The party stepped forwards.
They had made it to the Emperor's throne room.
Ryn led the way, pressing his palm to the cold steel of one of the enormous doors and pushing hard to edge it open.
His chest was a vice and his breath caught in his throat, but he wasn't going to look back now after all that they had come through, all they had done together, to get here, to this place, to this moment.
This is my destiny. This is what I was born to do.
It took the full strength of his arm, but the door swung back with a creeeak.
"By the One…" Nuthea swore under her breath at his side.
The door opened onto a vast circular chamber of about a hundred feet's width, walled with the same black stone as the rest of the castle, that curved above them to form a huge dome.
In the dim light from two braziers blazing on either side of the entrance they could see that the floor was made of black marble. But the black was shot through with wisps and whorls of grey which-was it Ryn's imagination?-seemed to waft and whirl beneath their feet as though they were mirroring what the night sky must look like outside.
Just then a flash of white shone from the floor, illuminating the huge chamber for a heartbeat, before plunging it black into shimmering semi-darkness again. A gasp, and thunder rumbled somewhere above, muffled and far-off, confirming that the patterns in the marble floor were in fact depicting the sky beyond the castle.
But that was not what made Ryn's heart skip its next beat.
In the flash, the lightning had lit a figure sat on a throne carved into the farthest wall, just for a moment.
"The Emperor…" Ryn whispered. "We've finally reached him..."
It had only afforded him a brief glimpse but the figure Ryn had seen on the throne had been tall and terrible, clad all in the black armour of the Empire, but for a white helm fashioned in the shape of a human skull with two thick horns that curved up from its sides. Or was that the Emperor's head?
There had been eyes in the skull.
Two unmistakably, horribly human eyes had looked right at him in the lightning-flash from their place far across the chamber, and then been hidden again.
Now that the lightning had picked it out once, Ryn could discern the dim silhouette of the figure on the throne, throwing shifting shadows in the murk behind it from the orange flickers at this end of the hall. The half-darkness gave more room for Ryn's imagination to work. In the gaps it left, he found his mind's eyes assaulted by images: the buildings of his hometown burning, his family and friends begging for their lives to be ended, his mother...
Ryn blinked, drew another breath, and strove to concentrate on his immediate surroundings. Acknowledge, and refocus, he thought, putting into practice what he had learned from Cid.
Behind him, Ryn heard eleven other pairs of footsteps echoing on the marble floor as his companions entered the throne room behind him. The last of the thunderclap died away, and for a moment there was no other sound in the chamber but their footsteps and the quiet crackle and pop of the braziers.
As he made his way across the sky-marbled floor of the vast, half-dark chamber, his companions fanned out to either side of him until they were all walking alongside each other in a single rank.
He was aware of Nuthea's reassuring presence to his right, a soft golden glow emanating from the pRyncess in response to the lightning, her own elemental alignment.
To his left walked Sagar; he knew from the glint of the sky-pirate's twin curved blades as they caught some of the light from the braziers.
To either side of them, following fast would be Elrann, the engineer; Riss, the summoner; Quel, the bard; Huld, the monk; Vish, the shadowdancer who had come over from the Empire; Cid, the Sage; Fizz, the mage; and Ovie, the boy.
What an accumulation of friends I've made over these last ten years. They are my family now. I hope that together we have what it takes…
Ryn stopped about ten paces away from the throne, and his companions stopped next to him.
Underneath them, the image of the sky continued to shift and twist in the magical marble.
They could see the figure of the Emperor a little more clearly now they were closer. He reclined in his black armour with his gauntleted hands resting lazily on the arm rests of the throne. The throne itself jutted out a little from the wall, and was carved into the shape of an enormous stone dragon, with two wings that stretched out to either side, reaching up towards the ceiling, and an angry reptilian head that stared down at them.
The Emperor's skull was truly horrible. And those eyes...now and again the flickers from the braziers caught the sockets of the skull and found two human eyes glowing red, looking straight at Ryn.
More images of destruction danced across Ryn's mind in the space between the flickers, but he blinked them away and refocused on the Emperor's form.
Here. Now. This moment. Destiny.
