that felt like sadness settled within her, and Emiko wanted to reach out again. “Uris, I…”
Uris looked a moment longer at Emiko before saying, “No words to say? Then let us depart hence. The Valley of Change will soon be upon us.” Turning swiftly on her heel, she began marching ahead, leaving Emiko, Atsui, and Isla to stare after her.
“I don’t like her,” Atsui said with a whine. “She’s rude.”
“Her only concern right now is her duty, Atsui,” Isla said. “If there is nothing of import to discuss with us, she will more than likely do her best to simply ignore us.”
“But,” Emiko whispered, “She seems so lonely. She doesn’t rely on anyone. She doesn’t even like her father… b-but she wants to take care of him…” Emiko sniffled. “She feels like—” Emiko choked as she realized just who Uris reminded her of. Holding a hand to her chest, she looked painfully at Uris’ quickly-shrinking figure. “…We need to keep following them.”
Isla and Atsui watched Emiko carefully, before Isla said, “Alright. Let us follow Uris. It would seem she is already forging our path for us.”
“I just wish…” Emiko sighed. There was no going around it. She had to wait until she could properly speak with Uris again. Only then, Emiko figured, would Uris finally talk with them. Gripping her wagon with some newfound determination, she started following behind Uris.
After a few more hours of theory, and as they continued to follow Uris from a distance, Isla said,“Now, try using fire.” She pointed at Atsui. “This time, really try focusing on Atsui. See what you can do.”
Frowning at the somewhat vague advice, Emiko once again held her hand out. Making sure to try and keep Uris in her line of sight so she could follow her, Emiko began to formulate the conditions in her mind. She thought of a curling, blue ball of flame that was as hot as the real deal. Emiko then thought carefully of wanting the fire to feed itself, so that she didn’t have to keep casting it again, Finally, she thought of making it as bright as Atsui’s stripes could get, which is to say, fairly bright.
The mana started forming above her hand. “Fire of my familiar,” Emiko began, “Hear my w-words! Create a flame that will burn until the end of my days, and that will warm my weary soul!” Emiko then watched in awe as it really did seem like a ball of warm blue flames. The next thing she noticed was that it was most certainly quite hard to look at due to its brightness, and she cheered mentally at her seemingly successful cast.
Having heard her cast, Uris waited for them to near before saying, “You should already know this applied theory. Has Isla taught you nothing?”
Emiko bit her lip as she closed her eyes and tried to focus, but it was difficult when Uris kept hovering over her. “Please, I’m, I’m trying to concentrate.”
“You will face many more situations where it will be difficult to concentrate while you are casting. Deal with it.”
Her grip on the spell was already weakening, but Uris’ added comments hurt her to the core. With a gasp, Emiko tried to throw the ball of energy away. It flew past Uris who had to duck, and the ball flew into the air. As it crossed the canopy, it proceeded to explode in a spectacular fashion of white and blue flames. Some landed on them, while some landed on the wagon, and Emiko began to panic. She threw herself over her wagon and began pat at the parts on fire.
“Emiko!” Isla cried. “Are you alright?”
“I’ll try and put the fires out!” Atsui shouted. “Flames of trouble, heed my command. Come back and destroy no more!” Atsui opened her mouth and began to inhale. Her stripes pulsed, and every flame in the area started to flicker. A hot wind started to blow, and one by one, licks of flame flew threw the air and began to collect in a ball in front of Atsui. It began to grow and grow, until finally, Atsui roared and lunged forward, clamping her jaws over the ball of fire. The sound of steam hissing and smoke pouring out of Atsui’s mouth made Emiko rush over to her.
“Atsui!” Emiko yelled. “Are you alright? I-I’m sorry!”
Atsui opened and closed her mouth a few times as she tried to lick her chops, and Emiko could her whimpers. “It’s n-nothing I can’t handle,” Atsui said. She then sneezed black smoke, and pitched over. “I don’t usually eat fire…”
“ATSUI!” Emiko shrieked, and fell next to the downed tiger. “No! Atsui!”
“It is alright, Emiko,” Isla said quickly, rushing over to their side. “She is suffering from mana overload. Those were magic flames, and magic always needs a direction, a place to go. I will do my best to heal her, but all she can do is rest.”
Emiko whimpered as she pet Atsui’s prone form. “I-it’s going to be okay, Atsui,” she whispered. “You can change back. Y-you’re safe.” She then felt her heart break as Atsui whined and, with the last ounce of her consciousness, went into kitten form.
“I’m… sorry for worrying you,” Atsui said weakly, before her breaths turned deep. As a soft red glow washed over Atsui and faded, Isla said, “All she needs now is rest, and an outlet later.”
Looking tearfully to Isla, Emiko nodded. “Thank you—“
“What was that?!”
