By the end of summer, two major events happened.
They've tried to delay the first one as much as possible. To stop it, to hinder it in any way possible. But they've done all they could, and there was no stopping the inevitable. By the end of summer, Lohikaarm the Wardragon, the seventh City of Gold, had been completed.
It was a frightening beast of orichalcum and glass, a fortress of destruction and death shaped like a mythical creature. When it first took off, carrying a city of a thousand people on its back, the sonic boom it caused could be heard from the other side of the ocean. The trail of its solar energy was unmistakeable, and that was how they knew it was too late to stop it.
Its heavy wings bore enough solar panes to power up an entire kingdom. Its tail could catch radio waves from the other side of the Earth, with more efficiency than Ophir ever could have. Its legs could crush towers and temples if they were to land in the middle of a city. But the scariest part was its maw, which held the power of the sun's very core, and could unleash it all in a single breath.
And the orders were no mistake: it was to be headed for Atlantis, and strike the whole island with its fire. This time, there would be no recovering from this. If it truly were to target the continent, the force of the solar stone it held would melt rock and crack stone open, turn the vegetation to ash and the creatures to scorched carcasses. Even the people of Atlantis, who were born from the sun goddess herself, would not be able to handle its wrath. It would be the end of the war, and the end of a civilization.
But such a fortress needed a lot of power. To fully charge its death ray, it first needed to fly south, where there was more sun, and stay in altitude as to not miss any of it. From several outposts around the world, it could be seen hovering above the clouds, following the sun every day without fail, as if to remind the people below that the end was coming. It was hard to estimate from below, but Rana's engineers calculated that at this rate, it would be powered up in a matter of days, and that it would strike before the end of the week.
In a few days, the world as she's known it would be gone. Everything would change for the worst, and there was no hope. Or at least that's what she'd have thought.
The order to fire still hadn't been given. There was still a chance the beast would land without striking at all. A small, ridiculously slim chance, but one nonetheless. And she knew the only way it could happen was if the Emperor were to somehow be incapacitated. Who else but him would claim the honor of destroying Atlantis with a single word? She knew his pride too well. Which meant that she still had a chance to stop him, and stop all of this chaos from happening.
It was delusional, and contradicted everything she's been trying to accept in defeat, but she couldn't help it. For the second major event had rekindled this flame of battle within her, this desire to fight and emerge triumphant. By the end of the summer, Asterion of Mu, heir to the imperial throne, had been born.
What had to happen, happened without Rana even worried about it. One moment, she was giving out orders, carrying out an emergency evacuation plan; the next, she was done giving birth, and now holding a little baby in her arms. Perhaps it was best that her troubled mind had forgotten the details, but in either way, she was glad it was over. She couldn't say she hadn't suffered, but looking at the face of her child, she knew it had been worth it.
It felt to her like the most beautiful baby in the world. A little bundle of joy, so tiny she could hold it in one arm. A squishy face with round cheeks and sparse tufts of brown hair, tiny hands with minuscule fingers that endeared her beyond reason, adorable little feet like baby ducklings, and a hearty voice that sang more than it cried. She's wanted to think of something else, to stay in denial, but there was no doubt: this child was a treasure, someone worth fighting for. And she would make sure they had the brightest future she could ever create with her own hands.
However, she felt worried. She did not feel the unconditional, bursting love that new mothers were so eagerly talking about. She was happy that her child was finally born, of course, but it wasn't the all-encompassing and blissful feeling she's been expecting. She felt like something was wrong, like maybe she's been broken somehow; to be a mother for the first time, and not feel anything! She felt so ashamed of herself, like she was failing at the most basic of tasks! Why couldn't Asterion be the solution to all her anxiety and fear?
Still quite shaken from the experience of a first birth, she had to take some time to recover and restore her emotions. Luckily, she was not short of attending hands and helpers, many of which were or have been mothers as well. It felt good to not be alone, to have answers to her most pressing doubts. And as her body recovered from the trial of motherhood, her mind did as well. She shouldn't have to force herself; love would come as she bonded with her little one. She just had to give it time.
She would love to. But unfortunately, time was running out every day, as the dragon in the sky kept reminding them. One day it would disappear from its course, and that's when they'd know it was too late.
