Part Two: Upstream
Geshtar had been airsick the first fifteen minutes. He felt very lucky Luka packed his stuff: she had included a few Healing Herbs. And Flammie had given him a hard time. Finally, he arrived at his first stop: Pandora, where the Royal Archives were located. The Archives had information on all those born after the Night of Mana, the 1st January of the year 1. So his parents had to be included too, and he. He might even find info on where his parents came from, what they did, when they died... and whether or not he had any reason to get involved with the Empire. As Flammie landed, she asked him an intelligent question.
- "Gesssshtar, have you thought aaaabout a naaaame? You can't jusssst say your naaame is Geshtarrrr..."
- "Why, Flammie, you awesome girl, you're right! Haven't thought of it... What about Flamin? It's an ancient word for "amnesia"..."
- "Suits you perrrrrfectly! Well, Ffffflamin, I'll be off to Gaiaaaa's Navel then, to wasssssh myself. And, errr, sssssorry for those loooooopings in the airrrr..." He patted the soft downy feathers in her neck, and she flew away, knowing he didn't mind. The brushing sound of her magnificent wings worked soothing, it actually helped him accept the long way he had to go. Something about her character really touched him... but what? There was so much to like about her! She was not only the most beautiful dragon he had ever seen, but one of the most wise ones, and with a warm heart, too.
Geshtar's thoughts were interrupted when he heard a wagon nearing. It was loaded with packages carrying the royal seal, probably...
- "Hey, you, get aside! This is a delivery to the King!"
He hastily jumped aside, looking to the one who had shouted. It was a man in his mid-forties, slightly tanned but still looking vivid. He raised his staff, showing Undine's symbol on it.
- "Sir, would it be possible to show respect to a humble servant of Undine? Or is that too much for even a merchant like yourself?"
The man was quite shocked to see Undine's symbol, he raised his hands slightly and stumbled:
- "F-forgive me... It's sometimes such harsh work that one would forget the proper rules. To make up for my bad manners, I want to invite you to dinner." While they were talking, they had walked into Pandora, and soon they stood in front of the merchant's house.
- "Thank you, sir. Your gesture is very kind, and I would be honored to dine with you. May Mana bless you!"
- "Where can I find you, err...?" The man bowed his head, a little ashamed because he hadn't asked for the stranger's name earlier. Geshtar saw that, and he anticipated it immediately.
- "Sorry, kind sir, I should have told you my name. I am Flamin, disciple of Luka, servant of Undine, Elemental of Water. But," he added with a smile, "you may call me Flamin. And I was hoping I could go to the Archives. Luka sent me out to find information about the Imperial Forces..."
- "Very well," the man interrupted him as soon as he had heard "Imperial Forces,” "I will visit you there. The Archives are located in the castle. Good luck!" He went inside his house. Geshtar understood the hate for the Empire... but he never would have guessed it went that deep. He knew for sure then: he HAD to find out why people thought that way about the Imperial Forces! He owed that to himself... and to Fanha.
The castle was huge, and a feeling of safety hit him when he entered the hall: soldiers were everywhere. The Archives were on the first floor: a huge room filled with big racks, on which numerous papers laid, according to family names. He remembered his mother's last name was Aldin, but he had no clue to his own last name. He knew he had no other solution than search for his mother's chart, so he could find his own... Luckily, he found it immediately, and learned that his last name was Tirsh. He took his chart, together with those of his parents, to a little table, and started reading:
"Geshtar Tirsh, born on the 5th of January in the year 84 as child of Malyssa Aldin (herbs expert) and Gerbert Tirsh (merchant), in the city of Lorima. Moved to Pandora in the year 146; was summoned to serve Undine, Elemental of Water, in 160. Followed the dark road of the Empire from 200 to 214. Died on the 4th of June in the year 214 by the hand of Sir Hopper, the Legendary Mana Knight." So that was my life, he thought, in four phrases... He took a quick peek at his parents' charts... and found a reason to have come in contact with the Empire: his grandparents were all living in the Empire in Southtown and on the Gold Isle. After writing down everything what could possibly be useful (Luka had given him a notebook and some pencils), he was about to put the charts back in place when he tripped over a box of charts, which all fell out. He put them back in the box until, suddenly, he found an interesting chart... While looking on, he found another chart: but this one was very old... He took both of them to his table to read them. The first one was very surprising - Fanha's chart:
"Fanha Caina, born on the 21st of December in the year 189 as child of Elinee (herbs expert) and Cain, archmage of Tasnica, in the city of Pandora. Learned the art of magic use by her parents, expert in the use of herbs. Followed the dark road of the Empire from 201 to 214. Died on the 4th of June in the year 214 by the hand of Sir Hopper, the Legendary Mana Knight." After noting all that down, he took the second chart... Thanatos' chart:
"Evan Thanatos, born on 24 May 1998 as child of Fredrick Thanatos, architect, and Malisse Sullivan, doctor. Became engineer at age 24, worked at the Mana Fortress. Author of the books "Elemental Powers" (2018) and "The night of the changes" (the year 1 after the Fortress). Died on the 30th of April in the year 5, possessed by a dark spirit." That too he wrote down. His hand felt real painful, and his eyes weren't used to the many reading.
A tap on his shoulders relieved him from his worries: behind him stood the merchant whom he had met earlier that day.
- "Hello Flamin, how has the search been?"
- "Very rewarding, sir." He said it with a smile on his face. "I have already acquired a great deal of information. But I won't talk about that now: the subject seems to be rather... hated."
