by Luna Manar
"Here," said the woman, "I want you to have this."
Warren stared at the blue headband she held in her hand. It was such an ordinary-looking thing.
"What is it?" he asked.
The woman smiled.
"It was the last Mana Knight's. He and I were… close friends. I kept it after he died and now I think it should belong to you."
Warren took the bandanna, studied it.
"Put it on," Dirk chimed in, "Try in on for size."
Warren put the cloth around his forehead, tied it in the back. He looked up, caught the woman's face.
Malina fought back tears. It was him. In almost every way. It was like he had returned to fight again.
"What can I say, kid? It's you."
"Well, if he isn't ready for anything now, I don't know who is."
Warren didn't understand the white dragon's comment, but walked over to the side of the pool by the falls and looked at his reflection.
Indeed, for some reason, the simple blue strip of cloth suited him perfectly. He turned it slightly to the side, in an effort to make it look more… him.
It was like looking into a memory. In the water, he no longer saw himself, but the Mana Knight he had met at the falls. He saw not an ordinary, everyday teenage boy, but a person destined to protect the power of life, Mana, at all costs. There was no denying it any longer. He held the Mana Sword, he flew the white dragon, he had seen the ghost at the falls.
He was the Mana Knight.
Sudden, searing pain shot through Warren's body like lightning. He cried out, doubled over, gritted his teeth as every inch of him seemed to set itself ablaze.
Dirk stood up, started to run to help his friend, but the woman stopped him.
"No. Leave him. It will pass," she told him. Dirk was about to protest, but Warren's cracked voice cut him off.
"Wh–what's… happening? What is… this...?" he gasped between painful breaths.
The woman walked up to his crouched and shuddering form, bent down beside him, laid her hand on his shoulder.
"It is something all Mana Knights must bear," she told him softly, "Once they have realized who they truly are. The blood of Mana burns in you now, but the pain will subside. You can bear it. You will bear it."
Warren could scarcely comprehend her, but, slowly, the fiery pain did fade and eventually disappeared. He sat where he was for long moments, shaken and exhausted, breathing heavily. He hoped profoundly that that would never happen again.
But he was complete now. The strange yearning he had felt before, the piece of him that was left here, was no longer missing. He had found it, excepted who he was, and now, he would live up to whatever was expected of him. He was ready for what awaited, now, and he understood it. The world was in trouble, and needed help. But he knew that Mana Knights almost never traveled alone. He would need help.
And, as luck would have it, he had Dirk and an extinct bird.
The unicorn opened her dark green eyes. A quiet humming and soft glow had awakened her from what should have been an eternal slumber.
Her one silver horn, mounted on her pearl-white forehead, glowed with a soft light. She looked up, confused. What was going on?
She huffed once in surprise when she saw the creature standing before her.
It was huge, almost as tall as the cave she slept in, which in itself was about twenty five feet, It had two pairs of colorfully feathered wings, folded tight against its body so that it could fit inside the cavern. Its short, strong neck was held high in a commanding stance, its elongated, bird-like snout and deep blue eyes curved downward in a scowl. Its huge, furry ears twitched at her startled snort. A long, red mane ran from its forehead down the length of its muscular neck. The light from her horn glistened off the creature's long, sharp back fangs and formidable claws. Thick, tight muscles rippled up its violet-furred back and body and stout legs. Its long, reptilian tail extended out the entrance of the cave.
Suddenly, the creature spoke, in a deep, throaty, gruff voice.
The unicorn stiffly got to her feet, stretched her silver wings and flapped them once, twice, trying to wake her sore muscles.
"What has happened?" she asked in a soft, pure, cool voice that betrayed none of her anxiety, "How is this possible? Who are you, and what do you want of me?" She stared coldly at the huge beast before her. "How do you know my name?"
"I am Uziel," the beast answered, "And I know everything of importance to Mana in this world." The creature took a step forward. It was amazingly graceful for a creature its size.
Zerlina pawed the ground in confusion.
"Mana? But Mana is gone. I felt it vanish, its disappearance plunged me into an endless sleep–"
"That has obviously ended," the creature cut her off. "I know. I have asked myself the same question many times, and even I do not know how it has revived itself. But, it obviously has. I have made it my duty to waken all the creatures of Mana again, for now dawns a new day for the power of life."
The creature had a triumphant look in its huge eyes.
Zerlina wasn't convinced.
