A/N: This is a kind of prologue to Demon Star. Time-wise, the prologue takes place about 15 years prior to the actual story.

After Death

"Hundreds of thousands, thousands of thousands of years ago, when the world was still young, at a time before any of the mortal races even existed, gods and demons inhabited the realm. The gods and demons were constantly at war with one another, battling it out meaninglessly over differences that could never be settled. However, the world in which they fought was created by neither of these races; it was instead created by a race called the Ancients.
"Though for a long time the Ancients were patient with the alien races that had found their way to their world, the patience of the Ancients, like that of any other race, was not eternal. Fed up with the constant warring of the gods and demons, the Ancients finally had little choice but to take action against the two races; you can only imagine the shock of the arrogant gods and demons when a race they had previously viewed as peaceful and harmless to them, a race whose world they had taken over with little or no resistance, finally struck back at them and not only fought well, but fought with such ability that the gods and demons, divided and strained from the constant warring between themselves, were easily beaten down.
"However, through some lenience of the Ancients many of the demons and gods escaped, fleeing to another plane of existence, one parallel to our own that the Ancient's couldn't follow them to. Though many escaped the wrath of the Ancients some of the gods and demons remained behind, though not of their own free will; the Ancients, ever evolving and learning, had decided that the world they had created lacked something that they themselves could not give it. Somehow they incorporated the very essence of some of the gods and demons into the elements of their creation, the four things from which everything else is created and everything depends upon, breathing some life into what had up until then been a very dead world. Those who were forced to remain were sealed into the very land of the world, into the restless waters, into the unstill air, and into the ever-burning fires from which all fire is attained. Along with four gods, one sealed into each of the elements, four demons were sealed, one in each element just like the gods, giving the elements a multifaceted personality.
"Though this successfully accomplished what the Ancients had set out to do, this act created some problems for the Ancients; having gods and demons sealed into their world did nothing to calm the realm and at times the very elements rebelled against them. Dissatisfied with what was occurring the Ancients took it upon themselves to create another race on the world, a mortal race because even the Ancients could not simply create other immortals, a mortal race with the abilities to quell the infrequent uprisings; this race was the dragon race. They gave the dragons the knowledge necessary to keep the elements under control, and the dragons do so to this very day.
"Now, you must keep in mind that during this time, from the arrival of the gods and demons to the creation of the dragon race, many of thousands of years had passed, but what are thousands of years to immortals? Thousands more years passed before much else of note happened; the ancients grew bored with their world over the millennia and it was out of this boredom that more mortal races were created. Some races were given the capacity for knowledge and these races became the dominant ones over time; various intelligent races were created, filling the Ancients' desire for variety. It was around this time that the unexpected happened; it was so sudden and out of the ordinary that the Ancients never saw it coming and before they really knew what was happening their numbers had fallen so drastically that they were unable to fight back...
"The gods and demons, the same ones that had fled from the Ancients thousands of years before to a parallel plane of existence, had returned for revenge. It had taken them many thousands of years, but the two races had finally been able to set aside their differences for a very short while to strike back against a common foe, the Ancients. The few Ancients that remained, if any did indeed escape, scattered to the four winds, never to be seen again; this time was known as the time of the Fall of the Ancients. With the Ancient's out of the way, the gods and demons were once again able to pick up their warring where they had left off, and this time there was an added bonus; the gods and demons discovered the mortal races that the Ancients had created, living chess-pieces for the two immortal races. The gods and demons made themselves known to the mortals; the gods demanded worship and the demons commanded fear. Both races made sure that the memory of the Ancients was wiped out of the minds of the mortals and that all evidence of their existence was destroyed, and over the generations the race was forgotten and history rewritten.
"Now, even gods and demons grow bored, and though many of thousands of years passed before it happened, they eventually grew tired of the world and the races that the Ancients had created; they left this world for others to amuse themselves with. Some return, of course, every so often to remind the races that they truly do exist and to receive the worship or fear that they so desire, but their visits are infrequent and grow more infrequent still. Despite this seeming lack of interest on the part of the gods and demons, the common belief has become and still remains that the omnipotent gods created the world and everything in it. It is also believed that it was because of the gods' existence that the demon race came into existence, because there was a need for balance that could not be ignored, even by the gods. While this latter part may indeed be true, the part about the gods being the masters of creation is not, but in this day and age, after the death of the Ancients and the end of their time, after the death of truth, who is going to know different?
"And so that, dear child, is why my kind calls this time After Death."
