by Luna Manar
Brisbe skidded to a halt at the cave entrance, looking around frantically. He stopped and stared in terror. One side of the cave had sunken in from the impact of the creature who now lay in a crumpled heap below it. The Mana Knight ran up to Flammie as fast as his feet could move him. He stopped in front of the white dragon, trying desperately to waken him.
"Flammie! Flammie, are you alright? What happened? Wake up, Flammie!" he screamed, shaking the dragon's snout (as much as he could). In an instant Malina was beside him, trying in the same panicked manner to rouse the dragon.
Flammie opened one eye. There was a small sigh of relief from Malina, but Brisbe knew Flammie was grievously hurt, and he needed to know what happened. He looked up into the white dragon's dark blue eyes, and caressed his fur gently.
"What happened, Flammie? Who did this? What's going on?" He knew the dragon couldn't answer in his language, but Flammie had a way of making things known.
In an attempt to answer, the dragon weakly tried to stand. On trembling legs, he managed to raise himself to a crouch, then to all-fours.
It was then the extent of his injuries became fully apparent.
Three long, gaping slashes ran across the white dragon's vulnerable belly. One ear was torn and twitching in pain. Numerous scratch and bite marks were visible on his sides, wings, and tail. His fur was matted from the struggle, indeed, in some places, gone. A thin red streak ran across his brow and along his snout. He was in pitiful condition indeed.
But it was obvious what had done this, if not who. Only another dragon could inflict such wounds. But why would another dragon attack Flammie? If it was after the Mana Knight, why didn't it just attack him? It didn't make any sense.
At a loss, Brisbe stroked the dragon's battered snout, doing his best to comfort the creature. He wished he understood Flammie's draconian language, now more than ever. What did this mean? He turned to face the teary eyed Malina and the stolid-faced Joch. Malina only shook her head. Brisbe's pleading gaze moved to Joch.
"What does this mean?" he repeated out loud, not really expecting an answer. He got one, anyway.
Joch stepped forward. "Let me talk to him," he offered. Brisbe stared at the sage in surprise.
"You know how to speak–" He faltered. Joch nodded.
"I can speak all the languages on earth, from the songs of the birds, to human language, to dragon-speak. I will understand anything that Flammie has to say." He walked over to stand before the battered creature, who had once more slumped to the ground.
Brisbe carefully instructed Flammie to tell what happened, in dragon-talk, to Joch. The white dragon nodded feebly.
With a great sigh, Flammie began to recite the incident in a series of grunts, snarls, whines, growls and moans that were the dragon language. But they were nothing but meaningless blabber to all present but Joch. The falls, the dragon Reddeath, the message, the fight...
The message part was where Joch's eyes widened. He intently listened to the rest of the tale, absorbing everything.
When Flammie was finished, he heaved another great sigh and again collapsed into a heap.
Joch turned slowly to the Mana Knight and Malina, shocked at what he had just heard. Now he understood why the Shadow Seed was dying! The knowledge horrified him. After what seemed to Brisbe an agonizing eternity, the sage spoke.
"Mana Knight," he said simply, "We have a serious problem."
Reddeath flew swiftly over the darkened lands of the abandoned city. He rubbed his now un-spiked shoulder ruefully. His mission was more difficult than he had anticipated. He should have just quickly killed the white dragon and left him there for the Mana Knight to find. He had no idea that such an innocent looking animal could react so viciously! Or had so many weapons he had not known about. When he had dealt the creature that first blow across the belly, the dragon should have just crumpled over like most of the cowardly mammalian dragons and put up no resistance. At least, that's what his colleagues back at the dark keep had told him. The liars. He would see them duly punished for their dishonesty.
The white dragon had proven much stronger than he looked. As big as Reddeath, perhaps longer, the dragon had turned on his assailant and roared. The falls themselves had shook with the vibration. Reddeath, momentarily disoriented, had let down his guard. The white dragon had landed a swift and punishing blow with it's tail on the red dragon's side, which even now throbbed painfully.
Finally, in the end, with a gored face, a partly torn wing, a throbbing side, and a broken shoulder spike, Reddeath had left his nemesis, torn and bleeding.
He made a mental note to be more careful next time he was around a white puffball. He had not succeeded in killing the white dragon. He had barely escaped with his life. But then again, he thought, the creature was seriously wounded. It was as good as dead anyway. It couldn't possibly fly to seek help – could it?
Reddeath knew little about mammalian dragons (except now never to underestimate them). He knew not their capabilities.
He hoped his master would forgive him. Thanatos was not one for second chances. He banked and glided toward a dark tower in the middle of the forgotten city.
Brisbe and Malina stared at Joch.
