by Luna Manar
The Mana Knight stared down at his sword. You? he mouthed, then looked up at Malina, who was looking at him expectantly.
"The sword told me," he answered finally. When she seemed to accept that answer, they continued into Sage Joch's cave.
As usual, the sage was on his little platform, meditating or doing whatever it is Sages do. He turned as he felt their presence, widened his eyes and beckoned, feathered wings curling like hands.
"Come, friends. I have been expecting you. there is not much time," he hissed in a bird-like fashion. Brisbe and Malina ascended quickly to the platform.
On a table, before the sage, lay a Mana Seed. To be precise, the Shadow Seed from the Dark Palace. The two adventurers stared at it, than looked questioningly at Joch.
"For two years," Joch began, "We have lived in peace. We had believed that all of Thanatos's forces had been destroyed. The Mana Fortress had been deactivated and buried once more, the power it had taken from the world has slowly returned.
"Three days ago, however, Shade appeared before me, the Shadow Seed clutched in his dark claws. He seemed less menacing than usual, and at once I suspected something was wrong. Indeed, he was losing his power, because the Shadow Seed..." he gestured vaguely, "...is dying."
Malina, shocked, looked more closely at the seed. Indeed, the blackness that usually emanated from it had weakened and diminished in size. The hull was wrinkled and withered. Brisbe's face was an impenetrable mask.
"Something is drawing its power away from it," continued the sage, "and I'm not sure who. I didn't even know that it was possible, without breaking the seed open. I suspect, though, that it has something to do with another evil power, which brings us back to why you are here... " He turned back to the companions.
"I suppose you have been having strange dreams, Mana Knight – don't look so surprised. I have been having them too, and I do believe I know what they are and mean." The sage pointed to Brisbe's sword. "Hand it to me."
Joch had been the only other person whom the Mana Sword ever allowed to hold it. He reached for it now, not greedily or in anticipation, but with calm purpose. Brisbe hesitantly laid the weapon in Joch's feathery, taloned hands.
Nothing happened. Joch took the blade, holding it lengthwise, and carried it over to an odd-looking brass stand. Gingerly, he set it, point down, in the stand. Going back over to the table where the seed sat, he proceeded to collect objects and oddities, among them a blue, glowing orb about the size of an orange, an old, wooden bowl filled with water, and a small pouch. He brought them over to the stand where the Mana Sword now stood. Carefully, he placed them in a precise triangle; the bowl at his feet, the orb a foot or so away from the bowl, and the pouch directly adjacent the orb. The old bird-man walked again over to the table, gently picked up the Shadow Seed, and brought it to the triangle, placing it directly in the center.
Brisbe walked over and crouched next to the sage.
"What are you doing?" he asked curiously, eyeing his sword, which stood inert on the stand.
Joch smiled. "Going through the time-consuming process of asking your Mana Sword a question," he said, motioning for Malina to come nearer.
As Brisbe and Malina watched, Joch sighed, half-closed his eyes and seemed to enter a trance. Staring straight into the emerald "eye" of the Mana Sword, he passed his right hand over the blue orb. It began to glow white, humming softly. Joch then, with his left hand, reached over and into the small pouch, taking out a handful of crushed flower petals. These he used to connect the orb, bowl, pouch and Shadow Seed, forming what looked like a triangular wheel. The poured the leftover petals in his hand into the bowl of water. They floated on the surface of the water for a moment, then disappeared, as if they had never been there.
Taking no notice, Joch held his feathered palms inches away from either side of the Shadow Seed. Slowly, without touching it, he began to raise his arms. Slowly, the seed rose with them.
All the while he was looking into the emerald eye of the Mana Sword.
The orb began to shine, brighter and brighter, until Brisbe and Malina had to look away.
Joch still stared.
The orb hummed louder, and before long it was no longer a hum but a scream.
"Look into the eye!" screeched Joch over the scream, "Look into it or all this work will have been in vain!"
Brisbe forced his eyes to look past the glare of the orb, into the glittering eye of the Mana Sword.
With a roar that made the orb's scream seem like a squeak, the green magnificence of the sword's eye seemed to reach out and flood the room.
The three were no longer in the sage's cave.
