by Luna Manar
Both Neko and Warren looked to the sky when they heard wingbeats.
"Well, my friend," the old cat said, "It appears your friends have found you."
About time, he thought, Arno's spell is wearing off.
Indeed, his shoulder was throbbing painfully again, not so much as it had been before, but enough to make Warren wince now and again.
The white dragon, Arno, and Zerlina appeared from over the trees, carefully landed near Warren and the cat.
As soon as Flammie permitted, Drek jumped off of the white dragon's back and ran to his wounded friend.
"Warren! What happened to ya?" he called, completely ignoring the old cat crouching near. He was soon joined by Dirk and the ever shaking Zerlina, who still looked about for any sign of danger. Joch followed slowly behind.
Warren tried to answer, but his strength was at its limit. He could barely keep conscious.
Suddenly the silver griffin's spell faded completely, and the fiery pain again shot through the Mana Knight's shoulder and arm. But he was too tired to even cry out. He shuddered, winced, and tried to keep awake.
In an instant, Joch was next to him, pushing the others away.
"He can't answer you, young sprite. He's too exhausted," he told Drek. His brow furrowed in concern.
Dirk stood behind him.
"Can you help him?" he asked, peering over the sages shoulder. He sneered. A long, jagged slash ran from Warren's shouldeblade and halfway down his back. Dirk shivered with the thought of what the Mana Knight must have lived through that night.
Joch, for the first time any of them had ever seen do so, growled in frustration and slammed a feathered fist into the tree. Then regaining his composite, stolid visage, he sighed.
"If we had gotten here earlier, perhaps, but not now. I am not a healer. In this case, I can do nothing!" he snarled in frustration once again.
Zerlina shook her head low in despair.
"This is all my fault. If I hadn't lost it up there, this would never have happened." She gazed guiltily at Warren, who lay against the bloodstained tree. What could she do?
The cat, who had been standing idly for the past few minutes, spoke up.
"It is my knowledge – tell me if I am incorrect – that unicorns have the power to heal, do they not?" He gazed at the disheartened Zerlina.
All eyes gazed at him, all expressions were different. Joch's was one of complete impassion. Dirk's was of obvious surprise, Drek's of excitement, Flammie's of knowing, Arno's of total confusion.
Drek recognized the old merchant cat instantly.
"Neko! What are you doing here?" he asked, "And what's with ya? How come you look so old?"
Flammie inwardly kicked himself. He hadn't told the sprite how long it had been since the battle with the Mana Beast.
But Neko only chuckled.
"It comes with time, little one. And you I have not seen in a long, long time.
"But back to my question," he continued, "Do you have healing powers, unicorn?"
Zerlina looked up, then at Warren, then back to the cat. Did she have the strength?
"Yes," she said after a long pause, "But if I heal him, I'd feel his pain while the spell was in progress… I don't know if I'd be able to stand it," she said sorrowfully.
But Dirk stepped forward, suddenly angry.
"You have to try!" he said commandingly, a dangerous edge in his voice, "If he dies, then no one will be left to fight Donovan's power! We've already seen what he can do. Without Warren, we might as well lay down our weapons and discard our dragons and beasts and defend ourselves with sticks! Zerlina, if you don't try, so help me it'll be your grave we're digging, not his!"
The unicorn shook her head.
Now it was Drek's turn.
"Yes you can! Not only is he the Mana Knight, he's our friend! I don't know him that well, but I knew his father, and believe me, the last thing he would do is give up on you! Heck, if it weren't for him, that wolf-thing would've probably taken you prisoner or torn you to bits if it got the chance! Don't ya get it? He saved your butt! You owe him your life!"
Zerlina only shot back,
"As if you don't! I don't see you making any move to help!"
Dirk was sick of this whole thing, stepping in once again, he snarled,
"Shut up, both of you! Zerlina, if you don't help, there will be no Mana Knight to argue over! And no knight means we've already lost! A lot of people around here seem to think this is some kind of game, where if you just wait around and hope for a miracle, it'll eventually happen and we'll all live happily ever after. Well, I'll tell you this; In this game, there are no rules, no limits. In this kind of game, people get hurt! In this game, we have to help each other, because there are no points for second best!"
This said, he stepped back, looked at the unicorn, motioned to the injured Warren.
"It's your choice. Make your decision a good one."
Zerlina warred with herself, her mind a tangle, torn between helping her friend and the knowledge that if she did, the very shock of it could kill her.
But other voices prodded her.
He saved your butt! You owe him your life!