The child looked up at the stranger with large, innocent, golden brown feline's eyes from under shaggy black bangs; she was small, no older than five or six, and her dark feline ears and her tail that flitted restlessly behind her as she sat cross-legged on the ground still seemed too large for her in her youth, but she would certainly grow in to them with time, just as the stripes on her face that were inherent within the ruling family of the Ebon tribe would darken with the years.
She sat silently, looking curiously at the stranger who sat comfortably on the ground across from her, leaning back on his hands; her mother had told her that the strange man was someone of importance and that above all else she should behave herself in his presence. The young girl blinked and cocked her head, remembering her mother's words; the stranger didn't look very important to her. He had a playful grin that seemed to never leave his face, even throughout the story he had just told, and in the girl's experience important people always looked serious; they didn't seem to have time to smile. Dark hair that might have been black or almost any dark color in the shadows in which they sat was cut just shy of brushing his shoulders, and straight-cut bangs were almost too long, shadowing closed eyes. His eyes drew the girl's curiosity; she had yet to see them opened though he had made his way through the trees without trouble. That curiosity aside though, all-in-all the man seemed very...ordinary; like any normal human. But then again there was something about him, the girl realized even in her youth, that was odd because if she looked at the man one way he looked very young, but if she looked at him another way he looked...ancient. Not old like the tribe's elders because he still retained a youthful appearance, but somehow he did look much much older than any of the elders...maybe older than all the elders put together.
"Child," the stranger said into the silence that greeted him, "did you know that if you were to travel to the north, over the Cairn Mountains which house the dead city, across the Lost Plains on the far side of the mountains, far north to the very edge of the world, that you would come upon a land that lingers in darkness and that amidst that darkness there lies sleeping a deadly shadow?"
The stranger's question was rewarded with a slowly shaken head from the child across from him.
"A long, long time ago..." He trailed off, turning his head slightly and opening one eye. "But perhaps you don't want to hear about it."
The girl found herself staring into that eye; it seemed strange to her somehow. It wasn't the color, which was a pale violet, and it wasn't the pupil, which resembled more her own, slitted feline pupils than the normal, human pupil, though it didn't seem to expand in the shadows like her own did. Maybe it was that there was no light reflected in the eye; it was strange that the eye reflected nothing, but then again, maybe the eye reflected too much. Not light, but something perhaps akin to it; the child couldn't see herself reflected in the stranger's eye, but then again, maybe there was more to a reflection than the visible image of one's self. Then as the stranger moved to stand he closed his eye and the girl suddenly realized the final words he had spoken. "No!" the child exclaimed suddenly, drawing the stranger to a halt. "Uh...I mean..." she stammered, looking for the right words. "Um, tell me, please..."
With a knowing smile the stranger settled back down on the ground, folding his legs beneath him. "A long, long time ago," he began again, "at a time before the creation of the mortal races, at a time before even that of the first appearance of the gods and demons on this world, the Ancients became aware of the presence of a dormant evil, a shadow that lay sleeping at the very edge of the world in a land that the light never fully touched. A land of shadow. Now at this early time even the immortal Ancients were in their youth and in their inexperience they didn't know well enough to let sleeping shadows lie; the presence of evil in this place, in the world that they themselves had created, an evil that they had never intended to be, preyed on their young and idealistic minds and they resolved to rid this place of it. But even though the Ancients were young, they were not stupid, and so they first sought out as much knowledge about the shadow as they could in a way that only many Ancients, all working together, were able to do; delving back mentally through the ages, seeking memories of worlds beyond this one, the Ancients finally came across the lingering thoughts, the last mental energies of a being who seemed to hold the answer to what the Ancients sought.
"What they learned was of a creature of shadow and ice, a creature that had throughout it's life been called by many different names, the final of which had been Sa'di; this in itself was enough to make the Ancients' blood run cold for they knew the meaning of that word well. Death; not just 'death', but the embodiment of Death itself. This creature had the power to bring eternal darkness to anything it touched, to bring an eternal night to the world the Ancients created if the creature so wished it. It was said that if ever the moon turned to blood that the sun would fail to rise, and that it would be Sa'di's doing and the world would be plunged into an endless night during which the stars would fall from the sky and the blood-red moon would reign over all. It would be the end of the world as the Ancients knew it; the beginning of the end. This end had been brought to other worlds before that of the Ancients, and though many had fallen to the creature's night, little else was known of the creature itself besides the destruction that it brought. The final thought that reached them was a rhyme, childish in it's simplicity but enough to chill the Ancients throughout. 'The moon is blood, the sun is dead, the stars will fall, the end dawns red.'