The merchant ignored the insinuation: "Come, we'll eat. You must be hungry after all that research!"
- "Well..." He heard the growling sound in his stomach, and he grinned. "I could use some good food now!"
The merchant had put Geshtar opposite to an empty chair. He looked troubled.
- "Where could she be?" he muttered.
- "I beg your pardon?" Geshtar was caught off-guard. "Are you waiting for someone, sir?"
- "Yes, my daughter is supposed to eat with us. And please, call me Henry."
Suddenly, he rose from his chair to go to the door. That must be his daughter, Geshtar guessed. And indeed, he heard the soft footsteps of a woman.
- "Father, do we have a guest tonight?" Amazement resounded in the words she spoke. Henry guided her towards Geshtar.
- "This is Flamin, a honorable disciple of Luka. Flamin, this is my daughter... Nasha."
Geshtar flinched, he slowly turned around to look at her. She was just like he remembered her, only she was wearing grey clothes. He was afraid to look at her directly, but she wasn't, apparently she hadn't recognised him.
- "Well, Miss Nasha, wearing grey? Are you mourning then?"
- "Yes... My beloved one, Dyluck, died... An evil spirit had possessed his body. I-I had no choice..." She cried, and Geshtar realised what had happened. This Dyluck of hers must have been the general Thanatos had used to prolong his life again!!
- "I'm sure your beloved Dyluck has found his place in the eternal flow of Mana in the after-life..." He took his staff, raised it and touched her head. "Your burden is too heavy for a girl your age... Err, how old are you, miss Nasha?"
- "I'm twenty-one." She frowned. "You seem... familiar, Sir Flamin..."
He was suddenly struck with fear: what if she recognised him? How would he be saved then? She would have no mercy for him, oh no she wouldn't...
- "You might have seen me at the Water Palace. But I'm sure it isn't possible, miss. I have travelled around the..."
- "I have too! Maybe we've met somewhere..." She smiled to him, and that sign gave him hope again. She didn't recognise him after all!
- "I was journeying because of the Empire. Now my mistress, Luka, has sent me out to gather information about the Imperial Forces. Especially interested in one Geshtar, she is..." He grinned. "That man couldn't have been born evil: he has once served Undine as a disciple of Luka, like I do now. Luka might have... Well, it just seems to me that she cared very much about his fate." Nasha's face darkened when she heard the latter.
- "She and Geshtar? No, never! He had attacked the Water Palace once, held her prisoner, locked her in the cellar, soiled the Water Seed, tried to kill us FOUR times! How could she love him?!" She sighed: "How could she ever have loved him?"
- "She has forgiven him... since she knew he was under Thanatos' dark spell's influence. And she loved him truly. His betrayal was indeed a harsh blow to her. But his sins are cleansed away: he didn't commit them."
- "But he was impure!!" Nasha's look changed from disbelief to rejection, from disliking to hating. Geshtar was shocked by it, so shocked he took too big a bite out of his steak. He coughed as it went down the wrong way.
- "I have learned to look deeper than the surface. Certainly, Geshtar must have been... different than he pretended to be... Different than he showed to be..." Nasha's peering eyes crossed his again: he looked down. Dinner was over while they had talked: the servant had already come to clean the table. He raised himself from his chair, still looking at the table, and spoke in a clear voice:
- "Henry, Miss Nasha, I have to go now. My quest for the Imperial Forces' true character beckons me to go around the world once more. Let me give you both this as a sign of my appreciation. It should come in handy for both of you..." He had raised his staff and Undine's Mana Powers flooded into the room (he had disapproved with it at first, but Undine had convinced him by saying it wasn't magic, just a mere trick), creating a beautiful starlit sky image on the ceiling. The stars twinkled, and there even was a real moon, in front of which clouds moved.
Nasha started crying softly. Her hands tensed and all of a sudden, she saw someone different standing in front of her. Luka's disciple, Flamin, suddenly looked very much like Geshtar! But he appeared to be different: looking at her with so much kindness in his eyes, his smile hinting he wasn't like she had known him... She closed her eyes and opened them again: Flamin was gone, he had left already. She was very confused about what she had seen: what if Geshtar was still alive, and out there somewhere? What if he had disguised himself in a servant of Undine? ...What if he had never been evil? She had so many questions, but no answers. Maybe... Suddenly she got an idea. Sprite's spirit was still in Sprite Village, in the Upper Land Forest! He'd know what was going on!
In the meantime, Geshtar had already called Flammie, and they too were on their way to the Upper Land Forest. Flammie gave no explanation, she just went that way and landed in front of a great palace with purple and dark blue glass windows.
- "Thissss, Geshtar, is the Wind Palacccce. Here lives Ssssylphid, and his caretaker... the grandfather of Sssstine..."
- "Why did you bring me here? What's so special about Sylphid?" Geshtar looked around, and he trembled when he noticed an eerie figure floating over the trees. Slowly, he stepped towards it... only to stop and gasp right in front of it: it was that little sprite he had seen a million times... Stine. "H-hello, Stine...” was all he could utter. As the white figure floated to the Wind Palace, he stepped back.
- "Hello, Flammie... I have to ask you, although it seems unnecessary, who he really is." The eyes of the ghastly kid changed slightly as he continued: "His true name is Geshtar Tirsh, aka Geshtar of the Empire. His... oh dear!" He turned towards Geshtar, his cheeks slightly pink, smiling: "You aren't evil, are you? I saw dark spells, I saw evil hypnosis, but never a trace of malevolence! You're a good guy! You're a nice guy!" Dancing around the amazed man, and singing so loud, the colors returned slightly to his outfit, only to fall back to their greyish-white appearance when he stopped.