"But, even if the phoenixic Mana has arisen from its own ashes, how are you possible? The last beast like you was destroyed by the Mana Sword–"
"Which breathes its own life again!" interrupted the beast a second time, "It is here, on this paradise, borne by its own impossible bearer!" The creature shifted uneasily.
Irritated by the constant interruptions, the unicorn took a step toward the mighty consort of Mana before her, trying to look as impressive as possible, but she knew even her wondrous beauty could not surpass the Mana Beast's majesty.
"Why are you so tense? So what if Mana has revived itself? That only means we can exist once more."
The beast snorted.
"It's also a perfect invitation for something to go wrong! That's the problem with being… you cannot have life without death, and you cannot have good without evil. It comes with the package. I know little about what is going on, now, I don't even know how I came to be, but I do know who I am, what my purpose is, and I know that Mana is still weak...it is still – a child, if you will, and influenceable. What better time for evil to raise its ugly head?"
The unicorn tilted her head to one side.
"And so you are awakening all the creatures of Mana in case it does?"
The beast nodded.
"That's the idea."
Zerlina lowered her head.
"Then I'm afraid I won't be of much help."
The Mana Beast stared at her.
The unicorn was surprised at the question. Didn't he know?
"My kind is one of peace and good. We are forbidden to fight for any reason. It is the law Lumina has set for us."
The beast was not convinced.
"Then can you guide one to someone who can fight? To someone… perhaps even more powerful than you?"
Zerlina looked back up at the comment. More powerful than her? There was no one that was more skilled in the arts of magic than a unicorn, except perhaps...
"Himself? And who would I guide to this great one?"
At that, the beast, Uziel, grinned mischievously.
"Come, I will show you."
The Mana Beast backed out of the cave. Zerlina took his words as an invitation to follow.
"So, why did you come here?" Dirk was asking Malina. It had been a long time since any of them had rested, and Flammie, Arno, and Warren were dosing in the shadow of a nearby willow. Dirk didn't feel particularly tired, so he busied himself asking Malina about his curiosities.
"Most of my life had been adventurous and full of things to do, especially while I was with Brisbe. When he died, I went home, but all I found was painful memories," she explained. "People wouldn't stop bothering me. Historians wanted records of the battle, children wanted stories… it was as if I had become the official 'Come and ask me, I'll tell you' person. Then the drought started. Everything started dying. I was concerned for Tana, the Pure Land. It was the paradise of Mana. It couldn't have been affected by the drought, I knew, unless the drought was a result of the death of Mana. When I came here, though the trees were still green and the mist you came through still thick, it had lost much of its beauty. I've spent my life here, trying to figure out some way of keeping this paradise alive. Just recently, the beauty returned. The mists grew to their full strength, the plants went into full bloom, the great waterfall, which had ceased flowing years before, mysteriously flowed again. That's when I knew… somehow–" She looked over in Warren's direction. He was sleeping peacefully, lying against Flammie's soft side.
"Mana found a way," she finished with a smile.
Dirk glanced over to where the Mana Knight slept.
"Does he really look that much like the other Mana Knight?"
"I see so much of Brisbe in him. It's like looking at a picture of him. He just looks a bit… younger." She smiled.
Dirk snickered a bit.
"Brisbe. Not a very heroic name, is it?"
Malina's cold glare silenced him.
"No one knew he was the Mana Knight. No one knew Warren would be the next."
After a short pause, she added,
"How did you come to travel with him?"
The youth snickered again.
Malina was about to ask what he meant by that, but was interrupted by a rush of wind, and a huge shadow passing over them.
She looked up and saw...
Warren woke up with a start as a rush of wind pounded against him. Flammie, in mid-snore, woke up with a snort. Arno shrieked in surprise as a runaway twig slapped him in the face. Shielding his face from the wind, Warren, bleary-eyed, rose from his position and tried to see what was making the strange gust.
Dirk and Malina were looking upward, trying to answer themselves the same question. Warren breathed in sharply when he noticed the huge shadow that had been cast over them, then started yet again when, where there should have been a huge… something… above them, there was nothing.
There was a deep, bellowing voice from above;
"Get outta the way!"
None but Flammie comprehended the message. With a bellow of his own, the white dragon ran out into the middle of the clearing, spread his wings, knocking all present back into the bushes. Then he himself got out of the clearing by the pond, turned and awaited what he knew to be impossible.
There was more wind, the shadow that had encompassed the clearing shrank in size, took on a shape...
Malina gasped. It was impossible.
