by Luna Manar
The night was cool and calm, the first in many months. Animals in the dense forest of the Upper Land scurried up and down trees, across old paths, through bushes and branches. It was a welcome night for all.
The Mana Knight had waited hours for his friends to return, but he hadn't seen a glimpse of any of them. He lay down under a tree now, careful not to put any weight on his right shoulder and shuddering from the constant, fiery pain. The wound that the werewolf had inflicted was open and deep.
Where are they? Warren thought desperately, What's taking them so long? Haven't they caught that stupid unicorn yet? Haven't they figured out I'm not on her?
He stared at the Mana Sword he held in his left hand. Holding it up slightly, he looked it over. Truly, this was an incredible blade, but would it be the very thing that got him killed? Though he had slashed through many evil creatures, the weapon's blade was spotlessly clean, as if it had never tasted battle in its long life. The strange inscriptions at its base still confused him, but they must have meant something at one time. The platinum hilt was as warm as ever, pulsing with a strange, radiant life of its own. The emerald in its center glimmered.
Warren gazed at that emerald, his gaze pierced its surface, he stared straight through it. Until now, he had never noticed the strength of his own stare. Was that why everyone he looked at for long had a tendency to turn away?
Aloud, he asked,
"Now what am I to do? I can't get up, I can't fight, I don't know where everyone else is, and I feel like I'm gonna die, here. What's going to happen now?"
He didn't really expect an answer.
He was totally unprepared for the one that came.
The voice was familiar, fiery. Warren slowly looked away from the emerald, the sword's eye. Crouching next to him was Brisbe.
"What are you doing here?" Warren asked, confused, "I thought you couldn't leave the falls..."
But the other Mana Knight merely brushed the comment off.
"I can't stay for too long."
Warren saddened at this. For some strange reason, he felt more comfortable with his "father" around. Even now, he almost forgot about his shoulder.
When he tried to sit up further, the stabbing sensation returned. Gritting his teeth from the pain, Warren grasped at his shoulder in a futile attempt to fend off his extreme discomfort.
Brisbe frowned worriedly. The last time he had seen Warren, the young Mana Knight had been healthy and strong, but now… look what the werewolf had done to him.
"Warren, I'm...sorry..." he began, wishing for all the world that he could touch his foster son, to sooth the pain, to help in some way.
Warren only looked confused.
"For what?" he asked, "This wasn't your fault."
The older Mana Knight shook his head gravely.
"I know, but...well, I can't help feeling responsible in some way. Being the Mana Knight is no walk in the park, it's hard. I wish I could tell you that this is the worst that can happen....but, I'm not helping. Maybe, I'd better go..."
"No, wait," Warren beseeched, "I don't mind… someone to talk to. About anything. It's better than being alone." He tried to move up again, to stop Brisbe from going, but it only succeeded in aggravating his injury. With a sharp cry, he laid back againt the tree once more.
He'd succeeded in making his point, though. The other Mana Knight stayed, watching Warren's shuddering form with worry.
"Do you think… they'll find me, if they come back? It's a huge forest," Warren asked.
"They'll find you," he said honestly, "You can count on it."
"And it is a huge forest," he continued, "I know. I've traveled it."
Warren looked up at Brisbe, a thought suddenly crossing his mind.
"How old were you? When you… found out who you were, I mean," he asked.
The older Mana Knight, surprised at the question, raised his brow.
"Oh, about your age. Fifteen."
Warren prodded deeper.
"Just a foolish thing I used to do with my friends. We'd go out into the deep woods and up the mountains where we were forbidden to. Just because we could. You could cross the falls by means of a big tree trunk that had fallen there years ago..."
Warren listened intently. It was the first time in days that he had been totally at peace with himself. He listened for hours as the former Mana Knight's tale unraveled, stopping only when his shoulder flared up again. The fifth time was the worst. Warren stiffened and shuddered, not even able to move this time. When it finally passed, Brisbe frowned.
"Maybe I should stop. You could use rest."
But Warren shook his head.
"I doubt I could get any rest right now, one way or another. Keep going. He....wait a minute… He ate all the ship's food?"
The older knight smiled.
"Mm-hm. The cooks were so infuriated with him, they kicked him right out when I opened the door."
Warren suddenly realized, the former knight didn't know that Drek was alive. He decided he would wait until later to tell him, though. Right now, even breathing hurt, and plus, he didn't want the story he was being told to end. He didn't think his father realized how well he told it, in fact.