- "How did YOU know that?! Do you have..."
- "No, I am a being of Mana, so I can see the truth and the hidden. When I saw Sheex, I knew he was a demon; when I met Thanatos, I sensed his true nature; when I saw the Mana Fortress appear... I knew before I joined Hopper that my quest for justice would bring my physical end... But I took the risk anyway. We all lost something, you know: Hopper lost his friends because he attracted monsters, Nasha lost both her lover and her best friends, and I lost my body. But you too have lost, I saw it: you miss Fanha, don't you? You loved her once, did you?" Dark blue eyes, cold and infinite like the night sky above him looked at him. Slightly, he nodded.
- "Sprite child, huh? Never knew much about the Mana Heroes, but they still surprise me. Had dinner with Nasha and her father tonight, you know... She didn't recognise me..." He sighed: "Luckily, she didn't..."
- "And what if she DID?! Geshtar, you can't hide forever! One day, they'll find out that you're still alive, and they'll kill you. Because they don't know what I know... One day, Geshtar, you will have to show yourself and be able to prove to the world that you aren't evil. Either that or live in fear... Just think of it: never showing yourself without a disguise, never being able to use your true name..." When he saw Geshtar wasn't impressed, he whispered: "...never being able to make Luka your wife..." That changed his impression: instead of thinking of the rest, he thought only of Luka. Stine had seen it, the desire hidden deep within his heart: the wish to marry Luka and have a wonderful future with her. Nothing in his present life was so dear to him as Luka, the frail young woman that had won his heart so long ago. And, determined, Geshtar answered the silent question in Stine's harsh words: "I will never give up my future with Luka! Good, Stine, you have convinced me. Where should I head next, then?"
- "Go to the Lofty mountains, not to the Veedios but to Sage Joch. He knows more than I do about Thanatos, Sheex and Fanha. He might even be able to show you some interesting images..." He smiled briefly to Flammie: "Could I take Geshtar with me for a minute or five? I want to make him experience something..." And before Flammie had even answered, Stine took Geshtar's soul out of his body and floated to the tree tops. "This is where I now spend my nights, lying down on clouds and watching the stars, hoping that one day... One day, I will be able to return to the physical world. My body was held together by Mana's energy, so I will have a new one when it's restored... I hope..." Geshtar looked upwards, seeing the stars, and the rest of the world: but it all was very different. The stars were much brighter, and the world seemed to be illuminated with a glow from within, a weak but steady glow. Stine sensed his thoughts and told him about it: "The light which you see, radiating from the innermost part of this world, is Mana. It's glow is growing every day, but it still isn't as bright as before. Those stars are brighter because they too possess Mana Powers. The universe was once filled with it, then it gathered in planets, stars and other material. Go back now, Geshtar: you'll die when you don't return... Go, don't look back to me: I will watch over you as you travel."
Geshtar slowly faded his spirit back into his empty body, and stepped onto Flammie's back as soon as he was fully restored from the experiences. As the mighty dragon heaved her body into the night-sky, Stine's voice resounded into the night.
- "I'll watch over you as you travel!"
And as he disappeared out of sight, a soft voice, as if it was a young girl's, replied:
- "...So will I, Geshtar..."
When Geshtar opened his eyes, Flammie was already standing near to the Lofty Mountains.
- "Ggggood morning, Geshtarrrr! I hope you slept welllllll, didn't want to awaaaaken you. You looked so cuuuuute!" Flammie said whilst eating several Rabites for breakfast. She shoved Geshtar a baked one, with a Faerie Walnut on the side.
- "Good morning, Flammie. I slept very well, thank you very much. And you amaze me time and again. I didn't know you could make a fire!" He smiled softly. "Do Mana Dragons breathe fire?"
- "Errrrrrr, they, do sometimesssss... But Hopper taught me to maaaaake a fire with a tree. My claws can tear down small, thin treeeees, and then shred them apart. Ffffire is simple: I scratch my ccclaws and the sparks light the wood! Hopper alwaaaaays did it with matchchchches, Nasha and Stine usssed Sallllamando, and I used either my ffffire breath or Hopper's method... Now, finish your breakfast, Gesssshtar. You have a long waaaaay ahead... I'll pick you up this evening at the summit, ooookay?" Geshtar nodded, and she sighed very carefully. "You're verrrrry pleasant companyyy... At least you don't ssssnore..." she murmured before taking off and leaving Geshtar behind in the cold mountain climate. He shuddered, and walked up the path.
But his road was abruptly ended near a chasm. He had no means of crossing it. He shook his head... and remembered that Luka had given him a whip. He dropped his disguise, and searched his backpack: at the bottom of it was a whip with a worn handle: old, but suitable for the job. He got over the chasm by pulling himself across, and crossed several more until he reached the summit.
Geshtar stopped to take a look around. He had a magnificent view from that high peak: the Water Palace, and the Wind palace in the Upper Land Forest... the Northlands, barren and desolate... the Kakkara desert, where Seyma lived, and where the Fire Palace was located... He could even see across the sea, to the Empire. That would be his next stop: he knew he must have kept a diary once. That diary would still be in his room... although...
The memory flashed into his mind so suddenly and direct, that he nearly fell. It was a long forgotten moment, but very important in his history.
- "Dammit, you beat me again! I'll burn down this place!!"