Two huge clawed footprints imprinted themselves in the sand. An imprint of a long tail soon joined them. Then, inch by inch, the prints gave way to their true bearer.
Two pairs of huge, feathered wings folded themselves against a long, muscular back. Long ears twisted and turned atop an elongated, violet-furred head. Long red mane flowed down the creature's strong neck.
"What is that?"
Malina shook her head.
The Mana Beast ignored them completely, turned its full attention on Warren.
"You are the Mana Knight?"
Warren nodded stupidly.
The creature narrowed its huge eyes, stared directly into Warren's. Their gazes locked. They stared at each other for what could have been seconds or minutes. Either way it seemed like hours.
Finally the beast turned away.
"You are the Mana Knight," said the beast in astonishment, then it grunted, "Just one more impossible thing on this world."
Warren's brow furrowed.
"And you are...?"
The creature growled at him, suddenly irritated.
"That doesn't matter now. Someone wishes to speak with you. Now, if you'll excuse me–"
The beast, without any further discussion, turned toward the sky and, with two powerful flaps of its colorful wings, launched itself back into the air, then preformed its disappearing act once again.
The five companions stood for a long moment, dumbfounded. What had just occurred was past mysterious. It was positively impossible.
All thoughts were cut short by another sound of flapping wings, these much lighter and more brisk. From behind the trees, flying low over the dense canopy, an incredible creature, a unicorn of unsurpassable beauty. Carefully, almost shyly, the magical creature set herself down where the Mana Beast had once stood.
The unicorn was the most beautiful thing that any of them had ever seen. Her white fur was spotless and seemed to shine like the sun. Her mane, wings and legendary horn were the color of the purest sterling silver. Her green eyes shone like emeralds.
She walked slowly toward Warren in long, elegant strides. She came within inches of him, though it was evident that she bore him no malice. As tall as the Mana Knight at the shoulder, she looked down upon him with her huge, intelligent eyes.
"Curiouser and curiouser."
Warren jumped once again at the unicorn's words. Flammie chuckled. This was getting interesting. Two huge battling monsters, a magical Pure Land, a Mana Beast, and a unicorn all in one day. This had to be a record.
"I still do not see how this is possible," the unicorn continued, "But everything Uziel said was true. Mana has returned."
Warren looked up, confused at the unicorn's encompassing eyes.
"And, um… who are you?" he asked, still astounded by the creature's beauty.
The mystical creature backed up a few paces, realizing that she was making the knight uncomfortable.
"My name is Zerlina. I have been aroused by Mana's great consort, and it is my duty now, to guide you to one you will need."
Dirk, confused by the formal talk, interrupted.
"Wait a minute! Just hold it for a second! Am I the only one here who is not understanding a word of this? Just what is happening here?"
The unicorn turned slowly around to face the green-haired youth.
"And just who are you?" she asked coldly.
"A very confused person."
Zerlina was about to turn back to Warren when she caught sight of the silver-haired woman standing not far away, gazing at the unicorn in astonishment. The creature turned to her.
"Malina?" She asked, her eyes widening. "Malina, what has happened? How long have I been asleep?"
The woman shook herself from her thoughts. She stared at the unicorn, now more comprehendingly.
"Almost fifty years, my friend."
The unicorn was to say the least surprised, and for a moment she nearly lost her composure, betraying a worried look that was soon recovered and again tucked away beneath a mask of the utmost serenity.
Warren, stepped forward, almost as confused as Dirk.
"Woah, woah. You know her?" he asked Malina, motioning to the unicorn. Malina nodded.
"I'm sorry, I should have explained earlier. This is Zerlina. She has lived here for centuries, helping to protect Mana and see to it that this paradise stays lush with life. When I came here, she was weakened and tired, a result of Mana's disappearance. The forest was withering, and she with it. I tried to take care of her, make her feel more comfortable for a while, but one day she lapsed into a deep sleep from which she never awakened. We were not together long, but long enough to become good friends."
She looked up fondly at the white and silver creature before her.
"Zerlina, you said you were awakened by Mana's consort. You wouldn't happen to mean the Mana Beast?"
The unicorn nodded.
"His name is Uziel. You'll have to forgive his gruffness, but you see, he is as confused as I am and I imagine you are. Even with the reemergence of Mana, he should not exist. The last one of his kind was destroyed by that sword," she pointed with her muzzle to the Mana Sword at Warren's side, "By your father."
