by Michael R. Grice
Cold wind pulled at Colren’s long black cloak, tangling in his legs as he walked through a brown-grassed field. He swung his arm back, loosing the cloak’s grip on his body enough to allow the wind to catch it again and yank it back, almost choking the frustrated young man.
“We’ve been traveling without rest for most of the day. Can we stop for a while?” Colren begged Tyras. Tyras didn’t even look back as he responded.
“You were the one who wanted to come with me. You heard dad. He didn’t want you going just like I didn’t want you coming, so if you’re so weak that after half a days travel you want to turn back home, then I don’t need you along.” Colren’s back stiffened and he ripped the cloak from his back.
He spun around, dropping his backpack to stuff the slab of cloth inside, when a loud shriek for help tore the air. Colren dropped the cloak and yanked a long knife from the belt at his waist, his eyes frantically searching the wooded land surrounding the field. Colren looked at his brother and found him just as ready for combat, a large bowstring pulled tight in his grip, a feather tipped arrow pulled to his ear.
The scream came again and a young woman burst from the trees just in front of them. Tyras loosed the arrow and the tip sang as it sliced passed the woman’s head and dove into the dark shadows of the trees. The girl collapsed onto Colren and sobbed, faint with exhaustion. Her eyes searched the trees, her body taught in expectation of her hunter’s appearance. Colren held her in one arm, his other arm raised with the dagger lifted high. Tyras had another arrow ready but whatever had been chasing the woman did not follow her out of the trees.
“You all right?” Tyras asked, compassion filling his voice. Colren slipped his dagger back into its place in his belt and stood, holding the young woman out in front of him. He looked up at Tyras who had moved beside him and saw that his brother’s eyes, as expected, reflected the lie of his apparent kindness. Colren growled inwardly at his older brother, but the woman completely missed the flashing anger in both brothers’ eyes.
“What was after you?” Colren asked carefully. The woman lifted her glassy blue eyes and looked straight into Colren’s sharp featured face. Colren shuddered inwardly at the pure terror and understanding that washed from those beautiful eyes. The woman turned her head and watched the forest for a moment before slowly responding.
“I don’t really know. But it’s been after me for nearly a week and it hasn’t once stopped. I thank you both with every part of me that’s not still running.” She abruptly turned silent, her eyes showing her inward search for peace.
Tyras laughing lightly, swinging his bow back into its position on his back. “The monster could probably tell it was foolish to come near me. Ha! Even the animals can see I’m the Mana Knight!” Colren scratched his eyebrow, making a poor attempt at hiding his disapproval of his older brother’s childishness.
“Mana Knight? What’s that?” The girl asked. Tyras almost fell over and burst into laughter. The girl lifted an eyebrow and her face awoke with a half smile that reflected both her amusement and her attempt at being polite. She turned to Colren as Tyras continue laughing, almost hysterically. “I’m Anil,” she said holding out a hand for Colren to shake.
“I’m Colren, and this is my older and slightly insane brother Tyras.”
“You’ve never heard of the Mana Knight?” Tyras gasped, fits of laughter still making their way into his voice. “You’ve never heard of Haiden, the last Mana Knight? He killed Thanatos in the Resealing almost one hundred and fifty years ago. He saved all of Fa’Diel from destruction from the Mana Beast.” No recognition registered in Anil’s eyes or in the way she stood. “By Lumina you’re not very smart are you?” He laughed again and Anil looked up at him sideways, not appearing insulted but at the same time not amused.
“Well whatever a Mana Knight is, the beast chasing me seems to fear you. Would it be okay if I stayed with you for a while, at least until we reach the city. I’m not sure, but I think Pandora is only a day or two south east.” Colren nodded and Tyras shook his head, still smiling and giggling, but able to walk.
As the party traveled through the field that wove through the Pandoran Forest, Colren talked with the girl who maintained her mysterious silence for most of the journey that day. “We’re from Atorel. It has grown since the Resealing, but only by a couple families. This name probably means nothing to you but it used to be Kippo village, or so I’ve heard. I think my best friend’s dad was just trying to make us proud of our little farming village because it’s said that Haiden visited Kippo before the Resealing.” Colren laughed and the girl smiled kindly.
Colren continued talking as they traveled. “We’re going to the Water Palace. That’s where Master Vesray, the priest in Atorel, told Tyras to start his training. I’m actually coming because ever since I can remember I’ve been able to use magic, only at certain times of course, but it’s always there. I hope to have some questions about it answered by Luka, the Guardian who takes care of the Water Seed that is one of the eight main sources of Mana energy. Haha! I’m probably boring you aren’t I?”