He had just battled the Mana Heroes: for the second time, he had fought as Mech Rider. But for the second time, he had been personally defeated. He didn't feel hate for the Heroes. No, it was a deep feeling of failure that filled his heart.
But what was more important, he had set fire to the Imperial Castle: and the fire was already raging it's way into the castle when Flammie came, knocked him down with a brush from her mighty wings and... extinguished the flames. He still remembered awakening: his armor charred and broken, his limbs bruised, his heart beating, with only a single thought in his mind and his heart: "Thanatos, you fool, they escaped me. Your dark spell is over, I can think again". He even remembered his best friend Fanha, standing next to him, saying: "Sorry, sorry.. I put this spell onto you... forgive me..."
He stumbled up, his senses straightened again after his flashback. Why did Thanatos let Fanha put the spells on him? Why was Fanha so important to Thanatos? Why did Thanatos rather see him killed than Fanha? The answer was so simple and clear:
- "...Because she used magic and I didn't. I survived that crash because of my Elemental Service. I survived the Mana Heroes because of that too. Right after every one of my battles, Thanatos' - no, Fanha's - spell dropped and I was resolved of evil. Thanatos didn't know that I had once served Undine... but then again, Fanha didn't either. Why was it then that her spells always wore off just in time?" He shook his head, to drive away the thoughts that delivered him anguish, and stepped towards the entrance of the cave where Sage Joch resided.
- "Enter, Geshtar Tirsh, man of 130 years in age... Be welcome in my residence, I bear no hostility against you. Because my knowledge is greater than other people's. And because I have no reason to hate you." The odd man standing on the solemn flat rock in the grotto spoke to him in the ancient language, and smiled when Geshtar approached him very carefully. "No, don't be afraid, just ask what you want to know... if you want to find out for yourself what kind of man you were..."
- "Allright then, tell me the reason of my role in the conquest of Pandora."
- "Fine. Sit down and listen," Joch said while he pointed at a rock near his one "for this is a long story... When Thanatos became an Imperial Bodyguard, together with you and the girl called Fanha, Emperor Vandole asked him for proof of his powers. Therefor, Thanatos conquered the south ruins of Pandora and started distributing herbs among the townsfolk... herbs that made them mindlessly obedient to him. Of course, many villagers didn't know why the others acted so strange. Or they didn't want to be turned into living dead... Anyway, most of the townsfolk was subjected, the rest avoided the ruins as the place where all the evil started... You had no part in the conquest of Pandora, you had a different task... namely, to fight against Tasnica, which you accepted to do because you were spellbound. You were able to sneak past the defenses and assassinate most important people living in the castle. Among those was an elderly knight named Serin and his younger protégé, Jema. You slashed the old man's throat, hit the young man severely and left them both to die of their wounds. But Jema was still strong enough to take Serin's sword and journey to the Pure Land, where his son Hopper and his wife lived. The woman took her son to Potos and disappeared into thin air when she knew he was taken care of. Fate foresaw that Hopper would take the Mana Sword - Serin's sword - from it's resting place, in a creek near Potos, and to use it against you, unwillingly the murderer of his father. Anything else you want to know?"
- "Yes!" Geshtar suddenly thought of a question to ask the wise sage. "Tell me where, when and why I came across Thanatos!"
- "He was a very rich and hated man, who used to take refuge near here... in Shade's temple. Once, you see, Thanatos - once called Evan Thanatos - served Shade as his most loyal servant and trusted friend. One day, however, Thanatos summoned an evil spirit, that immediately fed itself... with the poor man's soul! He then took over the cooling body and had disposition over several dark spells, capable hands and a high position in society. Shade knew, and threw Thanatos among his demonic hordes to be devoured, although he survived there for nearly two hundred years... eating away on the supernatural powers in the monster bodies, growing in strength and stamina...
And then, he ventured out, his spirit in a flying demon's body. In Pandora, he found a new body - that of a rich merchant called Immin. He hired you to eliminate three men, all messengers of the rich town of the Fungi. And you did so, impressing him with your skill, strength and endurance (you did not sleep for three weeks when you fulfilled his mission). When he offered you a place among his ranks, you simply could not refuse his offer... but what you didn't know, was that he had wounded you a little when you signed his contract. Your blood mixed with the ink, and that sealed your fate: you were at his disposition, powerless against him and his servants, but you also got supernatural strength and skills. It worked in two ways, and you couldn't break it out of own strength... Thus, you and Fanha came up with a plan in the end. If you didn't pose too great a threat to the Mana Heroes, they would find their way to Thanatos sooner and be able to break the curse he used on both of you by his death - or at least the taking away of his powers by killing him in his host body. Unfortunately for Fanha, she was killed in her fight against the Mana Heroes. This enraged you and you forgot your plan... The Mana Heroes smashed your armor, and the explosion of it hurled you away of the Rising Continent to the desert. Thanatos was killed too, and that saved you. If Thanatos hadn't been killed soon enough, you too would be floating around in nothingness..." Joch paused. "Your coming across Thanatos was pure coincidence, but your following the Empire in its turning towards evil wasn't. Your destiny to have stood on both sides of the eternal flow has been fulfilled this way. And you have listened to your parents' last wish... It was : "Geshtar, may you never be evil of nature, but may you have come across evil and come out alive. May your children be of holy nature and may your friends be both those who brought the world near its fall and those who saved it from falling!" You were never evil of nature, but you were forced to do evil by spells and curses. Your children - yes, you will have children, and I think you know who their mother will be - will be children in service of Mana... Your friends are Fanha and Sheex, those who helped Thanatos in his evil desire, and Flammie, the one who helped the Mana Heroes stop Thanatos. You see, Geshtar, I know of your parents and your innermost feelings. It was not just friendship you felt for the woman named Fanha, wasn't it?" He smiled, and then raised himself. "I hear the brushing of wings in the air. Dragon wings: it must be Flammie, returning for you. Go now, you still have a long and tiring journey ahead. May Solar guide you on your path, and may the Mana surrounding us shed its light on the darkness covering your soul!" With these words, he turned around and stepped into the dark cave behind him, leaving Geshtar to go out and travel onwards. Geshtar noticed a small package lying on the floor beside him and took it with him, outside.