A shiver rippled from his head to his toes. His throat prickled and his stomach was a tight knot, but Ryn swallowed his salvia and spoke.
"Emperor Kivesst!" he was surprised that his voice came out audible, even bold and clear over the distant crackle of the flames. "My companions and I have journeyed many years to find you here."
Ryn drew his sword with a ring of steel and held it out in front of him, point towards the Emperor. His heart pulsed and red fire leapt down his arm and onto the sword, engulfing the blade, so that it flamed hot, lighting this corner of throne room properly.
He could see the Emperor completely now, in the sustained light, and those eyes were looking straight at him from their horned skull. Ryn almost faltered and stepped back, but he managed to stop himself.
He must be human. If he is human, he can be killed...
Ryn gulped, and spoke on.
"We have come here to depose you, to end your reign of terror and oppression. If you come quietly, you will not be harmed."
The echo of Ryn's words died away, and left a silence filled only by the soft crackle of fire.
The Emperor just sat there where he was, still staring at Ryn, and said…
He never blinks, Ryn thought after a moment. Is he alive? Is he asleep? Is he even real, or is this some sort of statue, or decoy, or demonic trick?
Then the Emperor answered his questions.
He titled his head back, which he could not do very far because of the throne and his horns, and laughed.
It was a deep, resonant, sadistic laugh that went on for a long time, and it seemed to fill the whole room, coming not just from the Emperor but from all around them.
At last the Emperor looked back down at Ryn. Another flash of lightning lit the room again for a moment, and then it was just the little oasis of light from Ryn's sword lighting his form again. Thunder rumbled like mountains moving in the world beyond this fortress.
"You amuse me," said the Emperor amidst the rumble. His voice was like the laugh, and like the laugh it seemed to come not just from the Emperor but from all around them. Of course the mouth of the skull did not move, because it couldn't. Maybe it's a mask? "My reign will not end today. Or ever. This world belongs to me. As it always has."
Nuthea spoke up now, and Ryn was grateful that she did because his gut was twisting and he did not know if he could.
"This world does not belong to you," she said in her clear, noble tones, "and it never did. You are a thief, a murderer and a vandal. We have traveled many leagues and fought many foes to come to you here." Did Ryn hear the slightest tremor in her voice too? "If you will not step down in humility, as justice demands, we will dethrone you by force, and if you oppose us, we will end you."
The Emperor's head snapped back at once and he burst out laughing again. From the way the laugh tore out of him, uncontrolled, it was like he was trying to stop himself from laughing, but couldn't.
Eventually the mocking gasps subsided and he looked down again, now turning his red gaze on Nuthea-despite himself, Ryn felt relieved.
"Oh, thank you," said the Emperor. "I have not enjoyed myself this much for quite some time. Did you think that you were really able to reach me by your own skill? I let you find me, Manolian whelp. I admit that for a long time I knew nothing of the exploits of your sorry troupe, wandering around in the world preoccupying yourselves with trivialities. But once you arrived in Sarkanamand and I became aware of you, I allowed you to infiltrate my Fortress and find me here, so that I could deal with your pitiful little rebellion. The only things to end today will be your lives, obviously."
Ryn's chest tightened further. Of course, he had suspected that the Emperor had allowed them to infiltrate his Fortress, but now he had confirmed it, so easily, so casually, so flippantly…
"Kill you!" shouted Sagar and rushed forwards, holding his twin cutlasses aloft, responding to the Emperor's mockery with rage.
"Sagar, no!" Ryn called after him. "We've got to work together!"
But it was too late. The sky-pirate reached the Emperor and swung his blades at the despot's head, firelight glinting off them as they whistled through the air.
The Emperor held up an armour-clad arm lazily to block them and, in the same movement, swiped at Sagar with a backhand open palm, like swatting away a fly.
Sagar's blades clanged uselessly off the armour and there was a horrible smack as the Emperor's arm continued its motion and slapped into him. Sagar lifted off his feet and flew across the chamber, slamming into the wall and sliding down to the ground.
He did not get up.
"Ahahahahahahaha!" The Emperor laughed again, unable to conceal his mirth. He actually doubled up and put his hands over his abdomen this time, he was laughing so hard. "Ohohohohohohohoho!" The tips of horns, now pointing in their direction, quivered as he laughed.