How she wished her mother was here. How she wished she could see her first grandchild, and reassure Rana's worries. Vai'Sina had seen her daughter become a woman; but she would never get to see her become a mother. All because of this stupid, cursed conflict.
Rana was always busy, for the duty of princess could not wait. Kardelios had been assigned to a protection mission, helping evacuate town in case the solarbeam were to strike here as well. Research on souls and Atlantean genes being halted by emergency, it was Meliad who became Asterion's main caretaker. It simply felt logical; and it was such a joy to see them together. He worked his task with duty and reverence, and always took great care of the baby, for he was a naturally soft person. Since the start, he's grown completely endeared of the royal child, and one who did not know better could have sworn it was his own. Perhaps caring for Pichu for all these years had shaped him into the perfect nurse.
It reassured Rana a great deal, for she knew that if she were to disappear, her baby would be in good hands. She hated to think this way, but with the situation at hand, she had no other choice. She knew she would not be here forever, and that her child would maybe never know their mother. But at least, their life would be spared.
Maybe that too, had been meant to happen since the start.
She tied her snowy hair in a tight bun, keeping it out of her eyes. In her sleeves, the hidden daggers were ready, and in her shins as well. Gone were the appealing dresses and shimmering fabrics: this time, she was here to act, not to stay passive and show off her status. She needed to merge with her fellow team members, for their fight was hers as well. So far she's stayed behind, given orders and made things happen through others, but if she wanted this war to end, she needed to put a stop to it by herself.
“Your Highness, you do not have to do this.”, Meliad insisted again. “You'll put yourself in unnecessary danger!”
“Whether I go or not, the entire world will be in danger.”, she said, strapping her belt on. “So I might as well make sure to save you all.”
“This is madness! What if...what if something happened to you?”
“He's right, you know.”, Kardelios hesitated, sheathing his sword. “We might...we might not return from this.”
He turned to her, gently held her hand.
“I mean, I'm always ready for action, but...now that we have Asterion, I'm not so sure I want to do this anymore. Let's stay behind, just this once!”
She could see the worry in his eyes. She could feel the restlessness of his soul. She sighed, and squeezed his hands tight in return.
“You do not have to come.”, she said, deadpan. “But I don't have the choice. I have to face my father, for no one else can.”
“You know that if you're coming, I'm coming too! What I'm asking you, is that you don't risk your life! You're still weak, you have to stay!”
Feeling irritated, she withdrew her hands.
“I cannot afford such a luxury. Time is of the essence: every minute I stay inactive, is one minute closer to our doom. My body might be recovering, but my soul is strong.”
To prove it, she tried to show off her aura, to make them all feel just how powerful it was. But the lioness was indeed shaking on its paws, even though its roar wanted to be as tremendous and mighty as before. There was just too much hesitation in her soul, and it afflicted her a great deal. But what could she do about it, besides facing her demons and fighting them face-on?
It was what the world needed her to do.
She turned to Meliad, who felt right about to cry. She could see it in his eyes, even if he tried to hide it. Gently, she stepped closer, and held his hand in hers.
“It will be fine. I promise.”
“I...I am not so sure anymore. Everything feels like it is coming to an end, and I cannot do anything to help you.”
She tried to reply, but a flurry of green feathers cut her.
“Rana, Rana, don't go!”, Pichu cried out. “Don't go!!”
“I'm sorry, old friend. But my duty calls me.”
She held the parrot on her hand, letting him snuggle up to her. Her only piece of her old life, the only thing left from everything she had been through. She had no idea of how old Pichu was when she first met Tao, but those last ten years since she's arrived in the times of Mu definitely showed in his sad plumage. Parrots could live long, but their life was still so short compared to that of humans. And it was horrible to know.
“Thank you for being there with me all these years, my Pichu. My little featherball. Now, I want you to stay with Meliad, and Asterion. Be their friend too, and you'll make me very happy.”
He still allowed himself to be perched back on Meliad's shoulder, to stay grounded there. Rana turned to him next, he whose sad puppy eyes still tugged at her heartstrings.
“You have a purpose too. The world needs you as much as it needs me. For it is you that will accomplish one of the greatest tasks of all.”
She took off her royal medallion, and handed it to him. It did not blacken in his hand, of course. She made it so. She took care of everything.