"Now, foolishness and bravery are often mistaken one for the other, so whether what the Ancients did next was foolish or brave, it's only for yourself to decide. The Ancients created a gem, fist-sized and of the purest and clearest crystal that they could possibly imagine, a gem with the ability to house a fearsome power. To breathe such a power into a gem the Ancients needed to draw the power from elsewhere, from a source that already had the power that they desired for the gem, for such a thing as this power could not just be created; like any power this one had to be drawn or taken from a source, and this was something that the Ancients had planned on. The power that they wished for the gem to have was the power of Sa'di, the power to create an endless night; if they could draw that power of the creature into the gem, locking it within the stone, then the creature would be unable to use that power unless it possessed the gem. In essence the Ancients were planning on stealing the creature's power and locking it away in the gem, then hiding the gem in a place where the creature would never find it, protecting it from discovery by Sa'di so that he could never use the power against them." The man paused, looking down at the child; he could tell that there was something that she wanted to say. "Yes, what is it?"
The girl looked up at the stranger, uncertainly. "Stealing is wrong."
Unable to keep his grin from spreading the man replied, "Yes, it is wrong, and there is almost nothing worse than stealing the power of another, but you must look at the situation from the point of view of the Ancients. To them, there was little other choice; as they saw it, the creature would inevitably use this power of his to bring an end to the world, a world that the Ancients held dear. He would bring a close to everything that they knew. In their minds, the only other way to stop this from coming to pass would be to destroy the creature itself, and stealing the life of another, especially when there is another way to end things, is perhaps the worst crime of all. Do you understand?"
Slowly the child nodded; she seemed to be going over the man's words in her mind, sorting through them and perhaps storing them away for later examination.
"Good," he smiled at the child. "Now, at this time the Ancients were young and strong, and there were still many of them around; all together they stood a good chance of being able to draw the creature's power and place it into the gem without the creature ever knowing it until it tried to use the lost power. So all the ancients working together, through a process best left lost to this time, called to Sa'di's power, called it away from the creature with hardly more than a song, and coaxed it into the gem; the crystal, once the purest and clearest of gems turned a blood-red with the acquisition of the power of destruction that it now held. This gem held only a portion of Sa'di's power, enough to keep the creature from using it's power to bring on an endless night, but not enough to allow just anyone to use the gem for the same end, though it could still be dangerous enough in the wrong hands.
"Even though the Ancients were careful in drawing away the creature's power, they failed in one aspect; Sa'di awoke from it's sleep. Immediately the creature knew what had happened, knew that it's power had been taken from it and could sense the power, his own power, calling to him from where the Ancients had locked it away in the gem; the power in the gem desired nothing more than to be re-joined with Sa'di, with the one that could fully use it. It was a fortunate thing for the Ancients that the creature was one used to eternity; it was never in a rush for it felt that time was of great unimportance for it had all of eternity left before it. Well, the creature realized it's mistake only after it was no longer able to sense it's power; the Ancients had sealed the gem away deep underground in a cavern they had created for just such a purpose. It's walls were covered mainly with symbols of protection and those used to hide the gem's power from all, placing the most important symbols such as that representing the gem on the northern wall of the cavern, creating the strongest barrier between the gem and the creature's dark place on the northern edge of the world." During the last few moments the stranger had begun to trace a pattern in the dirt between him and the child; the symbol was circular in nature and fairly plain. "This is the symbol the Ancients used to represent the gem," he told the girl, gesturing to the pattern in the dust. "They named the gem the Malayk Lurus, or the Demon Star."
The young girl blinked, realizing that this seemed to be the end of the story. "But what happened next? What did Sa'di do when it realized that it's own power was hidden from it?"
