Author's Note: This was originally a short story written for a MUD I played some months back called Lusternia. Owing to the submission guidelines specifying that the piece must be distinctly Lusternian in nature, there are a few references that may not be readily identifiable, but should in no way impede the direct flow of the story or its plot. For completeness' sake, I'll include a glossary appended to the main body, as pride dictates. Do enjoy.


* * *

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you...La Donna!"

The announcer, a portly, overbearing viscanti, bowed and deferred quickly off. As he slunk out stage left, a second figure emerged from the opposite wing, proceeding in a stately march. It was a female, garbed in a heavy, billowing gown of antique white lace with dusky rose embellishments. Delicate arms tapered into small, pert hands in a hue of palest ivory. Meticulously coifed raven curls spilled down her back, and the upper portion of her face was obscured by a soft silver mask inset with tiny pearls, revealing only a field of pale skin broken by a pair of sensuous, ruby-red lips.

A palpable air of silence pervaded the theatre as the elegant woman took her place at the center of the stage. Gentle hands clasped, palm up and palm down, before her sternum, and her chest rose enticingly. A soft, staccato violin sounded from the orchestra, impossibly soft but building steadily. La Donna began to sing.

Operatic, melodic tones flitted airily through space as she began the aria. Her vocalizations bore little syllabic enunciation, but rather established a counterpoint of her own that put even the skilled violinists to shame. Her lilting soprano rose to thrilling heights, a pure, clear tone that rang through the room and banished the lingering, dark air of Magnagoran atmosphere in favor of a symphonic paradise.

Her hands unclasped as the song gained intensity, and she moved with light, dainty steps, the aria evoking a memory of a rapturous era long since past. Across the stage she wandered a purposeful path, arms spread in unexpressed need, head lifted just so, the music seeming to lead her in a passionate dance.

Her skirts whirled about her in graceful pirouettes, the soft lace sighing gently as the subdued pink painted her alabaster figure with an intrinsic blush. The light, carefree voices of the violins soared for moments upon moments as the opera singer gestured with controlled exquisiteness, meandering the path of an unseen garden, a winding path, voice and melody creating vivid
images in the mind's eye of the listeners.

Moments upon moments passed with a captivated populace riveted on La Donna, whose song shifted from a bright aria to a sorrowful lament, the woman coming to her knees, tears glistening unshed from the eyes of her mask as her music forced a plaintive cry for love lost.

The low bass of the orchestra underscoring the heart-wrenching scene began to rise in pitch as the woman stood, delicately smoothing her skirts as she composed herself with a soft, sustained note of unprecedented sweetness. The music continued to climb, and gained a slight, eerie dissonance as she faced the audience, head canting to one side. She turned a slow, deliberate pirouette, then another, and another. Faster and faster she whirled as the music climbed to searing heights, a mad sawing reminiscent of utter chaos.

From the unseen heights above the gilt proscenium, a subtle clank of machinery was heard, and a dark iron catwalk lowered itself inexorably from the shadows. As La Donna grew increasingly possessed, she moved about the stage with rising speed, and above her, on the catwalk, guttering lamps erupted into life, revealing a trim viscanti bearing a dark ravenwood cross in each hand. He shifted above La Donna, mirroring her horizontal movement precisely. His arms were a chaotic blur, pulling and twisting the crosses as the soprano danced wildly to the accompaniment of the maddening violins. With one final exertion, the man raised his arms triumphantly above his head, and La Donna executed a flawless grand jete, scissoring her legs in the air with a graceful bound as the music performed a final flourish.

The soprano composed herself in a seemingly automatic fashion as the man brought the crosses together in front of himself. A small smile crossed his features, and he spoke.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you most genuinely for spending your evening with us in an act of opera and music as much as an elaborate display of puppeteering. Again, I thank you kindly, and may you return."

With that, he released the tension in his hands upon the crosses and La Donna grew slack, hanging limply in an upright position. He reached down below the crosses at something imperceptible, gripped, and pulled. The soprano rose several inches into the air, dangling bonelessly and garnering gasps and low murmurs of disbelief from the patrons. He commenced pulling the marionette up, hand over hand, as the catwalk began to rise and the lights on the stage faded.

* * *

He lay La Donna carefully in her heavy, leather-bound trunk, humming softly to himself under his breath. Carefully arranging her skirts, he cast one last cursory gaze over his prize before shutting the trunk and locking it with a pair of evident clicks.

