Chapter 2: Distant Thunder
/"Are you scared?"/
/"We're not supposed to get scared..."/
The voices softly spoke, the image of two hands intertwining flashing through his mind.
/"And if we both die...?"/
Vandole looked up from the wine glass he held, gazing around at the soldiers surrounding him. No one spoke, silence enveloping the cold throne room. Vandole grunted, casually dismissing the voices as he took another sip of the crimson wine, letting the sweet taste flow through his mouth. He must have really gotten himself drunk this time. Troopers lined every stone wall, their silver helmets and armor beginning to blend into one another in his vision. He groaned moodily, shifting uneasily in his throne. Nothing seemed to be going right for him lately. The alcohol fazed out each of those problems, helped him forget it all at least for a few moments. Just to take the stress away...
True, it was much to their advantage that the next Mana Knight had drawn the Holy Sword and reawoken each of the ancient monsters and beasts from their slumber. He had been waiting for years to try to revive the Mana Fortress after Serin's death, but somehow it seemed that he hadn't waited long enough. He had killed Serin how many years ago...? Fourteen -- maybe fifteen, but no more than that. If that were the case, then the current Mana Knight was no more than a child!
Vandole smirked. How was it that a mere child had already gained the power from both the Water and Earth Mana Seeds? Not only that, but he also had a Pandoran noblewoman travelling at his side... Not to mention a young sprite... Vandole was sure that all of the sprites had been killed by the savage Spring Beak that roamed wild through the Upper Land. But somehow this one child was able to escape their tragic destiny. The sprites were a part of Mana itself, and as such, had magical powers beyond belief. It would become troublesome for the Mana Knight to possess such power and use it to his advantage. It could mean the foilage of his plans to raise the Mana Fortress, as well as the end of his glorious Empire that he had worked so hard to conquer.
Even with Thanatos waiting for the group of knights in his dwelling at Pandora, it made him nervous. He preferred to have the death guardian at his side for protection. Having a contract with such a companion nearly made him invincible -- eternal. And he had gained everything that he ever desired just as Thanatos had promised him. It made Vandole wonder if the Mana Knight truly could defeat the guardian of death... But Thanatos had sold his heart to the underworld long ago to become that guardian. It wasn't possible to kill a spirit that was already dead. Vandole smiled. In that case, he shouldn't be worried. Thanatos just may be able to take care of the Mana Knight before he became a problem. After all, it /was/ his lieutenants' job to dirty their hands in blood for him.
Yes, that was their duty. Even Fanha, as small and delicate as she may have seemed, allied herself with him to serve that purpose. Of course she wouldn't have if it hadn't been for Sheex, but that didn't matter. Her powers did prove useful and she had a strong will if nothing else. Then again, that strong will made her stubborn and often disobedient. Vandole grunted thoughtfully. Perhaps it had been a bad idea to send her to the Upper Land to check for any other sprites that might have survived, as well as to break the seal of the Wind Seed before the Mana Knight could reach it. Even with an entire fleet of soldiers with her, Fanha might have been an unreliable choice. He shrugged. Nothing he could do about it now but hope for her success. She was a lieutenant after all. She could handle it.
"Sir." Vandole turned to the guard approaching his throne, gesturing for him to continue. "A message has just arrived for you." The soldier held out the ribbon-bound paper with armored hands, bowing his head politely. Vandole took another sip of the wine as he leaned down, taking the message being offered to him. He lazily untied the red ribbon, watching it fall to the floor disinterestedly. It was most likely another update on the Mana Knight's progress. He had kept a close eye on the boy ever since the Holy Sword was drawn.
"What the--" Vandole cut himself off, his eyes widening as he read the words before him.
He slouched back in his throne, throwing the message off to the side, growling low in his throat. Just great. It was that annoying psycho woman bothering him with her nonsense again. How could someone so pathetic actually manage to steal the Water Seed? Even so, it was something that he couldn't just ignore. Of course he would never make a deal with someone like that, nor was he willing to give up any of his own gold for that matter. Then what was his next option...? Vandole grinned slightly at the soldier below him, an idea hitting him.
"Send Geshtar up to me," he requested. "This may just be amusing..."
Shadows stood against the faint flicker of light given off by the stars, each of them crossing as the two figures lied down, one lying upside-down, the other right-side-up so that they were facing each other. Each were draped in blankets, both of them slightly apart from each other on the expansive floor. Nostalgic cerulean eyes gazed up at the stars through the glass ceiling above, letting out a small sigh as she settled her head against the pillow.
"Dyluck is a nice person, isn't he?" Pamela asked the girl beside her, wrapping the thick blankets more securely about her body.
"Yes," Purim answered quietly, a soft smile spreading across her lips. "He is a very kind person. You should become friends with him too, Pamela."