The stranger paused; he seemed to be debating whether or not to tell the child the end of the story. "Well," he answered slowly, "when the creature arrived at the last place it had felt it's power, it found instead the Ancients. Now, Sa'di was not a stupid creature; it realized that with much of it's power sealed away it stood little chance of having it's revenge on the young, strong, and numerous Ancients that it saw before it, and so instead of taking a foolhardy action that would likely result in it's own end, the creature spoke to the Ancients in a voice that seemed to bear the chill of winter. Sa'di told the Ancients that it would go back to it's sleep in the north and things would return to the way they had been, but only for the present. The creature knew that it had eternity before it, and that some time in the future it would be able to regain it's power and take it's revenge. It told the Ancients that a time would come when their numbers were diminished and they were weak; it said that the protection over it's sealed power would be bound to crumble and that eventually it would once again be able to sense it and the power would pull it from it's slumber. The Ancients knew that what the creature said was true and that there would come a time when they would no longer be able to conceal the gem, but to them that time was distant and there was plenty of time to find a remedy; and so Sa'di returned to sleep in the north and the Ancients returned to their life as usual. Well, time still passes and if any Ancients remain they lack the ability or the knowledge that is needed to fix the old mistake, so it has simply become a matter of time before the protective and concealing symbols and spells crumble and fade and Sa'di awakens to re-find it's power."
With a blink the girl cocked her head, remaining silent for a moment or two after the stranger had finished his statement. "Oh," she said slowly. Then with a smile she asked him, "Do you have any other stories?"
He sighed and smiled at the ease with which the child had brushed aside the dooming ending of the tale; she, like many young children, felt that she still had all of time before her, a kind of eternity that would protect her from the future, no matter how awful it was fated to be. He would give most anything to feel that way again. "I do have one more story of sorts," the stranger replied. "Have you ever heard of a card game called Lerus ren Tarmu?"
The girl shook her head slowly. The stranger's soft smile told that he had expected the answer; few if any of the mortal races knew of the game.
"It's a fairly simple game," he said as he pulled a small package from out of the bag he wore slung over a shoulder, "played with ordinary playing cards." Opening the small package revealed a plain deck of standard playing cards, old and worn, their edges frayed and their surfaces faded. "Would you like to learn how to play?" At an eager nod from the girl he continued cheerfully, beginning to separate the cards into two piles as he explained. "First, the cards must be separated, the numerical cards from the faces; the jokers," he added as he showed her one of the joker cards, "are used as well and go with the faces."
Looking at the joker card that the stranger held up for a moment before throwing it into the faces pile the girl thought the card strange; it didn't look like the joker she was used to seeing on playing cards. It was far more realistic than was normal on cards, and in fact the character portraying the joker resembled greatly the stranger sitting across from her, the same hair, closed eyes and playful grin. The joker on the card was juggling four balls of four different colors, one brown, one red, one blue and one white; the girl thought it odd that the four colors chosen for the balls were those that were used to represent the four elements, earth, fire, water and air, but whether it was a coincidence or done on purpose she didn't ask.
"The name of this game," the man spoke as he continued to separate the cards, "Lerus Ren Tarmu, means War of Fates. It was a game created a long long time ago and named so because back then the game sometimes was used to decided what it was that Fate desired. It's said that the cards, as they were played, were decided by Fate and so her will was shown by the results of the game, and so it was also said to have the ability to show the future, depending on the circumstances of the game." The stranger straightened out the two piles of cards, handing the smaller pile of face cards to the child and keeping the larger pile. "The two piles have to be shuffled," he explained to the girl, "and it's customary that one pile be shuffled by each player." He began to shuffle his part of the deck and the girl followed suit, shuffling carefully and slowly, not nearly as expertly as the stranger. "In this game," he continued, "the numerical cards are the main cards we use; sometimes the face cards aren't used at all depending on the outcome of the numbers part of the war. The numbers are used to determine the winner of each of four rounds; the player with the higher number card in each round wins that round. Whoever wins the most rounds wins the game; should they be tied two and two then a fifth round is played with the face cards. The face cards have the usual ranking, jack, queen, king and the joker being the highest, and once again the player with the higher ranking card is declared the winner."
"What if the two people draw the same ranking face card?" the child asked, stopping her shuffling and placing the pile of cards on the ground.
The stranger paused in his shuffling. "Then Fate does not hold the answer," he replied with a smile, "and it must be sought elsewhere, by other means." Deftly he spread the numerical cards that he had shuffled face down in a fan-like shape on the ground between him and the girl. "Choose four," he told her, "and lay them out in a row before you in any order you please, but don't look at them." The girl nodded and did as he had said, picking four cards from the fan and placing them before her; the stranger waited until the girl was done and then did the same. Once they had both chosen their cards he collected the spread out cards and piled them neatly to the side. "Now the faces," he said, gesturing for the girl to spread them out like he had done to the numbered ones. She did so, slowly and with great care, trying hard to imitate the stranger's fan of cards. Once she was satisfied that the fan was just right, she gestured for the stranger to choose from the fan. With a smile he did so, placing his chosen card face down on the ground above the four numerical cards. After watching this, the girl carefully chose her card and placed it on the ground like the stranger had done, then collected the remaining face cards and neatly piled them to the side, following the man's example. "For this game," the stranger said as he watched the girl carefully collecting the cards, "the face cards are meant to represent something other than royalty. The jack is the mortal races, the queen the demon race, the king the godly race, and the joker the Ancients."