Flammie was in ecstasy. He lounged, half-in, half-out of the beautiful pond outside Undine's cave, flapping his long white tail in and out of the waterfalls. He was too happy to notice that night had fallen, and his friends had still not called him back. He basked, fretless, in the silver moonlight.
Suddenly, a huge shadow passed swiftly over him, accompanied by a rush of wind that sent shivers down Flammie's spine. Behind him, the figure landed. The moon and stars were winked out by huge, leathery wings. The usually straight and quiet falls now splashed irregularly over iron-hard scales and spikes. Golden eyes gleamed with evil.
Before Flammie could turn around, the other dragon had him clutched in its talons, one huge, deadly, three-fingered hand gripping the white dragon's vulnerable belly threateningly, the other holding his wings in an ever-tightening grip to prevent him from fleeing.
Knowing there wasn't much he could do in such a position, Flammie didn't resist.
"What do you want?" he barked in dragon-tounge. The other dragon rumbled in what must have been a chuckle, then replied in kind,
"I am Reddeath, first commander of the Dark forces and new consort to the one you know as Thanatos," he whispered in a deep, menacing, hissing voice.
Flammie's eyes widened.
"Thanatos?" he spat, "Do you take me for a fool? Thanatos is dead!"
The red dragon behind him snarled. "No longer! He has returned from the depths of death to the mortal world once more, and I was sent to give a message to the Mana Knight.
"Since he isn't here, however, you will have to relay the message for me."
Flammie snorted. "Sorry," he growled, "I'm not a messenger boy."
"Besides," he added, "I can't speak human."
At this, Reddeath chuckled again. "Then we'll just have to write it out, for him, won't we? And you," he blew hot air on the white dragon's back, "Will be the postcard." There was a movement from the red dragon's hand.
Reddeath screamed in pain as he was thrown through the waterfall and into the hard stone wall behind it, shattering his shoulder spike. He was to say the least surprised at the white dragon's retaliation! After he had dealt that initial blow, Flammie turned on him in a blazing rage and swiped at him, then slammed him into the wall with his leathery tail. Roaring his anger and pain, the white dragon leapt upon his assailant, tusked mouth agape, ears laid back to expose two long, silver horns that the red ragon had never known existed. Realizing Flammie's intentions, Reddeath barely had time to force the white dragon's head away as it spewed it's deadly dragonflame.
Frustrated and frightened, Flammie blindly struck out with his tusks, attempting more out of instinct and panic than malice to gore the red dragon. One of his tusks brushed Reddeath's snout, and the red dragon reached up, out of desperation grasped Flammie's beak-like snout, attempting to force it shut. He succeeded in pushing the white dragon's head downward, and attempted to get out from under the creature. When Flammie again pushed him to the ground, he snapped heedlessly outward, entering a hysteric frenzy of fear, feeling helpless and trapped under the larger dragon's weight. One of of his stray strikes caught the white dragon's left ear, tearing its tip.
Flammie bellowed, loosened his grip slightly.
Reddeath stuck out with his hind feet, which up until now had been pinned to the ground.
He hit his target in the side, knocking Flammie over into the water. Taking his split second opportunity, he got up, lept from the water, and his wing was only scathed by a swipe from the white dragon's front claws. He pulled himself higher into the air, then turned around to see if he had been followed.
He saw only the white dragon crouching painfully, pitifully in the shallow water of the pond. It was then he realized how much damage he had dealt to the beast. The creature was torn up and battered so badly, it would be nearly impossible to fly. To try would be torture for the white dragon, as the areas around the base of his wings were slashed and his feathers were out of place.
Flammie lay on his torn belly in the water, glaring hatred up at Reddeath.
The red dragon smiled viciously. He could clearly see that his victim was dying. He could hear the white dragon's breath becoming heavy and ragged. The waters were no longer the crystal silver they had been only minutes ago, but clouded and tinged with red. The belly wound was a mortal one.
He thought for a moment. Should he go back and finish the job? His quarry was hardly in any condition to fight any longer.
But then, he supposed, Why take chances when the puffball will die anyway?
His decision made, Reddeath turned and sorely started back for his master's domain, leaving the white dragon to his pains.