"But..." The blue-haired girl shifted uneasily when her friend spoke. Her introverted nature made it hard for her to befriend anyone. Only Purim could claim to have truly known her, to have opened her heart to an extent that could be called friendship. Besides, how could she ever work up the courage to speak to the boy she had admired since the day he appeared in Pandora? Only Purim had that strength. And that strength was what won Dyluck's friendship over all of the other girls in Pandora that swooned over him day by day. "He seems a little lonely somehow..." she continued, changing the subject. "When I look into his eyes I can sense some kind of emptiness there. Like someone who knows the fate of something that will end in ruin..." she whispered, barely even understanding her own words as she spoke.
A long moment of silence stretched betweem them as Purim thought over what Pamela had said. She had also seen that kind of look pass through his eyes. It was as if he knew something she didn't, and no matter how many times she asked him about it, he would never answer. Distancing himself from her the same way her best friend did at times... It pained her that they couldn't bring themselves to talk to her about their problems, that they couldn't confide in her to know their true feelings.
"There are times when I see that kind of look in your eyes too, Pamela," Purim murmured, her eyes narrowing wistfully.
"Me?" Pamela questioned in a surprised voice.
"I don't know why, but sometimes I feel like something bad is going to happen. Like some unseen force is moving us into play like pawns in a chess game... But no matter how hard we try to fight against it, we can't escape. And finally we'll turn against each other... We'll be torn apart..." Her voice trailed off, eyes closing against the night as she described what she had been feeling for so long. Even if Purim didn't understand it, she was glad to have finally told someone what was on her mind. She would have kept it hidden from anyone else.
"You usually don't say things like that..." Purim began, unsure of what to say.
"I'm sorry..." Pamela said automatically, turning onto her side to face her friend.
"No, I'm glad," Purim assured her with a smile. "If anything is ever bothering you, I'll always be here for you if you need someone to talk to. I'll help you no matter what. That's the kind of friends I want us to be." She smiled, gracefully reaching across the distance between them, Pamela's hand coming to meet her own.
"Purim... Dyluck is... I..." The girl fumbled for words, trying to force the words out of her throat, though nothing came out.
"What...?" Purim asked, voice beginning to slur with exhaustion.
"It's nothing..." Pamela replied, voice barely audible as their fingers intertwined, hands clasping together. They each closed their eyes, both of them slowly falling into a light slumber. And as consciousness began to slip from her, Purim thought she heard her friend whisper Dyluck's name in her sleep.
Purim stopped in her tracks, gasping as the memory faded into an eerie stillness at the back of her mind. She gazed around the desolate village, emotionless eyes meeting her gaze. Villagers wandered aimlessly through Pandora, a cursed silence surrounding them. Each of them were empty without their words, almost as if they didn't exist at all. It certainly wasn't an illness as it was thought to be at the beginning. Elinese's words when they had met her in the Haunted Forest were proof of that. Something else had caused it. Whether it was by magic or an even stroger force she didn't know. But whatever it was, it had nearly all of Pandora within its clutches. And it had Dyluck...
She shook her head, shoving the thought away.
<He's okay!> she kept telling herself. <Dyluck is strong. He'll be just fine.>
"Elinese said something about Purim's boyfriend being around here, right?" Popoei asked as he looked up at Randi questioningly. The Mana Knight nodded in agreement, eyes roaming over the area around them.
"She said that he was sent to the southern ruins here..." He turned to Purim, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Do you know anything about it?"
"A bit," she replied, bringing her mind back into focus. "When the strange happenings first occured here, they noticed that those claimed by the silence would meet in those ruins at night. An old castle is built there, but it's been empty for centuries. No one quite knows why it's there..." Her voice trailed off as she looked in the direction of the ruins, her eyes gleaming in determination. "My guess is that whatever is causing all of this is inside that castle. And I've heard rumors about odd people wearing masks wandering around it..."
"But now that we've received the power of both Undine /and/ Gnome we shouldn't have any trouble fighting it, right?" The little sprite crossed his arms over his chest indignantly. "We'll beat it for sure!"
Purim said nothing, gesturing for them to follow her as she made her way towards the ruins. Even if she didn't know what awaited her there, she had to help Dyluck no matter what. And... there seemed to be something else urging her forward at the back of her mind.
As if fate itself was guiding her.
Geshtar stood before the Emperor, a soldier at each of his sides. Three small steps led up to the platform Vandole's throne was placed upon, the Emperor looking down at him with confident eyes. Vandole never did seem to change over the years. Those too masculine features stared back at him almost intimidatingly, a golden helmet completely covering the hair upon his head. Golden armor gleamed against the dim candlelight from his arms and legs, a cloak draped from his shoulders. And as always he held a wine glass in one hand, sipping at it every now and then as he spoke.
