by melusine

Part One: Kings and Queens

If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain,
We'd hunt down love together,
Pluck out his flying feather,
And teach his feet a measure,
And find his mouth a rein.
-- Algernon Charles Swinburne "A Match"

It had only been a year after the second Mana Fortress War and the Mana Tree was beginning to regrow. The sapling grew in the ruins of the former tree, its slender branches bent under the weight of the eight seeds that hung from them. The seeds were bringing Mana back into the world and the sprites were able to return to their home in the Great Forest in the Upper Land. Also in the Great Forest, the castle of the dark elves was cut from the overgrowth that obscured it. To the surprise of all the kingdoms, the dark elf Empress Yin took control over her late husband's empire before any confusion could occur between Northtown, Southtown, and Gold City. The Empress had not been seen since her and Vandole's separation sixteen years ago and was, before she stepped forward to take control of the empire, rumored to be dead. Tragically, the eight Mana seeds were stolen two years after they appeared and the Mana Knight Lucius, the noblewoman Rosary, and Edgar the sprite were sent to the Upper Land to search for the lost Mana seeds.

Lucius sat under a tree, cleaning his sword. His eyes scanned the forest, watching dots of luminous green dart through the trees like the eyes of cats. Beside him were his companions: Rosary and Edgar. Suddenly, an arrow shot out and buried itself by Lucius's left ear. It was soon followed by two more: one next to his right ear and another just over the top of his head.

"Whoa!" Edgar squeaked and ducked behind the tree.

"Quick," he hissed. "We need Lucid Barrier!"

Rosary whispered the spell and pale aura surrounded the three adventurers. It seemed almost comforting in the strange land.

"What now?" Rosary whispered as a couple of arrows bounced off of the shield.

"We can only wait it out," Lucius said.

"They're so strange looking, Morbius," a dark elf girl pointed at the sleeping adventurers with her bow. "Who are they?"

"Don't know, Rhianna," the second dark elf, a boy, rapped a fist against the Lucid Barrier. "This spell is strong -- she's good!"

"So we're dealing with professionals. . .he won't like this, you know," Rhianna said to her brother.

"Nothing pleases him," Morbius shrugged and kicked the barrier. "Hey, this is fun!"

"Stop it! We don't want to scare them further -- that kid has the Mana Sword!"

"So?" Morbius grinned.

"'So?!' You boob! He could kill us both! What do you mean 'so?'" Rhianna shrieked and hit him.

"Oww Rhi! Stoppit!" Morbius laughed and sat down under another tree and Rhianna sat down beside him.

"Dear Mana," Rosary said as she studied the two dark elves. "What are they?"

"They're dark elves," Edgar explained. "They're subjects of Empress Yin, Emperor Vandole's widow. They used to live in an underground kingdom, but the activities of the Scorpion Army and the reawakened monsters caused them to move."

"You're right," Rhianna said as she sat up. "Almost."

"Who are you?" Lucius asked the two elves.

"I'm Morbius and this is my twin sister Rhianna," Morbius answered. "We've been searching for you three for a couple of weeks now."

"I thought that dark elves never left their Empress for long periods of time," Lucius commented. "Like ants from their queen."

The twins exchanged troubled looks. "The king's back in town with ideas for a new hive," Rhianna said. "And the workers aren't happy."

"'The king?'" Edgar repeated. "But, but Emperor Vandole was killed in the Tree Palace."

Morbius shook his head. "He survived and somehow managed to escape."

"And showed up at the castle doors asking for Empress Yin's forgiveness," Rhianna sighed. "Her majesty, I guess, still loved him and took him back in and now he's raving about a new Mana Fortress of some sort. He was crazy enough before, but now. . ."

"And she's never been happier," Morbius picked up where his sister had left off. "But I think he's just biding his time to push her out again and take over our people as well. Humans," the dark elf snorted. "Just take and take and take -- no offense though, noting present company."

"None taken," Lucius said and Rosary nodded. "So what's this about a new Mana Fortress?"

"We haven't heard too much about it, just a little about some sort of Mana beam and something called the Soul Machine. The Empress isn't even telling her personal guard anything," Rhianna shrugged. "So now we're just waiting for something, anything, that could give us a clue as to what's going on."

"But then it might be too late," Rosary protested.

"It's always too late when Vandole is involved!" Rhianna threw up her hands in disgust. "We're helpless against him. . . Yin's practically his doormat."

"So you two want us to stop him," Lucius said.

"Yes, us and all the other dark elves," Morbius nodded. "We're afraid of them together."