“Go to the Voice of the Desert.”, she instructed. “There will be a small team waiting for you. Give them my medallion, and they will rebuild the City anew. It contains all of the data we have salvaged, and so much more.”
The history of her people, of her fight for peace, that has been recorded in the Temple of Memories as well. Her legacy to the world: the knowledge that even in the heart of the war, there have been people that opposed it. That fought against the conflict itself. With this knowledge, history would be made right once again.
“The City will be reborn.”, she continued. “It will become even greater than before. It will become the Kûm Laa Ar.”
“...the Tomb of the Royal.”, Meliad whispered.
In a thrust of thought, he understood what it all meant. What did she plan this time? Had she gone so mad that she's planned her own burial in advance!?
“Let me come with you!”, he pleaded. “I will help you, I...I will...”
“Your concern is good, Meliaki. But you are not a fighter. You will have more luck staying behind, where you can oversee everything. I left you all the instructions you need.”
“But...but I have to protect you! This is what I am meant to do!!”
She smiled. A sad, endeared, devastated smile.
“You will protect the medallion.”, she said. “But you will also keep the most precious part of me. The one I leave to the future.”
She leaned down, to look at the baby he was holding. Her baby, her little treasure, that she was putting so much hope into. In a sense, it felt right that she did not grow attached to this child; maybe she's felt since the start that she wouldn't be staying with it. But still, it pained her to go and leave it alone and orphaned. She tried to quell her heart's cries as she planted a kiss on their tiny forehead, maybe the last one they would ever get from their mother.
“Goodbye, Asterion. I wish I could have known you more. But I know you will grow into someone great.”
She looked up at Meliad, and saw he was indeed crying. Gently, she kissed his cheek in turn, to ease his tears of pain. Kardelios walked closer, to hold his baby's hand a last time, see its happy and peaceful little face, and cried a little in turn. Unlike his wife, he had no intent of hiding his feelings, and perhaps it hurt more to know than anything else.
“Goodbye, little buddy.”, he whispered. “I'll wait for you, I promise. Grow strong, and...and be happy.”
He wiped his eyes, trying to stay strong and keep face. Meliad gently cupped his cheek, brushing his tears away, and Kardelios forced a smile at his attempt.
“They don't make 'em anywhere like you, little nymph.”, he teased. “It's been a pleasure knowing ya.”
And then, in a thrust of playfulness, he leaned in and touched his lips to the nymph's, who let out a little surprised squeak. Pichu whistled on an amused tone, not helping the situation at all.
“That's a promise.”, Kardelios said once they parted. “When the Princess and I come back from this, we'll both marry you. Cause with all you've done for us, that's the least you deserve.”
Meliad simply blinked, still confused and red-faced. Rana chuckled at that scene, thinking that such an arrangement could work out indeed. Even in dire times, Kardelios knew how to stay optimistic, and that would be of the greatest help.
“I...okay.”, is all Meliad managed to speak. “…be careful.”
“We will, Meliaki. Good luck.”
“Rana be good, rrk!”
They exchanged a last smile, a last glance; and then, it was time to go. Rana and Kardelios headed outside, to join the rest of the team that had gathered in the landing court.
“Time is running out, my friends.”, she spoke. “Sharias, you and your team head to Atlantis this instant and help evacuate the island. Threaten them if needed, but have everyone ready to depart.”
“Right on it, Your Highness.”
“Rodon, help spread the word that Mu is in danger as well. This strike will call for retaliation, and no one is safe. Use the communications channeler and set it on 99 to reach as many outposts as you can.”
“It will be done.”
“Krata and Akis, keep the evacuation of New Sun Land going. Head inland, keep away from the coast.”
They nodded in unison.
“Fasavis, you're coming with me. If everything else fails, we'll need you.”
“Hope it doesn't come to that. But a task is a task.”
“Then it is said. Everyone to their station, and pick up the pace! We have a war to end! Bring down the dragon!”
“Bring down the dragon!!”
And everyone moved forward. Rana looked at them deploy, get to where they were needed, watched the vehicles take off and fly away. Then, it was time for her to follow. She turned to Kardelios, and he opened the beak of a Golden Condor for the three of them.
