For a long moment, he just stared. Frozen in place in the wet, dewy grass and flowers, halfway into jumping to his feet, but now not doing so because something was hovering in the way.
The little blue thing stared back, clearly nervous, its eyes as wide as they’d go, darting this way, that way, back to him.
Kintsugi found his voice. “What. Are you.”
The little thing jumped in the air in alarm, propeller-like flower humming. “Nara can see Ararycan!”
He scoffed, slowly sitting up a bit more comfortably, not taking his eyes off the strange being for a second. “Obviously.” He found his hat, putting it on. “What are you?” he reiterated.
“Aranara!” The creature remained hovering, moving slightly upwards along with Kintsugi’s movements, keeping a cautious bit of distance. “…Strange Nara must be very pure of heart. Normally, grown Nara cannot see Aranara. Must be a dreamer, favoured by trees and flowers.”
Kintsugi blinked. The little creature had said this completely straight-faced, not a waver to its voice. He didn’t think he’d ever seen a grown human this self-assured, let alone something this small. “…What.”
“Nara has not harmed the forest. Walking through Vana with open eyes, even seeing and following Ararycan’s trail of lovely juicy Harra fruit, all the way here.” The creature – Ararycan – came down just a little bit, and as Kintsugi raised himself just a little more they came eye to beady eye where he crouched. “Why not going home?”
Kintsugi gave a little jerk of his head towards Sumeru City, lush and distant in the morning light. “That’s not my home.”
“Ah! So sorry! Then where?”
His mouth twitched. “Nowhere.”
Ararycan hummed for a moment, a strange little tune. A little blue hand approached Kintsugi’s lower leg, still shot through with jagged fractures from his fall a day earlier. “…Who is strange Nara, having no home and being cracked like dry river mud?”
Kintsugi jerked backwards at once, glaring at the Aranara in sudden, blazing indignation. “River mud?!”
Ararycan nodded emphatically. “Yes! Ararycan brought strange Nara to good water, nice big clear pool. To make not-cracked, once again good for nourishing new sprouts!”
First Kusanali, now this creature. Did everything in the nation of Dendro intend for him to sprout leaves and flowers? He shook his head, forcing himself to overcome his utter bafflement at this turn of events and the creature’s choice of words. “Let’s… not do that. You were… asking for my name.”
Kintsugi closed his mouth.
Who was he? Decidedly not Scaramouche. He was not comfortable sharing Kintsugi just yet, either. Wanderer? No, that’d been the naïve, blank slate Irminsul had left him with, it wasn’t really him, either.
…Why was he even pondering this instead of walking away? Why was he still looking at this little being? Why was he letting it look at him, instead of letting it get on with whatever had had it occupied before it’d started following him and leaving fruit for him?
It carried a tiny wooden sword on its hip, he noted. Somehow, combined with the fearless glint in its eyes, that ignited a little spark of amusement within him. Maybe he could humour the little creature, just for a bit. It wasn’t as if he had anything better to do.
“…There’s no need to exchange pleasantries,” he muttered, slightly tilting his head, almost but not quite blotting out Ararycan with his hat. “Call me whatever you like.”
Ararycan bobbed up and down in the air, still smiling that strange, constant smile. “Right! As blue Nara wants!” His little blue hand came up to touch the looping symbol on his chest. “Ararycan is Ararycan.”
“I… got that much. Wait, ‘blue Nara’?” He stared, brows knitting together. “That’s the best you can do? That’s… ugh…”
“Blue Nara said whatever Ararycan likes.”
…He did suppose he said that. He pulled his hat down, conceding. “Ugh, fine.”
The spark of amusement grew, though, and for a moment he didn’t know why. Then, to his own bafflement, he realized he was actually enjoying seeing a relatively harmless consequence of his actions for once, instead of death, torture or nothing at all.
Then: “Blue Nara, very special. Maybe like Ararycan, only one.”