"Nice to see you, Geshtar." Vandole tilted his head at the boy, eyes locking on his. "Another situation has come up. You must leave here with your fleet to the Water Palace as soon as possible. The Water Seed seems to have been stolen. The Mana Knight will undoubtedly have no trouble retrieving it and will come to return it to Sage Luka. Take her hostage and wait for him, then take the seed and break the seal when he comes. Understand?" He raised a brow.
Geshtar eyed him suspiciously. "And who supposedly managed to steal the Water Seed?"
Vandole scoffed. How dare someone question /his/ word! Then again, he shouldn't be surprised. Geshtar was nearly as obstinate as Fanha when it came to carrying out missions, though he didn't have a hot, redheaded attitude to match as she did. Not to mention that females always were more dominant when they wanted to be. How /did/ he end up choosing such foolish lieutenants anyway?
"A woman named Scorpion," Vandole replied simply.
"Her again?" Geshtar stifled a chuckle. "You'd honestly send out an entire fleet all the way to the other continent because of /her/ word? She's only trying to wedge her way into the Empire." He brushed a lock of green hair away from one of his eyes, turning away. "I for one am not wasting my energy on that woman. Is that all you had to say to me?"
Vandole's fist clenched angrily, nearly crushing the fragile glass within it. He always got his way. /Always/. He could make any decision he wished, whether it was foolish or not. And he certainly wasn't about to let his command be denied by one of his own lieutenants. But he had no other choice but to send Geshtar, unless... A smile strecthed across Vandole's lips. Of course there were always other ways around such obstacles.
"You." He turned to one of the troopers standing protectively behind his throne, the guard straightening attentively, awaiting command. "Go wake up Sheex."
The soldier merely stared at him for a moment, mouth gaping open in disbelief. It took a moment for the words to register to him, a protest finally escaping him. "Sir, you can't be serious," he began, gulping nervously. "Can you really use him right now?"
"He isn't dead yet." Vandole's eyes narrowed sternly. "Go wake him up /now/."
The guard tensed as he heard the sharp tone in his leader's voice, bowing as he quickly dashed out of the room to follow his order. Geshtar watched him as he exited the large throne room, irritated eyes trailing back up at the Emperor. What could he be thinking?! Sheex couldn't possibly...
"What are you trying to pull?" Geshtar queried, trying to keep his voice steady as he spoke. He wouldn't let the Emperor trick him into doing his will, nor would he be provoked. Vandole may have been the Emperor, but he couldn't order someone to change their mind... could he? At any rate, he wasn't planning on becoming a push-over like all of the other knights. Vandole may have been able to behead them as much as he liked, but Geshtar was too valuable for that. The Emperor couldn't afford to kill him, no matter how headstrong he may be.
"'Pull?'" Vandole repeated in a mocking tone, faking an innocent voice. "I'm only doing what I must to complete this mission as planned." He refilled his wine glass, holding it up ceremoniously for another drink.
"You can't just--" Geshtar stopped, eyes wandering back to the tall steel door of the throne room as it creaked open. Two more soldiers entered, one on each side of a long platform holding up a plain white matress, sliding it along the smooth floor. The figure atop it stirred slightly, blankets obscuring the details of his body beneath it. Sheex's sleeping face came into view as they moved it closer, taking it past Geshtar to the bottom of the staircase leading to the Emperor's throne.
Vandole smiled down at the barely conscious demon, one perfectly golden eye fluttering open against porcelain skin. His pointed elf ears twitched as his face turned to the side, looking toward the Emperor. His left eye with covered thoroughly in bandages wrapped around his head, the other pupil glazed with exhaustion. Vandole's eyes trailed down over the blankets, stopping on Sheex's arms. They were placed firmly at his sides over the blanket, each of them wrapped in more bandages over pale skin. So even a demon could prove to be as helpless as a wounded animal. Vandole smirked.
"Hello Sheex," he greeted conversationally. "All other lieutenants are unusable at this time. /You/ will lead the attack on the Water Palace." The demon stared at him for a brief moment, saying nothing. His ears twitched once more as the words finally cleared in his mind, understanding finally coming back to his senses. Sheex gave a slight indication of a nod, silky purple hair falling over his forehead as he did so.
"Yes sir," he murmured quietly, straining his arms to sit up. The demon closed his one good eye against the pain surging through his wounded body as he moved. He breathed deeply, trying to focus on anything but the growing ache within his limbs. Everything hurt so much... Tears threatened the closed lid as he bit his lip, feeling warm shocks at the back of his throat. He brought one hand to his mouth, stomach churning with nausea as he coughed up blood into the open palm. Fingers trembled, the coppery taste lingering at the tip of his tongue.