“We might never come back home.”, she said. “But we will not leave in vain.”
“If only you could see things the way I see them, darling.”, he slowly spoke, looking out the window. “If only you could see the beauty of my actions.”
The Emperor took another step, watching the majestic dragon slowly fly high in the sky. Was there ever a sight as beautiful as this one? The symbol of the power of Mu, the jewel of the seven fortresses. The protector watching over them, hiding out the sun out of love for their people.
Truly, a magnificent invention.
“Beauty, huh.”, a voice smirked behind him. “I fail to see how death and destruction can bring out beauty.”
Fisaga turned his chair away, refusing to gaze at this wonder in flight. His hand touched to his chest, scratching nervously at it.
“Your heart has been darkened, Kane. Your mind has been lost for too long. Do you not see that this is tearing us apart?”
“This is for the greater good.”, Kane'Oro answered. “My methods may seem cruel, but they come from a place of love. With everything I have done, I can build the world anew, and make it better! I can get rid of the corruption that took a hold of it!”
“Corruption!? Is that how you call our old allies?”
“They were nothing but a nuisance. At the first occasion, they turned their loyalty away from us. They were not deserving of everything we had to offer!”
Fisaga suddenly swiveled around.
“You have gone completely insane!”, he called out. “Is that your solution to everything you dislike? Just because our alliance came to an end, they now deserve death and destruction!?”
“There is no place in my world for a civilization of snakes and backstabbers.”, Kane'Oro replied sternly. “And the time has come to prove it. Far too long have I allowed their follies to go on, yet now there is no other choice but to destroy them. Destroy everything that stands in my way, and shape the world as I see fit!”
“You speak like a tyrant! Is that what you make of your power!? Is that what you have sworn your life to??”
Kane'Oro simply shook his head in disappointment.
“And you speak like a child. You are too fond of those below us, for you have too much pity for them! Have you never thought of being more, of going beyond what is right or wrong?”
It seemed that only he knew the truth. And that is why he was the Emperor of Mu, the leader of the most powerful nation that had ever existed. Why, he might as well be the ruler of the world! He saw no difference at all. To him, the world was his birthright, his playing field. He who had power beyond anything known, why should he not use it to do what he wanted? He was the only one not to be hindered by morals and reason; those were distractions to keep people obedient and in place. But he was beyond rules. He made the rules!
“I understand how you feel.”, he said after a time. “I know how pity can make one feel. Have I not felt pity for you, when we first met? Have I not felt pity for this poor child, lost in the desert?”
“You are lying to yourself. I know you are better than that. You love me, don't you?”
The Emperor simply chuckled.
“Why, I do. Do you not see how everything I have ever done was made out of love? Perhaps you cannot. Perhaps you will never love me the way I do.”
“Your way is twisted. You pretend to love our daughter, and yet you chased her away!”
“She was growing too powerful for her own good. She was not ready to succeed to me yet. When I learned that she was sneaking with snake-eyes, I knew she was as good as gone.”
“You're a psychopath. You and your twisted mind games, I hate you! I hate this monster you have become!!”
He heard Fisaga start to cry, but made nothing of it. He was past such reactions. Tearing his eyes away from his creation, he stepped away from the windows; but that is when he felt something. He raised his head, letting mageia flow all around the room, the palace, the city, until he located it.
“Ah, will you be happy, my dear!”, he cheered with a smile. “Our lovely daughter has come to pay us a visit.”
Fisaga suddenly sat up.
“Rana!? She's here?!”
“Right on time, right on time. And- oooh, she is not alone. It feels like we will have some sunny company very soon!”
He grinned, feeling it all like a stupid joke. She might try, of course, but she would only come to face the cruel truth. Ah, well, he could entertain her for a time, if that is what she wanted! But the result would be the same.
It could only go one way: his way, and none other.
“Rana. We're here.”
Shook by a gentle hand, she woke up from her half-trance, and saw the houses and streets of Patiala below her. How it felt strange to come back here...
She sat up, recalling the steps of the plan. They only had one chance to do this, and perhaps they've already flubbed it; but she had to try. She had to at least try to stop the catastrophe from happening. Even if she failed, she could say she's done all she could.
Not that she would be able to say much anymore.