Flammie was standing on the narrow path to the cave, looking over the world. Her eyes were deep majestic purple and the evening sun set her feathers ablaze in golden light. But tears were running down her cheeks, and she didn't notice Geshtar until he came to stand beside her.
- "Hey, girl, why are you crying?" He patted the strong wings, his hand brushing over the cold feathers. She sighed, a very melodious sound compared to his voice.
- "I... I miss my kiiiind... The inferior Mana Dragons once flew through the Upper Land Forest, but they died when the Mana Beast was slain. Geshtar, their death makes me realise that dragons like me will die when the Mana Beast is killed by the Mana Sword." She paused for a minute, and continued whispering: "... It means I'll die soon, Geshtar... My place in this world is fading, my role has been played, my kindred is already gone."
- "NO!!!" Geshtar cried against the night, whilst embracing Flammie. "You can't die! One dragon will have to live to continue the legend. And... no, my friend, I will not let you die..." He stepped onto her back. "Let's travel onward, Flammie dear, to the Empire!"
Meanwhile, Nasha had arrived in the destroyed Sprite Village, and was already talking to Stine. Her disbelief grew when Stine told her what had happened, and what was going to happen.
- "No, how could Geshtar still be alive? I saw the explosion of his armor... No normal man can survive that!"
- "He is no normal man, Nasha," Stine spoke in his ghastly calm voice, "he is Undine's servant, now travelling the world in the disguise of a disciple. His name is..."
- "I know already," she hastily interrupted, "he uses the name Flamin. And I do believe that he was under dark spells, but how can he still look at himself without seeing a terrible man looking at him? He did those things, how can he bear the guilt, the remorse, the... pain?"
- "Nasha, don't you understand?!" Stine's spirit cried out, his color becoming more visible, "He can't bear those feelings! He's all alone, because no one really knows what he's going through, let alone knows that he ain't evil!!" calming down, he whispered: "You must know, dear Nasha... You, of all people, must feel that guilt, that loneliness, that pain... But you only lost one person dear to you. Geshtar lost his closest and truest of friends, Fanha; he lost a dear friend, Sheex; he killed innocent people; he hurt his one true love, Luka... He did the acts of evil, and was powerless to stop Thanatos from doing his sinister bidding... He could not react, couldn't escape..."
Nasha hid her tears. She had never thought of his agony, only of her own. Hopper had killed many monsters, and he too had lost many dear ones. Guilt and sorrow were never far away for a hero, he had always said... but didn't that count for Geshtar too? Didn't he deserve to be thought of as a human being? Didn't he deserve... a chance?
- "Hey, Geshtar... Waaaake up!"
Flammie's soft but irrepressible voice awakened him from a pleasant dream. He opened his eyes and saw that it was already noon. He had overslept!!
- "Hey, Flammie... Is there still some food left? I'm really hungry!" He noticed a fried bird lying near him. From the first bite, it tasted miraculously good. "Hey, this is GREAT! What's your secret ingredient?"
- "This is fffried with Mana Dragon Fire." For the first time since they met, she laughed: it sounded like a waterfall of little silver coins. "That maaaakes it taste unusual! Say, Geshtarrr, how are you going to ennnnter the Imperial Castle?"
- "Like I look now. They still obey me, you know. But they despise me... yeah, they really hate me..." He got up, and turned towards the city. "Flammie, come back tomorrow evening, I'll probably be done by then. Bye, dear girl!" He walked through the gates when Flammie circled over his head before leaving.
As soon as he had entered, people started to stare at him. They gossiped on about the horror that he had brought upon them, about the incident with the girl. But they left him alone, terrified of some power they claimed he had. Nearing the castle, he saw some soldiers snap in position.
- "S-s-sir Geshtar! W-what brings you here?!” one of them stumbled. All looked frightened, probably because he was thought smashed to bits either by the Mana Heroes or the Beast itself. But he didn't flinch, he frowned and spoke in a loud voice:
- "What's your problem, crawler?! You think you can ASK me what I'm coming back for?!!" He raised his sword and saw the guards flinch. But hitting him would only make him look bad, he realised, so he continued: "You're all lucky I'm tired. Next time, just let me pass through and don't ask me those silly questions... if you want to have another night's sleep..." And, saying the latter, he stepped through the gates and into the castle.
He realised that he would have to pay tribute to the Empress before going back to his old room. Walking to the audience hall, he saw many servants bow to him... like nothing had happened. So he guessed he must have been nice and polite inside the castle. "Could come in handy...” he muttered before stepping towards the throne in which the Empress Algea sat: her flowing black hair reaching all the way to the floor was already filled with little bits of grey, her grey robes nearly bleached white. But she still looked majestic: her eyes looked at him with all their royal grace, her hands were still frail but steady and when she raised herself to greet him, she did so with utter care. Seeing her in all her greatness and might made him fall to his knees and put his sword down.
- "My Empress Algea, your beauty and splendor remain unmatched."