"Stop!" Geshtar dashed forward, catching the demon's shoulders as he began to fall, consciousness draining from him. His body cringed in visible pain, muffled groans just barely escaping his throat. Geshtar looked upon him with sympathetic eyes, lying Sheex's head safely against the pillow. He then turned back to his leader with cold eyes, eyes that could have killed if warranted. "I'll go..." he mumbled in defeat, heading back towards the throne room door before he could see Vandole's satisfied expression. If he saw it, he was sure the urge to slap it off of his face would be too strong. That minipulative bastard... Geshtar closed the door quietly behind himself, punching the nearest wall in frustration once outside. Fingers remained unharmed beneath his armor's steel shell, smashing against stone walls again and again.
/"I want to be at your side forever..."/
Geshtar abruptly ceased his actions as the voice faded from his mind as quickly as it came. Nostaglic eyes drifted to the window of the imperial hall, his gaze stretching over the city below. There really wasn't anything he could do... The breeze drifted through his long green hair, the same voice returning once more. And he sighed.
The statue stared at her with dark bronze eyes, the still form nearly seeming to come to life. Purim looked back in wonder, running cautious hands over the bulging arms of the monster. No one in Pandora really knew why it was there, nor how long it had been there. It was as if the beast guarded the castle just ahead, scaring away those that approached it. She remembered the time when she and Pamela had gone there out of curiosity when they were still young children, grasping each other's hands in fear when it appeared that the statue's eyes began to move on their own within the lifeless object. The two of them had run home in tears, vowing never to go near there again.
"Is something wrong, Sis?" Popoei asked cutely, hopping up to get her attention. Purim shook her head absently, taking her hand away to pat the short sprite on the head reassuringly.
"The ruins are just ahead," she informed them as she picked up her pace along the path once more. Randi walked swiftly in time beside her, Popoei hopping along energetically behind them. The Mana Knight glanced over at his female companion a bit worriedly, contemplating on the girl's thoughts. She had been so disappointed to discover that Dyluck wasn't being held captive within Elinese's castle as she had thought. After she had fought so hard to make it there... Despite that, it made him glad however. He knew it was selfish to think such a thing, but he couldn't bear the thought of losing her so soon. He had never had any friends as true to him as Popoei and Purim were. And he wasn't about to lose them as quickly as he had found them. They were friends that truly believed in him. Friends that he would give his life to protect...
"That's it..." Purim said as she slowed to a stop. Randi snapped back into focus, observing the bleak ruins around them. Ghostly figures wandered the silent clearing, their bodies covered by thick robes, faces hidden behind colorful masks. They appeared to be floating above the ground, the dirt below their feet staying completely undisturbed as they moved. Gray walls circled around an expansive castle at the center of the clearing, forming a gate around the black door leading to the inside. Two more masked figures stood before the entrance, completely unmoving as they guarded it.
"This is spooky..." Popoei remarked under his breath, grabbing onto Randi's pant leg for support. "We're going in there, Bro?"
The Mana Knight nodded in affirmation, brown eyes locked upon his other companion as she stared ahead, shaking her head in denial, hands clasping frightfully over her mouth. Randi followed her gaze, his eyes meeting a pretty girl with curly blue hair, a pink headband holding back the fair locks from her gentle face. She sat upon the lowest step leading up to the castle, arms crossed in her lap as she merely looked back at them.
"Hello, Purim," Pamela finally voiced, slowly standing up to eye level with the other girl. Popoei peeked up at her from behind the young knight with a questioning look, watching the two interestedly. Randi followed suit, wondering just who this other girl was. And how she knew Purim for that matter. Besides, there was... something odd about her eyes. There was an emptiness within those cerulean pupils, something unexplainable. Something dangerous... "I was waiting for you."
"You must get away from here!" Purim said insistently, grasping her friend's hand urgently. "You'll be in danger if you stay here any longer!"
A chill ran up Purim's spine as the other girl giggled childishly, Pamela's hands moving in around hers. Her friend moved in closer, drawing the blonde into a tight embrace. Purim's body tensed, her legs taking an instinctive step back, Pamela following her movement. She resisted the urge to push the other girl away as her friend nuzzled her neck, icy fingers trailing upwards to absently stroke her face. She could smell blood, could taste it in her mouth. Pamela's skin felt so cold. So deathly cold...
"Say, Purim..." Pamela whispered into her ear, leaning more firmly against her. "You're trying to find Dyluck, aren't you?" She laughed as she released her hold on the Mana warrior, backing away from her with a sweet smile. "I'm going on a one-way trip too. Pretty cool, huh?"
"Pamela..." Purim shivered, her eyes quivering fearfully as they locked upon the dullened pupils of the other girl. She felt cold... "What's wrong with you...?" Her fingers trembled as they reached out in welcoming to her friend. "Let's go back now, okay?"
Pamela's expression softened, blue hair cascading over her shoulders as she glided towards Purim's outstretched hand. Her own hand stretched forward as if to take the other, quickly snapping upwards to slap Purim harshly across the cheek. Purim fell back with a gasp, the force of the unexpected strike throwing her off-balance. Randi wrapped strong arms about her, holding her up as the shock subsided, tears forming within Purim's eyes as she reached up to touch her now reddened cheek.