"What kind of problem?" Malina asked. Joch lowered his eyes and appeared to consider if telling them was truly the right thing to do.
"Flammie was attacked by a red dragon," he began, "That dragon was commanded to kill him and leave him for you to find. Fortunately, the dragon had not expected the resistance he got. Flammie forced the other dragon, who said his name was Reddeath, to flee, but not before sustaining some serious battering himself. Flammie says that Reddeath revealed he was under command of Thanatos."
Brisbe frowned at that.
"Thanatos? how is that possible? Thanatos is dead! Both Malina and I saw him explode! How could he be alive now?"
"We thought Geshtar was dead, too," Malina cut in. "He is obviously not. It might not have been difficult for Thanatos to make it look like he had been destroyed."
The Mana Knight considered this for a moment. Thanatos did seem to like disappearing tricks. But what could he be trying to do? The Mana Fortress had been disabled and dismantled by the Tasnican forces after the Mana Beast had been destroyed. Together it was a deadly weapon, but in a hundred pieces it was nothing more than a worthless hunk of metal. Its pieces had been buried and were now under constant guard by Tasnican forces and elemental-controlled beasts. What was Thanatos, if he was truly alive, up to?
If he had found a way to drain the Mana Seeds, however, he might have found a force even more mighty than the Mana Fortress itself. Obviously something had to be done.
And how? Flammie was obviously incapable of flight. How could they possibly get anywhere? And what about Flammie? Would he be alright?
As if reading his thoughts, Joch said,
"You will need a mode of transportation if you are to investigate this matter. I have an old friend who can help both you and your white dragon. I will send word to her immediately."
With that, he turned to the cave entrance and went inside, muttering to himself.
Reddeath stalked into his master's chambers. Ducking to get under the huge doorway, he found his superior standing at the base of an ancient artificial pool. Sensing the dragon's presence, Thanatos turned to face the looming creature.
"Report," he said in a rasping, croaking voice. It was if the evil wizard had just returned from the grave.
Indeed, thought Reddeath, that is where many say he came from. Bowing his head to his master, he quickly saluted and laid flat his usually raised scales in a show of subordinance.
"A difficult task, master Thanatos, but I believe I have succeeded in it." He smiled reassuringly.
But Thanatos remained silent. Reddeath was sure he could just make out the features behind the skull mask, cold, staring, probing. He could almost feel the wizard's brow furrow at him.
"'Believe' you have succeeded?" the man croaked.
Reddeath continued to look triumphant. "He fought back more viciously than expected, sir, forced me to retreat, but not before I dealt him more than one deadly blow, sir. When I left him, he was almost certainly incapable of traveling far. He's as good as dead anyway," he explained.
Thanatos growled beneath his skull helm.
"You fool!" he roared, "'Almost certainly' isn't good enough! That was a white dragon! If there is anything a white dragon knows, it's honor and tenacity! They don't give up until they're dead! He could've warned the Mana Knight of my return by now! Now get out there and find him! And destroy him this time! Do not come back until you do. If I hear you have failed, it will be your head, comprende?"
The red dragon drew back in alarm. He had never seen Thanatos this furious. Why did it matter so much that this fool dragon was dead? Not that it mattered. He knew he was supposed to follow his master's orders without question. He bowed his head and turned to leave. He tried to look as hurt as possible, though he knew Thanatos had no compassion in his heart whatsoever.
But before he exited, he again heard his master's voice.
The dragon turned.
"Yes, master Thanatos?"
"Forgive me for my outburst. I used you to get some relief."
No kidding, thought Reddeath. Again he was surprised. Thanatos had never apologized for anything before. More likely he was gaining the dragon's confidence to avoid a betrayal.
"May I ask what is troubling you, master?" hissed the red dragon soothingly.
Thanatos smiled beneath his mask. "Nothing is troubling me, my pet," he lied, "It's more apprehension. I suppose I have kept my secret from you too long," he sighed and gestured to the artificial spring. The dragon came nearer to the pool and looked in. All he could see was water and the bottom of the large pool.
Then, with a strange murmur from Thanatos, the water shimmered and turned dark. It was if the crystal clear liquid had only been an illusion. But now, looking deep into the murky water, he saw–
Absolutely nothing. In fact, there was a spot in the brackish pool where it turned into utter darkness. That spot seemed so empty, so devoid of energy, it was dizzying to look at it. Reddeath's mind could not comprehend it. It was, literally, nothing. It was frightening, even to a dragon such as himself.
"What is....that?" he asked uncertainly.
Thanatos gave a low chuckle.
"That," he said plainly, "Is Mana's doom."
While Joch was in his cave, the Mana Knight and his companion contemplated Flammie's situation worriedly.
