by Peter Belc
"The Forest of Twilight..." said Thanatos.
"And what do you suppose is that power?" asked a black-robed figure, hardly visible in the deep dungeons of Vandole's castle.
Thanatos sat still, trying not to look at the Dark One's lifeless red eyes. "We both know," he whispered.
"There was a Mana Holyland there, when the world was young. Could it still exist? Could it be the one?"
"Well... We'll just have to find out..."
"There is no need in showing off your power so early, my lord..."
The Dark-robed figure stood in front of a shimmering lake. Everything around them was silent. Even the voices of nature seemed to hold their breath when the shadowy man passed by.
"What is this power that is blocking my way?"
"As I had told you, there is something powerful here... something old..."
"Very old..." The Dark Man made no move. The only light around them was the reflection of his red eyes in the silent lake before them. Suddenly, Thanatos felt as if the air around them had died. His companion raised his hands, and started singing an ancient, soundless song. Slowly, the invisible barrier that blocked their way began to show itself as a gigantic wall of fire.
The Dark Man stood silent in front of the flames, arms raised in triumph,while his song took shape of a thousand wolves' tribute to a moonlit night... The deadly music surrounded them like mist and embraced them, while the whole world seemed to drift away from them. Thanatos found himself falling asleep yet still being able to witness the insanity around him. He felt the world dancing to his master's wordless song, he heard the flaming barrier scream in agony while the Dark One was tearing it apart...
"I will pass through..." The Dark One finally lowered his hands, as the barrier seemed to let out a final shriek of defeat.
"Let's move on, my dear apprentice. Do you feel the wind change?"
The huge warrior was already awake.
"I know, Jema. I feel it too... For Mana's sake, how... How did they find out?"
"I cannot help you there, my old friend. But complaining will not improve the situation in any way."
Three figures stood at Serin's door. The first one could easily be recognized as Jema of Tasnica, one of the finest knights left in this world. Beside him stood the elder of Potos village, and Naiden the Magician, brother of Luka.
"Jiroki, this is my final stand..."
"Please don't talk like this..."
"Please. Take care of Randi. He may be your last hope."
The trio stood silent.
"I shall be out in a minute. There's just one more person I have to see."
The tree men understood instantly, and left the warrior in peace.
Serin closed his eyes in prayer.
"The great source of Mana... Now, of all times, I pray; grant me your strength! He's here, he has broken the Barrier of Eight Elements. How... How can I stop him??"
But no answer came from the darkness. The knight knew... He had to face his darkest fear all by himself. That was the warrior's way... He scolded himself for begging for help at such a time. He has been waiting for this moment all his life. As if the old tales of the Mana Fortress War were coming to life again... The fate of the world... In his hands?
Serin looked at a baby sleeping in the back of the room.
"Randi. I know you can't hear me, but... If I do not come back, you're the only one left of the Mana Tribe. If we both fail, the world is lost forever. You are destined to do great things, Randi. Something tells me that there will be no more Mana Tribe af ter all this is over, but do not lose hope!"
Serin slowly put his hand on the child's forehead. There was great pain in the man's eyes.
Two warriors and a mage followed the path of their destiny. They could feel the darkness around them growing stronger and stronger. They felt like the darkness was a living and deadly force, waiting to strike. They were closer to the truth then they thought...
As they were walking on, they realized they were not the only ones embraced by the dark force around them. All life seemed to be terrified by the ancient evil that broke into their holy territory. The walk that would usually take them an hour or two seemed like eternity. The force of Mana, the force that any other night would pierce their hearts with hope and love, could hardly be detected, even by a Mana Knight by blood like Serin, or a powerful magic user, like Naiden.
They walked in silence, with their hearts and minds held in perfect concentration. Little did they know about how much they resembled the Mana Monks on the "last mission", thousands of years ago. But the Mana around them knew... The Mana around them remembered... It has felt the full power of the Dark One, and no matter how much it wished to forget, it couldn't.
It was a long time ago, but Mana did not know about time. It did not know when it was created, and what was its purpose. The Dark Force ascended from the hells below, in the form of an all-powerful god. It crushed the balance of the world, drained power o ut of everything and everyone. It found its way into the very hearts of living beings, and those who could not oppose it were doomed to be its servants. The Civilization of Evil was formed. Humans forgot about their roots, turned into mindless creatures, and cared not for anything but indulging themselves, driven by the force that was eating them alive.