The child blinked; she had noticed certain peculiarities on the detailed playing cards as the stranger had been sorting them and now that the man had told her what, in this game, the cards were meant to represent, she thought back to what each face card had looked like. There had been the playful joker, juggling the four colored balls, and there was the king who she had thought strange because though he was wearing the usual golden crown, the king had been holding a mask before his face; it had been a plain mask with angular cuts, blank eyes and a smooth surface where the mouth should have been, and the girl had never seen or heard of a king wearing a mask. The queen had been a shapely woman wearing the customary crown and holding a jeweled scepter; oddly enough the woman had had large, pointed ears and strange, cloudy looking eyes, and her toothy grin had given the impression of a menacing predator. Finally the jack had been the card that most resembled the normal jack on playing cards, though this jack seemed to look rather sullen, almost ready to cry.
"As the game was played it was normal for the players to plead their cases to Fate, to try to influence Fate's decision so to speak," the stranger continued. "But you wanted to hear a story, am I right?" A nod was the reply he got. "Well, this story is about a time when this very game is used to determine an important outcome upon which the continuance of this world depends. A young girl, not yet into her twenties, sits and plays this same game with a creature that holds the power to bring this world to a dark end. She plays to keep this from happening," he explained, "and the creature plays for an opposite end; both of them speak as they play, both giving reasons for their cause, arguing, both pleading their cases to Fate as many have done before. The first cards are turned..."
The man turned over the first of his cards and the girl did likewise, taking her cue from the story.
"The girl turns over a ten," the man said as he gestured simply to the young child's own ten that she had played, "the highest of numerical cards, while the creature turns over a meager four." He looked to his own card and the girl did the same; the stranger had turned over a four. "The girl wins the first round," the man smiled. "She is pleased, for much is at stake and it is a good start. If only her luck will hold out. Shortly the next two cards are turned, the creature's six beating the girl's three." Both he and the child had turned their cards as he had spoken and the child saw that the cards they had each played had matched the two played in the story, the stranger turning a six and she turning a three. "The creature grins and his smile chills the girl; the score is now tied. The next cards turned," he continued as he and the girl turned their cards, "are a seven and a six, the creature's win." The child noted expectantly that once more the cards played in the story were the same as those she and the stranger had played. "Now the girl is worried; she has to win the next round just to make the game go to the face round. If the creature wins or ties the next round the girl has lost the game and the very world is the prize she must give up; the creature's haughty smile and cold eyes are easily read and it is plain to see that he feels victory is within easy reach. The girl turns her fourth card first..." The child flipped over her card. "And it is a five. The chances are in the creature's favor and his smile broadens. He turns over his card," the stranger slowly turned his fourth card, "a two. The game goes into overtime. 'Sudden death,' the creature grins evilly as he speaks in an icy voice, 'my favorite part of the game.' He turns his face card, revealing a king." The man turned his face card, which corresponded with the story he told. "The only card that will beat it is a joker and the odds are strongly against the girl having pulled a joker from the faces; a tie is slightly more likely but the girl does not want a tie for her chances in settling the dispute in her favor any other way are slim indeed. The fate of the world lies on the turn of a card. She hesitates..."
The child paused with her hand just above her unturned face card. She glanced up at the stranger who sat on the ground across from her; he smiled playfully and said, "You're late for supper." She blinked with surprise, realizing the truth of his statement; she was going to be in so much trouble...Jumping to her feet the child glanced back down at the unturned face card that lay on the ground, then to the stranger who was smiling up at her. "Sometimes," he said, "the ends of stories such as this are better left unknown." With a nod and a smile the girl thanked the stranger quickly before rushing off home for supper. The stranger smiled after her until she had disappeared through the trees. Carefully he picked up the aged playing cards with their faded surfaces and frayed edges, saving for the last the child's unturned face card. Without looking at the card he placed it with the rest, giving the deck a quick shuffle before replacing them in the package, then standing and stretching. He had a long way to go yet and many more stories to learn and tell. With a lazy stride and a cheerful tune the stranger walked on.

AN: Wow, that was about double the length of my average chapter....But I didn't want to split up the prologue.