"You bastard!" shouted Elrann, rushing forward and brandishing her whip. Ryn couldn't blame her. He couldn't blame Sagar either-they had both lost so much to the Empire. But this was not the way to beat the Emperor!
"Don't-!" Ryn cried out.
While still doubled up the Emperor thrust out his hand again, and Elrann's whip coiled around it-he caught it perfectly.
The Emperor leant back again and brought his arm around and over his head in a big circle, using Elrann's momentum against her, who, still holding onto her whip, was dragged through the air and sent all the way around the throne before he released his grip and sent her crashing into-
Riss. Except that the young summoner managed to jump out of the way just in time so that Elrann clattered onto the ground in a heap. The girl looked down at her fallen comrade, then up again, her face contorting into a snarling frown underneath her deep-green hair.
Ryn could see what she was about to do, and opened his mouth, but he was too late to stop her too.
Riss cried out with rage and extended her arm, palm out, at the Emperor. From out of the air in front of her with a golden shimmer there leapt the form of an armoured wolf-the spirit animal that she summoned on Elrann's behalf-which howled, pawed the ground and charged at the Emperor.
It cleared the ten paces between them in no time at all, then dived at the Emperor, roaring, firelight catching on its armour.
Ryn could only look on helplessly as the Emperor drew a huge bastard sword from a scabbard at his side and in the same movement brought it diagonally upwards across the throat of the wolf, still laughing as he did so.
Blood sprayed and the wolf dropped at once with a whimper, skidding along the floor on its side before disappearing in a puff of glittering smoke. Riss screamed and went down too.
"Ahahahahaha!" cackled the Emperor from his horned skull. "That last effort was quite innovative! But this is too simple!"
Before anyone else could jump in, Ryn seized the opportunity and called out "My friends! We have to coordinate our attacks! We can't just run at him one by one!"
"What do you suggest?" said Nuthea next to him. She had drawn her own curved blade now and it shone with a golden light, adding another halo and series of penumbras to the shadowplay from the braziers and Ryn's firesword.
Beside and behind them, Ryn was aware of the others drawing their weapons and forming up too. Quel's knives glimmered somewhere to his left. Huld's earth-encased fists were raised nearby. Vish was to his right, barely discernible in the half-dark. Cid, Fizz and Ovie would be behind, charging their magical power.
Ryn would have to call his orders aloud, so the Emperor would hear them too, but that was a chance he would just have to take-this confrontation had not gone as planned. He had to rely on the hope that the Emperor did not know their names.
The battle had lulled for a moment, as had the Emperor's laughter, leaving eerie quiet. The eyes of that skull were looking at him again.
He was letting them plot their next move, Ryn realised. But he wouldn't let them have forever.
"Come on, little boy," said the Emperor all of a sudden, making Ryn start. "You are the leader of this sorry troupe of vagabonds, are you not? Give your orders!"
Ryn swallowed his fear and called out in his bravest, boldest voice "As we planned! Huld, you block him while Quel and Vish attack from the flanks! Cid, Fizz, Ovie, spread out and hit him with your ranged attacks, one at each compass point! Nuthea, you and I will tend to the fallen! We've got to get them back up so we can do this how we planned! Go!"
His friends cried their assent, then ran, all in different directions. Ryn heard Huld's voice over the rest saying "On it!" He saw the bulky monk running directly at the Emperor, but there was no time to stand back and watch what would happen.
Ryn span on his heel and bolted for where Sagar lay on the floor further back in the room, at the same time calling out to Nuthea, "I've got Sagar! You take care of Elrann and Riss!"
He didn't hear Nuthea's reply as it was drowned out by shouts from behind him-Ovie and Fizz casting their spells, Huld's grunts of exertion-at least Ryn hoped that was exertion, and not distress.
He made it to where Sagar lay, sheathed his sword and knelt beside the fallen sky-pirate. Underneath his knees the marble floor continued to swirl in the pattern of a violent storm.
Sagar's eyes were shut, but when Ryn put his ear to his mouth he was flooded with relief to hear that he was still breathing.