"Leave me alone!" Pamela screamed viciously, a small hiss emitting from her mouth. "Don't talk to me anymore!" She spun around, running hurriedly up the cracked steps, the two guards soundlessly parting for her to pass through.
"Purim, are you all right?" Randi looked down at the girl within his arms, sincere concern flowing through his voice. He shook her slightly. "Purim?" No response. "Is there anything I can do for you? Are you--"
"I'm fine..." Purim finally managed to reply. "Fine..." She slowly moved out of his arms, as if in a daze. She still felt so cold... Why? She shook her head, tossing the thoughts away as she drew out her weapon from the pouch at her side, clasping the metal knuckle around one hand. It felt tight as she clenched her fingers, staring blankly at the ground for a moment. And then she sprung forward, leaping over the short steps towards the two guards. The sharp ends of the weapon passed through them as though they weren't there at all, Purim's body stumbling past them. The two masked figures remained motionless, Purim now behind them.
"Ghosts?!" Popoei burst out, unbelieving. "No way!"
"It would appear that way..." Randi lowered his hand to the sprite's shoulder, keeping the child close at his side as the two of them passed as easily through the guards as Purim had. She fought for breath, trying to calm her heartbeat to a managable level.
<That wasn't Pamela! She would never do something like that! /Never/! Those eyes weren't hers!> she told herself. <Something's happened to her... I have to do something quick. Otherwise...>
"We have to hurry," Purim informed them, gazing at her two friends with intense eyes. The other two warriors nodded in agreement as they drew out their own weapons of choice, preparing for yet another series of endless battles.
Nodding to them in thanks, she grabbed blindly for any sort of knob on the door, finding nothing. Her brow knitted in frustration as she threw herself forcefully against it, the door finally wedging open just enough for her to push through. Darkness greeted her once inside, the footsteps of her two friends sounding behind her. Mist encircled them, an eerie feeling washing over each of the warriors as the door closed stiffly behind them. Statues of the same beast just outside lined the path of the main hall, their eyes swaying with each move the warriors made. And it was cold. Unbearably cold... Blood appeared to swallow each wall and object around them, covering everything, pools of it resting beneath their feet.
Purim's eyes adjusted to the fog around them, her feet guiding her forward despite the queasy feeling in her gut. She felt sick, as if she would throw up any moment. The scent of death was everywhere... Voices echoed, pleaded, against the brick walls, spirits begging to cling to life... Fear overtook her.
<Pamela... Dyluck... What's happening?>
Zombies emerged from the darkness beyond, blood dribbling from their open mouths.
"You did quite well, my dear," Thanatos purred as he placed a light kiss on the girl's forehead. She grinned contentedly, curling up comofortably in his lap. Dyluck sat at his feet, head pressed firmly against his leg as he slept. The guardian of death laughed softly, reaching down to pet Dyluck's head, his other hand playing absently with Pamela's long curls. "They're falling into our trap quite nicely."
Indeed, that girl was quite amusing and her anguish was so delicious that he could easily become addicted to it. Perhaps not as sweet as Pamela and Dyluck's had been before he claimed them by possession, but it had certainly increased with the two of them within his control. At any rate, she was undoubtedly fun to toy with. How could the Emperor possibly expect him to return to the Empire with such excitement happening? He would have his fun in the Empire when Fanha returned. Yes, when she returned the fun would begin...
Red eyes watched the crystal ball before him, the image of the three Mana warriors fighting their way admirably through his domain appearing within it. "Shall we let her entertain us furthur? I think a little dillusion will work quite nicely..." An airy chuckle. "/Quite/ nicely." The eyes flashed a brief moment before he stood, gathering up his two new servants with him. "Shall we go wait for her arrival in the main chamber, my pets?"
"That lazy Emperor is /so/ slow! Making a lady wait this long for a reply!" Scorpion pouted endlessly, her twin submissives attentively listening from their place on the floor. She spun around, hands placed indignantly on her hips as she continued to complain, pacing back and forth across their expansive underground ship. "Does he want to do business or doesn't he? I'll need those funds if I ever plan on getting the parts to make an even /better/ super robot!"
The twins merely stared at each other in confusion, looking from their boss to each other many times before one spoke.
"Didn't you say that you were above the Empire and didn't need any help from them, Boss...?" one ventured stupidly. Thick black lashes narrowed over dominating eyes as she kicked him over with one foot.
"It's not about that, you brainless idiot! I know what I'm doing!" With that she turned, stomping irritably out of the room, slamming the door to her main chamber forcefully behind her. The other twin leaned toward the other, whispering quietly in his ear.
"I think the boss is trying to get another opportunity to go to North Town. Think she has a crush on one of the lieutenants, ya know--" He cut off abruptly, a large wooden table flying across the room to smack him directly in the side of the head. The other lackey stared at his less-fortunate partner with wide eyes, cringing as their leader's scream echoed through the ship.