Brisbe looked around in utter bewilderment. He was not in the Sage's cave anymore, he was sure of that, but he didn't have any idea where he was. All he could see was green – an eerie, glowing green that seemed to come from everywhere. He stood up from his crouched position, but he didn't seem to be standing on anything but an endless green void. Neither Joch nor Malina were in sight. He shook his head, trying to think. They had been standing just behind Joch, the roar, the blinding light...
Stare into the eye! He remembered Joch screaming at him. The eye of the Mana Sword. It was the same emerald green as the infinity surrounding him.
I must be in the sword's mind, Brisbe thought, Or it's in mine.
But what was he doing here? Sage Joch said he was asking the sword a question, but what was it? What was happening? Brisbe's mind reeled.
Then, there it was; a figure, barely visible, about a hundred feet (if measurements meant anything in this void) away. It was so faint, Brisbe wasn't sure whether he really saw it. It was like looking through an incredibly dense fog.
The figure approached slowly into view. It was a man, about six feet tall, clad in what must have been centuries old armor of some lost civilization. The man held an equally ancient helmet under his right arm. The blue cape donned only by Pandoran knights trailed slowly behind him. He looked for all the world like a knight from the myths of ancient civilization.
He kept approaching until Brisbe could see his face. Long red-brown hair fell across broad shoulders. Ice-blue eyes gleamed.
Brisbe caught his breath. Before him stood Serin.
The old Mana Knight smiled at his son. Their gazes locked. For a long, intense moment, ice-blue met ice-blue.
Serin's deep, baritone voice broke the chill silence.
"It's been a long time."
Brisbe nodded slowly. "Yes. The last time I saw you was at–"
"The falls," interrupted Serin, " Yes, I remember. You were so young, then. I would have stayed longer, were it not for Mana's power fading... " His voice trailed off. He spoke again after a long silence. "I've missed you, son."
Brisbe throat constricted. He remembered that day by the falls. That brief instance when he had seen his father for the first time, when he pulled the sword from its stone, the action that changed his life forever. He remembered his mother, the Mana Tree, who had stood so tall and strong in the center of the wondrous Pure Land, remembered how the Mana Fortress had reduced her to nothing more than splinters, remembered how she had told him of his heritage, his family, his role to play.
You are the last of the Mana Tribe.....
She had used the last of her strength to summon the full power of Mana.
And then she was gone. Brisbe was the last, the last stand, of the Mana Tribe. He had borne that burden alone, been through so much. He had lost so much. The sprite, his mother, Dyluck. He had no one to guide him, really. To help him deal with it...until now.
He placed his hand on his father's shoulder, if only to make sure this wasn't a trick, a dream. It was real. He was there.
His eyes glazed over, his breath caught in his throat. He couldn't fight back the feelings anymore. He knew that this would be the only time he could ever just let go. He threw his arms around his father, sobbing like a child.
"I missed you too, Dad," he choked, "I missed you, too."
Serin embraced his son comfortingly, stoking the long red-brown hair that was so much like his own.
"I'm here now, Brisbe."
Flammie winced with each flap of his enormous wings. He could see the Lofty Mountains looming just ahead. It was mid-morning, now, and he had been flying for nearly two hours, heading to the mountains to warn his friends of the grave danger they were all in. Normally it would have taken only a short time to reach the sage's cave, but he was in too much pain to fly fast. Reddeath had sent his message loud and clear.
The white dragon could see Sage Joch's cave, now. He flew straight toward it, using all his energy to stay airborne. He had to make it, warn Brisbe, warn Malina.
The evil had returned.
Brisbe and Serin stood facing each other. Brisbe had regained his composure, and had spent what could've been minutes or hours relating to his father the past two years, ending with the incident with Geshtar, the sword, the journey to Joch's cave, the dying Mana Seed.
"...then I came here, and saw you," he finished. He sighed and stared at Serin. "Is it always going to be this way?" he asked suddenly.
Serin, who had been listening patiently until now, tilted his head to one side.
"I don't understand the question," he said, his brow furrowed.
"It seems like every time something terrible happens, I'm the one that has to deal with it. Thanatos, the Empire, the Scorpion Army.....All of it!" Brisbe started to pace. "And just when you think you're going to win hands down, some catastrophe happens and you lose it all." He paused a moment, gathering his thoughts. "We defeated Thanatos by the skin of our teeth, and at what cost? The sprite, my mother, the last Mana Beast, Dyluck. How many people have we watched die in these wars? I've lost count! It seems like everyone I love is disappearing!" He ran his hand through his bangs. He thought of Malina. Would she be next?