Ryn took the leather-wrapped flask of elixir from his belt, twisted in open and cradled Sagar's proud head with his free hand. He pushed Sagar's brown hair out of his face and then brought the bottle to his lips, tipping a little of the clear liquid into his mouth.
Sagar's adam's apple bobbed, then he opened his eyes and spluttered out a cough and some of the liquid. He stuck his arms out and looked around wildly, then saw Ryn and went still again.
"Ryn… thank you…" he said, words Ryn hadn't heard him say many times before, if ever. "I got a bit carried away there…" The sky pirate was being unusually vulnerable. Something seemed to pass across his vision, darkening it. They locked eyes again. "He's too powerful, Ryn. The Emperor. We can't beat him."
Ryn's limbs felt heavier, like Sagar's doubt physically weighed him down. He said what he had to say, what he felt was all he could say: "That's not true, Sagar. We can do this. There's hope. If we all attack together, like we planned, we can beat him..."
When Sagar didn't say anything, Ryn gritted his teeth, propped the man up, then hopped backwards and helped the sky-pirate onto his feet by the hand.
"Come on!" he said, and clapped Sagar on the shoulder. Why am I the one encouraging him? he thought. So much of our journey has been him encouraging me… We can't lose hope now, not when we've come so far...
He was pleased to see that Nuthea had both Elrann and Riss back on their feet too. She smiled at him across the hall, and her smile twinkled, but there was an uncertainty in it, an artificiality.
They turned back to the battle.
Ryn nearly lost his hope altogether right there and then.
Huld was stood in front of the Emperor, almost as tall as him, pummeling him over and over with impossibly fast fists, feet, elbows, knees. The Emperor wasn't even bothering to block the blows-they simply rained down on the despot's black armour, neither moving him nor doing him any visible harm.
To either side of the Emperor, each about ten paces away, stood Quel and Vish, chucking projectile after projectile at him, taking care not to hit Huld with their expert aim. Quel was flinging throwing knives, almost too fast to see, from within his flowing velvet cape, and Vish threw his pointed steel stars at the same rate. The weapons were merely clanging off the Emperor and dropping uselessly to the floor around him.
But that wasn't all; next to each of them stood Fizz and Ovie, Fizz drawing arrow after arrow infused with spritual light and launching them at the Emperor's head. They bounced off his skull, losing their light at once, and span off into darkness uselessly. Both of Ovie's hands were out and he was no doubt projecting a beam of void energy into the emperor, and having absolutely no effect at all as far as Ryn could see.
On top of all of this, behind the Emperor Ryn glimpsed old man Cid, his oaken staff thrust out in front of him, peak forwards, white hair and beard flying around his face from the back-blow of the sustained white beam of elemental energy he was sending into the Emperor's back.
Amidst all this, the Emperor stood upright, perfectly unharmed, his hands raised outstretched to the level of his head, palms open to the ceiling, as if he was drinking in all of their attacks-as if he was enjoying this.
He had begun to laugh again. "Ahahahahahahaha; ohohohohohohohoho!"
The sound resonated inside Ryn's own skull. It was almost enough to make him give up. It was the sound of a tyrant glorying in the hopelessness of others. It was the sound of glee in the delivery of death. It was the sound of final, triumphant evil.
All at once, the laughter stopped.
The Emperor opened his eyes, which had been scrunched closed in his convulsions of mirth, then clapped his hands together above his head.
"FOOLS!" rang out his almighty voice, for the first time tinged with irritation, and an invisible shockwave of force ripped out from his hand and knocked the companions to the ground.
Ryn landed on his backside on the marble floor.
"Don't you understand?" bellowed the Emperor. "I am all-powerful! I am omnipotent! I have touched all of the sacred jewels!"
Ryn despaired. How can that be? We made sure that all were safely restored to their rightful places!
As if sensing his thoughts-maybe the tyrant could read minds-the Emperor called out "One of your number has betrayed you, insects!" He extended a gauntlet-clad hand and pointed a metal-encased finger with a spiked tip at…
"NO!" Vish shouted from within his black shroud. He was on his knees, and clutched the side of his masked head with both hands as if trying to cover his ears to what the Emperor was saying. "I gave up your service! I would never betray my friends! I hate you!"