“You'll be alright?”, Fasavis asked, switching seats with her brother to pilot in turn.
“We will try. And if we fail, well, why bother? That is the last thing we will ever feel.”
Kardelios blinked at that.
“I thought you didn't like our sense of humor.”
“I got it from you and your endless jokes. Your wedding present to me.”
“Out of all the things I've given you...”
She chuckled, patting his cheek.
“You'll still have time to give me more. Maybe another child, even.”
“Wow, eager, aren't you, Princess?”
“It must be some animal instinct. If you cannot preserve yourself, preserve your species.”
“By sending them away...”
It was cruel, she knew. But it was that or death for all.
Here they were. The Emperor's palace, in the heart of the city. So far, no one had seen them, disguised in the Condor's cloaking mechanism. A technique they have refined, learned from the masters of invisibility.
Fasavis pressed a button, and the windshield opened. Carefully, Rana climbed out onto the bird's head, followed by Kardelios who held her hand very very tight.
“If in twenty minutes the dragon is still airborne, use your inner sun to detonate the tower.”, Rana told Fasavis.
“Princess, I...I'm not sure I can pull it off. That's a lot you're asking of me...”
“If Lohikaarm strikes, Atlantis is as good as gone. Let that fuel your gesture.”
She knew it was a sensitive cord to be tugged at, but now was not the time for sensibility. Now was the time for action!
“...alright.”, she eventually conceded. “Well, see you at mom's place, you two.”
“See you at mom's place, buttface.”
The siblings exchanged a last salute, before it was time to go. Rana breathed in, held her spouse's hand tight, and ran towards the edge of the beak to leap right out of it.
Roosters were not meant to fly, but that did not mean they couldn't. Rana held tight onto him, focused her mageia, and let it wrap around them to carry them into their descent. Her feet flipped forward, and she let it happen as the two of them were brought down, eventually touching to the roof of the castle. Rana then gestured to Fasavis, and she saw the disguised Condor fly away.
Now was their time to shine.
“Promise me to never do that again.”, Kardelios said, voice shaking.
“There will be no other occasion, anyway.”
She's spent her teenage years in this palace; she knew the ins and out very well. This way, they could reach a loose window they could sneak in through. It landed them in a hall in some tower, which seemed deserted. Rana stood carefully, sensing the air for any presence.
“Guards on our right. Let's take this way.”
Kardelios followed diligently. His sight might be half of what it used to be, but he still had very good ears.
“Footsteps. Come close.”
Rana huddled up to him, and Kardelios focused. His body became all warm, his breathing changed its pace. She felt something strange wrap all around her, like a form of mageia, and her sight got all warped like she was surrounded with a bubble. She stayed as still as possible, trying to make no noise at all. Two guards on patrol came this way, and kept going without even seeing them. Once they turned a corner, Kardelios released the illusion, and the invisibility effect shed away.
Distorted light. It slipped right off their bodies and kept going off into nothing, rendering them effectively invisible. At least, Rana got to learn how it worked while she was still alive.
The throne room was this way. Something told her the Emperor would be there. How could it be any other way? He had a flair for the dramatic, and so had she, in a sense. If a fight were to take place, it would be here. She dreaded to think about it, but there was no turning back now.
The door was locked, with a lock so simple it might as well be open. She made nothing of it, and the two of them entered the throne room. It was empty, for now was not the time for audiences. No court members to witness was was going on, no guards to come hinder them, nothing.
No one but Fisaga, sitting by the throne.
When she entered in, he opened wide eyes. She sensed around, and felt nothing but him in here.
She ran to him, to see if he was alright; he seemed shaken by something. Kardelios stayed behind, watching for any upcoming threats, but there were none in sight.
“Rana…?”, Fisaga hesitated, as if he had trouble speaking. “What...what are you doing here!?”
“Father, there is no time. We have to get you out of here. Where is the Emperor?”
“Rana, you have to leave! It's dangerous, you should not be here!”
“I know, but I had to come back. I had to.”
His eyes then darted to her companion.
“Who's that? What is- what is he doing here!?”
“It is a very long story. I will explain everything, but you can trust him. I know I trust him with my life.”
“You have to go! Now! Please!!”
