The sky was a dull, bleary red, clouds boiling, churning. Occasionally a great flash of light would echo behind them, followed by the dull roar of one of the great airships exploding.
The White Emperor sat upon his throne of black iron, bathed in the sickly red light pouring through the windows of his palace. He was a man of legend, and one could tell simply by looking at him. He was handsome enough, of average build, but it was his face that spelt it out, the strong, harsh features, framed by a mane of black hair, mad blue eyes that peered out at the world as if they demanded obedience from air and stone. Upon his brow sat his crown, it too a simple thing of black iron, contrasting the elaborate robes of his office, white and silver, worked all through with golden thread depicting battle in intricate threadwork.
He sighed, shifting in his throne, as yet another explosion, closer this time, close enough to make the palace shake, tore through the clouds. After the din had settled, he could hear shouting, the clash of blades, in the distance. The battle had moved closer, then. The enemy had taken the gate, if not the courtyard as well.
"Liandra," he drawled, voice rich and strong, almost amused, betraying no hint of emotion at the battle drawing closer to him.
In an instant, a young woman was at the right hand of the throne. She was beautiful, hair an almost unnatural red, wild and long, intense, burning green eyes, and pale, unblemished skin, complemented by the white, unmarked robes of her station. Of all the territories he had seen conquered, the White Emperor mused, the women of Liandra's island were by far the most uniformly beautiful. Of course, on her, the beauty was wasted-no one would dare speak to the Emperor's personal servant.
"My Lord," she whispered, the fanatical devotion she carried audible in her trembling voice.
The White Emperor paused as another explosion tore through the air, this one from somewhere inside the palace. "Liandra, my son is safe, yes? That is all that matters. As long as he lives, all is not lost."
"I spoke to the caretakers through the mirror not two hours ago. Your soldiers arrived yesterday. No one in their village suspects the babe is your son. He himself will learn only when he is old enough to understand what he inherits, when he is old enough to defend himself."
The Emperor nodded, waved his hand idly, then drew himself up off his throne. The sounds of battle were closer now. It wouldn't be long at all.
"To think," he mused, "That all the world trembled before me not half a year ago, and yet now here I am, trapped and waiting for the end."
"This is not the end," Liandra hissed fiercely, though she dropped her eyes when the Emperor flicked his gaze toward her. "You will not die here. The Empire will not die here!"
And she might have been right, had the Empire ever learned to live on without its Emperor. But the White Emperor knew too well of his kingdom's weaknesses, he knew his subject's devotion, ambition and drive was to him, as a person, and not to the Empire itself. Without him, it would fracture. It may take decades, but it would. It was, no doubt, why the enemy had launched this last, desperate assault, throwing everything they had at him, pinning him in his own capital city of Nurimber while his forces were abroad.
They knew. They knew that without him, the Empire was nothing. There had been no 'Empire' before him, and there would not be one after. They knew that to save themselves, they had to destroy this man, this legend, that had reshaped the world in his lifetime. It was why they held back almost all of their magi from the field-all of their power was being used to ensure that the White Emperor himself didn't simply port out of the city. Every port that was opened was almost immediately forced closed by their efforts.
Ah, but not all of their magi were absent from the field. The White Emperor could sense them now, inside the palace halls. Maybe fifty of them, ten of whom were powerful enough to call themselves 'arch magi.' They would not try to take him alive. The White Emperor knew he enjoyed a gift with magic far beyond what most mortals could ever claim, but knew even he could not stand against so many.
Another explosion, this one very close, and beneath it angry, shouting voices, excited, knowing their goal was close.
"I release you from your bondage to me, Liandra. Your life is yours." The White Emperor tapped into the incredible wellspring of magic at his command, feeling life and energy course through his body, as he prepared his defenses. Just because he didn't expect to live didn't mean he wasn't going to make those who dared raise arms against him suffer.
"I will die by your side."
"You will do no such thing," said the White Emperor, binding Liandra's arms by her sides with a wave of his hand as she tried to draw a dagger from within her robes. "If you refuse your freedom, that is one thing. I will not have you dying pointlessly next to me."
