Prelude
a prequel to Yin
by melusine

Part One: Calm Before the Storm

The Queen -- now can you guess who
that could be
(She's a little girl by day, but at night
she steals away)?
Well -- it's me!
-- Rose Fyleman "The Fairies"

Yin stood on the balcony of the Northtown castle, her ebony hair whipping around her in the frosty wind. She had never seen snow before, for the weather never changed in the Upper Land, so the sight of the blizzard was mesmerizing. "The Mana Fortress is causing all this?" she asked her husband, Vandole, who was standing beside her.

"No," he laughed. "This is normal Northtown weather for the winter. The Mana Fortress hasn't surfaced yet."

Yin sighed. She and Vandole, both just twenty-two, had been married for four years and had moved to his father's castle in Northtown recently. The ailing Emperor Jaeve was anxious to see his son again and was worried about others taking the throne. She remembered reading the letter and knowing that she would have to leave her home.

"It doesn't seem real, does it? That the Mana Fortress is back, I mean," Prince Vandole smiled. "I was told stories about it as a child and wished that I could see it someday."

"Be careful what you wish for, my love."

Vandole sat by his father's bedside, listening to the frail man's ragged breathing. "Thank you for coming back on such short notice," his voice was a thin whisper.

"It was no trouble, father. Did you know that Yin had never seen snow before?"

"What did she think of it?"

"She loved it. You should have seen the look on her face. . .she looked like a child at Christmas," he sighed.

The old Emperor smiled, creasing a face that was lined from pain. He felt like he was being eaten from the inside out, but tried to hide it from his son. "That's wonderful," Jaeve gasped and began to cough.

"Hang in there, we've sent for a sorcerer who can heal you."

The hooves of the four horses seemed like thunder in the white silence of the blizzard. Barely able to see through the thickly falling snow, the three riders followed their leader, who seemed to be able to look through the storm.

"How much longer?" one of them asked.

The leader was silent and urged his horse to go faster, forcing his companions to do the same or else be lost in the storm. Across hills and plains they sped and through forests they dodged trees and brush that seemed to appear from nowhere. At last they came upon the castle at Northtown, their conjured mounts disappearing like faerie gold in the cold light of morning. The leader of the group put his hand on the locked doors of the castle and the doors flew open. He said a few words in an ancient language and suddenly a fire was blazing in the fireplace and all the torches were lit. The leader smiled behind his hood and mask, he had always enjoyed putting others out of pain. . .or causing it.

Part Two: Speak of the Devil

I am the wound and the knife!
I am the blow and the cheek!
I am the limbs and the wheel--
The victim and the executioner!
-- Charles Baudelaire "L' Heautontimoroumenos"

The three companions, one of them shorter than the other two, stood in front of Vandole and Yin's bed. The prince and princess of the Empire were nestled in each otherís arms, their breathing slowed in sleep.

"They look sweet," the middle one, a female if judging by the voice, said and one of the taller ones snorted.

"Let's just get this over with," growled the one who had snorted.

"Very well," the third sighed. "Let's go, my dear."

The female nodded and whispered an incantation. The five beings disappeared.

"What's the meaning of this? Who are you?" Vandole demanded.

"I am Thanatos," the leader said and lowered the hood of his cloak, revealing a mask. "These are my associates Geshtar, Fanha, and Sheex."

Vandole gasped. He knew who these people were, each were rather famous. Gestar had been a mercenary and assassin for hire until Thanatos had recruited him. Fanha was the daughter of the witch Elinee and Cain the Archmage of the Northern Wastelands and was a powerful sorceress in her own right. She had been disowned and banished by her mother when she found Fanha in a compromising position with her shapeshifting demon familiar, Sheex. The demon, an Aegagropilon, was extremely loyal to whoever he deemed to be his master or mistress. And now he was serving both Thanatos as a warrior and Fanha as a protector and companion. Thanatos was the legendary Black Sorcerer, and said to be many times more powerful than Cain and well over 300 years old. A feeling of dread settled in the young prince's stomach, for these people had left nothing but suffering in their wake.

"But why are you here?" he asked again.

"You sent for me," Thanatos laughed. "Or had you forgotten sending for someone to heal your father?"

"Yes, I did remember," Vandole said unsteadily. "And now you're here."

"Yes he is," Geshtar snapped and sat down on one of the ornate chairs in the meeting hall.

"Patience," Thanatos warned.

"You're the one that's trying to raise the Mana Fortress!" Yin's eyes widened at the realization.

Thanatos nodded.

"The Fortress," Vandole said wistfully. "I would give much to see it," he added in a whisper.