She blinked, not getting what he meant. She sensed the dog barking, irritated and angry. Something...something was holding it in place, and it was trying to warn them. Immediately, she felt something else in the room with them.
She moved just in time to avoid it. One second too late, and the reptile would have struck her right in the soul.
Kardelios drew his sword, pointing at where that came from. From the shadows of the room, the Emperor himself slowly walked out, his aura slithering and hissing as it came back to curl around him. The dragon was still mighty and fearsome, like a tamed animal he'd carry around and caress to intimidate his enemies. In that moment, he appeared to her no different than Ankheru the Falcon King.
“Look who came back to greet us.”, he snided. “Welcome home, Rana'Ori. Finally, you have recovered your sense of loyalty.”
He grinned at her. A grin that meant nothing good, she knew it.
“Or maybe you did not come here to rejoin me? I see by your...entourage that you still hold beliefs I cannot accept.”
Kardelios held his sword in a defensive position. Rana had warned him plenty about what exactly Kane'Oro was able to do, and he would not fall for his traps.
“I admit, this is not the situation in which I hoped to meet my father-in-law.”, he joked despite his serious attitude. “Though I fully understand why you'd want to kill me.”
“Keep your pleasantries to yourself, snake. They would make pitiful words for your epitaph.”
“What does he mean?”, Fisaga asked. “'Father-in-law'? Do you...do you mean…?”
“Yes.”, Rana nodded, seeing no point in hiding it. “Kardelios is my lawfully wedded husband, for a year now.”
Kane'Oro smirked. A cruel face that betrayed his disgust pretty well.
“And to think I once considered you my own daughter. Why, if you are so keen to come back on your own words, what care do I have for mine?”
The dragon hissed and stood up, taking most of the space as usual. Rana tried to stand tall, to not let herself be impressed. This was not a real dragon, it was merely a projection. It could not hurt her, she would not allow it to!
“Father.”, she spoke slowly, but with certainty. “You know why we have come here.”
“Of course I know. I know everything, you should be aware of it by now. You want to force me to stop the solarbeam strike, and save all your Atlantean friends. I know you too well, my child!”
“Then you already know how it will end.”, she warned. “I will give you one last chance to surrender, bef-”
Her voice was suddenly caught in her throat, and she fell on her knees. She didn't even notice the dragon catching the lioness in its maw, almost biting into it whole.
“Please.”, Kane'Oro scoffed. “Spare yourself the trouble. Why should I surrender to you!?”
Kardelios gasped, seeing his love in sudden and invisible pain. He rushed forward and attempted to strike, but was stopped with the same ease, suddenly falling to the ground like his body refused to obey.
“Do not even attempt to lay a hand on me, you serpent! You have never matched us and never will. Your strength is merely an illusion.”
And he took pleasure in bringing a cry out of him, holding Kardelios's aura so tight in his claws that it inflicted physical pain. Rana screamed, recovering the use of her voice, and tried to evade her father's control, to fight it and stand back up.
“You fight in vain, all of you. Have you not understood that your only chance to live is to surrender?”
His tone was awfully calm, as if he was not currently holding his daughter's and her husband's souls hostage. Rana tried to fight it, to struggle, to writhe out of it, and managed to free her arm. Despite the pain and paralysis, she aimed her hand and flicked her wrist; a dagger shot out, and Kane'Oro noticed it a moment too late. He stepped out of the way, the dagger ripping at his sleeve, and his control released.
Quickly, Rana got back on her feet, and Kardelios followed. He did not hesitate; in that instant of stupor, he went to strike at the Emperor, his sword tracing a silvery trail in the air. But Kane'Oro managed to block it with his armguards, pushing back the blade. Rana used that moment to strike in turn, biting at the dragon's flank and distracting him, so that Kardelios could try to get a slice in from the other side. He was pushed away with mageia, but did not evade another thrown dagger, this one hitting him in the leg. He stumbled a little, his control already weakening, and Rana got to deal yet another bite.