At this, Warren shook his head.
"Now that's where I'm confused," he said, "That ghost at the falls… he said that he was my father, even though I don't have a mother. What's that supposed to mean? How can that be possible?"
The unicorn shook her head.
"I cannot answer that. Only he can." She looked up to the spot where the Mana Beast had disappeared. "He knows that much."
"He awakened me," Zerlina continued, "And told me of you. He would not explain to me why, but he says that Mana is still young, and is vulnerable. In his own way, I think he was trying to tell me that it is in immediate jeopardy. He brought me to you, told me that I am to lead you to one that can help you. I will, but first, I ask this; tell me, what is this danger? What is it that you are facing."
Dirk was the one to come forward.
"A man, an obsessed man named Donovan. It has come to my – um, our attention that he has found Thanatos's book of knowledge. He is power-hungry, and I fear he will use this spellbook for deeds less than to our liking."
At the mention of the ancient wizard's name, the unicorn huffed and pawed the ground nervously.
"That evil creature. No one in his right mind would even touch any of his insidious black knowledge."
"Donovan isn't in his right mind," mumbled Dirk under his breath.
But Warren heard him.
"Dirk..." he asked, piecing something together in his mind that had been bothering him, "Do you know this man?"
Dirk took a moment before asking. He wasn't sure he wanted to. Painful memories washed over him. But he knew he couldn't hide it from his newfound friends forever.
"I encountered him, a few years back," he began, "He… seemed nothing more to me than a historian who was over-involved in his work. It was not long after Arno had started letting me ride on his back. He asked me if he could 'watch' us in flight, to record how the griffin moved, how it accommodated for the weight on its back. I obliged him, as did Arno. We flew in circles above him for a few minutes, and I watched him 'watch' us. Not once did he take his eyes off us, he wrote everything about us of note down without even glancing at the paper. Finally he told us to come down, and after saying our goodbyes, he moved on.
"But what I saw in his face before he left," Dirk continued, "Wasn't the satisfaction you would see in a man that had just finished a job, but the triumph you see in a man whose scheme is working perfectly.
"I met him again a year later. This time, in the air. He was riding on the back of a red dragon! He saw Arno and I, and for some reason, he commanded his dragon to attack… he almost hit us. I yelled at him, asked him just what the heck he thought he was doing. He answered me not with words, but with a look. That look – it said it all. He had something cooking, and now that I knew he did, he was fully intent on making me the chicken for his soup. But Arno and I outran his clumsy old dragon. After that, I always wondered… I was going to tell the people of the Empire of him, except when I got home..." Dirk's hands clenched, his rage nearly shook him apart. "My mother and father were gone. He had taken them… evicted them. He also left a little note, saying that if I ever told anyone, it would be more than just a couple of 'relatives' who would be missing. It would be me. I laid low for a couple of years, but then I overheard two soldiers talking about his finding the spellbook, and I knew I had to do something. When I came across you, Warren, and saw you had the Mana Sword, that only made me more afraid, because if Mana's back, then so, too, is magic, and that makes Donovan more dangerous than ever. I agreed to come with you in return for your help, Mana Knight, and I expect to get it. I only agreed to come here because I could see that you still needed to find yourself out."
"And how was that?"
"You didn't talk much."
Malina stepped in at this moment.
"If all that you say is true, than you had best be on your way now," she said, "I know the power of Thanatos's knowledge. I myself helped fight it. If this Donovan does have the spellbook, he has access to incredible and deadly power… magic, the ancients, the Mana Fortress. Any and all of these. I suggest that you let Zerlina take you to this one who can help you, and now. Go, quickly. You have all you need to know."
Warren stared at Dirk, then at Malina, Zerlina, and finally to Flammie and Arno, who had been watching them quietly, grave expressions on their faces. It seemed like the next decision was his.
"Let's go, then," he said, finally. "Zerlina, you lead the way."
The unicorn began to walk to a position that would put her in front of them when they lifted off.
Warren turned one last time to Malina.
"I hope we pull through."
With that, he turned and climbed up Flammie's lowered wing.
Malina watched them as they flew up and through the hanging mist. When they were out of sight, she said to him, far off,
"I wouldn't worry. You will. He always did. One way or another."
From up above, she heard a sudden shriek and an irritated growl.
"Hey! Watch where you're going, puffball!" came Dirk's voice.
"On the other hand, maybe I should worry."
Snickering, she turned and headed back to her hidden cave.