"All the way down, then all the way back up again," grunted Odin as he wrenched his double-bitted laconian axe free from the fallen soldier's armor. King Lassic's crown guards were huge men, and their own axes were lethal, but the party of four had smashed their way down through the subterranean passage and up again into the inner keep of the Air Castle, the tyrant's floating stronghold. "Did he absolutely have to brick up the front door? Wasn't it enough to build a flying castle and make it invisible?"
The white-mantled Esper, Noah, smiled wryly at the brawny, blond warrior. The blue-haired wizard was as slender and beautiful as a girl, but there was nothing delicate about the magic of fire, wind, and thunder he hurled at their enemies.
"We're here, aren't we?" he said gently, but with a sardonic twinkle in his eyes. "Those defenses didn't do him much good."
"Neither did these," Odin countered.
"He has a point," teased Myau. The only non-human member of the group, Myau was a yellow-furred Musk Cat—but not just a Musk Cat. He'd been transformed into a winged beast as tall at the shoulder as Odin, a creature capable of flying the other three up to the floating castle.
"Stop it, all of you. We have to work together at this."
It was the voice of their leader. She didn't look like much, not at first glance. Just a fifteen-year-old with a cute face, long brown hair, and wide blue eyes that still held an eager innocence no hardship had been able to quash. Her short-skirted pink dress, yellow leggings, and flat-heeled white boots were cheerful, rather than ominous. A casual look would dismiss her as a child playing at grown-up games.
Her name was Alis, and her three companions would have followed her into Hell itself, confident that she could somehow bring them out safely. In a way, that was exactly what they had done for her. Each had in turn joined her quest, four against the unholy armies of the king of Palma. And now, here they were, outside the door to Lassic's throne.
Lassic the sorcerer, who had clearly dipped into realms of black magic to judge by his undead minions, the evil wizardry that an Esper like Noah was dedicated to fighting.
Lassic the betrayer, whose minion Medusa had butchered the resistance cell to which Odin and Myau had belonged, even to the point of turning Odin to a stone statue.
Lassic the tyrant, whose mechanical enforcers had cut down Alis's brother Nero before her eyes and set her on this path.
Alis looked at the great double doors. As the leader, she felt she ought to make some kind of speech before this final battle of their quest, to say something to inspire the others, but try as she would, nothing came to mind.
"Are we ready?" she finally said. "Whatever is on the other side of that door, we'll only get one chance at it."
After a moment's thought, Odin hooked his axe to his belt and drew his laser gun, a powerful pistol capable of spraying multiple enemies with blue-white blasts of energy.
"One moment," Noah said. He unslung a four-foot-long wrapped parcel from across his back. "If this is ever going to be worth the effort we took to retrieve it, now is the time."
He untied the cords, drew back the cloth wrappings, and withdrew the crystal rod from its protective padding. It had been a gift from Damor the Soothsayer, who'd once been the greatest Esper wizard in all Algo. He'd served King Marek Landale, and joined Alex Ossale in his rebellion against the then-Regent Lassic after King Marek's death. Unfortunately that rebellion had failed utterly, ending with General Ossale's execution.
Damor's crystal was supposed to help protect the questers against Lassic's power. The only question was, would it do so, or would it be merely one more failure in a series of them? It had been obvious that the old wizard had suffered some sort of mental breakdown and needed care...
Alis's hand hesitated as she reached for the crystal rod. Another thin smile played over Noah's lips as he held it out to her, as if he knew what she was thinking.
I haven't come this far by doubting, Alis decided firmly. She adjusted the buckle of her laconian shield, strapping it into place along her forearm to leave her hand free. It would hamper her use of the shield, but there was little to be done about that, not if she was going to use the crystal, which she then took from Noah.
"All right," she told the others. "I don't really have anything else to say, but...thank you, everyone, for coming this far."
Myau shook his head.
"No, Alis. Thank you for bringing us with you, meow."
She almost blushed.