But there were those strong enough to oppose the Dark God. They did not let it into their hearts, and they remained pure. They took refuge in the power of Mana; the power of true Life. Thus the order of Mana Monks was formed.
They remembered the days of old, the days when Mana was known to all living beings. The females of the order made an eternal vow of protection of the last holyland of Mana. Their leader would be reborn as the Mana Tree - the tree which came to be known as the source of all Life of the planet.
The men of the order became the Mana Knights. They vowed to fight the civilization by all means, and help human beings tormented by the force of darkness inside their hearts. The order grew powerful; the Monks moved from one place to another, healing the people of their eternal nightmare. Using the all-powerful force of Life - Mana - they healed human hearts of the ancient evil.
In time, the order grew powerful. People began to rise, and rebel against the force of darkness.
The Darkness realized this, and fought back. It chose the most wicked hearts of all people, and gave them terrible, terrible power. The power to use Mana for evil purposes. Using this new ability, they created their ultimate weapon - the Mana Fortress.
The rest of the story is known to everyone, the most bloody war in history - the Mana Fortress War. The Hand of Darkness, as the evil hearts called themselves was a deadly force, destroying everything and everyone. Their leader broke into the Mana Holyland, and cut down the Great Tree, putting the world in the most horrible danger; the danger of losing Mana.
However, the Mana Tribe was not idle; the greatest monks combined their power to create the ultimate weapon of light - the now legendary Mana Sword. Their leader, the legendary Priest of Light, who was said to be an incarnation of Mana itself, destroyed t he Fortress using the sword. But the victory was not complete - the Fortress was defeated, but not destroyed. The Dark One was banned from the world of light, yet he was not exterminated. And the power of Mana was weaker then ever...
The Mana Tribe realized that Mana was no longer strong enough to mantain balance in the world, even if the Dark One would never appear again. The leaders of the tribe decided to hide the power of Mana from the world, thus the Holyland was removed from the physical plane, not to be seen by a mortal eye for thousands of years. Those very few left of the Mana Tribe lived in secret , withdrawn from the world. The power of magic was to be protected by the Eight Elementals, in the Eight Palaces of Mana. The Mana Sword was sealed in stone, near an ancient village at the footsteps of the Lofty Mountains.
The Mana Fortress War had changed the world forever, but the people learned from their mistakes, and once more lived in harmony with Mana and all living things. The peace seemed never-ending, but the wise ones knew that one day the Darkness would haunt them again.
And now it has come back.
"The Forest of Twilight. The leftovers of what once had been the greatest wood of the world, stretching from one end of the Great Land to the other. Vandole, what do you hope to find here?"
"Did I ask for your opinion?"
'Such a fool' thought Fanha. 'An ignorant idiot. Messing with power he does not even believe in!' Going among those ageless trees was the last thing Fanha wished to do. The power of Life in this forest was nothing comparing to what it once had been, but t here was still something powerful about the place. And the silence of it all! Fanha felt exposed to the ancient force within, whatever it was. And this idiot was just going to walk into this trap, like a blindman! But the time would come... Oh yes, it would.
"Is the Dark One in there?" asked the Emperor.
"Aye..." The sorceress sensed his presence even stronger than the might of the forest. Her fears drifted away at the first thought of the ancient one. Whatever was left in this forest, to him, it was but an insect waiting to be crushed in his dark hand. "Let's go!" she said.
"The Sword is safe," said Jema, standing on top of a small island in the river. The island on top of which the Sword had been sealed in stone, ages ago. "Do you think he could remove it?"
Serin, deep in thought, answered "I doubt it. Great is his power and might, but he could not even touch such a weapon. But if he finds out about it..."
"Then all is lost," continued Naiden. "There is nothing else we can do now, Jema. We must try to stop him!"
Serin gently put his hand on the weapon. "Grant me your strength!"
The warrior's voice was no longer a whisper full of fear. It was a command of the descendant of the Priest of Light, during his finest hour. "I call the one who disturbs the peace of this holy place! The likes of you have no power here. Come forth!!"
"Ah! The Mana Sword..." Emperor Vandole's laughter suddenly pierced the air around them.