"/I do not/! Now shut up!"
The door slammed shut once more, her angry face fading. Why was she constantly surrounded by frickin' idiots?! It just wasn't fair when she could be with... A dreamy sigh escaped her lips. She'd find /some/ way to see him again, that was for sure, but how? Perhaps the Water Seed wasn't enough, or... She shook her head. It didn't matter. Her effort hadn't been wasted. The seed's power had increased her new creations power ten-fold. There was no way anyone could beat her now!
/"Have you ever thought about dying?"/
/"No. Have you?"/
/"Yes... My grandparents told me about the ancient wars and battles... About all the people that died fighting for the sake of our world. But I don't want to die yet. There's so many things that I want to do..."/
/"Don't worry. Dyluck and I will be here to protect you. So that you can do all the things you wish to do before you die."/
/"What I wish...?"/
/"Yes. What do you wish for, Pamela?"/
Purim's knees buckled beneath her. She fell to the ground, the memory flooding her senses. She could see it, both she and Pamela younger than they were now, sitting beneath a cherry tree. Pamela curled up beside her, the pink petals falling down ceaselessly upon them. The words echoed in her mind.
Blood enveloped everything, the crimson drops replacing the once falling petals. They smeared over Pamela's cheek, fell onto her hands. The girl smiled, her stained hands reaching out for Purim, tracing patterns over the blonde's cheek in blood. Her voice lowered to an icy whisper.
"Purim!" Randi reached down, pulling the girl back up onto her feet, causing the vision to shatter around her. "We're almost there! Don't give up yet!" Purim looked up at him dazedly, making a small indication of a nod. She felt faint and ill, the zombies along the way nearly causing her to vomit. Randi and Popoei seemed unfazed, however, the two of them fighting through the deathly spirits with ease.
Randi supported her by the shoulder as they moved onward, Popoei defeating anything within his power ahead. Her vision blurred, everything becoming hazy around her. Colors faded into the mist, everything beginning to go black. And despite it all she could make out the door before them, her hand deleriously reaching out to shove it open. She took a deep breath, breaking away from Randi's hold as she dashed into the room ahead. Faces concealed by masks stared at her from all sides, all of them a complete match with the other. She shook her head, trying to sort everything out into logical images. And her eyes fell upon the two people most dear to her at the top of the dark staircase at the center of the large room. Hurried footsteps came behind her as her hand reached blindly forward as if to touch them. And then her eyes fell upon him. Unknown horror tickled up her spine, red eyes watching her through the bleak mask. And again she felt the blood surrounding her, the cold, the emptiness.
"Welcome young Mana Knights," Thanatos greeted, his voice chipped cold like ice, his words piercing their ears as he continued. "Did you have fun playing with my spirits? They get restless from time to time. I thought they might need some new playmates. After all, it wouldn't be pleasant if these two were tossed down there with them, now would it?"
Purim took s timid step forward towards the staircase, Randi and Popoei close at her sides. A lump formed in her throat as she looked up at the frightening mask, a gleaming red light shining through it in place of his eyes. Stringy magenta hair could just barely be seen behind it, the strands worn long to the middle of his back. Robes flowed down to his feet, covering the death guardian's undead body. For a moment Purim even wondered if there /was/ a body beneath it. Perhaps only the form of a skeleton as his mask resembled.
"What have you done to them?" she finally managed to say, her voice small and meek. "You're responsible for all the villagers too, aren't you? Return everyone to the way they once were!" She held up her weapon threateningly, startled as the man began to laugh darkly at her.
"You have spirit, girl. It would have been amusing to take you instead of Pamela." Near-translucent hands reached out, pulling the blue-haired girl tightly to his side, holding her in place. Pamela looked up at him adoringly, closing blank eyes as she snuggled against his cloak.
"What are you doing to her?! You can't--" Her voice cut off as Randi grasped her arm, pulling her back away.
"Be careful," he murmured into her ear, silencing her protests. "Don't do anything careless... I can sense strong energies surrounding him..." Purim softened, ceasing to struggle against him, pretty eyes falling back upon Thanatos.
"Don't get the wrong idea," he chuckled once her attention was back on him. His calm, monotone nature never faltered as Dyluck glided to his other side, wrapping arms about his neck, golden head resting against his chest. "This one entertains me far more than she ever could. I'm going to make them my best friends too." The mask appeared to change, the lines contorting into a cruel smile. "Try to take them from me if you can, Mana Knights. Amuse me."
"We're not toys!" Purim screamed back, tearing away from Randi's hold on her arm, the other two warriors following her frantically up the long staircase. The death guardian's laugh echoed as he stepped back on the platform, the floor opening there to reveal a dark pit beneath their footing. Purim gasped as her fingers fumbled for the edge, just barely hanging on by one arm. She bit her lip, tears forming in her eyes as she heard Randi and Popoei fall in after her, their cries lost down below.