The Emperor laughed monstrously again. "Pitiful shadowdancer!" he declared. "Your love of poppy seed was what betrayed you! When you were in your trances, I was walking as you by blood magic! You will have no memory of it, but while you and your 'friends' were traipsing around Mid hunting for the gems, you were harvesting scrapings from each of them and sending them to me!" He turned his gaze on Ryn again. "I have the power of all the jewels, you imbeciles! "
"NO!" cried Vish again, head in his hands, bending in on himself with grief.
Ryn reeled, as if he had been hit by a sledgehammer. His head span. He felt as if the bottom of the world had opened up beneath him and at any moment he would fall through this marble floor, down through the stormy sky sealed within it, through the void and out into endless oblivion.
Can it be true? How could this have happened?
"You're a liar!"
The voice that had shouted, loud, female, defiant, had been Nuthea's.
With a sound like a hundred books tearing, a white lightning bolt lanced out from where Nuthea had gotten to her feet, shooting from her outstretched blade, and into contact with the Emperor. This time he put out his hand and caught it, converting it into a continuous shower of sparks. But the bolt remained in place all the same as Nuthea kept her attack up, pouring more and more lightning at the Emperor's hand.
Ryn remembered their original plan.
"That's it!" he called out over the sound of Nuthea's crackling lightning bolt, scrambling back onto his feet. He shouted as loud as he could, and his words came out in a wild flurry: "Descenders! Attack him now! All at once! Together! We've got to attack him together this time! Hit him with your elemental attacks! Everyone, attack now! Together!"
He took his own advice and fumbled for his sword's hilt, drew it, and pulled it behind his waist. Then he thrust it out towards the Emperor, willing all of his mental focus into the tip of the blade.
As Ryn yelled "Firaga!" the sword burst into magical flame again, and a tremendous jet of fire, the largest that Ryn had ever cast, leapt forth from it, hurling into the Emperor.
Slowly, with trembling effort, he brought his free hand up and around and held it, flat palm facing outwards next to the sword. The flame-jet grew larger still as he added to its strength. He felt the flaming red and orange aura of the fire leaping up around him, felt his hair stand up on end as it flickered in the magical flames.
Lightning and fire were pouring into the Emperor now, and he had put up another hand to block the fire, which dissipated and billowed around it. But Ryn could still see his eyes and-could it be-had they widened, just a fraction, in fear? After all, the Emperor only had two hands!
Sagar's attack was the next to join Nuthea's and Ryn's. Ryn heard a violent whoosh next to him, and Sagar directed a channeled elemental whirlwind at the Emperor, just as he had done at the start of the battle, only now he was coordinating with Nuthea and Ryn, not just launching his own independent attack. Ryn couldn't see this attack, but he felt its force as the flames enveloping blew to his right, and his own attack was pushed to the side a little as he saw the Emperor move ever so slightly to the side as the force of the wind hit him in the side.
"Yes!" he cried out at the top of his lungs, though he did not think anyone could hear him over the crackle of the lightning and hiss of the fire and rush of the wind. "It's working! More! More!"
One by one as the other Descenders recovered their wits they added the full force of their elemental attacks to the assault against the Emperor.
Quel's elemental attack was the next to join the lightning, the fire and the wind. Ryn could not see him anymore, because he was concentrating on pouring fire at his target, but a circular stream of water suddenly crashed into the Emperor's chest as well, splitting in two and pouring off him, flooding the floor beyond him, some of it evaporating in Ryn's fire or being blown around by Sagar's wind.
Elrann was next: a barrage of metal bullets began to ping off the Emperor's armour. Pok pok pok they went even above the noise, not piercing him but smashing to powder against his breastplate.
Then Huld: Part of the floor leapt up like a snake and lashed itself around the Emperor in a coil, holding him in place and constricting, still shimmering with the images of a storm. Huld must have used his earth-elemental power to manipulate the very marble of which the floor was made.
Then Cid: Once more a bright white beam joined the lightning, the fire, the wind, the water, the metal, the earth.
Then Fizz and Ovie: Two more beams crashed into the Emperor, one a rainbow-coloured spirit beam, one a colourless cylinder of void energy.