He gave the little being a sideways look, holding his tongue but feeling the corner of his mouth lifting, ever so slightly. Is that so.
Ararycan landed, looking up at him. “Where is Nara going?”
There was no other way to put it. “Anywhere but there.” Another jerk of his chin towards the city.
“Hmm.” The blue Aranara tapped his chin for a moment, then put his tiny fist in his other palm. “Oh! Nara is very strong, yes? Crushing lovely Harra fruit and holding the wind!” Ararycan raised a little hand as Kintsugi made to speak. “Harra fruit forgives you. Go squish, seeds are spread.”
“…Sure. Why not.”
“But holding the wind, very useful.”
He blinked. He was being dragged along by some strange current he couldn’t fight. How was this little creature stringing him along like this? How was he letting himself be strung along by all this nonsense? Why was he suddenly so… Archons-damned curious?
He huffed out a sigh, rolled his eyes and gave in. “Pray tell, why is holding the wind useful?”
Ararycan leapt into the air, his flower whizzing, and for a moment Kintsugi’s chest ached sharply. “Vana needs wind! Nilotpala lotuses cry out! Follow Ararycan!” And he was off towards the forest, leaving Kintsugi to stare after him. “Hurry, hurry!”
He slowly got to his feet. “You… need me for something?” He let out a chuckle. “Aren’t you some sort of nature spirit? What’d you need me for?”
“Just follow Ararycan!” The little being was beckoning him with both arms, more enthusiastic than desperate, and Kintsugi let out another involuntary huff of laughter. So he could somehow be of use here? No matter where he went, he always managed to find people who wanted him for something…
Well, at least it might be interesting. He decided, walking over to the Aranara at a leisurely pace, but as soon as he approached, Ararycan darted into the woods, swift as a dragonfly. “Hurry, blue Nara!”
Kintsugi fell into a jog, finding his curiosity wouldn’t let him fall behind. “Alright, alright!”
“Blue Nara fell from the sky, yes?”
“Yeah,” Kintsugi replied, not panting, as he didn’t need breath, but still keenly feeling every crack in his damaged body every time his feet landed on the forest floor. He kept a rapid pace next to the flying Aranara, weaving through the trees and undergrowth, splashing through shallow pools, vaulting over roots. The ribbons on his hat fluttered after him with every movement. “What of it?”
“How did Nara get up so high?”
Ararycan wasn’t winded at all. Kintsugi wondered what exactly powered the inexhaustible whizzing of that flowery propeller. Solar energy, perhaps? His mouth twisted, and he briefly looked away, almost missing the fallen, rotting log ahead. He weaved around it. “…Stupidity. I wasn’t meant to be up there.”
“But wind and clouds let Nara! Might let again.”
“I’ll just fall again.”
The Aranara let out his little hum again, faint snippets of a song. “Little dusk birds need to try many times before leaving warm nest. If only trying once, they never go from tree to tree, only ever nesting in one place, never finding all of Vana’s tasty fruits. Trying again, very important!”
Kintsugi let out an irritated growl. “Lay off. I’m not trying again. …Not right this second, anyway.” Flying at the speeds he’d achieved above the Divine Tree would come in handy now, but he did not at all feel like trusting in that faulty Vision of his. Not yet, not here. His face had been miraculously spared in his fall; he didn’t need it planted into a tree trunk at those speeds right now, thank you very much.
Ararycan still let out a happy hum. “Not right now, good. Later, then. Ararycan makes sure blue Nara doesn’t fall again.”
“Hah. How will you do that?”
The Aranara’s eyes sparkled fiercely. “Ararycan, protector of Vana! And all within Vana. Blue Nara is companion, friend of Vana. Will also protect.”
Kintsugi stared, distracted by so much disbelief he almost smacked into a tree anyway. He opened his mouth to say something – he didn’t quite know what, himself – but then Ararycan abruptly halted, and Kintsugi also skidded to a standstill. The little Aranara jumped in the air, twirled around. “Here! Look!”