"Popoei! Randi!" Her body wrenched with a forceful sob, nearly causing her to lose her hold. Visions flashed through her mind one by one, an endless parade flitting through her brain. Swords clashed, blood poured from wounds, a cruel laugh... and a figure falling ceaselessly downwards... She choked in pain, pushing the images away, her hold slipping inch by inch.
Her two friends came forward, careless eyes looking down at her as she called out to them desperately, pleading helplessly.
"Pamela! Dyluck! Help me!"
Fingers slid, darkness clouding her vision.
Geshtar sighed as he led his troopers towards their destination, his muscles aching in exhaustion. That fucking bastard just /had/ to do this to him. But what other choice did he have? Thanatos and Fanha were already occupied with their own missions, and Sheex... Sheex couldn't possibly handle anything in his condition. How could Vandole even consider such a thing? Sheex could barely move, let alone stop the Mana Knight. It was all the Mana Knight's fault he was hurt after all...
He'd get him back for that.
Even so, he wondered how Fanha was fairing. She had been about as enthusiastic about travelling to the Upper Land as he had been about going to the Water Palace. She had left quite some time ago, the imperial castle strangely quiet without her around. Too quiet for Geshtar's liking. She didn't even know about Sheex's condition yet... And though he knew it was wrong to keep such knowledge from her, he couldn't bring himself to send a message to her. She would probably return immediately if he did, leaving her job undone, which would aggitate the Emperor even further. She would worry too much. Far too much...
He trudged onward through the water leading up the Water Palace staircase, waterfalls flowing from both sides of the large bulding. Finally they had made it. The Mana Knight would not be forgiven, no matter what the cost.
Wistful eyes gazed through the waters as the soldiers made their way carefully over the slick steps. Undine lowered the vision the sea had given her sadly. There wasn't anything she could do to protect Luka now. Only the Mana Knight could do that. And at that very moment he was heading straight into Thanatos' clutches. Crystal eyes closed, her tears lost within the water surrounding her.
<Luna was right after all... There really isn't anything we can do... to change Mana's fate...>
Geshtar thust open the door to the cathedral hall, long green hair flowing behind him as he ran towards the figure on the floor. Sheex sat there, his golden eyes alight with fear, mouth agape as he simply stared at the statue of the goddess before him. Stone eyes gazed back at him, almost as if in sympathy as the boy shivered and cowered before it. As Geshtar drew nearer he could sense the bleakness in the other child's expression. His eyes were empty, emotionless, void. As if he was in another world that was unreachable now. Some place that he could not go to...
"Sheex, what's the matter?" Geshtar asked as he knelt down beside the demon boy. Sheex merely cringed as he heard his friend's words, drawing his red cloak more tightly about himself as he began to shiver again, this time more intensely, teeth chattering. He held up trembling hands, looking down at his own palms in silence.
"Blood... There's blood all over me... I can't get it off... No matter how many times I try to wash it off, it doesn't help... It's still there..." he whispered, voice soft and icy as he spoke.
"What blood?" Geshtar asked in a confused voice. "I don't see any."
"You must be able to see it! It's all over!" Sheex let out a frightening scream, drawing up quivering hands to cover his ears. "Make it go away! Please take it all away! I can't take it anymore!"
"There's no blood, Sheex!" Geshtar cried out in denial, grasping the other boy in a frantic embrace, burying his face in Sheex's neck as he began to cry, as if in complete understanding of the other. "You're hallucinating! There's no blood! So please stop..."
Shaking hands intertwined.
Sheex moaned in his sleep, tossing beneath the bedcovers. His breath finally slowed into a steady rhythm, a tear tricking down from his one uncovered eye. Vandole smiled as he stroked Sheek's smooth cheek, his grin widening.
"Dream, my demon," he told the sleeping figure as if he were awake. "Dream of the future of our great Empire. And when you awake... Tell me the fate of the Mana Knight." A smirk crept across his features as he turned away, making his way back towards the entrance of the infirmary. And just as he reached for the doorknob, Sheex's barely audible whisper reached his ears.
Pandora's lake flowed quietly over small stones, the village held together over it with several small bridges built throughout the city. The sound nearly lulled Purim to sleep from her place at the palace garden, sleepily watching clouds billow across the pure blue sky. A gentle breeze whispered through her golden hair, ruffling the lovely white dress she wore. She sat up on the grass, watching as Dyluck came toward her, wearing his usual white and blue knight's uniform. She beamed at him as she stood up, looking over the vast variety of flowers surrounding them.
She giggled softly as she bent down, carefully breaking the stem of a single white rose. Not one thorn pricked her as she twirled it admiringly between her white-gloved fingers, smiling pleasantly.