In this kind of game people get hurt.
Don't ya get it?
There are no points for second best!
She raised her drooping head, her decision made. Dirk was right. There were no points for second best. If the Mana Knight died here, not only would they have lost the battle and their friend, but she would have to live with the knowledge that it was her hesitation that meant his death. That pain would be worse than any physical pain she could possibly experience. That would be what would truly kill her.
She wasn't about to let that happen.
She advanced toward Warren. Joch beckoned her.
"Hurry! There is not much time. He's barely breathing."
Quickening her steps, the unicorn walked to stand in front of the Mana Knight.
Sighing deeply, readying herself for the pain she would endure, Zerlina relaxed her muscles, closed her eyes, lowered her head so that her horn was level with Warren's heart.
She called the magic to her mind. Her horn glowed blue.
Warren's breathing stopped.
But the magic was already in action. The blue light from Zerlina's spiraled horn shimmered, hissed, expanded. It enveloped both the unicorn and the Mana Knight, growing brighter and larger, causing the rest of the companions to back up.
Zerlina's body screamed with pain. She forced herself to stand her ground, despite the searing agony that wracked her body. Standing as if fighting off some huge beast, she waited for the spell to complete its course.
Finally, the light diminished, the pain faded.
Warren shuddered and awakened, then gasped for breath. The pain was gone. He could move his arm again. The wound was mended. It was the first time in a long while that he could breath without feeling intense pain.
Zerlina fell to her knees, then collapsed to the ground.
Briana wrestled with the ropes that bound her hands. How could he do this to her? The second she had stepped into the doorway, two werewolf guards had attacked her, bound her. It was then she had seen her own brother, before her, turn to her and cackle in amusement. He had borne the dark cape of evil. He had looked at her calmly, then ordered his guards to take her to a holding cell.
The room was completely empty. Made out of solid stone, with a thick steel door, there was no way to get out, even if she did get loose from her bonds. She couldn't believe it. Her own brother, who, while she would admit could be a bit secretive at times, she had never imagined could ally himself to such evil as she had seen him planning. She would never have guessed that he was learning from Thanatos's knowledge book!
But it was clear that there would be no talking him out of this one. He was too obsessed, to absorbed..
The lock to the door clicked. Briana looked up, fearful of one of the vicious-looking werewolves.
But instead, before her, stood Donovan. He looked down upon her stoically, a hint of a smile on his face.
"So, you finally got up the heart to follow me. I'm surprised you didn't sooner," he said silkily.
Briana's eyes welled up with tears.
"I trusted you," she said coldly, "Why? Why have you pursued this Thanatos's evil practice?"
Donovan stared at her.
"How did you know? Who told you?"
"One of your repulsive wolf-things that brought me here. He practically bragged about it."
Donovan's amber eyes narrowed. He had meant for this to be kept secret. But, the harm was done. There wasn't much he could do about it, now.
"Well, now, dear sister. Now that you know, I might as well make the rest of my… what you might call an insidious plan..." he chuckled for a moment at the reference of the phrase, for what he planned was rather insidious. Control over Mana. That was something few dared try.
"Though you might not know it, Briana, Mana has revived itself. In fact, not only that, but the it has come to my knowledge that the Mana Sword lives, and that another Mana Knight now walks the land..he has more than meddled in my affairs once too many times already.
"You see, my sister, I have read the magical language in which the ancient wizard speaks, and have found it an intriguing notion… world power… but it is not world power I seek, you see. What I seek is beyond that of this world. It is the power of life… I wish to control Mana itself!"
He ignored Briana's shocked gaze and continued,
"I have learned much from the wizard's… autobiography if you will, and have found his knowledge of the ancients enticing! They believed that they could control Mana if only they could find its source! Briana, don't you see? If I can find this source, and harness it, I could go to realms beyond this world! Think of it! All the knowledge in this plane of existence, perhaps others! I am not evil, dear sister, I have no wish to control. Only to know..."
But Briana shook her head.
"It may not be you that's evil, Donovan, but what you are doing to gain this knowledge is! You don't care about others? About your own sister? And you're one of the smartest people I know, anyway! You have more than you need, already. Why can't you be content with that? Why this?" She gestured with her head to the cell around her.
Donovan shook his head.
"Content? How can I be? I now know that there is so much to learn, to know, to possess! No, Briana, the world as it is does not interest me. Only what's beyond it does. You can help me, we can work together, share the knowledge..."
At that Briana snarled.