Of course, Warren didn't say so. That would have been a conversation stopper in this case, if this other knight was anything like him.
Brisbe continued with his tale throughout the long night, about their travels to the Ice Country, the Empire, the Lofty Mountains and the test of courage – he left out the part about the actual test, for he knew that someday, Warren himself would have to take it, and it wasn't his place to tell him what he would find.
But he continued on – Tasnica and the spy, the Tree Palace, the underground city, the Mana Fortress… the Mana Beast… by the time he finished, the first rays of sun were peeking over the horizon. When he looked up, he saw Warren had fallen asleep.
He smiled. Somehow, he was sure Warren had heard all of it.
"And if there's one thing I learned, it's that we have to except who we are, and do our best in life, no matter the cost," he said, now that he knew Warren was asleep, "And I know you'll pull through, Warren. I see the boy I was in you."
This said, Brisbe vanished.
Flammie stopped to rest atop a high mountain in the Lofties. No sign of the unicorn or Warren. He huffed in frustration. You'd think that that unicorn had stopped running by now, but then, you'd think that if they had stopped, Warren would have found some way of letting them know where they were. It made no sense.
Zerlina had fled the battle in a panicked fashion, and Drek, Flammie, Dirk, and Arno had given chase. The unicorn had disappeared somewhere in the Lofty Mountains, and they had all split up searching for the unicorn and Warren, Flammie and Arno in the air, Dirk and Drek on foot. So far – nothing. There were so many places a magical creature like a unicorn could hide in this place. Even Drek had no idea which way she had gone. Not surprising, though, as unicorns were highly skilled in the magic arts themselves. Too bad Joch wasn't...
An idea sparked in Flammie's mind. Joch! There had been reports of him roaming around in the past decade or so. Perhaps, just perhaps...
Flammie again took to wing, heading for his old friend's cave.
Arno soared high over the Lofty Mountains. Still no sign of the unicorn. Below, he caught sight of Drek, searching the western peaks. The young sprite looked up, shrugged. No luck. Then it suddenly occurred to the griffin. If the unicorn had indeed stopped here, wouldn't Warren have made himself known?
Toying with the question in his mind, Arno came out with two possibilities. Either the unicorn was nowhere near the peaks or Warren was not on her back as they had assumed.
A sudden fear washed over him. What if they had left the Mana Knight back in the Upper Land?
He swerved from his relentless circling, and flew northeast.
Flammie landed in front of Joch's cave. He had to be here! If they ever hoped to find the unicorn and Warren, they would need the powerful sage's help.
But, poking his head inside the cavern, he found it empty.
At least it seemed empty. That didn't mean that Joch wasn't in another, deeper room.
"Joch!" called the white dragon, desperate. He had to be here.
"Joch!" he called again. This time he was answered by a familiar voice from deep in the cave.
"Go away! The Sage is out!"
Flammie sighed. Of course.
Warren awoke to the sound of flapping wings. Blearily he opened his eyes. It was morning. Brisbe was gone. But sitting down near him was Arno.
Warren would have said something, but he was too tired. He could barely think straight, felt incredibly weak.
The silver griffin approached the injured Mana Knight, who was surprised to see that the creature was alone.
Arno looked over Warren's nearly motionless form.
"You… are hurt?" the griffin spoke in a nasal, parrot-like manner, but he sounded sincere.
Warren mustered up his strength, to try and speak.
"...Yes," he hissed, "Why just… you? Where are the others?"
Arno cocked his head to one side.
"I think that we leave you behind. No time to tell Dirk. Had to come fast," said Arno, "But I not know you are hurt. If I knew, would have brought others." He hung his head guiltily.
Warren shook his head.
"Don't start blaming yourself for anything." He started to reach out to stroke the griffin's beak reassuringly, but the searing pain of his shoulderblade claimed him. Gritting his teeth, he put his hand on his shoulder. That action in itself exhausted him.
The silver griffin gazed at him worriedly.
"Where you hurt?" it asked, "I know little magic. No can heal, but dull pain, yes."
Warren vaguely motioned to his shoulder. Arno came around to his other side, looked over Warren's predicament. He sneered. Even to a griffin, this wound looked painful.
"Hmm... You must hurt. But I help." The griffin held up a taloned forefoot, whispered words of magic. The tip of his middle talon began to glow white. He turned to Warren once again.