Odin tugged at one of the door handles.
"Oh, great. The doors are locked, and I don't even see a keyhole."
Noah pressed his palm flat against a door.
"That is because they were sealed with magic. Don't worry; I can easily counter the spell." He spoke one quick, sharp word in a language none of the others recognized, and the door was suffused by a pale blue glow, which soon faded.
"I think that should take care of it."
Odin tried the handle again. This time, he was able to swing the portals wide.
Lassic was afraid.
Death was coming for him, extending its fleshless hand at a steady, inexorable pace.
She had found his Air Castle, rent asunder the magic that hid it from the eyes of his enemies. Somehow she'd ascended into the sky, bringing weapons and armor of silver-bright laconia, the magical metal he feared could disrupt his power. Lassic had sealed off the doors and windows of his inner keep, so that anyone who wanted to attack him would have to travel a winding passage through the bedrock of the floating island, a passage choked with his most vicious minions.
None of it had worked. They were here, here, right outside his door!
"Isn't there something you can do?" he raged desperately.
The dark whispers in his mind ate at the king, using the secret name he had been given when he had accepted the call of nightmare.
You have been given power, Lashiec.
You have been given immortality, Lashiec.
Go forth and defend these gifts!
He trembled at the contempt in the voices. The black blood beat in his veins, pulsing with fear, but also with anger.
You are the King of Algo, the whispers told him. Air, sea, and stone are yours to command. These rebels have come far, but only to die at your hand. They are bugs to be crushed, nothing more. If they will not submit to your mastery—
"Then I will flay the souls from their bodies," Lassic growled.
The tyrant king rose from his throne to greet his unwelcome callers.
He was alone, Alis realized almost at once. There were no royal guards, no court sorcerers, no demonic hordes. There was only Lassic himself, standing before his throne. His sunken eyes blazed redly with hate, and he exuded a palpable aura of menace, a sensation of evil that seemed to roll off him in waves.
Nero, please protect me, Alis prayed, hoping that her brother's spirit could hear.
Lassic looked like a vision of evil from a storybook. He did not wear a king's crown and royal robes, nor the common clothing of the people, but instead a suit of armor, ornate and fluted, with a scarlet cape descending from the shoulders to just brush the floor. A helmet with wide, spiraling horns masked much of his face, and a massive staff crowned with a wide, spreading crest was gripped in one gauntleted fist.
"Welcome, children," his voice boomed out through the chamber. "You were lucky to have made it this far. But do you truly wish to kill an old man?"
He was an old man, too, Alis reflected. He'd been in his fifties when he'd become Regent, fourteen years ago. Lassic must be nearly seventy by now.
"Evil," she said firmly, her voice clear and strong, "is not the sole province of the young. Your tyranny has gone on too long as it is, but it shall be no longer!"
"You will regret your impudence!"
He leveled the staff at the four, and a beam of searing light slashed out at Alis and her friends. Myau squealed in pain, Noah was knocked over by the blaze of energy, and Odin grunted savagely and nearly doubled up. Alis winced as a jolt passed through her system. It felt much like when she'd been hit by the conjured lightning of Lassic's masked magicians, yet weaker, less of a blow.
The crystal rod pulsed warmly in her hand, glowing with a soft amber light.
It looked as though the old soothsayer wasn't quite as mad as Alis had feared.
Odin and Noah attempted a counterattack, striking out with laser shots and bolts of flame. Lassic shrugged these attacks off and once more lashed out with the energy from his staff. Once again, only Alis escaped serious injury.
She didn't waste any more time. Her friends could be badly hurt, or even killed, if they were forced to endure many more of Lassic's strikes. Raising her sword, Alis charged, sprinting across the throne room. The king lashed her with electric fire, but Alis parried with Damor's crystal and lunged. The point of her laconian sword crashed against Lassic's breastplate, glancing off, but the tyrant stepped back as if staggered.
