Prologue: Secret of the Arid Sands
Her glowing eyes gazed off into the images projecting from her magical crystal ball. Luna could see the bleak desolation of the desert region she ruled spread before her. The sands seemed as unending as the empty feeling inside of her, and the hot sun stretching as far as her loneliness.
<There is nothing...> she thought blankly. <And there will always be nothing...>
Luna could hear the faint sound of her servants, the Marmablues, scuttling from one end of the room to the other, desperately wishing, praying that they could drain another being's magical strengths. She understood that all too well. The desire to take that delicious power and draw it into themselves gave them the one sense they had ever known of being filled. Their clever black eyes begged for something to relieve the emptiness, restlessly floating through the sea of black mass and stars surrounding them. The Marmablues would often come to her pleading for more spells within her talents, insisting, <Mistress, why won't you grant us your superior abilities? You know that we will always protect you and the Mana Seed at all costs...>
<An Elemental seeks no protection...> She continually told herself. <How melancholy this land has grown...>
Sighing airily, Luna leaned forward and clasped her hands beneath her chin, sparkles of light dancing from her illuminated form. As she gazed disinterestedly into the glass sphere before her, her own thoughts began to haunt her. Memories surfaced within her -- the memory of the great battle between Serin and the Emperor. The clashing of swords, blood oozing from wounds that would heal into scars across the skin... and then the great hero falling helplessly down into Death's own arms. And she kept hearing his scream, that gut-wrenching scream now etched permanently upon her soul.
<Why couldn't Undine protect him?>
She let out a muffled sob, trying to push back the hateful tears. But her attention was quickly caught by the images that were swirling within her crystal ball. Tossing the thought away, her pretty, yet inhuman eyes darted instinctively toward it.
For a moment she wondered if her own depression was causing her to hallucinate when she saw him. She remembered the boy standing there, the beautiful one that flitted through her dreams every time she was actually able to lull herself to sleep. Faintly, she could recall seeing him sitting in the rain, covering his eyes with those tiny hands and crying as if he were a newborn baby. It made her want to reach out and embrace the child the way she would if it were her very own. But now she could see him more vividly than in her dreams.
Four, maybe five -- he was no older than that. His hair was dark purple, falling perfectly at his shoulders. He had cunning eyes and a tiny yet charming mouth. His ears were pointed like an elf's and his skin tinted so lightly that it was almost white. Yet his face always showed some kind of far away emotional pain, hiding some kind of secret. It made Luna wonder what thoughts were going through his cluttered mind as he cried, pondering on his past.
Shifting her gaze, she noticed that a soldier was standing beside him. The child clung tightly to his arm, his golden eyes shimmering with a small flicker of fear. The soldier didn't seem to notice however. He closely examined the vast sands up ahead, searching for any monsters that may be hidden beneath them. She could also see a large group of men emerge from behind them, the clanking of their armor in marching unison. Swords and lances were worn at their sides, sheathed in leather, along with their heavy shields forged of the purest silver.
As Luna gazed into their cruel eyes and smug glares, she could almost smell the scent of blood trailing from them, the black iron armor and helmets glinting in the radiant sunlight. She recognized those uniforms... It had to be the Empire, and she knew well that they would only come to Kakkara to attempt to steal her powers or break the seal on her Mana Seed.
<I will /never/ forgive Vandole for what he has done! Never!> Her teeth clenched against her thoughts, hissing aloud. <How could he have... Oh, Serin, it's at times like these when I need you the most...>
"Who's the brat?" Luna heard a voice sneer through the crystal, breaking her away from another sob. Her mind turned, wondering if he was speaking of the young boy in her dreams.
"Oh, Vandole picked the kid up in South Town a while ago on his last visit. I dunno why, but he's really interested in him. He wants us to train him to be a soldier while he's young; ridiculous if you ask me!" The soldier shrugged. "Said his name was Sheex, I think..."
"The Emperor is out of his mind. The kid'll weigh us down. It's damn hot enough already," another man moaned as he spat on the sand, wiping the sweat off of his forehead.
"Hey, I've heard some weird things about that rugrat. Heard he's a demon, one of the last in the shapeshifter race! Vandole's totally obsessed with the idea of making him into a destructive war toy. He's already got Geshtar mixed up in that mess and he's about the same age!" they all whispered behind their commander.
"And sent our fleet into the dead heat in the middle of nowhere just to find some 'ancient relic' while the others get to stay behind to train Geshtar. That son of a bitch has some nerve!"
<Ancient relic?> Luna leaned her ear closer.
"It's 'cause he's such a bloody drunk. He can't think straight anymore. I joined the imperial forces to be a soldier, not a babysitter!"
"Sent us out here just 'cause the little demon bastard had a nightmare about some kind of monster lurking in the desert!"
"Maybe, but his dreams have been like predictions, ya know? Everything that happens in them comes out accurate. Just like the time he woke up bawling and yelling that the Mana Knight was dead. And he really was!"