But how much are you willing to give? Thanatos thought.

"Here he is," Vandole motioned towards his father. "Can you help him?"

"The spell will take a long time to prepare," Thanatos lied. "Days, perhaps."

"Whatever it takes," the prince told him.

Later that day, Fanha and Geshtar were sitting in front of the big fireplace in the meeting hall. "The Empire will be in trouble if that soft-hearted fool takes over," Geshtar said.

"Thanatos will fix that," Fanha answered.

"You trust him too much."

"I don't," she shook her head. "I just like being on the side that wins."

Part Three: Thief of Souls

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
If were done quickly; if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success. . .
-- William Shakespeare "Macbeth"

Thanatos watched the young sorceress carefully as she whispered the soul-binding spell and transferred it to the contract. He had kept her in thrall since she was eighteen years old by telling her that he had killed her father, the Archmage Cain. That, however, was only a partial truth. In fact, he had, along with seven or eight more sorcerers and sorceresses, paralyzed the Archmage with spells and stabbed him in the heart. All of his companions had been killed as Cain died, for he had released a final shredding blast of magical energy just before his pierced heart stopped beating. Thanatos had absorbed some of the amazingly harsh magic and became more powerful because of it, to the level of the Archmage and beyond. He drew the knife that had slain Fanha's father, noting the few flecks of dried blood that remained after ten years. The sorceress stared at the rusting blade with fear in her eyes and quickly finished the spell. Amazing, Thanatos thought. She's nearly as powerful as her father, but is scared to death of a rusty dagger and a half-truth story. "You can go now," he said to her, and Fanha nodded and walked quickly out of the room. Thanatos could hear her running as soon as she had left his sight. A low, liquid growling rumbled behind him and Thanatos whirled around to face Sheex in his true form. Damn her, the sorcerer thought. Why couldn't she have picked a normal demon for a familiar instead one of these walking sets of jaws? The Aegagropilon loomed over him seconds longer before stamping out of exit the sorceress had taken, walk ungainly in the small spaces in the castle.

Glad that the beast was gone, Thanatos rolled up the ensorcelled paper and stuck it into his robe. "Now for the prince," he said to himself.

"We need help with the Fortress," Thanatos told Vandole as he unrolled the contract onto a table. "Would you be interested in helping us?"

"In helping you with the Mana Fortress?" the young man could hardly believe his ears. "The one from the stories and legends?"

"The very same," Thanatos smiled, a serpent charming a bird.

"I would," Vandole said eagerly.

"Sign here to bind the contract," Thanatos handed Vandole the contract and produced a quill pen. "Here," he said and gave Prince Vandole the quill, making sure that the sharp writing point scraped his hand, drawing a small amount of blood. After dipping the quill into a small pot of ink on the table, Vandole signed his name in an elegant, flowing script. There was a flash of light and a moment of sickening pain as soon as the signature was completed. Vandole felt a sudden emptiness in himself, as if something was missing.

Thanatos bowed. "You are now part of the cause, Emperor Vandole."

"But I'm not Emperor," Vandole said.

"You are now," Geshtar held up a bloody sword.

"You killed my father?!" Vandole gasped. He knew what he was supposed to feel saddened, even devastated, but nothing seemed to remain. Nothing, that is, but rage. "You murdered him while he slept, unable to fight back?!"

"You wanted to rule and you wanted the Fortress," Thanatos said simply. "And now you have what you wanted." With those words the sorcerer and assassin vanished.

Yin rushed into the room. "Your father is dead," she sobbed and embraced him. "They murdered him. I can't believe they did that. I'm so sorry."

Gritting his teeth, Vandole looked down at the dark elf. It wasn't even her father that was killed, he thought angrily and tore himself from her embrace. "It was you that sent for them!" Vandole shouted at her. "This all your fault!" Yin shrank back, afraid.

"No," she whimpered as she backed away, hands held out defensively. "You sent for them. . . I didn't know that they were evil. . ."

"There's a lot you don't know, isn't there?" Vandole grabbed her wrists. "Nothing more than a pretty face and a slender form, aye? You little bitch, you stupid little barren bitch!"

Yin recoiled as if she had been struck. He had never spoken to her like that before and had never before treated her this way. She wanted to tell him that, after four years, she was pregnant, but fear paralyzed her. Yin felt like her tongue was dead in her mouth, making it unable for her to form words.

"You're useless!" he threw her to the ground. "A failure at your one duty as royal wife!"