Why is he retreating? Alis wondered. She had the answer almost as soon as she'd thought of the question. For all that he was armored like his giant axemen, Lassic was an Esper, not a trained fighter. Possibly he even possessed the endurance of his age! His strategy would have to be to engage his foes at range, if he expected to win. Alis pressed her attack, trying to keep Lassic on the defensive.
The king was no fool, though. He'd recognized the crystal shaft as being the source of Alis's resistance to his magic, and he tried to do something about it. His staff swept out, not to spit forth another searing beam but to physically strike at the frail-looking crystal. Alis managed, though, to twist her arm and take the blow off her shield instead. Lassic clubbed at the crystal once more, but the truth was in this kind of battle he was at a distinct disadvantage and Alis was able to counter.
"Wretch!" the tyrant roared. "I am the king of all Algo! I will not be defeated by a slip of a child!" Rather than sweep the room with his staff-bolt, he instead leveled the tip at Alis's chest and released the entire blast at point-blank range into her.
Alis arched her back as pain wracked her body, making her stagger. Her legs felt weak and rubbery; everything in her made her want to drop to her knees.
But she wouldn't do it.
In truth, she couldn't. As Alis's mind reeled from the pain of yet a second bolt, she seemed to feel herself carried forward, helped along by the support of her three companions. She could feel the presence of everyone she'd met along her quest: her friends Nekise and Suelo; the wise Governor of Motavia who did what he could to blunt Lassic's evil in his sphere of control; the suffering people of ruined Bortavo, poison-choked Sopia, and starving Drasgow; the Dezorian priests of holy Corona Tower on the ice planet; the wizened figure of Noah's master. Most of all, though, she felt Nero. Her brother had died in her arms while entrusting his quest to her, and now Alis stood just one victory away from freeing Algo, all three of its worlds, from the tyrant who seemed determined to not merely oppress its people but destroy them.
Her sword swept out, the edge sliding between the lip of Lassic's helmet and his shoulder guard. It did not decapitate the king, but it did not need to apply the traditional punishment for royal traitors. What Alis's blow lacked in dramatic irony, it made up for in effectiveness.
Lassic was dead.
Alis stared down at the body for a long time, trying to sort out what she felt. Joy at having completed her quest? Shock at having destroyed a king? Elation? Horror? Closure?
No, she decided; mostly she just felt empty. The fight against Lassic had filled her life for long months, and now it was over, with nothing—yet—to replace it.
She'd find something, though. Although Lassic was beaten, the effects of his reign wouldn't go away at once. It would take long, hard work to bring Algo back from its king's depredations. Destruction—even the destruction of evil—was always easier than creation.
Alis smiled. Maybe there was more to this quest than she thought, something better than just fighting and killing.
"Come on, Alis," Odin said, his voice heavy with the pain of his injuries. "Let's get out of here."
"All right," she said. "We need to get back to the Governor as soon as possible, anyway. He's the only legitimate government left, and he'll need to get started right away to keep anarchy from spreading." With a lightening heart, Alis summoned forth her own magic, a spell of instant flight that would transport them out of the dark castle and away, towards a bright future.
The lips of the Governor of Motavia curved upwards, but it was not he who smiled. Nor were it his thoughts that echoed in his mind, causing the true spirit of the Governor to cringe in horror. These were the actions of the darkness that had possessed him, the same darkness Lassic had bowed to in exchange for power and eternal life.
Good, the dark force thought. It seems that Lashiec has learned his lesson. Perhaps next time I drag his soul forth into the world, he will be more attentive to his duties and less concerned with his pathetic fears.
The thing that inhabited the Governor leaned back in his seat. All that remained was to deal with the so-called heroes that had unknowingly carried out the chastisement for him. They had served their purpose, and it would not do for them to interfere where they were not meant to. He'd planted the seeds carefully to make sure they would return to him upon Lashiec's defeat. Willingly, they would rush into his trap, and they would die.
And their world would follow.