Luna bit her lip against the razor hatred burning through her.
<Serin is dead... There is nothing...> The bitterness of her own mind startled her just then, remembering that Elementals are not allowed to release their own emotional anger or their negative forces could cause immense disruption of the Mana Seeds, and therefore, all of Mana. The moon already seemed gloomier, wrapped in misery's own mist. With her new resolve, she shoved away the towering oppression and focused on her hearing.
"All of you listen closely," the commander shouted above their whispers, voice serious and alert.
The soldiers turned to face him, eyes rolling in irritation as their leader began explaining their mission in detail, instructing, "The Emperor has sent a message to Tasnica's sandship for us; it will arrive here soon. Since Karon's Ferry is too small to carry our entire fleet, we have no choice but to ride with the Republic, even though they are degrading to us," he added, almost as an afterthought. "When we arrive at the Sea of Wonders, I want you to dig around the Moon Palace sands and keep your eyes open for any objects. Inform me if anything is found."
"Where will you be, Sir?"
"I'll stay onboard with Sheex. Work your hardest and follow orders precisely this time. The Emperor is depending on yer lazy asses." With a toss of his velvet cape, he spun back around and looked down upon the child still gripping anxiously at his arm.
"Hot, Sheex? Thirsty?" he asked him softly.
The boy nodded slightly, his tired head falling against the commander's elbow, the beads of sweat causing his clothes to stick firmly to his body.
"Hey, it'll be okay. Don't pass out on me, all right? We'll be out of here real soon, I promise."
A quiet mumble was his only reply.
<A child in the Empire... What kind of manipulation is Vandole using? Treating people like they're toys for him to play with...> Luna's enraged eyes flickered against the illumination of her mysterious form. <And a shapeshifter, so powerful, so beautiful.. He even /looks/ like a toy... A pretty porcelain doll entering my dreams as you please... Who are you?>
She felt a light stroke on her cheek. Her eyes shifted behind her where she could see the yellow legs of one of her servants levitating above her head.
<They're coming to the palace aren't they? Let us protect you and the Mana Seed and use our powers against them. Not one of them will lay a hand on you, Mistress,> it said, the voice pulsing inside her head.
<No. They never mentioned coming for the seed, or me,> replied Luna. <I am interested in what they are doing here in Kakkara. I don't trust Vandole for a second. But they said something about an ancient relic supposedly buried in the sands outside of this palace... I've never heard of such a thing. Do keep a close eye on them, though...>
<As you wish, Mistress...>
Settling herself back down, she intently listened.
"Look there! See that ship back there in the sand? We're going to ride on there and explore the Sea of Wonders and see the Moon Palace and all the stars, okay?" The commander faked a cheerful voice, yanking on the child's shirt like an old friend. Sheex unexpectedly cried out and clenched his teeth against the pain going through his neck, and as he did so, he drew the soldier's and Luna's attention to him. The commander leaned down to eye level with the short child and clasped his hand under his chin, tilting it this way and that, carefully examining the wounded skin, torn and deeply bruised.
"What happened to you? You want to tell me?"
"I fell when I was training yesterday..." He whimpered, voice barely audible over the sound of the roaring sandship approaching them.
"It's okay, you'll get better with practice."
He stopped just then and turned to warn his troop, as well as Sheex, to shield their eyes from the flurry of sand arising beneath the sandship. As it slowly came to a stop before them, the deafening noise of its engine abruptly stopped with it.
Luna was very familiar with the sandship. Often, she would watch it wander through Kakkara with her crystal ball, or it would float by in the Sea of Wonders beside Karon's Ferry, aiming itself to no particular destination. Though owned by Tasnica, the Empire would take control of its true intentions and use it as they pleased. But there was no one brave enough to stand up against them. No one but Serin...
<The Mana Knight is dead... Mana is dying with him... The Empire is conquering each land one by one... The Mana Fortress lusts for the release of the sword's imprisonment... The Empire seeks its revival... There is nothing...>
"Hello, Meria. Good to see you."
The commander stepped forward, keeping Sheex close at his side, the child clutching at him even tighter as the sandship's sailors emerged onto the deck. Most of them were fairly young with tanned skin and faces bursting with youthful energy. It was obvious that they were adapted to the immense heat of the desert, even wearing their heavy armor and helmets, unlike the imperial men who all seemed ready to drop like flies into the sand and fall unconscious at any moment. They knew it too, judging from the smirks and giggles of the sailors. Their leader and captain, Meria, stayed firm and serious to greet them, however. But Luna could tell just how angry and discouraged he was that they would have to accompany their enemies.
"Only a country as honorable as Tasnica is worthy of our loyalty," Luna once remembered Meria saying to Serin. "You can always depend on us when ya need help! It's the least we can do while yer out there tryin' to save all of Mana. Together we'll smash the Empire on my word, Hero!"