“I would like to talk with Luka also,” Anil spoke in a quiet, strongly feminine voice. “I have something important to ask her.” Colren noticed that as she spoke the last few words, her hand rested on a foot long silver rod strapped to her belt, mostly hidden by her gray cloak. Her pale blue dress was long enough to drop past her knees, almost hiding her brown leather shoes beneath. If not for her long blond hair, Colren would have thought Anil was the image of Luka, though he had never seen the ancient Guardian of the Water Seed.
Two days of hard traveling with little rest except at night brought the city of Pandora into view. The group left the field and followed a beaten down path into the massive West Pandoran Wood just before the city’s west entrance. Within minutes the party found itself walking into the beautiful city. They stepped across a bridge and entered a well-gardened square of land with a two-floor inn at the end of a pebble layered path. “Should we get a room?” Colren asked.
“The sun is about to dip below the south hills.”
“No, we can get at least another hour’s travel before the sun sets,” Tyras growled. Colren looked at Anil but saw no complaint in her eyes, or the fear that had been there the day they had found her. They hadn’t seen any sign of her hunter since they rescued her, and that had seemed to relax the girl incredibly.
Colren tried to look at everything, including the stone and wood erected buildings. Each building looked very similar to the inn, though a few only had one floor to them. Colren had expected to see a majestic city of the future with cobble stone roads, buildings painted perfectly and hundreds of merchants rushing around trying to sell their products to traveler’s passing through. Colren was quickly disappointed, but Anil’s face blazed like the sun at mid day. This place isn’t that impressive, Colren thought disappointedly. Stupid girl, you look like you’ve just seen the Mana Tree.
“This isn’t anything like I was taught,” Anil gasped in awe. “I always pictured it to be a true city, but this is more of a spread out town. The ponds are so beautiful and the streams must run passed every building. Oh, and look!” she exclaimed, her arm outstretched to point between a grove of trees to their right. “Is that the palace?” Colren looked but was disappointed again, only seeing one wide stone tower watching over the city, the rest of the legendary castle hidden behind the thick trees. Tyras shrugged but didn’t even look to where Anil pointed, but continued at a hard pace northward through a wide dirt street.
As they left Pandora, a guard nodded at them and said, “Hope you enjoyed your stay. Be careful going out there tonight. Just the past few days or so rumors have been spreading about wild beasts getting very brave all of a sudden.” Tyras almost completely ignored the heavily armored gate guard but Anil grinned like an excited little girl. The guard almost laughed at her expression but stopped himself by greeting a fellow soldier who had been patrolling the nearly vacant streets.
That night the travelers camped under the reaching arms of the North Pandoran Wood. The Danyan creek, which lay just in front of them, crackled down the slight incline towards the city Pandora. They all fell asleep instantly, too tired and hot to do anything more. The night was dark because not one of the two moons that drifted across Fa’Diel’s sky had yet risen, and the night was too warm for a fire. The dark hours passed and the beasts of the night woke to catch food and protect their homes as their brothers of the day would do by sunlight.
The slight snap of a twig under booted foot echoed through the silence until it was grabbed by the fast moving stream just beyond the camp. A dark figure looked down at two sleeping forms and relaxed when the two did not wake. Quick but silent movements throughout the camp accomplished what the shadow had wanted, and with as much silence as it had worked, it slid into the darkness of the trees, leaving Colren and Anil to sleep alone.
“He’s gone!” Colren woke in an instant, his head suddenly aching but his mind still clear. He jerked his head around to Tyras’ bedroll and found his brother and all of his brother’s things gone. “Why would he just leave us?” Anil asked him as she pulled a thick blanket from her slender body and quickly pulled on her leather shoes. She patted the wrinkles in her dress, muttering something about foolishly sleeping in her clothes while Colren shoved everything they had into packs in an effort to save time to catch Tyras.
…Was this so unexpected?… the tinkling voice drifted through Colren’s mind. “Yes,” Colren snapped to the air. Anil looked up at him for a moment, wondering if what he had said was directed at her. …You must continue on Colren. You will not like what is to come, but you must continue… “I have no intention of returning home. Not when I’m this close to the Water Palace where I could learn about this cursed magic. And maybe I’ll finally learn how to be rid of you!” Anil blinked and Colren groaned heavily. “No, I’m not talking to you. Uh, just ignore it, okay? I’m sure you have things you don’t want me knowing about you either.” Anil smiled kindly and helped Colren finish packing their things. The hunt for Tyras began, even though Colren felt a sick ache not only in his head, but in his soul as well.
He remembered the words of the voice. …You will not like what is to come, but you must continue…