"This may sting," he warned. Warren nodded his understanding. Gingerly, the griffin raised his glowing talon, barely touched the Mana Knight's wound.
The light spread, hissed, vanished. Warren felt his arm and shoulder go numb.
Breathing a sigh of relief, glad to be at least temporarily rid of his discomfort, Warren relaxed.
"I go back for others, now. If anyone help, wing-horse can."
The Mana Knight nodded again, and watched the griffin spread its wings and soar out of sight.
"Jehk!" Flammie rephrased, "You have a visitor who is almost as impatient as you are! I need to see Joch!"
Jehk appeared from behind a small forest of stalagmites.
"I told you, the Sage is– oh." Jehk's eyes widened when he saw the white dragon's huge head sticking through his doorway. "Flammie. I apologize. I was not aware that you had learned to speak."
Flammie rolled his eyes.
"I wasn't aware you still existed, really. I just guessed."
Joch tilted his head in an "I suppose you're right" look.
"I'll try that next time. Anyway, what brings you here?"
The white dragon tried to squeeze through the narrow (for him) cave entrance, but only succeeded in making the walls of the cavern shake. He gazed around the cave, trying to see as much as he could.
"I need your help – ooff! You see, there's this… uh-oh.… unicorn… rrrgh… that I've been… mmf, looking for… ow… have you… oh, no… seen her?" After which he added, "Um Joch, before you answer, I need your help on another matter."
Joch smiled knowingly.
"And what might that be?"
Flammie grinned sheepishly.
Arno flew toward the Lofty Mountains as fast as he could move. He nearly stopped flapping in surprise when he saw Flammie's tail sticking out of a cave at the top of one of the peaks.
Flying low over the wedged-in white dragon, he cackled his amusement.
Flammie, could still hear him from inside.
"Arno! I'm stuck! Can you help me get out?" he bellowed.
Still snickering to himself, the silver griffin flew close and took hod of the white dragon's tail.
"Alright," called Flammie from inside, "On three! One, two, three!"
Arno pulled on the white dragon's long tail, with all his might, straining his wings to the limit, but the dragon wouldn't budge.
"All come from eating too many juju fruits!" the griffin squawked.
Flammie snarled. "It all comes from not having front doors big enough!"
After much pulling and arguing and many, many more insults, the white dragon popped loose of Joch's cave, nearly falling over the edge of the small peak. Scrambling to get his balance, the white dragon turned his thoughts back to a more important matter, poked his head ever so carefully back into the sage's cave.
"Joch, have you seen a unicorn around here? A pure white unicorn with silver mane?" he gazed back into the cave at the bird-man. "Can you help us find her? It's imperative that we do. Warren was with her, and she got...."
Joch put his hands up.
"Slow, down, white dragon. Who is Warren?"
Flammie stopped, collected his thoughts. Of course Joch didn't know who Warren was, he had only seen the Mana Knight once, and then only nearly thirteen or fourteen years ago.
As quickly as he could, he told the sage of the youth, the rebirth of the Mana Sword, their journey to the pure land, to the Upper Land, about Drek, then finally of the battle with the strange, triangular ships.
Joch was serenely calm through all of it, at the end of Flammie's tale, he said simply,
"Drek, he is with you."
Flammie nodded toward the rest of the mountains.
"Somewhere out there, looking for Zerlina."
As if by cue, the sprite was there, in front of them both, hands on his hips.
"Having a nice conversation about me?"
Flammie jumped at the sprite's sudden appearance, knocked his head on the top of the cave door.
"Well," he said, rubbing his head, "It looks like we're all here...except Dirk."
At this, Drek grinned mischievously.
"I can bring him here, if ya want me to."
"No need, I'm here already." Dirk's raucous voice came from outside. Ducking under the white dragon's huge head, he came inside and leaned wearily against the wall.
"I was looking for that confounded horse when I looked up and saw your behind sticking out of this cave. That was very funny, by way. I don't think I've laughed so hard in months. Who is that?" he said when he saw Joch.
Flammie shook his head.
"No time to explain. Joch! Can you help us find her?"
The bird man walked over to the spot from which he had first emerged.
"I can do better than that, white dragon," he said, "I can show her to you."
He disappeared behind the huge stalagmites once again, then backed out, seemed to be persuading something.
Slowly, nervously, Zerlina emerged from behind the pointed rocks.