"White roses are so beautiful," Purim marveled, holding the delicate flower to her nose. Dyluck smiled at her fondly, taking her other hand securely in his. Lovely cerulean eyes looked up at him, seeming lost within the depths of his pupils. He pulled her into an embrace, pressing her firmly against him. She closed her eyes. <I want to be able to stay this way forever...> Lips gently brushed against hers. <Just like this...> The rose fell to the ground as her hands wrapped around him, gently touching his back. A soft, tickling feeling met her fingertips. She gasped, looking up at the objects spread from Dyluck's back. /Angel wings/!
She giggled happily, their lips meeting once more as their hands twined together. <I...> She opened her eyes for a brief moment, their gaze drifting to the pond below them. Her mouth gaped open as she saw the reflection therein. There was Pamela, hugging Dyluck the same way that she was now, their bodies a complete match with each other, the other set of figures dressed all in black. <Love...> Dyluck held her sweetly, a pair of black demon wings strecthing from his back. Pamela's clear eyes opened, seeming to look up at her with a smirk, the reflection moving as he held her up in his arms, the two of them kissing. <You...>
"Pamela!" The scream escaped Purim's lips in panic as she spun back to Dyluck. The boy opened now emotionless eyes, a cruel smile spreading across his features. His hold tightened forcefully about her wrists, sending shocks of pain up her arms. "Dyluck, stop!" She struggled and writhed, feeling the blood trailing from her wrists. Her eyes squinched shut against it, her teeth clenching. A sharp pain shot through her breast. Eyes shot open, a frantic scream escaping her lips. The white dress was stained through with her own crimson blood, Dyluck's hand buried within her chest. "/NO/!"
He held up her heart with bloodied hands, crushing it within his grasp.
"Purim, wake up!"
Voices brushed at the edge of her mind, just barely escaping her. She forced her eyes open just slightly, her entire body numb and senseless. Everything around her smeared into nothing, her sight useless in her condition. Her limbs throbbed as a small twinge of feeling revived in her shoulders, her body being shaken by another. She could feel something wet against her face. Tears? Or blood? Or both...?
"Randi...?" Her voice slurred groggily, almost incomprehensibly.
"It's me. Everything's okay now. Jema is here. He'll help us. Just hang on for awhile longer." A warm hand caressed her cheek, her skin icy beneath his touch. She tried to move to no avail, staying motionless in his arms.
"Dyluck and Pamela...?" she was finally able to gasp out, consciousness slipping from her once more.
"He took them away..."
Endless darkness spun around her, devoured her.
Troopers watched dispassionately as the sage struggled against their assault, the now released monsters freely roaming through the palace's expansive waters. She shook her head defiantly, writhing beneath their strong fingers as they tied tight knots of rope about her wrists. Geshtar watched as they bound her with little interest, his attention focusing on the empty platform where the seed normally sat. For once Vandole had judged the truth of someone's words correctly. Either that or it was his own dumb luck. That lousy drunk had no /real/ sense of strategy after all.
"You can't do this!" Luka persisted, crying out in pain as one of the troopers punched her in the stomach. She fell limp in their arms, her body too weak to fight back any longer. She shook her head in dismay, sea blue hair cascading around her young face. "You must stop..."
"You've already called for him, haven't you?" Geshtar turned back to her, one steel-gloved hand cupping her chin to make her look up at him. "Try to send out any other telepathic warnings and it will be the end of you, Sage. I suggest you be a good girl and wait for your hero quietly."
<Mistress Undine... Please save me...> Her lips quivered in fear yet no words came out, her body frozen in place. <When she devoted her powers to Randi, her seal on this palace was destroyed... I never imagined the Empire would come this far... But how could they have known that the seed was stolen...? I don't understand...>
"Why is the Empire doing this?" she demanded, helpless tears rolling down her cheeks. "Don't you care about what happens to Mana?!"
Geshtar smirked at her, releasing his hold around her face. He drew back casually, intense eyes locking on hers.
"There is something much more important than Mana."
The sage gasped, eyes widening. "What is it? What is it that is so important?" No reply answered her queries. Only the sound of the lonely waters drifting over marble palace floors, her tears falling down within their depths. There was nothing she could do now...
/"There is something much more important than Mana."/
<Please save our world...>
<Haven't you realized it yet, Luka? There isn't anything we can do to save Mana now. Our powers mean nothing against fate. And if fate wishes for our destruction, than so be it. Not even the Goddess herself can fight it, and neither can we.>
The moon glowed eerily through the glass window, prisms of light dancing across the slumbering demon's face. Transulent hands shone with light, reaching out to him. One golden eye fluttered open, squinting against it. It faded back into dark as if never there, a shadow dancing mischeviously across the omnious moon hanging in the sky. The demon sat up, a tear whispering down his cheek.
/"Love can choose a sad result of many possible futures. Those who wish for love will only destory themselves..."/
<There is nothing we can do.>