A clearing between the trees; a great, still pool, covered in lily pads. Off to the side of it was a collection of the little shrine-like monuments to Kusanali he’d seen all over the nation. It would’ve been a lovely sight, if…
…if it hadn’t been for the spores.
The water was murky and dark, the lily pads shriveled and fuzzy with hyphae. The little shrines were clumped together by great dusty balls of spores, dirty white and musty green. In the middle of the pond were two great squatting hydroshrooms, many smaller ones resting on the lily pads, all of them sapping the pool’s vitality.
Kintsugi realized he knew this place; it was near Pardis Dhyai, the Akademiya’s greenhouse. He’d thundered right overhead in the middle of his own storm, part of the storm, back when he held the weather itself in the palm of his hand. It’d been pristine then, and he felt a brief, involuntary stab of indignation at this marring of something he’d once thought would be his. He pushed it down. “This is what you need my help with?” He scoffed. “There’s a gaggle of Amurta scholars just over the hill, can’t they take care of this?”
Ararycan hopped up and down in the air next to him. “Silly Nara trying, but don’t know what to do! Shroom-kin come back, will spread soon! Need Ararakalari!”
That was a new one. Something else related to the Aranara, he presumed. “So? Why am I here?”
“Ararycan’s Ararakalari not strong enough, only for sealing, needs help.” The Aranara drooped. “Arabalika could do it… but not here. Would scold Ararycan for asking, too.”
“So, you’re too weak to carry this out, and rather than feeling inferior to one of your own, you thought you’d make use of the random stranger you just met to do your dirty work.” He gave a foul grin. “Oh, that’s rich.”
“Not stranger. Friend of Vana, friend of Ararycan.” The little being looked up at him, not offended, not even imploring, just sincere. It was like a blow to the head. Like he’d fallen out of Shouki no Kami all over again.
“You… you are… hysterically naïve,” he managed. “It’ll get you into a world of hurt, if not far worse. You do know that.”
Ararycan merely held his gaze, still smiling that strange, bright Aranara smile.
His gripes and insults just didn’t land. He wasn’t used to this at all. The only other person who’d still be looking up at him expectantly in this situation was…
…someone else he also didn’t plan on disappointing.
He groaned, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment. “Alright, alright, let’s see what I can do. Watch closely, weakling.” He stepped forward, out between the trees.
“Blue Nara helps?” Ararycan leapt up, twirling in the air. “Vana thanks! Happy!”
Kintsugi didn’t reply, simply striding forward, flexing his hands a few times. This was nothing. A few fungi? He’d spent temporally distorted eternities in the Abyss fighting corrupted beasts, monsters and the very worst of the Order. …But he’d been doing it as the Balladeer. This new life, this new power… it might get him different results.
He couldn’t run from it, though. He wouldn’t. Having power and not using it was the worst foolishness of all.
The closest of the two grounded hydroshrooms noticed him first, letting out an angry screech and getting to its feet in the water. The other soon followed, and the smaller ones lifted into the air around them. Kintsugi narrowed his eyes, instinctively curving his hands into claws the same way he’d done while flying. “Right, then. Target practice.”
The larger mushroom started gathering Hydro energy before itself, but before it could release it Kintsugi had darted aside, raking his fingers through the air and flinging a blade of concentrated wind at the creature, striking it and staggering it backwards. It was the first time he’d done so in the waking world, outside of Nahida’s dream where he’d defeated his former self, and whereas it wasn’t effortless, it was easier than he’d thought. It was like… pulling a blade from within himself. He shoved that thought down very fast, however; the fungus retaliated with a series of smaller projectiles, and the little ones were also closing in, creating bubbles around themselves to presumably trap and suspend him with. He growled, making his gestures grander, more open-handed, finding this turned the wind into larger, sweeping blades. One bubble after another popped, and the little fungi came tumbling down. The wind seemed to seek them out even when he thought he might have missed, and he permitted himself a sharp grin.