"Vandole!" The Emperor was not the one Serin was expecting. No matter how great his power had become, no matter how rotten his heart now was, he could not break the barrier. It was not the Emperor's presence that awakened them in the night. So the Dark God brought his pets for play...
"Long ago I have given up the search for it... But, here it is, just waiting for me!"
"You foolish madman! How blind have you become? The sword is not for you."
"Naiden..." whispered Fanha, still hidden in the shadows.
"So you brought your hellish little friend along for the ride? I have been pondering for years how to rid the world of you two... For nothing! You're dumb enough to walk into this holy forest, where your wicked powers will not work! Prepare, oh emperor. This is the end."
The Emperor smiled. "There are powers at work here you haven't a slightest clue about. You are nothing comparing to the power that I command!"
'The power that you command? Desperate fool...' thought Fanha. 'They are quite right, I cannot use my Art in this place. But he... He will show them hell. What I need is time!' She stepped out of the shadows.
"Fanha... Daughter of the Underworld, I've heard about you," said Jema, withdrawing his sword.
"And what was it that you heard?"
"Fairy tales, obviously. The Fanha I have heard about would not be foolish enough to walk into the Forest of Twilight. You stand no chance against the three of us."
"The three of you?" Fanha asked. Only now Jema and Naiden realized that Serin was not among them.
"Enough! Prepare yourself!" yelled the magician. The water began overflowing with light, blinding Vandole's empty eyes. Beings of the river surrounded Naiden, and embraced him with their power. The mage raised his arms, while blue flames appeared before him.
"You whose heart is pure as the waters of the Pit of the Worlds, the ancient, the holy, the servant of Mana, Undine, lend me your power! Now FREEZE!!!"
Gigantic blocks of ice were thrown against the intruders. The air around them froze, and their bodies turned icy cold. They were both thrown against the ground, but the spell was not enough to extinguish the life force of either the Emperor, whom the Dark One had given awesome strength, or Fanha, hell's daughter, a being of ultimate flames. But before the leader of the Empire was back on his feet, he was struck with a powerful blow against his armor. Jema of Tasnica was not idle. Another blow cracked his helmet in half. The great warrior delivered one more hit to Vandole's body. This one was fatal.
If Jema had known about the terrible power the Emperor received from the Dark One... If he had only known that the Emperor was far above (or, as some would say, below) human, things could have been different... But he hadn't.
"Now I'll take care of you!" he screamed. But Fanha was gone.
As soon as Serin realized that the Dark One was not with Vandole, he moved on. While in any other place, the battle between the two great mages and two great warriors could have been something bards would sing about for generations to come, Vandole and Fa hna had no chance in the Holy Forest of Twilight. But he had a different goal... To keep the Dark One away from the sword, at all costs. And he was out there, there was no doubt about it. When the warrior was young, a being of light visited him in his dream. It warned him that the Dark God of the past has come back once more, in a form of a black-robed monk. It told him that it was his duty as the leader of the Mana Knights to try and stop the ancient evil from destroying the harmony of the world once aga in. "But how can this be?" asked Serin, "I can hardly even handle a sword!"
"Young one!" the being said patiently, "the time of your final showdown is still far away... But it is drawing nearer... I will visit you once more, when your time has come. May the light of Eternal Mana guide your way! Until we meet again..." The being disappeared. Serin thought the dream nothing but a hallucination of his young mind, until this night, when the same being appeared to him again. And this time, it was no dream.
He felt the presence of evil growing stronger and stronger. It was coming this way, there was no doubt about it. Serin stood at the bottom of the great waterfalls, waiting for his destiny to face him.
The time Serin spent behind the watrerfalls seemed like eternity, or longer. But finally two figures appeared out of darkness. It was him. The black robed monk who haunted his dreams, the source of evil, the Dark One... But there was not a trace of fear left in the warrior's heart. This was his destiny. A god or not, he would have a hard time with Serin, the Knight of Mana.
"Stop!" he commanded, coming out of his hideout. "I know who you are. Your rotten existence ends now!!"
"Meaningless words... Is that all you humans are capable of? I see you clearly, warrior of Mana."
"You have walked into a trap, dark one. You cannot use magic here!"
"I am quite aware of this. Prepare yourself, Mana Knight!"