Liandra sobbed, face flushed, as she struggled against her invisible bonds. "I love you," she moaned, "I love you, let me die with you-"
"SILENCE," intoned the Emperor, using the voice with which he had commanded obedience and loyalty from countless legions. "I began this war alone, and it ends with me alone. You are free to die as you wish, but you will leave me to face battle on my own."
Liandra paused, her eyes meeting those of her Emperor, her intense, manic ferocity matched by his unending will.
"Obey," the White Emperor intoned, and Liandra had no choice. Released from her bonds, she reluctantly fled into the servant's hallways, and into the shadows of history.
The White Emperor stood alone now, bathed in the fiery red of the sky, magic coursing through his veins, resplendent in his power, facing the majestic double doorway that led into his throne room. Those who would deny him-those who, clever beasts that they were, had managed to eke out victory over him-they may kill him today, but he would make them suffer for what they had done. And his son had escaped. All that they fought for would eventually be for nothing anyway.
The sounds of battle grew louder. Shouting voices in ugly tongues. A cry of exhilaration, of victory. And then the gigantic double doors to the throne room flung open.
The White Emperor idly flicked his hand, and the first elf who rushed through the doorway erupted into flame, screaming in his alien tongue as he melted to his shining armor. More elves, long-limbed, cat-eyed things, began clawing their way through the doorway. One mumbled words that may have been magic, the White Emperor didn't know, he didn't speak their tongue. He raised his hands and smiled wickedly as their bodies bent and contorted to his whim. He left them broken and dead on the floor.
He strode forward now, the other elves no longer trying to force their way into his throne room, instead running to fetch their magi, their arch-magi. The Emperor collapsed the hallways of his palace down on their heads, turned the stone beneath them to magma. Boiling light lanced out from his fingertips to strike down three of their magi in their silver robes before they could even utter a word against him, flesh evaporating wherever the light touched.
"Fools," boomed the White Emperor, as elves died by the score before him, "Did you not know who you came against? Did you think the man who burned your homelands to ash would go quietly? All the world cowered before me, and you thought that you could take me with swords alone?" The magic coursed through him now, and the White Emperor no longer cared about the odds. A dim part of him still knew how the battle would end, but the greater part of him swam in the sea of power before him, a greater part of him said nothing could stop him now, for all this power at his command, it was surely the power of the gods.
Laughing now, the White Emperor strode forward through his palace into the enemy lines, flames erupting all around him. Three elven arch-magi, marked by their scarlet robes, flung flames at him that bounced harmlessly off of his spell-web of defenses. He carelessly tore through their meager protection spells and dashed their frail bodies against the stone.
"Weak," he intoned, voice booming all around his now-crumbling palace. "This is the best your people have to offer?" He came to a wall, and with a small gesture it crumbled before him.
And then, there it was. His doom. Dozens of silver robes of magi, nearly a dozen scarlet robes of arch-magi, and…blue robes? He had never seen those in all the time he had fought the elves. Presumably they had invented a new rank above arch-magi. Their cat-eyes, yellow and green, widened in shock, the rubble from the collapsing wall bouncing off of their spell-shields. Even as they did, though, hands raised, preparing to work the dozens of spells that would tear the White Emperor apart.
If he would give them the chance.
The Emperor, as the dozens of elves began to pick apart his defenses, dove into the incomparable sea of power that was his incredible capacity for magic, and drew it all into himself.
He had never felt more alive, even as he was terribly aware of the power burning him, eating away his body. He could feel every pulse of his blood pouring into every vein, he could feel every hair on his head, he was aware of every mote of dust, and, greatest of all, he could smell the fear, he could taste it, rancid and thick, in the elves before him.
"SUFFER," he boomed, in a voice that could be heard for miles. And he erupted into a magnificent column of brilliant white flame, boring a hole into the earth, consuming the elves before him, a beam of light that extended up into the torn sky, piercing the clouds, and down into the earth, tearing apart the crust, sending magma boiling upwards.
Light poured from the Emperor's eyes, from his mouth, and even as he felt his body melt away, felt it join the great current of power, his last thoughts were of his son.