Yin looked up at him, tears streaming down her face. Vandole met her gaze and felt a tug at his heart. He felt horrible for what he had done, but that feeling was soon swallowed up by the emptiness. She couldn't stay, he thought. She would only get in the way of his plans. "Go," he growled.

"And take the demon with you," Thanatos said, suddenly in the room with his three assistants. "The lady needs protection, doesn't she?"

"Yes, she does," Vandole agreed.

"But," Fanha began to protest. "Just Sheex? I could go as well."

"You're too useful as a sorceress to let you leave," the sorcerer told her and cast a spell. A wave of darkness surrounded Sheex and Yin before both disappeared. "Now with that messy little matter taken care of, why don't we plan our attack with the Mana Fortress and the destruction of the Mana Knight Serin who wishes to stop us."

Part Four: Fallen Angel

The first stone is love, and that shall fail you.
The second stone is hate, and that shall fail you.
The third stone is knowledge, and that shall fail you.
The fourth stone is prayer, and that shall fail you.
The fifth stone will not fail you.
The fifth stone is a magic stone...
Made up of fear and failure, lies and loss.
-- Stella Benson "Five Smooth Stones"

Yin sat back in her throne, head bowed and eyes closed, savoring the graceful sounds of the court musicians. The melody was sad and haunting and told the ancient tale of a maiden kidnapped by the King of the Underworld. Yin bitterly remembered how similar her life was to the stolen maiden Persephone.

A page ran up to her. "Empress Yin," he said and bowed. "There is someone who seeks audience with you."

"Who is it?" Yin asked, her reverie ended.

"He didn't say, Empress," the page told her. "Shall I send him in?"

"Yes, please do," Yin nodded and the page scurried out of the throne room.

Vandole allowed himself to be led into the throne room, even though he already knew the way. He saw Yin seated on an ornate throne, dressed all in black. Is she mourning my supposed death? he wondered. The castle, like the one in Tasnica, had a city built into it, and the dark elves that had lined the second story to listen to the music backed away. Emperor Vandole saw parents shooing their children into their homes, while casting angry looks at him. He removed his horned helmet and knelt down before Yin. "My sweet Empress wife," he said, forcing himself to speak kindly to her.

Yin's eyes had the hardened look of a survivor's and the look that she gave her long-absent husband was as terrible as a dragon. "They told me that you were dead," she told him, her voice holding no hint of emotion. "I didn't cry."

"I was wrong, Yin," Vandole said softly. "Please forgive me."

Yin regarded her husband. The half shadows that the torches threw made him look younger, obscuring wrinkles and making the gray strands in his blond hair less noticeable. He looked like the man she had loved and married, not the tyrant who had caused so many innocent lives to be lost.

"I've missed you," Emperor Vandole said and added to himself. I'll vomit if I have to spout too much more of this sentimental trash.

Empress Yin regarded him with stony silence.

"They betrayed me. Thanatos took control and Fanha paralyzed me with a spell, she meant to kill me like Thanatos had killed her father. But the pain of being betrayed by those I thought were loyal to me was nothing compared to the pain of having betrayed my wife."

"Pain?" Yin's terrible gaze bored into him. "You enjoyed it!" With those words, the dark elf slid out of her throne and walked out of the room.

The Empress lay down on her bed, crying. Wiping tears from her eyes, she reached behind a chest of drawers, opened a secret drawer, and withdrew a locket. She looked at the two thumbprint sized paintings, one of her husband and one of a golden-haired child. "Persina," she whispered, running a finger over the glass that protected the painting of the girl.

"Who is that?" Vandole asked and sat down beside her on the bed.

The dark elf shuddered, she hadn't heard him come in. "No one you'd care about," she said and closed the locket. "Why are you really here?"

"To ask you to be Empress of the World and rule at my side," Emperor Vandole looked into her tear-reddened eyes. "And for you to take me back."

"You want the world now?" Yin whispered. "The four kingdoms are large enough for us to rule."

"The world and you," Vandole insisted. "Both."

"Why do you want me?" she drew closer.

Vandole felt sick, he was tired of lying through his teeth for nothing. "Because I love you, Yin."

Yin's face softened, the hate melting from her eyes. "You do?"

"With all my soul," Vandole smiled at the irony of his statement, for he had lost his soul in the contract years ago. "I know I have wronged you, can you find it in your heart to forgive me?"

"I forgive you," Yin said. She knew she shouldn't trust him and thought herself foolish for even saying that she forgave him. But, she reasoned. Sometimes it's best to keep one's enemies as close as one's friends. Especially when the enemy was married to you. Perhaps, Yin thought as she shared a long kiss with Vandole. I'll find a friend in him again.

The End.

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