The Dark One reached for his terrible sword. Serin could not see it, but felt its power immediately. The Hammer of Woe, the weapon used to create the ancient Mana Fortress... But he could not give up. He unshielded his sword, which was now glowing with pure light.
"Light against Darkness... This is what it all comes down to, is it not?" The two oponents rushed at each other with fury.
Thanatos had no doubt about his master's might. Mana or no Mana, there was no stopping of the Lord of Darkness. The old mage has suffered too much to see his lord destroyed before he reached his goal. He has been waiting for years, for a chance, just for one chance... for revenge. And the Dark One would show them all! In his wild dreams, he saw images that filled his heart with neverending desire, the desire to see them burn, suffer, just like he did. Especially her... She might have forgotten about a boy named Thanatos long time ago, but he has not forgotten about her. She would get what she deserved.
"You've been dreaming again," he scolded himself. The sounds of the battle were now faint. The power of this place was more than he could bare... The hatred inside his heart was burning a hole in his soul, his vision started deceiving him. He must find his master, fast!
A tall figure in a blue robe appeared in front of him. Or was it another hallucination? How he hated these cursed woods!
"Servant of evil, you have entered forbidden ground." Naiden's voice was weak, and crushed by pain. Just as the power of the Forest was burning Thanatos's heart, the presence of the Dark One was deadly to the water magician.
"Fool," Thanatos whispered through tears, "I will do you a favor by killing you now. Such a shame you will not get to see the end of your precious little world. DIE!!!" screamed the sorceror as he commanded the forces of darkness to destroy his opponent.
But nothing happened.
"As I said... You entered forbidden grounds, servant of darkness. Now you will pay!" Forces of Water hit the old sorceror's body with all their might. Without his magic, he was helpless before Naiden. There was only one thing he could do now, and he had to do it fast! He put his entire will to ignore the pain and let his body go. He felt himself burned alive by the stranger's magic, while he was reciting an ancient prayer. All of sudden pain was gone. He saw his empty body lying in water, as his soul drif ted away into a dream...
Naiden collapsed. How terribly heavy his head has become! After their victory over the Emperor, he and Jema split up to look for Serin, but the magician knew that the Mana Knight had to face his fate alone. He began looking for Fanha, but found this old sorceror... How many of his slaves had the Dark One brought into this forest? It did not matter, none of them would ever get out alive...
"I need to rest..." thought Naiden. Using his magic in the presence of such ancient evil left him exhausted. He cast a simple protection spell on himself, just in case any more of Vandole's dogs would disturb his rest.
Slowly, he gave way to unconsciousness...
But he never woke up.
The image of the Forest of Twilight soon faded from Thanatos' divine eye. This was not right... Some force was pressing against his astral body, pushing him away from the forest. The mage tried to fight against it, but he was far too weak. Was this is it? Was all the training, all the suffering, for nothing? His thoughts slowly faded away... The might of the Forest of Twilight was too strong. Thanatos let go.
The images of the ancient trees were no more. The sorceror began to see countless images, scenes... Hadn't he seen them before? He no longer knew. He no longer cared...
He saw, if his mind's vision could be called a sight, a beautiful young girl, long thick hair falling from her shoulders, her deep green eyes staring at the moonlight... Yes, he has surely seen this heavenly creature before... Where? When? He noticed anot her figure next to the girl, a small figure, who seemed but a shadow next to the girl's beauty... The image slowly faded.
Another boy was on a roof, hidden in the cloak of night... Was it the same one he saw with the black-haired angel? It seemed so, yet there was something about him that had changed... A part of him was now dead... How did Thanatos know these things? It did n't matter... did it?
The mage noticed tears leaking from the lone boy's dark eyes. He was looking at a party not far away... The mage heard music, and voices of joy coming from the direction the boy was staring at. The boy hated it. Now the mage hated it too. The wizard's con sciousness floated towards the boy, and placed itself at his right side. Thanatos wanted to comfort the boy, embrace him, tell him he understood his pain... But he could not.
Suddenly he saw great darkness descending from above. It was darker than night, darker than anything. It *was* darkness. Thanatos felt paralyzed in front of the power that was approaching them. Didn't the boy see it? Slowly, the force descended to their roof, and stood in front of them. It paid no attention to the mage's old and burned soul. He was only interested in the boy.