<And look at the level you brave men have fallen to...> She sighed again, as she observed Meria silently allowing the many imperial soldiers onboard his last remaining pride since Serin's death.
"I was surprised to receive orders from /your/ leader," Meria said gruffly. "I hope this doesn't take long. My men and I need to stop by the village in the south and stock up on more supplies. I'll be damned if we starve to death out here."
"You needn't worry, my good Meria. Just lead my men to the Moon Palace and I assure you we'll be finished in no time."
"Trying to steal our guardian Luna?" one of the sailors snapped bitterly at him.
"Never you mind," the commander smirked. He turned away from them, looking down at Sheex, who was still standing attentively at his side. "I need you to answer some questions for me while the soldiers go to work, Sheex. Can you do that?"
The child nodded slowly.
"Good. Let's get moving then!"
Meria flushed with anger, being ordered around by ones as disgraceful as the Empire. But he knew all too well that he was too old to fight, and his men were even more spineless when it came to confronting companions of Vandole. Yet Luna knew their hope and sense of honor was deeper than any warrior's bravery.
Both Jema and Serin were the most honest and trustworthy men she had ever known in all of her years of ancient age. The Republic of Tasnica grew strong with their reign, joining forces with Pandora as allies against the treacherous Empire. Even so, Vandole found ways for his men to conquer towns and pull things under their control. And how strange it was that the Emperor had been able to trick Serin to his death. He had been so valiant and courageous, the victor of bringing down the Mana Fortress that had threatened all of Mana...
<They're here...> The Marmablues informed her through telepathy, trying their hardest to bring her back into focus.
Startled at how her thoughts had drifted, she spun back around to the crystal, watching the fleet dissemble off the ship with picks and shovels in hand instead of their massive swords, lances, and shields. They swiftly scrambled to different regions of the sand, completely surrounding her palace to explore. At a quick pace they began to dig under the rough rocks and shriveled plant roots beneath the sand, hoping to avoid contact with the Mad Mallards, Pumpkin Bombs, or any of the Marmablues that roamed the area as they worked. It made Luna wonder what they were trying so hard to find. There were no relics in Kakkara to her knowledge and she was the desert's immortal guardian.
Turning the sphere's gaze back to the commander on the sandship, she hoped to find her answer. He sat in a chair across from the eerie child in Meria's cabin. Sheex stared down at the wooden floor, his face empty of expression. The commander didn't understand what it meant, but Luna knew. <He believes there is nothing, as I do... > she thought. <But /he/ is something...>
"Do you like the Empire?" the commander asked.
"You miss your home?"
"I understand, but you'll adapt to life in the Empire soon. You'll grow up to be strong -- possibly as strong as I am. If you follow Vandole, all that you desire will be yours." He paused. "However, your daydreaming and lack of reality is becoming a problem. You have to learn to talk to people and respond to their existence as they do for you. So, tell me," he slouched back in the chair, "what all did you see in your dream, Sheex? Can you remember?"
"I... There was a girl here in the desert..." he whispered softly.
"What did she look like?" he queried, interested.
"She was pretty... Fifteen... She had curly blue hair... She was walking into the shadows where it was dark and scary, to a place where there weren't any more stars in the sky, just pure darkness. And I tried to stop her, but..."
"Was there something else there?"
"What was it?"
"I don't know..." Sheex groaned as though he were in pain again. Holding his head in his hands, a cold shiver ran down his spine as he tried to recall the appearance of the creature in his dream.
Luna shifted the sphere again so that she could see the doorway opening. An imperial soldier came stumbling in; uniform slightly tattered with dirt smeared over his cheeks and hands. He dropped exhaustedly to the floor, mumbling something only audible to the commander. He handed something up to him, Luna couldn't tell what, but noticed a confused look spread across the commander's refined features when he looked at it. He lazily stood, ignoring the cringing soldier on the floor, and approached Sheex with the object in his hand.
"Did it look like this?" He unfurled his fist, revealing the figure molded in worn iron.
Luna observed the artifact with the child. The ancient, bronze stone built up of two twin cylinders that ceremoniously held up the monstrous form. The muscles bulging, anger flooding through the mysterious figure, the two furious arms folded down in demanding fists. Two horns that stuck out of the head like the blades of an axe, those evil eyes peeping out of the stone; those dreadfully real eyes...
And then she could hear it -- the child screeching as loud as he could, violently slamming the small statue on the floor and then falling over beside it. He began to toss and turn, never stopping his continuous pace. The commander scrambled to the ground, trying his best to hold down the hysterical child as he struggled and writhed beneath him. Screaming, he said, "He'll kill me! He'll kill me! I'm going to die! Someone make him stop!"
Luna only found herself bent over the crystal bawling as hard as she had when Undine told her that Serin had died... And now this... How could it be? It just couldn't be happening, not now!
No, it had to be true... Thanatos had escaped...