- "Enough of that bowing and brownnosing...” she said with a smile, "Come forth and embrace me, as a friend." He raised himself, put away his sword and stepped towards her, taking her hand and kissing it. He put his hands on her shoulders, but she took them and put them around her waist.
- "Why, Empress..."
- "Don't call me that anymore, Geshtar. I am now Queen Algea of the Green Cities. Gold Isle sank a few weeks ago because of the earthquakes, and I must say I'm glad about that... I've been sitting here almost all that time. Now, show me your compassion and guide me to my rooms." Geshtar was shocked because of her invitation: "Algea, I'm sure it isn't fit for you to invite a man like me to your rooms..." His protests were to no avail: she dragged him along to her rooms. Once inside, she relaxed and took his hand.
- "Geshtar, tell me what is going on. You were defeated by the Mana Knights... I know because they told me themselves! How did you survive?" She smiled when he scratched his left ear. "At least your real self hasn't changed a bit! I know how Thanatos bound you, he did the same to my husband. But enough already, tell me."
Geshtar told her of his savior, her good cares, his stay in the Water Palace, the amnesia and his quest for himself. She quickly guessed the reason for returning to the Empire.
- "Sure, Geshtar, you can enter any of the rooms used by Thanatos' party. And be sure to ask me anything...” she lowered her voice slightly and whispered to him while following the sheath of his sword, "... anything at all..."
Geshtar blushed: somewhere he had always known that Empress Algea was fond of him. But this fond? Had she ever suggested improper behavior? ...Had he ever agreed on that... or participated in it?
- "Well... I better get going. The sooner I finish my quest, the sooner I can return to Luka." He turned around. "Thanks for the offer, but this time I better decline. Sorry if I hurt your feelings, Algea: I have changed." He walked away through the great halls of the Empire, to get to the room where he once had slept, dreamt and hoped.
Slowly, the door opened, revealing a big empty room - or was it? The desk was dusty and the bed ravaged. But his old shirts and trousers were still hanging in the wardrobe, and underneath his pillow was... the diary! He started reading it, and stopped at a small note he had scribbled hastily:
"Today we went hunting. Emperor Vandole ordered me to escort his "charming wife,” the Empress Algea. If he'd only knew I do more than escorting her..." He blushed: so he didn't have a false impulse when around her - once he must have been yearning for her, like he was yearning for Luka now. He continued to search...
"Thanatos drives me insane! That poor kid Fanha... he has made her summon a Darkness Dragon! That's way too much for a kid like her! She's still unconscious, but sometimes I can feel her agony. Her soul is screaming ‘Let it stop, Geshtar!’ but what can I do? Thanatos has his demon, I'll be killed as soon as I disobey!
"Why, Fanha has fallen in love with her own conjuration! He's called SIR Sheex nowadays... I don't like him, no matter what his name is - Sheex, Dark Stalker or Aegagropilon! Poor child, she really IS fond of him... Why doesn't she like me instead?
"He's really done it this time, the goddamn lich he is! Put a spell over me, made me rape and slaughter an innocent girl... He's NUTS, goddammit!!!" The rest of that entry was blurred.
"Awoke somewhere on a cold and dusty floor, somewhere far away. Fanha was there, too. What has happened? I saw some blood-stained armor parts on the floor... Sheex, maybe I never really knew you, but you were so human..."
Geshtar was about to put back the diary when something fell out. It was his key to the room of Fanha. Also, a note fell to his feet. It was a good-bye letter from her.
I'm going after him. May the Gods have mercy on my soul, I'm following my heart. Maybe it won't set back the evil done, but it's a part of a greater justice.
Don't follow me... you mean too much to me to follow me mindlessly.
With all my love, Fanha"
He remembered it: he had found the letter, read it, and immediately dressed. He did exactly the opposite of what she asked... and if it hadn't been for the defeat of that vile serpent Thanatos, he would have been dead too. The evil curse was broken, his soul was set free and his heart became filled with good once again. His Elemental Benefit saved his life... just in time. He just wished he could have saved Fanha...
He turned around and walked to her room. The key easily fit in the keyhole, and in a matter of a few seconds to find the right way to turn the thing, he stood in a room that had unmistakably belonged to his best friend and her lover. The room was very tidy, all of Sheex's stuff was stacked in a closet that was locked. The desk, where she had written dozens of stories, was covered with pens and pencils in all colors and sizes. Was she an artist as well, then? Geshtar picked up one of her drawings: it showed him, armored and ready for battle. He held his sword menacingly and his mantle flowed around him like a cloud around a high mountain peak. The next drawing depicted Thanatos, dying because of the Mana Sword. Hopper held it high, it shone brightly - even when covered with the blood of the most evil creature ever. Beside Hopper, Nasha - in tears for her lost lover - and Stine - his hand against his forehead, as if he suffered from extreme migraine. On the back of that one was a note:
"Thanatos was slain by Hopper, the Mana Knight. The Sword shines when justice is done, it has defeated evil and sings in harmony with the wings of the Mana Beast. Nasha's lover, Dyluck, was killed because Thanatos possessed him. And Stine, Most Courageous of all Sprites, lost his solid form because Mana disappeared." He shuddered as it hit him that Fanha couldn't have seen and known that: she had died a while before those events... or had she?
- "I can understand your disbelief, Geshtar. But indeed, I drew this... in my current form." Geshtar heard it, a faint whispering coming from behind him. He turned around, and indeed, there she was: a spirit floating in mid-air, her shape undoubtedly hers.