Part Two: The Soul Machine

I have made a great discovery.
What I love belongs to me.
Not the chairs and tables of my house,
but the masterpieces of the world.
It was only a question of loving them enough.
-- Elizabeth Asquith Bibesco "Balloons"

"It's beautiful," Empress Yin whispered as she surveyed the huge machine that dominated the lowest reaches of the castle. A multitude of dark elves and the entire Scorpion Army toiled at constructing the strange device. After their robots had broken into the old underground fortress of the dark elves, the Empress's troops captured their leader and forced them to surrender under threat of her death. Impressed by their work, though unsuccessful on the Kilroy robot, the Emperor ordered them to work on another device that combined machinery and Mana; the engine of the new Mana Fortress which known by the workers who slaved at it as the "Soul Machine." Those who worked on it or near it almost went insane from the feeling of an evil presence in the room, an evil that seemed to emanate most from the eight large, locked chests that were lined up against the west wall. Dark elf and Scorpion soldier alike avoided the chests, fearing what dark magic they could contain.

"It is, isn't it," Vandole agreed and the Empress jumped a bit, startled. "So kind of you to let me use your castle to house it."

"Our castle," Yin murmured. "It's ours now."

"The world will be ours, too," the Emperor whispered. "As soon as the machine is finished.

"I can hardly wait."

"Aaaaiiiieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" The three travelers woke to the sound of Rhianna and Morbius screaming.

"What the hell?!" Lucius growled and drew his sword.

"Dragon!" Rhianna gasped.

"Big, big dragon!" Morbius held his hands out. "Really, really big dragon!"

Lucius, Rosary, and Edgar looked up at Flammie. "Hi Flammie. Did you two mess with the drum?"

The twin dark elves nodded and shrugged.

"Well, as long as you're here," Edgar said. "Would you mind taking us somewhere?" The white dragon sat down and the travelers climbed on.

A bruised, dirty Scorpion soldier stumbled into the throneroom and bowed before the Emperor and Empress. "Your majesties, the Soul Mach -- I mean, the engine is finished."

"Finally," Emperor Vandole said before turning to his wife. "Will you join me?"

"Yin, the key," he held out an open hand and Yin removed her necklace, from which an ornate key hung. Quickly, she slid the key off of the chain and placed it in her husband's hand. With the key, the Emperor opened each of the locked boxes, revealing eight Mana seeds. "The Mana Tree rarely produces seeds, we were lucky to be able to get these."

The Empress motioned for some of the workers to open a panel on the side, which led to the center of the machine. After being handed one seed each. eight dark elves crawled into the opening and placed the seeds in their respective places in the engine's heart and ran out.

"It all begins now."

Part Three: No Child Of Mine

She that had no need of me,
Is a little lonely child
Lost in Hell. Persephone,
Take her head upon your knee,
Say to her: "My dear, my dear,
It is not so dreadful here."
-- Edna St. Vincent Millay "A Prayer to Persephone"

"There it is!" Rhianna pointed to the beautiful castle surrounded by thick stone walls. The walls were twisted into a maze to trap the unwary. "You can land in the courtyard."

"But what if the sentries see us?" Rosary asked. Biting her lower lip, she looked down at the castle. She had the disturbing feeling that she had been there before, but quickly dismissed it as being due to the castle's resemblence to a Mana Palace.

"They won't report it," Morbius answered. "They know why we're here."

With an electrical crackle and a strange whooshing sound which soon settled into a low, rhythmic hum, the Soul Machine switched on. A black aura began to settle as if all the shadows and dark places in the dungeon were collecting around it.

Standing beside the Emperor and Empress, the Boss of the Scorpion Army, Jessiset, beamed with pride. Never before had her Army built something as superbly evil, as malignant as the hulking machine before them.

"Magnificent," Vandole breathed and ran his hands along the Soul Machine's metal sides. "Splendid."

Jessiset touched the machine briefly before jerking her hand away. The aura surrounding the device didn't burn or freeze, it felt more like a dense, slimy fog. The Kilroy robot hadn't been like this, she thought. But Kilroy was for battle, this thing was for vengeance.

Flammie landed in the courtyard, pausing only long enough for the travelers to climb off of his back before flying away. There was a sense of waiting around the castle, as if everyone and everything was holding its breath. Rosary felt as if all eyes were on her, that even the spout-mouthed gargoyles were staring. She shivered and shook her head.

"It was only a dream," she said to herself.

"What about a dream?" Lucius asked her.

"Nothing," she said dismissively. "I was just talking to myself."

"I do that all the time, sometimes I even answer," Edgar laughed tensely, trying to break the somber mood.

"Follow me," Morbius said and walked to a place on the outer wall. He then stuck one hand into a chink in the mortar holding the stones together. With a grinding sound, a hidden door swung open into pitch blackness. The dark elf pressed a button on the other side of the door and a narrow staircase was revealed in the resulting light. "Watch your step!" he cautioned as he started down the steps, Lucius, Rosary, and Edgar staying close behind him, while Rhianna followed followed after them to close the door.