Recoiling as if she had been struck, Emiko held Atsui close and turned to look at Uris. Some of her gear was burnt, her armour scorched, and she looked as fiery as the flames they had just put out. “H-huh?”
“You tried to kill me!” Uris screamed. “You nearly took my head off with your flames!”
She shakily got to her feet and shook her head quickly. “N-no! Y-you were distracting me and I—“
“Oh, so now you choose to place the blame on me, hm?” Uris growled. “You think you are so much better than I am? Do you think you are capable of more?”
“That’s, that’s not it at all!” Emiko cried. “I was just practicing, and, and you—“
“Is it because father thinks you are so special? Is that why you look down on me?!” Uris stomped her foot. “I will not take these injustices!”
“What a-are you—?”
“I will not bear with you who thinks to lord their superiority over me!” Uris cried, her eyes getting tearful. “I cannot abide by my father’s request if you are so shamelessly trying to get rid of me!”
“I’M NOT!” Emiko screamed. “I’m not anything like that! Why do you think that? I’m nothing! I’m not anything, and I just wanted peace. I wanted to be alone! And now I’m trying to fix my mistakes, and, and you’re yelling at me and I don’t even know what to do!” She shifted Atsui in her arms and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “You’re so much better than me! You have a loving family. You have strength, a-and confidence, and, and I don’t have any of that!”
“Don’t be modest!” Uris yelled. “You are sent by the earth mother. You are favoured by my father, merely for existing. You are blessed by my father, because of your trials. You have lost everyone important to you and more, just as I have.” Uris wiped angrily at her own eyes. “I have tried my hardest to support him. Everything I have do was to be a good daughter to him! To be the best! Do you understand how much it hurts me to know you already match me!?”
“H-he cares for you!” Emiko argued. “Don’t you see? He wants you to stop worrying so much, and, and he wants you to be better than him—“
“Quiet! Be QUIET! ” Uris screamed, and Emiko recoiled. She stepped back and collided with her wagon, while Uris advanced on Emiko with her eyes glistening. “My father is a fool! A fool for believing in you, a fool for coming to this world, and a fool for taking care of his daughter instead of himself!” With that, she clenched her hands and just screamed. “I hate you! I hate you! You came into my home and took my place! You took my job and you took my father’s love and you took my mother! You ruined everything!”
Emiko knees gave out and she collapsed in shock. She still held fast to Atsui, but she was trembling with nerves she couldn’t even begin to place, and wet-hot tears streamed down her face. All the while, she stared wide-eyed at Uris, as her last three words struck her in a way that shattered her core.
“So that is what this was all about,” Isla murmured.
Quietly, Emiko took a shaky breath. “…I did, huh,” she rasped. “I r-ruined everything. My family. My world. My life… a-and now yours too…” Emiko grit her teeth and clenched her eyes shut. “I know!” Emiko yelled. “I know I’m a screw up! I know I’m useless! I know, I know, I know!” She hiccoughed and brought her knees forward to try and shrink her presence. “B-but your dad loves you, and I never had that. You love your m-mom and she must have loved you… a-and I never felt that!” She turned her red eyes to Uris’ shocked ones and screamed her own words. “You’re luckier than I ever was! And I just wanted t-to help you, and see you love your p-papa, a-and see love that I had never gotten!”
She whimpered and smiled a smile that held all the pain Emiko had gathered over the years… A smile that was kind, and broken. “…Is that too much to ask for?”
Uris, for all of her strength, found herself weak with a feeling she couldn’t describe. Emiko’s sorrowful expression was so polarizing, she couldn’t look at her any longer. Breaking her gaze away, she clicked her teeth and shut her eyes. “You…” Emiko watched as Uris clenched and unclenched her hands. “Perhaps…” She looked back at Emiko. “Perhaps I was a bit harsh—“
A screech broke the air, and Emiko gasped as Uris widened her eyes. She was barely able to roll out of the way as a set of jaws slammed where she had just been standing. A wing beat and an enormous thud later, Emiko shrieked as she trembled at the monstrosity that loomed above them.
With three heads, a large tail, and two heavy wings, the towering monster roared at them. Emiko recoiled in shock. Uris grunted, quickly rubbing her eyes back into full function as she reequipped her bow. Isla flew close to Emiko, and she glared at the blighted beast.
“We cannot falter now, Emiko,” Isla said carefully. “This is a beast that is normally feared even without its blighted properties. It has the power to regenerate its heads and has scales as tough as forged metal. A monster only spoken of with reverence and fear.”
“A blighted hydra…” Uris snarled. “For once, I agree, Lady Isla. And I pray you forgive me, that we may work together now to survive.” She looked back at Emiko and Isla with eyes filled with longing and vulnerability. “Let us live so we may make amends, okay?”
The hydra roared once more, and Emiko cried in terror.