Warren's eyes fluttered open at the sound of a twig breaking. Instantly, awake, he reached with his good hand for the Mana Sword, seated inches away. His shoulder was still mostly numb, but he could feel the slightest twinge of throbbing pain beginning to seep through Arno's spell. Looking about as much as he dared. Nothing. No sign that anyone was around. Yet Warren had the distinct feeling that he was being watched.
"Who's there?" he called out, his voice barely more than a whisper.
But it was heard.
"A friend," said a soft, purring voice.
The voice's owner gracefully slid out of the bushes in front of Warren. He then knew why he had not heard footsteps.
Before him stood an old cat.
It walked upright, but silently and gracefully, as was the nature of his kind. His grey-blue fur looked as fine as silk, and his kind, wise face looked almost ancient. A mask of white fur ran around his black eyes, his long whiskers were curled and wavy with age. He wore a long leather robe, and his long, bushy tail now curved around his padded feet.
"You look like you could use one," he finished in a ragged, yet soft, purring, ancient voice. When Warren said nothing, he approached the wounded Mana Knight, knelt beside him.
"Now what happened to you?"
Warren looked up at the cat in wonderment. He had never, to his knowledge, heard of anyone remotely like this. But he brought himself quickly to reality, and answered.
But the cat saw the youth's struggle for words, and motioned for him to keep silent.
"Nevermind. It appears you are in no condition to say anything. There is no need. I believe I know who you are..." He saw the questioning look on Warren's face, and continued, "I knew someone like you, once. I'm not surprised. This was bound to happen sooner or later..."
Warren put his good hand up to stop the cat's babbling.
"Who are you?" he asked quietly, coldly.
The cat stopped, peered at the wounded knight before him, then smiled, a smile that, if it weren't for his obvious age and concern, would have looked almost sly.
"Neko," he said, "You may call me Neko."
Zerlina stared wide-eyed at he waiting friends, seemingly petrified with fear, starting at every sound she heard. She calmed slightly, though, at the sight of her friends.
"F...Flammie? Dirk? Drek?"
Drek shook his head, clicked his throat.
"Geez, she's freaked. What happened?"
The unicorn shivered.
"That… that creature it… jumped on me… I must have spooked..."
The sprite cut her off.
"Well, obviously you freaked out–"
"But where's Warren?" Flammie interrupted in turn.
He felt a tug from behind. Arno.
"Not now, Arno!" he snarled, and shook the silver griffin off.
The unicorn quieted, tried to clear her fear-clouded thoughts, tried to remember what had happened.
"When that last ship went down, the wolf inside of it bailed out, and landed on me. I… lost all train of thought then. I was so frightened. I couldn't fly with both Warren and that thing on my back. I started down. When I touched ground… oh, it's so hazy! I could hear them fighting behind me, I must have...." she stopped in sudden and total realization at what she had done.
She had reared.
And most likely thrown off anyone that was on her back.
"Oh, no. I...must have bucked them both off."
Flammie's eyes widened.
"That means he must be back in the Upper Land! We have to go find him!" The white dragon began to turn around, but Dirk's comment stopped him.
"But we don't even know where we were when we left him. That forest is huge. He could be anywhere."
Again, Arno tugged at Flammie's wing.
The white dragon snarled.
"Arno! Would you stop doing that?!" he bellowed, then turned back to everyone in the cave.
"Does anyone remember anything about the spot we were over? A specific tree, a clearing, anything?"
No one knew. Zerlina bowed her head in guilt.
"This is all my fault..." she started, and turned away.
That was when Dirk noticed.
"Zerlina, what's that on your back?" he asked, walked over to her.
A dark red stain stood out clearly on the unicorn's pure white fur. Dirk's eyes widened in sudden worry.
Drek walked to his side.
"What is it? What's the matter?"
Dirk's face twisted into a frown.
Drek's curious face changed to one of worry.
From outside, there came an aggravated shriek, and Flammie turned and growled at the griffin who had just stomped on his tail.
"Arno, for the last time–"
But the silver griffin would have none of it.
"No, Flim-Flam! You listen! That just what I been trying to tell you!" he screeched, "I thought maybe we left Warren back in Upper Land! While you search here, I went to go see. I found your Mana Knight, and came back to tell you, but you not listen! Warren is hurt, badly. He needs our help!"
Flammie, startled at the griffin's sudden speech, stepped away from the cave, let everyone else out. There was no more time for discussion, no more need for questions.
Without another spoken word, The companions, including Joch, climbed onto the mystical beast, and lifted off for the great Upper Land.