"This takes us under the dungeon where the Soul Machine is being built," Rhianna said. "It was constructed long ago by the Mana Tribe to rescue Imperial prisoners."

"But you said before that the dark elves moved into this castle recently,' Edgar looked puzzled.

"Right," Rhianna nodded. "But this castle has been around for a long, long time. . .We just moved back in."

Hours later, the passage opened into a large room filled with beds and the remains of medical supplies. "Many of the prisoners that came to this castle long ago were tortured," Morbius explained. "They were fixed up here so they could survive the journey home. You all can take a nap here if you like, I don't think we'll get much of a chance to rest later."

Rosary twisted around in her sleep, troubled by nightmares. In her dreams she was bound to the back of a blood-red dragon, a gauntlet-covered hand clamped over her mouth to keep her from screaming. She felt like she was being taken from her home, but the surroundings weren't anything like the area around Pandora. Her abductor was saying something to her or someone else, but she couldn't remember the words.

"Here we go," Rhianna said and opened the door that led into the dungeon. "Scared?"

"Not at all," Lucius said boldly and drew his sword.

"Liar," Rhianna laughed and went through the door. "My brother and I were born in this castle and we're even scared. Right, Morbius?"

"Right," the second dark elf nodded. "Behold the Soul Machine."

"That thing?" Edgar asked as they looked at the sprawling machine that had pipes leading out of the dungeon and into the walls. Every visible surface of the Soul Machine was covered with the rippling black mist and the metallic smell in the air reminded them of blood.

"What now?" Lucius queried.

"What indeed," the Emperor stepped out from behind the machine. "Fancy seeing you children here," he smiled like a knife. "And you two, you were supposed to be working on the west turret."

"We're not your slaves," Rhianna spat. "We're Empress Yin's subjects."

"And Yin is my wife, what's hers is mine," Vandole said matter-of-factly.

"Not in the eyes of her people," Morbius snapped.

"Then maybe she should decide what to do with you five," he said and a group of soldiers dragged the adventurers up the flights of stairs to meet their fate.

"Yin, these children were found toying with the Soul Machine," Emperor Vandole scowled at the five.

"Persina!" Empress Yin jumped down from her throne and embraced Rosary. "My daughter," she gasped. "My beautiful baby girl."

"Daughter?" Lucius, Edgar, and Vandole repeated.

"Funny isn't it?" Yin laughed as Rosary/Persina tried to squirm free. "You banished me because you were angry that you didn't have an heir and it turned out that I was pregnant. Don't act so innocent with me, either, your soldiers stole her from me when she was just little more than a baby."

"I didn't order it, Yin! I didn't even know about her!" Vandole protested.

"Then who did?"

16 years ago. . .

Fanha ran through the maze, clutching a map. Now it's time to claim what's mine, she thought. The Great Imperial Fools had no right to separate us. Upon reaching the castle, she began to bang on the door.

"What is it at this hour?" she heard Sheex growl before opening the door. "Fanha! What are you doing here?"

"I'm here to take you back to the Emperor," Fanha said and whistled for the dragon she had arrived on.

"But the Emperor ordered me to stay at this castle and the Empress has assigned me to guard her child."

"He changed his mind," she lied and climbed onto the back of the blood-colored dragon. "Besides, we can just take her child with us. You can guard the kid just as well from the air as in the castle."

"I'll be right back," Sheex told her before disappearing back into the castle. He soon emerged carrying a sleeping two-year-old girl. He handed the girl to Fanha before joining her on the dragon. "Let's go."

The dragon then took to air, the jolt causing the young Persina to wake up. Before the child could even scream, Fanha clamped her hand over Persina's mouth. "What do we do with the kid now?"

"We'll think of something," her companion said simply. On their way to the Emperor's castle, they saw the kingdom of Pandora. "This looks like a good spot," Sheex said and knocked the girl unconscious with a spell. "Could you fly us by that castle? I have an idea."

The dragon hovered next to a window, while Sheex set the unconcious Persina outside the door of the nobleman Elman. After that, he jumped out of the window and onto the dragon's back. The three beings then flew back to the Emperor's castle.

Part Four: Heartbeat

One man with a dream, at a pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song's measure
Can trample an empire down.
-- Arthur William Edgar O'Shaughnessy, "Ode"

Rosary looked as if she was about to faint, her eyes wide and the color draining out of her face. Memories turned nightmares flooded around her, old wounds turning into fresh gashes. She remembered waking up in the Castle of Pandora, crying for her mother. She remembered how they had stared at her strange ears, too pointed to be human, too rounded to be fully elven, and her eyes that glowed like a cat's in the darkness. Her father -- no, her father was Vandole -- the nobleman who had adopted her was her first experience with human kindness. "No, she whispered. "No."