- "Fanha, how come...?"
- "Ssssh, Geshtar, it's a long story... But first I've got to disappoint you: I'm fading away. I'm still here because I have been chosen to tell the world, the future, to be careful for Thanatos' evil. One day, he will rise again... and then, he will be aided by those of TRUE evil nature! Take the drawings with you... remember me as I once was and like I am now: always truly a spirit of good."
- "Wait, Fanha, tell me: why are you fading?"
- "I can remain here because Mana is still weak... but it's rising rapidly and I won't be around for too long... Understand, Geshtar, that one day... one day, we'll be together again - as friends. Yes, Geshtar, I know what you have felt for me all those wasted years... and I did feel the same once, but now it has changed. You have Luka, I have Sheex. But we'll always have each other. We are one soul split in half and joined by fate... but never to be reunited." She dissipated, leaving him behind in the empty, hollow room.
Geshtar didn't remember how he got outside. The next thing he knew, he was standing outside crying his eyes out. The drum already in his hand, Flammie landed next to him.
- "Rrrreeeeh... Isss your research here dooooone already?! You're cryinnnnnng! What has happened?" Her purple eyes gazed at him, mildly amused.
- "I... I met my twin soul, that's all... Tell me: why does Mana keep some alive and kills the others?"
- "Gessssshtar! I cannot tell you that!" Suddenly, Flammie was shocked. Her eyes became burgundy, her feathers brushed into each other to accentuate her anger: it made the horribly loud sound of a raging river. "You young hot-heeeead! I will never be able to tell you that!"
- "S-sorry... Can we go now? I want to go to the Desert, just drop me off somewhere near Kakkara."
He reached the desert city at high noon, covered with sweat and dust. They had flown all night to reach the desert (somewhere, Flammie had lost her sense of direction and had to be guided by Geshtar), and she had landed in the middle of the desert, leaving him to search for the city in the early morning sun. But now, finally, he had reached it! His tired eyes looked around to find an inn somewhere.
- "Oh, dear! Poor man, let me help you!" A voice that sounded so familiar... He turned around: it was Seyma, his savior. Lucky I've assumed my disguise again, he thought. "Come with me, sir. I can offer you a nice cool bath, a decent meal and a good night's sleep. My name is Seyma, I serve Salamando in the Fire Temple." She smiled and took him to a small house in the shadow. Inside, she asked him which Element he served, and what brought him in the desert.
- "I am Flamin, I serve Undine, the Element of Water. Luka, her caretaker, has sent me out to find out about the Imperial bodyguards Sheex, Fanha, Thanatos and Geshtar. She appears to be really fond of him..."
- "HOW COULD SHE DO THAT?!" Seyma had yelled it, and it was filled with hate and despise. "Geshtar of the Empire is an evil, evil man!!"
- "Oh, she thinks he isn't. I don't know whether she's right or the rest of the world is. I have journeyed around before..." He saw her gazing towards an invisible object on the cupboard, so he quickly added: "Luka sent me here to investigate his past. He's dead now, I suppose..."
- "No, he isn't... He has survived because he was a..."
- "...Servant of Undine, yes I know. She has told me when he had attacked the Water Palace. Hopper first met him there, and she burst into sobs right after the Heroes had left... She gave me my first mission there: follow Geshtar, record his acts of terror, and report all that to her." He gazed at her, admiring the dark shade of blue her eyes. "How about that bath, dear lady?"
- "Don't call me that, but call me Seyma." She smiled slightly after having seen the expression of amazement in his eyes. "It's a long story, I'll tell you tomorrow..."
She showed him a small room where a bath was placed, surrounded by shelves: soap, towels, clothes, herbs, boxes and a single bucket were placed on them. The water was especially cool in the hot climate. As he took off his clothing and slipped into the water, he sighed of relief: the burden of the last few days seemed to be lifted off his shoulders and put far, far away. The soap he had picked, smelled like the rare desert lilies. The scent made him very dreamily, images came flooding into his head. Images of his childhood: his pet dog, Myst; his mother and father; one of his sisters, Maysel, handing him some berries (he faintly remembered him being very sick by eating them... She died two days before he was fully recovered: the amount of berry poison in her body was three times the lethal dose.); his other two sisters, Eysha and Lyven, taking care of him when his parents were out for business. But he had the feeling a shadow was lying over his past. He couldn't figure out what it was, until he remembered he had copied all of his family's charts. There would lie the answer... there, in his sisters' files, would lie the words that held the key to his darkest memories...
He rinsed off the soap and came out of the water reluctantly, taking a greenish towel and drying himself. When he dried his left foot, it came to him that the fabric was soft... much more soft than he was used to. Faint memories of icy water, rough linen towels, snow and crying... The dark secret... The dark side... He winced, then dried his other foot and got dressed. In the meantime, Seyma had prepared him a good and healthy meal: he ate it all, with a few glasses of the best wine he'd ever tasted. Then, she showed him to a small room which held a bed and a small cupboard.
- "There's a long shirt in there, so you don't sweat too much. Goodnight!"
- "Goodnight, Seyma! ...Say, why are you doing this? I'm a mere Servant of Undine!"
- "That's why I do it." She smiled, revealing a perfectly symmetrical smile that was heart-warming. "We Elemental Servants must stand up for ourselves in this world. We are gravely underestimated!" Her eyes darkened. "You just go to sleep now, I'll take care of the rest. Goodnight, Flamin!"