"Sir? Sir?"

He glanced up, a charming smile coming instantly to his blank features. "Yes?"

A stagehand approached, ticking off notes on his pamphlet assiduously. "A young lady to see you, sir. She wishes to extend her congratulations in person."

He raised a curious eyebrow, nodding slightly. "Of course."

The stagehand hurried off without another word, giving way to a demure young human, coquettish and garbed in a blue silk dress, slightly threadbare. She offered a nervous smile and bobbed a curtsey.

"You were most convincing, sir. That was wonderful!"

"I do try, thank you very much. I am humbled to have been given the chance to entertain one of your beauty." He didn't miss a beat, reaching to kiss her hand gently. "Evaristus i'Xiia, at your service."

She laughed nervously, white cheeks coloring with a hint of rouge. "Kiera n'Rotri, sir i'Xiia, pleased to meet you." A charming flutter of eyelashes brought her one step closer to the puppeteer, and she glanced up at him invitingly. "Might you be persuaded to divulge the secret of your stunning performance?"

A low chuckle escaped him, and he nodded slowly. "I imagine persuasion would be possible, Kiera...perhaps you would care to retire for dinner?"

"That sounds lovely," she tittered, brushing a stray lock of yellow hair behind her ear.

"Excellent. Let us be off, then!" He hefted the case with a heave, carrying it to one side despite its apparent weight.

She followed closely by his side, peering curiously at the trunk. "Your pardon, sir i'Xiia, but oughtn't the stagehands carry your puppet for you?"

He stopped; she nearly ran into his back, and only saved herself by halting equally as suddenly.

"La Donna," he murmured without turning, "Is an operatic virtuoso, no mere puppet, I assure you. Because of that, I allow no one else to touch her, you understand."

"My apologies." She nodded a slow acceptance, and he was abruptly off once more, grinning over his shoulder. "Come," he called, "It is but a short walk from the theatre."

* * *

"Entertaining must be quite the profession for you to live so lucratively, sir."

Kiera dabbed daintily at her lips, appraising the man across the table cordially. He waved her off with a shy smile, eyes sparkling.

"It does well enough for my purposes. What of you, my dear? Does life as a charming socialite suit you as obviously as it seems?"

"Oh, sir," she laughed, "You flatter me. It gives me the opportunity to see such amazing works as what you perform."

Evaristus chuckled good-naturedly, placing his fork and knife on a crisp white napkin. "My performance is nothing special, of course. I am merely a humble puppeteer - parlor tricks, you understand."

"You discount yourself, sir. A singing marionette? I don't think that anyone has ever seen the like!"

"A simple deception. Her words are never fully formed, you understand? It is an instrument of my own design within her, controlled by my frames. Would you care to have a closer look?"

He rose from his seat, gesturing for her to do the same. She complied with thinly-veiled eagerness, anticipation evident in every syllable. "Oh, yes, sir! It would be an honor to witness such innovation at an intimate level!"

"Intimate indeed." A smirk crossed his face, and she blushed marginally. "Shall we?" She accepted his outstretched hand, and he began to lead her back to the front of the manse. "I keep her in the side sitting-room, you understand, when she is not in transport. That trunk is stifling - it would do her composition no good."

"La Donna is beautiful," Kiera agreed, glancing about at the yellow-lit hallway. "I could not imagine keeping her in storage the entire time either."

He slowed as they approached a lone door at the end of the hall, turning and eyeing his guest coolly. "I must warn you not to make my secret public, you understand. The mystique is as much a part of my performance as La Donna herself."

She nodded eagerly up at him, curls bouncing. "I would never do such a thing, I assure you, sir."

He put his hand on the doorknob and twisted, smiling warmly. "Wonderful. Then, I present...La Donna."

Warm, flickering lamplight cast into the sitting room as he opened the door, taking a few cautious steps in. "Come, my dear, but tread carefully whilst I find the lamp."

She followed him in, gingerly lifting the hem of her dress and taking slow, unsure steps in the tenebrous room. Suddenly, there was a metallic snap and the room was filled with guttering light.

A horrified scream echoed through the halls of Evaristus i'Xiia's estate, abruptly cut off with a shuddering rasp.

* * *

He shifted the marionette gently in his arms as he strode to the end of the catwalk. As it ascended into place with a dull clank, he stepped out onto the spiral stairway and meticulously negotiated his way down to the wing.