"Rosary?" Lucius laid a hand on her shoulder.

"I'm not Rosary," she looked up at them, tears in her eyes. "I'm Persina."

"How sweet," Emperor Vandole said. He closed his eyes and a skull of black mist appeared like a summoned Mana Elemental.

Moments later, the two humans, three dark elves, one sprite, and one halfbreed were transported into the lair of the Soul Machine.

"It's Mana magic," Edgar gasped. "He's using Mana magic, but how?"

"How?" the Emperor grinned. "There are eight Mana seeds in the Soul Machine, sprite, all waiting for my command. I'm going to use them to destroy the world."

"What?!" Yin looked stunned. "You never said before that you were going to destroy the world, you said that you wanted to rule it!"

"I can rule over wreckage," he answered coldly. "People are much more obedient when they know you can kill them all."

"If I was to be Empress of all the world with you, I would want to rule mercifully."

"Mercy is for children," Vandole growled. "And did you ever really believe that I would have you by my side?"

"But you said that the world would be ours," Yin said desperately.

"I lied," the Emperor said and began to cast another spell.

"Not so fast!" Edgar snapped and cast Dispel. Lucius rushed at the Emperor, sword drawn, ready to stab him in the heart. With surprising speed, Vandole dodged away and Lucius's sword buried itself in the Soul Machine. Black mist boiled around the point of entry and something exploded deep within the machine. Lucius jerked the sword out and he, Persina, Edgar, Rhianna, and Morbius hit the ground.

"Nooooooo! My beautiful machine!" Vandole wailed and struck Yin. "Why didn't you stop them?!"

"There was nothing I could do," Yin whimpered, gingerly touching the forming bruise on her cheek. "It happened so fast. I couldn't do --"

"Enough!" he snarled and hit her with a Dark Force-like spell. The dark elf woman cried out and collapsed, sobbing. Pipes and valves began to rupture in the Soul Machine as if the spells that were being cast were tearing it apart. The ground seemed to shake with the force of another explosion. Suddenly, a black laser-like beam lanced out of the hole in the Soul Machine's side and hit the Emperor in the chest, right at heart-level, tearing through armor, flesh, and bone before exiting out the other side. Killed instantly, the Emperor crumpled to the floor. A short while after that, the Soul Machine stopped humming and rumbled to a stop, mist dissipating.

"Oh mother," Persina whispered and cast Cure Water on Yin.

"Thank you," Yin said weakly. "Vandole would have killed all of you, even his daughter. I thought I loved him," she looked at her husband's corpse. "I thought this would hurt more."

Yin stared the flickering flames of her husband's funerary pyre, holding his crown in her hands. Persina stood beside her. "What now," she asked.

"I don't want to rule anymore," Yin removed her own crown. "I don't want to be Empress and I don't want to be Queen. They can find someone new to rule the four kingdoms, I'm stepping down."

"But who will rule?" Lucius asked, wondering if Persina would take the throne. Persina whispered something to Yin, who nodded.

"Rhianna and Morbius," Yin called the two dark elves forward.

"Yes, Empress?" the twins kneeled before her.

"In organizing the revolt against Vandole when I was too clouded by a love I thought I felt, you two showed that you cared for both your people and humankind," Yin said and set the crowns on Rhianna and Morbius's heads. "For that act of selflessness and bravery, I crown thee Emperor and Empress of the four kingdoms, three human and one elven, and King and Queen of your people."

"Ready?" Lucius asked, holding the Flammie drum.

Yin weakly nodded her head, face barely visible behind the black veil she wore. In her hands she held an urn containing the Emperor's ashes. "Yes, I think I am," her voice trembled.

"Ready?" the Mana Knight asked Persina and Edgar.

"Yes," Persina said.

"Of course I am!" Edgar said brightly.

"Then let's go," Lucius shook the drum. Soon, Flammie landed in the courtyard, white scales glittering in the afternoon sun. Carefully, eight dark elves loaded the chests containing the Mana seeds onto his back.

"Thank you," the former Empress smiled.

"Are you sure you aren't going to stay?" one of the dark elves asked.

"There are too many memories in this place," Yin's smile disappeared. "Memories I'd rather not relive. Good-bye," she handed Edgar the urn before waving to the dark elves and climbing onto Flammie's back.

"Yuck! I'm holding a dead guy!" Edgar wailed.

"Baby," Persina took the urn away and handed it back to her mother.

After the remaining three adventurers had climbed onto the dragon's back, Flammie flapped his wings and took to air.

"I've always wanted to see the world," Yin said and Persina squeezed her hand.


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