The next day, he awoke of soft sunlight falling through the window, and he was immediately out of bed. His clothing felt amazingly cool, and he picked up a soft flowery scent as he put them back on. Seyma had left him a note, saying she had gone for her service in the Fire Palace: he then had a small but nutritious breakfast and went there too.
The desert was remarkably hot, even in the early morning. He stepped to the imposing castle, surrounded by a few lava pits and quicksand. Inside, a man came towards him.
- "Sir, do you wish an audience with Salamando?" He nodded, and the man blindfolded him. "Follow me please, sir." He was lead through a network of tunnels, past lava-pits, over crevasses and into the very heart of the Palace. The man took off his blindfold and pushed open the door to the Seed Chamber.
As Geshtar walked in, his disguise dropped: the Mana Seed penetrated his disguise and showed his true self. In front of the pedestal stood Salamando.
- "Welcome Geshtar. I knew you would come to see me one day. Your disguise has dropped here... I assume you know why?" He smiled.
- "Yes. After all, I've spent most of my life serving Undine... I come for answers."
- "Depending on which questions, I will answer them." The fiery Elemental floated - no, burned - to him.
- "First of all, what was my task while serving the Empire?"
- "You were the army lieutenant. Thanatos had lieutenants for everything: army, demons and Mana. You led the Imperial army after Vandole's generals all were killed. Sheex, being a demon himself, led the demonic hordes. And Fanha, gaining the necessary information from your mind, was responsible for breaking the seals on the Mana Seeds. You were kept loyal with spells, cast on you by both Fanha and Thanatos. It broke your heart to know Fanha, your best friend, liked someone better than you, but what really hurt you was that he was a demon: Sheex." He raised his staff. "More questions?"
- "Yes. Why did Thanatos need the help of Phanna, that innocent girl from Pandora?"
- "Hmmm... Phanna possessed the most life force on the planet! Demons don't have that, humans have it the strongest. Her blood lineage had very strong life force, even for humans!" The flaming salamander paused. "She had the lowest resistance, could easily be caught with false promises... just like you..."
- "Hmph! I was weak because I drank!" Geshtar felt low and degraded by the Fire Elemental in front of him. "What was that girl's weakness then?"
- "Her weakness was love: she had fallen in love with Dyluck and felt secret jealousy when he preferred Nasha over her. His attention went directly towards her, and Phanna became bitter within... Then, when Thanatos promised her he'd give Dyluck to her, he kept his word... knowing Nasha would hear from it and disrupt her - spellbound - happiness. And, well, the rest is history: by slapping Phanna in the face, Nasha broke the spell and saved her best friend. Dyluck was far too sensitive to Thanatos' wizardry, he could only be saved by Nasha's love... with the additional help from a spearpoint or two by Hopper... More questions?"
- "Uhh, only one... Tell me, can you summon Sheex?"
- "NO!" Salamando's fire grew and became white, by fear. "NO, NEVER AGAIN! Once, Geshtar, an Aegagropilon was set loose on the face of the Earth. That one time was one too many. Demons like Sheex are nothing to toy with!"
He turned around, to see someone come through the door... Seyma! She saw him and was shocked until deep in her soul.
- "Geshtar!! You... you FIEND!!" The sound of metal scraping metal as she drew a small dagger. "I'd rather kill you than have you harm Salamando!"
- "Seyma!" Salamando's voice was harsh and reprimanding. "Go back there and wait until we are finished. He isn't evil anymore, if that's what has been bothering you... Go now before I relieve you of your services!" Seyma turned white as chalk, then bowed icily in front of Geshtar and went back where she came from. "Poor girl, she's still too young to serve me... but I need a caretaker until Mana is fully restored. It won't take long anymore... not too long... Well, do you still have questions? No? Then go, to where you have to go next. I bid you farewell, Geshtar, and hope that you will find your answers soon."
Geshtar assumed his disguise again, struggling against the Mana Powers in the room. As he was guided outside the palace, he thought about Seyma's reaction to him. His thoughts of friendship hadn't changed: she was still a sweet girl to him, but he... He didn't think she liked him anymore... He turned around, facing the Palace, and walked away, tears running down his cheeks for losing a good friend. And inside the Palace, Seyma too cried: he wasn't the man she thought he was. That felt bitter in her heart, and she tasted that bitterness all the better now she had seen him again. He had assumed the disguise of a servant of Undine... Luka had to be warned! If he had given her a false name and pretended to be someone else, then surely Luka wouldn't like that!! She went to her house, faintly noticing a large white dragon flying over the desert. She'd go to Luka, and tell her what Geshtar had told her. She'd foil his plans, although she didn't know them... She'd foil them, foil them good...
- "Rrrrrrrrraaaaaii, Geshtar... All that flying around has made me verrrrry tired. Only to the Tree Palace and back to the Water Palace, prrrromise me!" The white dragon whispered. Strange, have her wings turned green? Geshtar wondered.
- "Allright, girl, I promise. Please, take me there. I'll guide you, unless your sight is fully restored..." He looked at her purple eyes, which were slightly burgundy at that moment.
- "Nnnnoooo, I'll need your guidanccce... Please, get onto my back, Gessssshtar." He climbed onto her back, and petted her soft downy neck feathers as she lifted her majestic body off the hot desert soil. They flew towards the small coral island, where the Tree Palace stood. Flammie's wings beated in a melodic way...
... and far away, Stine's spirit floated next to Fanha's. Stine was faintly colored, and clearly visible; Fanha was no more than a slightly visible spirit of her former self. Both of them said, at exactly the same time, as they heard the melody being carried over the world:
- "It has begun."