He tried keeping them at bay without setting foot into the filthy water. It should be possible. There was no way he’d have to befoul himself for so simple a task –
– the second grounded hydroshroom had circled around him, and now came charging from the undergrowth on his other side. He spotted it just a blink too late, right before it rammed into his side and dragged him with it.
He let out an undignified grunt, the air being punched from his body, arms flailing as he was flung right into the pool. He let out a shout of rage, trying to struggle to his feet, but he was slipping on a layer of slime and algae at the bottom and the fungus was still on top of him –
– he instinctively crossed his arms before his body, then flung them out, willing everything around him to just keep their distance. Twin blades of air came charging forth, viciously slicing into the fungus, sailing across the water’s surface, knocking down a few of the recovering little fungi, and crashing into the mass of spores clustering Kusanali’s shrines together. They burst with a sickening sound, and everything turned musty and grey.
“Wretched vermin!” He boiled to his feet, fuming and filthy; playtime was over. He hooked his fingers into the wind, wildly flinging around blade after blade, until the fungi scattered in terror and he couldn’t see a thing through the spores. Even so, he kept going, rage tinting the grey haze red.
Then, something turned it green.
“Blue Nara! Can stop, blue Nara!”
His head shot up, and he almost instinctively cast out another blade before seeing it wasn’t a fungus floating there, but Ararycan. The Aranara was surrounded by some glowing green power, gradually gathering all the spores from the air, forming a ball between his little hands. “Nara did well!”
He huffed, trying to school himself into some semblance of dignity. “Did I, now?”
“Shroom-kin scatter! Very good!”
He waded to solid ground. “Wasn’t I supposed to kill them?”
“Kill?” Ararycan descended, looking a little puzzled, then jolting. “No, no! Shroom-kin, part of Vana. Just too many in one place, not good. What plants leave behind, food for shroom-kin. What shroom-kin leave behind, food for plants. Naughty shroom-kin eating living plants, so needed lesson.”
“Could’ve told me that.” He adjusted his hat. There were ropes of slimy algae on it. He took it off in disgust. “But I guess I did do good, then.” He nodded at the ball between Ararycan's hands. “You’re taking care of the spores? Sealing them with your… Arara…”
“Ararakalari, yes.” The Aranara cleared the last of the musty haze from the air, flying to solid ground and pushing the collection of spores down between the roots of a great adhigama tree. It melded into the soil without complaint. Kintsugi followed, soaked through to his skin, feeling disgusting. “…Will that be alright?”
“This one, strong enough. Will take care of naughty spores, watch them until ready to behave, be shroom-kin again one by one.” Ararycan patted the tree. “All good. Thank you, blue Nara.”
Now the air was fully clear again, he could see the sun was starting to set, outlining the treetops in rose-red and gold. The Aranara followed him as he plopped down in the grass. “Finally went into water! But… still cracked, blue Nara. Strange.”
He sighed. “Yeah. Water won’t be enough to help with that. It just needs time, it’ll be fine.” I’ve had worse, I’m used to it.
“No no no, not ‘fine’, no!” Ararycan performed an agitated little dance in the air, and Kintsugi looked up, mouth quirking in amusement despite the state of himself. “If you want to help, help me get clean.”
“Clean? Oh!” The Aranara descended at once. “Yes. Everything should get ‘clean’. Ararycan helps.” He waddled to the edge of the pool, straightened out, and started to sing.
Kintsugi blinked, opened his mouth to speak, then reconsidered; everything the little being did had had a point, so far. Everything had sort of made sense eventually. Let’s see where this goes.
The song seemed to be the full version of the little tunes Ararycan had been humming earlier, or a longer version, in any case. It spiraled through the air, seemingly curving back on itself, layering onto itself, bringing some manner of vitality to the air, the surrounding plantlife. The lifeless pond seemed a little more vibrant.
Then, other voices joined in.