Now the Emperor had ten different attacks streaming into him. He actually doubled up and bent over, still held in one place-and not because he was laughing.
And finally Riss: In amidst the chaos of the elemental forces, from somewhere Ryn saw a gigantic, translucent, multicoloured lion leap at the Emperor and attach itself to his shoulders, clasping onto him and clamping its jaws around his skull.
"Yes!" Ryn cried, even though he knew nobody could hear him now. "It's working! We're doing it!"
The eleven attacks poured onto the Emperor in a beautiful multicoloured array. Now the whole chamber was filled with light
Eleven elemental attacks. All that was missing was a wave of dark energy from…
Taking care to keep his flame attack going, though he wasn't sure how much longer he would be able to sustain it, slowly Ryn turned his head to look for the shadowdancer.
At first it was hard to spot him amid the swirling multicoloured spray that came from the Emperor, the epicentre of their attacks, but there he was.
The shadowdancer was on his feet, standing his black clothes that hid every part of him, looking down at his hands, as if he was thinking 'Did my hands really do what he said they did?'
Come on, Vish! Ryn thought. We forgive you! We need you for this too! We need you too win! Help us!
Then, mercifully, miraculously, Vish looked up from his hands at the Emperor. He pulled his hands back behind his body, to either side, and then launched them forward.
A black beam of dark energy shout out from between Vish's hands and crashed into the Emperor's chest, joining the lightning, fire, wind, water, earth, light, void and animal.
Now the Emperor actually cried out. "AAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHH!" His deep, otherworldly scream cut through even the noise from their attacks. He wasn't laughing now.
He fell to the floor, on his knees, bent over, and covered his head with his hands, his horns sticking out from between them, and continued to scream as the elemental attacks assaulted him. The locus of the attacks, where they met on his back, glowed white hot.
"We're doing it!" Ryn called into the air inaudibly. "We've got him! We're going to defeat him!"
Then all at once the Emperor's scream rose in pitch and volume-"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHH!" and-
-the Emperor stood up again, flinging his arms out.
The fortress shuddered.
Ryn's jet of fire turned back on him and the flames crashed into him instead. Because he was fire-aligned, he wasn't burned, but the force of the torrent of flames knocked him off his feet and onto his back. His head banged against the hard marble floor and for a moment his vision was filled with the domed ceiling of the Emperor's throne room. It had turned black again, punctuated only by a few stars here and there.
Ryn had dropped his sword. His head ringing, he scrambled over onto his hands and knees and began to search around desperately for it on the floor around him. He couldn't help noticing that the sounds and lights of the elemental attacks of his companions had all disappeared too.
"INGRATES!" thundered the Emperor's voice from somewhere distant. There was a thwacking noise, a man's blood-curdling scream. "DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND? YOU CANNOT DEFEAT ME. I AM YOUR MASTER. I AM YOUR GOD. I AM YOUR END!"
Ryn gave up looking for his sword. He looked instead for his companions. Nuthea lay on the ground a little way away-floored. Sagar-floored. Elrann-floored. All of his companions had been sent to the ground by the Emperor's counter-attack.
The Emperor was walking between them. From somewhere a huge black-bladed sword, as long as he was, had appeared in his hand. He stopped by Cid.
"No…" Ryn whispered.
The Emperor plunged his blade down into the prone Cid's chest and the old man coughed out a bloody death cry.
As the Emperor continued to walk from one of his companions to another and kill them, he continued to talk. "THERE WAS NEVER ANY HOPE FOR YOU. FROM DUST YOU CAME AND TO DUST YOU WILL RETURN. EVERYTHING RETURNS TO ME IN THE END."
Everything had gone dark again-almost completely dark. In the darkness, against the background of the sounds of his friends being murdered, the images began to crowd into Ryn's mind again: The buildings of his home village, broken and burned. His friends lying dead and defeated. Nuthea's face, at first smiling and laughing, then frowning, weeping, sobbing, rescinding further and further away…
I'll never enjoy anything again. I'll never be happy again. There was never any point to any of it. And now it's over. This was the last thing that Ryn thought as the Emperor stood over him and kicked him onto his back, then held the black blade poised to pierce his heart.
They had lost.
Darkness took him.