"Run! Don't let him get you!!!" , the mage's soul screamed. A small part of the boy heard that voice... Somewhere, deep inside, young Thanatos heard the warning. For a second, he opposed the darkness. But not for long. The hatred inside him was too much to bear... And the darkness knew. The darkness understood. They have hurt him, and the darkness would grant him power for revenge! The small part that opposed it was now crushed under tons of hatred, jealousy, and more hatred. At that very moment, his fate was sealed.
Only now the dead sorceror understood. "A fool... I was a fool..."
A spark of fear was lit in the Dark God. The Mana Knight's power was far greater than he anticipated. The Hammer of Woe was no use against Mana in this forest. He used all his might to make the warrior fall under his terror, but the Mana Knight was right; his dark magic could not work in here. And he was so weak after the battle with the Barrier blocking their way to the forest... Of course, the warrior possessed no weapon that could truly hurt the God's evil spirit. He could destroy his body, his shell, but not the root. The only way a human being could destroy him, was to defeat his true form. But there was no one in the world who was even near being able to do that. But the Forest... The Forest had the power to extinguish his seemingly eternal force on ce and for all. He must not be defeated!
Serin did not even think anymore. He was in a trance, and the only thought in his mind was to destroy his opponent. The blood of the Priest of Light was giving him great strength. He could see the fear in the fearless God, and he knew that he would win. This was his destiny.
The Dark One was now trapped between a great wall of stone, and the Mana Knight. He made one last desperate attempt to crush the warrior, but he failed. Serin's sword was now deep inside his chest.
The black-robed figure made no sound. No dying scream. No last words. It fell on the ground, and moved no more.
"I have won. My work is done," thought Serin, as he collapsed next to the dead body.
Emperor Vandole slowly got up from the ground. His blood was spilled all over the ground. The power granted to him by the Dark One was great indeed. The magician's spell and Jema's great blows should have killed him three times, but he was still alive and kicking. So the Mana Sword was hidden here, in the Forest of Twilight. The Empire suspected this, but never bothered to find out. His hord of demons seemed... afraid of the stupid forest!
Vandole picked up his sword and walked past the hill on top of which the legendary sword had been sealed.
"Just wait here, my dear... I will come back for you!"
He walked to the waterfalls, where he thought he heard sounds of battle some time before. He saw two bodies laying next to each other. A great sword was piercing one of them, and the other one seemed unharmed. The Emperor moved closer... and could not believe his eyes.
"You... But... How?" he pondered as he looked at what he thought was his best sorceror... "Fool... I don't need you," he whispered in hatred.
The second body was of a great and powerful warrior, surely the Dark One's doom. The Emperor noticed faint movement of the warrior's chest.
"Still alive, aren't you? Not for long!" he laughed. "How does it feel to be slain by your own sword?" said the rotten man as he killed Serin with the sword sticking out of the Dark One's adandoned body.
So it has happened, his body was laying in a pool of blood with the knight's sword sticking out of his chest. He hated this part. He's been through it thousands of times, since the cursed Priest of Light sealed his spirit into these foul human bodies.
But now he was in grave danger. While he was in his shell, the power of the forest was nothing, but now he felt naked in front of the ancient might of Mana residing in the trees around him. He had to find a body... fast!
With every moment he was losing his power. He forced himself to concentrate and look for protection of a human shell. The knight was out of the question, his spirit was far too strong for the evil to just take over. The evil consciousness searched... and found. Thanatos' body seemed as dead as his last one, but it was not. The mage must have left it just before it actually died, and thus, he has saved it. The Dark One knew the wizard would not come back to it, the Forest of Twilight destroyed all evil that dared to enter it.
"Fate is so cruel, is it not, Thanatos? First I took your soul, now I take your body..."
Emperor Vandole and Fanha were on their way home. Having learned the location of the Mana Sword, there was nothing that could stop them.
Jema did not let a single tear escape his eyes, as he buried his old friends.
An old sorceror, now possessed by ancient evil raised himself from the ground and started walking. He went back to the place of his last death, and saw the dead Mana Knight laying next to his old shell. Who killed him? The Dark One did not know... But it did not matter - the leader of the Mana Tribe was dead. There was no one to stop the coming of the great evil... As he was leaving the forest, he could almost hear it weep. Mana knew it too... Its end was near.
Back in Potos, a small boy was having a strange dream...