As if reading his thoughts, Serin said, "You still have Malina."
Brisbe shook his head. "But will she be next? I don't know if I can let her go with me, wherever it is I'm going. I–" he stopped himself abruptly, not having the courage to finish his sentence. He didn't have to. Serin finished it for him.
"You love her too much?" he smiled. "Now that's one thing you are going to have to admit to yourself, Brisbe."
Brisbe shot his father a look that was everything short of angry. "How could I? She loved Dyluck so much. I could never betray him..." he stopped, he was going to say something else, but he couldn't remember it.
Serin shook his head. "You wouldn't be betraying him. He asked you to take care of Malina. What you're doing isn't fair to yourself and it's not fair to him."
”Besides," he added, "She likes you."
Brisbe shook his head again. "But what if I let him down? What if she...doesn't survive because I did something wrong? I know I must have some sort of job ahead of me, because a dying Mana Seed isn't just an everyday occurrence! In fact," he added harshly, "What is going on? Why did the Mana Sword call me? And why are you here? You're supposed to be..." he couldn't spit out the last words.
"Dead?" put in Serin. "Oh, but I'm not dead. Well, I died, but my essence is here," he gestured to the surrounding green void, "In the sword, along with every other Mana Knight that has ever existed. Even though you weren't aware of it, son, we were all there with you when you lost your mother, defeated the Mana Fortress, fought Thanatos. With the Mana Sword's help, we summoned you here."
Brisbe stared, dumbfounded. Serin continued.
"Mana is in great danger. Something is draining the power of the Mana Seeds, but it's not the fortress. We don't know what it is, but it's already started to affect the world. Didn't you notice something strange about the mountains when you first got here? If you had paid attention, the clouds that generally envelop the peaks in darkness are gone. We don't know what's causing it, but you can find out. Together, we can put a stop to it, I'm sure of it. " He paused for a moment. " And you're going to need Malina's help. Perhaps a few others. The point is, you must act quickly, or all may be lost!"
The two Mana Knights stood, staring at each other for long moments. Finally, Brisbe approached his father.
"Alright," he said simply, "Alright, I'll do it."
Serin smiled. "I know you will, son. I know you will."
Brisbe returned the smile. He hugged his father briefly, then turned to leave, somehow knowing that all he had to do was think it, and he would be back in the sage's cave.
"Bye," he said a little sorrowfully, a little foolishly, not having anything better to say, looking behind him one last time. Serin nodded.
"Good luck, Brisbe."
Brisbe nodded back, turned and, his face resolute, walked into the emerald mist.
The next thing he was aware of was a rough shaking and Malina's voice.
"Brisbe! Wake up! Are you alright, Brisbe?"
He sat up groggily and looked up to see Malina and Joch bending over him, looks of concern on their faces.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. What about you?" he asked, standing up.
"We were knocked out cold when that green flash hit us," explained Malina, " It was sunrise when we woke up. You were still out for another two hours. Joch said that you were actually in the sword's eye. What happened in there?" she finished hurriedly. Joch was silent the whole time.
Brisbe remembered what his father had said, something must be done now. He took Malina firmly by the shoulders.
"I'm fine. What happened in the sword's eye would take too long to explain. We have to call Flammie now!" He turned and began to pull Malina toward the entrance of the cave, completely forgetting Joch, who stood quietly, understandingly, observing them.
A screech and a cracking sound rocked the cave. Stalactites and rocks came crashing down from the ceiling. Joch would have become bird-man-kabob if it hadn't been for Malina knocking him out of the way of a falling stalactite.
Brisbe, jumping deftly out of the way of a plummeting boulder, wondered worriedly if they were under attack.
The shaking stopped as abruptly as it had started. A soft moan came from outside the cave entrance. Something had crashed into the mountain, Brisbe realized, but what kind of creature on wings could cause a rending that severe?
Brisbe's stomach twisted as his mind gave him the answer. Only something of enormous size could've caused that. Something the size of...
Of a dragon.
Brisbe ran for the entrance, already knowing and dreading what he would find outside.