"Excellent work tonight, ladies and gents, simply excellent!" The chortling stage manager clapped Evaristus on the back jovially as he passed. The puppeteer returned with a disarming grin before rounding the corner, slipping quietly into his dressing room. The door shut softly behind him, leaving him gazing at the large black trunk propped against the wall.

In La Donna went, settled in with loving care. He brushed an errant raven curl from her face and drew back, shutting the case with pair of sharp clicks.

"You did wonderfully, Ev!"

He turned to face the speaker suddenly, a viscanti woman who was at once addressing him and pulling her hair up into a functional bun, standing just inside the entry as the door clicked shut. "Then again, you always do," she continued, smoothing the folds of her black skirt.

He moved forward to embrace her, laughing softly. "So do you, dearest Lisel. Your voice ever shames my prima donna."

Lisel rolled her eyes, drawing back and surveying him at arm's length. "I sing a bit. So what? Your pretty girl does far more, and you are the one manipulating her! I couldn't begin to compare."

Something shifted inside the case.

She canted her head slightly, peering over his shoulder at the foreboding black trunk.

"Ev...is something in there?"

He cast a concerned stare at the trunk, raising an eyebrow slowly. "Ah...no, dearest, likely moths or some such."

She approached the case, reaching out to the tarnished golden clasps. "Perhaps you should release them, then, so that your puppet is not harmed?"

Her hand was suddenly covered by his, incapable of freeing the latch on the heavy leather trunk.

"I do not think that moths themselves will do a great deal of damage in the time that it takes La Donna to move from here to my estate, Lisel." His voice sounded low in her ear, soothing, and she nodded.

"Of course. I had forgotten how protective you are of her, Evaristus." Her eyes sparkled with amusement, and she reached up to touch his cheek gently. "Would that you would find a lady of flesh and blood to extend that protection to."

He flinched almost imperceptibly at her touch, and she drew back as quickly as she had come, glancing to the floor self-consciously as she drove imaginary wrinkles from her skirts.

"Understand," he began, "I do not mean to sound so cold, but I am merely a simple man. I have my work - is that not enough?"

She gave a wry smile. "For you, I suppose it must be. You spend far too much time delving into La Donna and your puppeteering. Live life, Ev, or it will be gone before you've had the chance to!"

He folded his hands absently before him, shaking his head condescendingly. "I am living. This is perfection, Lisel - I couldn't ask for -"

His protestation was interrupted by a sudden, soft keening from the depths of the trunk. The pair regarded the box with a note of disbelief, and Lisel glanced to Evaristus, apprehension clearly evident.

"The instrument must be malfunctioning," he pronounced at length, jaw clenching. "I'm certain you've other things to do, Lisel - leave me while I make the necessary repairs."

"Oh, Ev, don't be such a wet blanket. I've known you ever since you started at the revue and you've not once given away your secret that makes your beauty sing. Surely it can't hurt!" Before he could stop her, she reached out and undid the clasps on the trunk, lifting the lid.

She choked, gazing into the depths of the case as the eerie whine grew louder and louder, almost plaintive in its urgency. She took a step back, reaching up to clutch Evaristus's shoulder behind her. "Y- y- you..."

"Me," Evaristus smirked, touching the edge of a cruelly serrated dagger to Lisel's neck. "I was fond of you, Lisel, but you make me do things that I really wish I didn't have to." She swallowed, barely breathing.

A porcelain arm rose from the case, grasping at the rim.

"Scream, love."

A cry of terror rose from her throat unbidden and she writhed against her captor. As soon as the sound began, Evaristus' mouth covered hers, a gruesome parody of a lover's embrace, taking her scream even as the dagger cut finally across her throat, drawing a fountain of red.

He stepped back, allowing the corpse to drop uselessly to the floor. A low crouch brought him down to the body, and he gripped a handful of the black skirts, carefully wiping the serrated blade before tucking it back into his sleeve.

A slight smirk crossed his features and he stood, approaching the case, where the doll's arm hung impotently over the lip of the trunk. He lifted the keening doll, pressing warm lips to cold, carved red. The doll's keening grew quiet as he exhaled for the first time, a soft echo of Lisel's scream rising in the room as the voice entered La Donna.

"There, there, my love," Evaristus soothed, laying the marionette back into the trunk. "Your voice will remain as beautiful as ever. I shall see to it."