"You are mad! Mad to think that I'd ever participate in this… this knowledge hunt! "
Donovan turned in sudden anger, made a motion as if he were about to strike his sister… but stopped. He couldn't. Despite his anger at her comment, his general stolidness, he could not harm his own sister. But he was still furious, to her, he shouted.
"Then you will stay here until you think otherwise!"
He turned and left, slamming the steel door shut behind him.
Walking down the corridor, he thought,
Perhaps I am mad, sister, but then, I can't think of one person like me who isn't.
Zerlina's eyes fluttered open. At first, she wasn't quite sure about where she was, then it came back to her. The spell, the intense pain, the relief when it was over.....
She looked about. Was she still alive?
"Hey! She's awake! C'mon, you guys! Hurry up! She's awake!" called Drek's shrill voice.
The unicorn was suddenly aware of four other people coming toward her. At first, she couldn't see much, but soon she realized it was night, as her eyes adjusted.
"Finally!" came the sprite's voice again, "Y'know, 'Lina, when you're up an' about, you're really cool ta watch, but asleep – don't take this personally, but – you're the most boring thing I've ever seen, an' I had to watch ya' the whole day! Y'know, though, it's kinda funny when your feathers twitch when you snor-mmf!" He was cut off when Neko put his paw over the sprite's mouth. Drek looked up, aggravated.
"Nkvu!" he protested.
But Zerlina wasn't paying attention to the sprite's babble. She slowly stood up, and in doing so found herself face-to-face with Warren.
She lowered her head, suddenly feeling guilty.
But he only reached out with his right hand – the hand that had been useless hours before – and stroked the unicorn's muzzle.
"Don't be," he said, "It wasn't your fault – it wasn't really anybody's. You couldn't help it if you were frightened."
But Zerlina only huffed,
"If I hadn't thrown you off, it would never have happened. You wouldn't have had to endure that. It could have been prevented! You very nearly died!"
But Warren shook his head.
"But I didn't, Zerlina, and if that hadn't happened… well, there's someone I would never have seen. There's a story that I wouldn't have heard."
Not comprehending, the unicorn looked up, a quizzical look on her face.
"I don't understand."
The Mana Knight grinned, said nothing.
At this point, though, Drek managed to wriggle free of Neko's grasp, ran up to Warren, smiling.
"Oo, oo! Can I tell her? Puleeeese??? I promise to leave out all the embarrassing parts!"
Within half an hour, Drek had spun Warren's story about his night with his father (with a few token corrections), and by the time he was finished, he sat down, exhausted. Even he didn't know he could talk that much.
Dirk, who had stayed silent through most of it (aside from a few snorts and snickers of amusement), now slept next to Arno, who slumbered as well.
"Well, that's about it… geez, am I wired. Got any place comfortable around here?" the sprite said with a yawn. Aside from being a boring afternoon and evening with nothing to do except watch Zerlina cough z's and listen to Warren's discussion about the previous night, it had been a pretty nerve-wracking day.
Neko started walking toward the forest.
"If you'll come this way, My home is not far from here. You can rest there."
Drek immediately perked up and ran to walk with the old merchant cat.
"But I thought your house was up by the Water Palace."
"Time changes many things."
"You can say that twice. The last time I met you, you were a lot peppier. Now, it's like you're an old wise man or somethin'."
Neko chuckled and purred to himself while the others woke Dirk and Arno.
"He said I did what?" Drek cried shrilly.
"For the third time, he said you said you liked Gnome's style."
The sprite crossed his arms and sulked as he followed Neko down the wooded trail.
"I'm not denying it, but I won't admit it. What else did Bris tell ya' about me? He better've not said anything bad, 'cause I'll have you know that he wouldn't be where he is… well, that's wrong. Where he is is his own fault, but he wouldn't be where he was if it weren't for me."
They had been traveling behind Neko for almost twenty minutes (minus Flammie, Zerlina, and Arno, who had flown off to find a place of their own to sleep), trailing behind the old cat, each carrying on their own conversation, Joch and Dirk discussing the plans for the next day, when the bird-man would return home to his cave, and the other three would start looking for Donovan's stronghold. Drek was busying himself asking questions and questions and more questions about Brisbe and what he had said the night before. Warren, on the other hand, was running out of answers.
Finally, they approached Neko's house. Drek stared at it. It looked exactly like the one the old cat used to have, in every detail. Even the clearing, which Neko had turned into a yard, looked exactly the same. One tree stood in the center of a huge garden. A stone pathway led to the door. It was as if he had just picked his house up and moved it to the Upper Land.