Kintsugi’s eyes widened as he saw other little creatures emerging from the undergrowth and the branches; waddling, floating, green and yellow, orange and red, crowned by leaves and flowers and mushroom caps. About half a dozen of them gathered near the pool, and now things really began to change.
The water cleared, turning from dark and opaque to transparent, then glittering crystal, leafy weeds visible at the bottom. Colour flooded the lily pads from the inside out, and tightly closed, dark blue lotuses drifted to the surface. Flowers bloomed around the waterside, covering the little monuments.
He stared, too overcome with the sight of it to even school his expression into neutrality. They might be little, but now he could see the Aranara were truly the protectors and guardians of the forest. It seemed to be a theme here in Sumeru. It wouldn’t do to underestimate anything by how feeble it looked.
He got up, slowly approaching Ararycan by the pool. The blue Aranara stopped singing, the others continuing in his stead. “So…”
“’Clean’!” the Aranara beamed up at him. “Blue Nara can get in, also get ‘clean’.”
“Much obliged,” he muttered, striding forward into what had just been opaque muck. Cool, clear water swirled around him as he submerged himself, clothes and all, scrubbing algae and slime from his skin, hair, clothes and the intricacies of his hat. When he was satisfied, he waded back to the waterside, taking off his shoes and crossing his legs in the grass. “So, who are your friends?”
Some of the other Aranara were still quietly singing, others had been watching him and Ararycan for a bit. As he spoke, the blue Aranara waved at some of them. “Arapacati, Arapas, Arasaka,” he pointed them out. “Over there, Aralila, Aranishat, Arasudraka…”
“I’m… not going to remember any of that.”
“Is alright. Forgetting, part of life. Just remember we were friends.”
Kintsugi made to speak, but at that moment Ararycan gave an excited hop, pointing at the pool. “Oh! Look!”
He looked. Before his eyes, under the purpling sky, the dark blue lotuses that speckled the water were slowly starting to open. Their petals gave way to bright golden hearts, practically glowing under the first stars as if mirroring the sky itself. As if in response, the Aranara song grew gentler, dreamlike, drifting over the water.
Beautiful, he thought, quietly marveling. He couldn’t seem to find his usually sharp tongue for a moment.
“Nara say seeing blooming of Nilotpala lotus gives good luck,” Ararycan spoke up then. “Until next moonrise.”
“…Well, that’s not very long at all.”
The blue Aranara glanced up at him. “Maybe just come visit them often. Nilotpala likes being admired.”
He had to chuckle at that. Maybe there was some merit to the idea.
They fell into a comfortable silence together. It was nice, sitting here by the waterside, he found – a profound sense of peace overcame him, almost against his will. He hadn’t felt this way in a very long time, if ever.
The Aranara were still quietly singing, their little voices mingling with the sounds of the nightly jungle. Fireflies danced across the darkening water, all the stars reflected on the still surface alongside their light. It was a sight straight out of a fairytale, and suddenly something inside him was burning.
He’d once known a boy, fond of fairytales, who would have loved this.
His younger self would’ve loved this, too.
It was almost as if they were both here, in this moment, here by his side and yet just out of reach. It hurt, more than he could say, yet at the same time… not. It hurt in a good way, if such a thing were possible.
He was crying again, his tears dropping faster than they’d done atop Sumeru City, in greater numbers than at the riverside that dawn. He was slower to wipe them away.
Should he be feeling this? Did he deserve to feel this? Was it safe to feel this?
Ararycan gave a little hum, a few notes of the song the others shared. “Blue Nara, ‘fine’.”
“Hm.” He didn’t trust his voice with a single word.
The Aranara’s little hand touched on his hat, still lying by his side. “Blue Nara, like Nilotpala lotus. Maybe, lucky as well.”
Maybe, just maybe. “We’ll see,” he managed, putting on his hat and hiding his expression.
For the first time, he quietly thanked his Vision for dropping him into the woods, unceremonious as it had been.