The trunk was shut with an affectionate snap, and he immediately busied himself tidying up that tiresome mess on the floor.

* * *

"I am rather greatly impressed by your performances, i'Xiia." The Minister for Cultural Affairs was a mature, austere woman, businesslike in every sense of the word. She surveyed a humble Evaristus with a raised brow from the other side of her heavy marble desk.

"I do not give my congratulations lightly; I have seen many a performance both in my time with the theatre and in my tenure as Culture Minister. Yours is something that I have never seen the like of, frankly."

Evaristus bowed his head deferently. "I thank you, lady. It is but a humble offering which I hope serves its purpose in providing an elegant source of entertainment."

A slight smirk came to the Minister's lips. "Indeed it does. My concern, however, is that the current time constraints imposed by the revue are a bit rigid for your work. Perhaps we can negotiate a full-scale production dedicated to La Donna instead?"

His mouth fell open in shock. "Your pardon...a full-scale production?"

"Indeed," she enunciated, reclining in her seat. "A chance for your name to become famous throughout the Engine, your work to ring through the Theatre of Bloody Threnodies for years to come. Surely you would not object to such an offer?"

A bashful haze clouded his features, and his mouth worked soundlessly for a moment. "Ah...no, not object in the slightest!"

"Wonderful," the Minister stood, crossing to a bookshelf. "You remind me of myself when I was an opera singer. Industrious, humble, and terribly skilled." She ran a finger along the spines of thick bound volumes, searching. "It is most refreshing. I need only find the ledger in question and we can begin discussing your financial status, salary, supply needs, and the like."

He rose quietly, hand slipping into his sleeve as he rounded the desk as silently as he dared. "Oh, my supply needs are rather slim, I should think, lady. There is only one commodity that I am in regular need of."

She crouched slightly, peering at a row of books closely. "Silk, I would assume, for the strings?"

He loomed behind her, one wiry arm snaking about her waist while the other brought the dagger to bear threateningly.

"Voices."

She turned halfway as the glittering blade approached, eyes widening in shock. She raised her hands as though to ward off the blow, but instead the air seemed to distort. A blast of raw elemental energy formed at her fingertips, coursing forth to slam into Evaristus, knocking him back and sending the dagger skittering into a dark corner.

"Guards!" She yelled. "Marshals! To me!"

She retreated to the window, glaring daggers at the sprawled Evaristus. "Voices indeed, you despicable man. Your delusions have earned you imprisonment for the rest of your meaningless life."

He coughed, staring implacably up at her as he came to his feet slowly. "My life is meaningless indeed. My only love, my Illira, taken from me by the plague. Her beautiful voice reduced to a wailing keen, her frame emaciated and atrophied."

She raised an eyebrow, sneering. "Your wife means nothing - the plague was over a decade ago - she is long dead. There is nothing you can do to change that, pitiful creature."

Her sneer faltered as Evaristus chuckled malevolently, shaking his head. "Oh, no, there was something I could do. She lives, moves, and sings for me, through me, you see?" A crazed gleam entered into his eye, and he began to advance upon her. "My wife, my prima donna, still exists! I have rescued her from death!"

Her eyes widened in shock. "...La Donna?"

He snarled viciously, lunging for the Minister. "La Donna!"

The Minister gave a cry, diving to one side. He barreled past, throwing himself through the crystal aperture with an almighty shattering and a heart-wrenching cry, hanging in open space two floors above the ground in the Tower of Midnight Domination before beginning the inexorable descent.

She rose hurriedly, rushing to the broken window and gazing out below. A fluttering, elegant black coat landed gently on the cobblestones below, but no sign of the viscanti puppeteer was visible. The door behind her burst open as several ur'Guard troopers filed in, glancing about.

"He's gone."

* * *

Below the tower, a cloaked man rubbed a thick golden ring affectionately. The magical aura about him died, and he settled to the ground from his previously levitating position. He drew the cloth around him protectively as he strode off through the streets of Magnagora with renewed purpose, slowly moving to the theatre.

La Donna was to perform.

* * *

Glossary:

Viscanti - a race 'tainted' by the touch of a Soulless God - think Cthulhu.

Magnagora - a city similar to Industrial Revolution London, with a distinctly aristocratic bent.

ur'Guard - the military arm of Magnagora

i'Xiia, n'Rotri, y'Bolgari, etc. - noble Houses of Magnagora

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