Letting everyone else step inside first, Drek took one moment longer to survey his surroundings. Then he, too followed the rest inside.
Donovan paced. His werewolf pilots had not returned from their mission. Could it be they had been defeated? By a boy with the Mana Sword and a couple odd friends? It seemed impossible, but, the power of life had its ways, was probably not about to let Donovan take control over it easily. He called for a werewolf servant. He would not waste the lowly werewolves on the Mana Knight any longer. He would get the best of the best he had;
Warren awoke early that morning. He sat up in bed and looked about. In the bed next to him snored Drek, the sprite's mouth wide open and literally honking with each breath. Neko was seated at his table, sleeping upright in the chair.
Dirk and Joch were up and standing at either window of the house.
Groggily getting up, he plodded over to stand next to Dirk, looking out the side window. He suddenly took note of the two daggers that the green-haired youth held in either hand.
"What's going on?" he asked, suddenly awake.
Dirk turned around and shushed him.
Warren was silent. He listened, for anything, anything out of the ordinary.
In fact, just that. Nothing. No birds singing, none of the usual sounds of morning. He hadn't heard anything this silent since his encounter with the plantoid beast in the Ice Country. It was like the planet was waiting for death.
Then, he heard what Dirk must have been talking about. A soft, low hiss – like the exhaling of a huge animal. Then the softer, lighter sound of the creature (whatever it was) inhaling. Then it stopped, as if holding its breath. There was something behind the house.
Warren carefully walked over to the sleeping Neko, tapped him lightly on the shoulder. The cat awoke with a startled purr. He looked questioningly up at Warren, who put a finger to his lips.
Standing silently, the old cat let Warren guide him to the window, where he, too listened for the sound.
To Neko it came more clearly. His blue-grey ears swiveled, trying to determine the exact location of the sound. Indeed, it was behind his house, probably right next to the back wall, waiting around the corner.
Warren quietly crept over to where Joch stood, staring out the window. He looked at the bird-man's eyes, which were fixed on something outside.
Without looking at the Mana Knight, Joch pointed to one of the bushes.
Warren stared at the bush Joch pointed to, straining to see behind it. For an instant, he thought he saw movement.
"What is it?"
Joch shook his feathered head.
"I don't know. It looks like a werewolf, but the color isn't right. It's....not as grey. It's more yellowish, and brighter."
Dirk spoke up.
"Well, we can't just sit here, and wait for them to attack. One of us has to go out there, draw them out."
"But who?" asked Neko. Obviously not him.
"Me," said Dirk in answer, "I'll go."
Warren shook his head and started to protest.
"Dirk, it's not that simp–"
But the green haired youth would have none of it.
"Warren," he interrupted, "It's a well-known fact that my family lives fast and dies hard. I've been in a couple scrapes like this, and, no offense, but you haven't. I can play the decoy pretty darn well. Now why don't you stop your bumbling and wake up the little Magi in dreamland and we'll get this show on the road?"
Not able to argue, Warren walked up to the snoring sprite, lightly shook him.
Drek woke up with an incredibly loud snort that could've just possibly woken the dead, and it certainly caused the creature outside to shift positions readily. That's when Joch noticed.
"There's two of them!"
Drek caught Warren's disapproving gaze, was about to go into his normal 'I didn't do it' trip, before Warren clapped his hand over the sprite's mouth and told him quietly but firmly to shut up.
Quickly he whispered everything that was happening and told the nodding Drek to keep a good spell ready, in case things should get nasty. Drek nodded his understandment again before his mouth was released.
Dirk was already standing at the edge of the door, daggers in hand, ready to jump out into the open. Joch came up to him.
"There is a spell I know that will protect you from a few hits. It will only take a few seconds."
Dirk nodded his approval, and Joch closed his eyes.
Tracing a wide circle in the air, he murmured words of magic, paused for a moment, and added on strange word to the end, the pointed at Dirk.
A golden-hued sphere encircled the youth and silently enveloped him, then split into numerous stars and dissipated.
Dirk looked to Warren, who walked to stand behind him, and to Drek, who was ready in perfect spell-casting position near the door.
Dirk looked confused.
"'Let's?' I though we had agreed on this, knight."
"You said your family lives fast and dies hard. It appears we have that in common."
Dirk shook his head and rolled his eyes, a slight grin crossing his face.
"Don't scare me like that, Warren."
The two snickered, then opened the door and cautiously stepped out.