"Isn't there anything you can do?" asked Brisbe for the hundredth time. "You have healing powers..." He shook his head naively. He knew little about magic.
Malina, too, shook her head. "I wish I could. If he were human or dwarf or sprite or...something else, maybe. He's not though. He's a dragon and I doubt even Luka could heal something as large as he is. Plus, I haven't used my magic much in the past two years. I may be a bit rusty. I wouldn't want to make a mistake." She stared helplessly at the now-sleeping white dragon.
Flammie couldn't die. Not now. He was the last anyone had ever seen of his kind.
But it seemed so hopeless. The dragon's fur was no longer white, but a dull, sickly beige. The grass of the ledge that the creature rested upon bore dark stains that were growing larger.
But even in his deadly dilemma, the white dragon bore a strange, striking beauty. If not beauty on the outside, then beauty of strength, courage, and, even, power.
But if Flammie didn't get help soon, all that beauty would be lost.
Joch called out from the entrance to his cave.
"I have contacted my ally. She will be here shortly."
Both Brisbe and Malina turned.
"She?" asked Malina curiously. Then realization dawned on her. Of course! A healer! A cleric of some kind.
"Yes," answered Joch, "She."
"Who is she? What is her name?" Malina pushed.
"Her name is Aldora," said Joch, surprised and a bit annoyed at Malina's sudden interest. "She will be approaching from the north. She should be here any minute now."
Brisbe stepped in, confused.
"The north?" he asked, "But how can she climb straight up the side of the mountain? To do that she would have to...." He stopped, smiled. He turned to Malina. "I think Flammie's going to be fine, if what I'm thinking is right. It would explain how she could heal a creature as large as a dragon."
Malina tilted her head, not understanding. "What? What do you mean? Who is Aldora, then? How can she –"
Malina was cut off in mid-sentence by a loud, high-pitched, singing call from above and a sudden rush of air that would have knocked her off her feet if Brisbe hadn't caught her. The cry split the air again and this time a shadow passed over them and down over the eastern side of the mountain.
Malina looked up and stared at where the shadow had been.
"What was that?"
Her answer came in the form of rhythmic wing beats and equally timely rushes of air. The "shadow" rose slowly from the side of the mountain and into full view.
Feathered wings beat rhythmically and majestically. The sun sparkled off of fine fur and scales. Beautiful, deadly talons glistened in the same sunrays. Intelligent, stubborn, gleaming green eyes gave the shadow its true life.
Malina pushed away every other image of Aldora she might have had from her mind.
Aldora was a dragon.
Geshtar tapped his fingers on the stone in frustration. He had a decision to make.
Two choices. He didn't like either one.
Oh, how did it slip through my fingers? he thought, Three years ago I had it all. Power. Respect. Wealth. And then that fool Thanatos had to go and ruin it! He put a hand to his temples. Now that lunatic is back in business and has his mind set on the same drat thing. Control of the world. How stupid can you get? Even I learned it was foolish to try to reach such a goal. The hard way.
Everyone thinks I'm dead and those who know I'm not see me as an outcast. Now all I have is a small handful of soldiers and a lot of wishful thinking. And a white dragon who can't tell a supply wagon from a comfortable bed.
Geshtar sulked. What could he do? There were only two things he could do and live. One was to go under and watch the world of opportunity fly by, without him, or attempt to aid the last person on earth who would ever want his help in return for a bit of the credit.
The latter choice would likely get him killed.
But, it was no more horrifying than to lay low and never taste power again.
One of Geshtar's soldiers approached him.
"Have you decided what we are to do, yet, Sir?"
Geshtar shook his head. "No. I'm not sure which option I find more frightening. Living like a woodsman the rest of my life, or," he sighed, "Attempting to aid...him."
The soldier stood next to the old Imperial warrior.
"I have one or two men that are amazingly accurate with shortbows. We could send them after him and one day when he's walking along a path, suspecting nothing..." He made a shooting motion with his arms.
Geshtar rose and bellowed at the soldier in anger.
"No, Takar, you idiot! He isn't the enemy! Not anymore! Besides, it would be foolish to try and carry out such a mission. Number one, I don't know where he is, and number two, you don't go after the Mana Knight with things that go 'twang' and little pointed sticks that fly through the air! And he never suspects nothing. He's too experienced for that. If I've learned anything in my life, it's that the Mana Knight is no fool! He'd know you were there even before you were aware of his presence!"
Geshtar paused. He stared somewhere passed the soldier he had been berating.
"Send for Cyrus. Have your men up and ready for battle by tonight. Cyrus and I are going on a little trip. Wait here for us and stand ready for orders upon my return."
With that Geshtar turned and walked toward his tent. The soldier, after taking a moment to collect his thoughts, returned to his men to relay to them their orders.