Kane'Oro fell on one knee, and his aura roared at them to keep them away. It took off and dove like a hawk to catch Rana's, but she held tight onto Kardelios's arm and his own soul pushed the beast away. She showed him the way, and together they went for a combined auratic assault, with a practiced synchronicity that took the Emperor aback for a moment. Their combined strike had more force, for their kindred auras echoed back to one another. Then they parted, each taking in a different direction, and the dragon stayed disoriented, not knowing which to chase. Rana tried to strike at Kane'Oro again, and he pushed her away with his arm, throwing her to the ground. A dart hit him from behind, shot from Kardelios's wrist crossbow, but got slowed by his thick clothing. He shot again, and again, but focused as he was on aiming, he did not sense the dragon attacking him from above. He fell on the ground, feeling his strength suddenly leave him, and Rana screamed; then it was her turn to be pinned down by a solid hand, so hard she felt something break.
“Enough!”, the Emperor roared, so loud that his voice echoed all around the room. “You have lost, I tell you! There is no way I will let you win!!”
“Kane, stop it!!”, Fisaga pleaded, unable to help. “You're hurting them!!”
“I will hurt anyone I please! I will hurt the entire world if it means succeeding!!”
Rana tried to fight back, but her own forces were leaving her, bleeding out from the dragon's assaults. Kardelios laid on the ground, as if he got knocked unconscious. Kane'Oro's hand clenched around her throat, and she felt her pulse grow dangerously high.
“You could never understand.”, he growled. “That is why you will always be weak.”
He clenched, and Rana felt her eyes start to hurt. She clawed her hands at his', tried to push him back, but her body felt weakened. She's barely recovered from childbirth, she could not handle such a fight!
Suddenly, Kane'Oro's grip released, and he fell to the side. There was a loud noise, and Rana breathed in a large gulp of air. She stood up in a hurry, and took a moment to assess what happened. With horror, she saw that Fisaga had fallen out of his chair; he's ran into his husband as fast as he could, enough to make him fall. Before Kane'Oro could stand, Fisaga got on top of him and pinned him to the ground with all the strength of his upper body.
“Get off me!”, the Emperor roared. “Let me go!”
“When will you stop!?”, Fisaga barked. “You've gone too far, Kane! You've gone insane! Have you got no sense at all!?”
“Let me go!!”
And he pushed him away. Rana yelped, and immediately went to his aid, helping him sit up. Kardelios was also wobbling back onto his feet; when he saw what was happening, he rushed to stand behind Rana and the Emperor, sword shakingly pointed at the him. The latter stepped back, looking at the three of them with disgusted, yet tired eyes.
“You make me sick. All of you! When will you understand that I am doing all of this for you!?”
“You're not!!”, Fisaga shouted. “You think you are, but you're deluding yourself! You cannot justify your cruel actions with love!!”
“I can justify anything I want. For I am unstoppable! Soon, my creation will be complete, and no one will oppose me ever again!”
“With all due respect, Your Majesty, you are the epitome of insane.”, Kardelios intervened, panting. “You can't achieve peace by eliminating all those who oppose you. You can't rule the world with fear!”
“What would you know about ruling?! Who are you to tell me about peace, you who soon will be landless!”
To that, Kardelios smirked, his voice sounding as tired as ever.
“As if that could happen. My land is everywhere, you know. And that's why your attempt is useless.”
He lowered his sword, his arms weakening.
“You can wipe Atlantis off the map. Every last bit of it. But you'll never kill us. For we'll always be there, ready to defend the world!”
“You will be nowhere! You are nothing, you hear me!? Nothing!!”
“Then why are you so afraid of us? If we're nothing, why do you want to get rid of us? Or maybe you know that we do match you, and that's what scares you?”
Rana sensed the dragon twitch. Had Kardelios tugged at something she did not foresee?
“I will never be afraid of you! I will kill you all, and erase your pathetic kind from my world!!”
Kardelios stood straight, and sheathed his sword. He then casually walked to Rana's side, and let Fisaga hold onto him to stand up.
“Look, Your Majesty. Kill me if you want. I'm just a person, I'm meant to die someday. But what I stand for? You'll never be able to kill. Not with fear, not with giant wardragons. It's just too much for you.”
That's when Rana felt it. It wrapped around her, shielding her from the world. It felt...warm, and soft, like a feeling of happiness. Her hands felt very warm, and Fisaga felt it too. That's when she noticed that outside, the light had changed.
Slowly, the sun was coming back into the bleak skies. She smiled, and she invited it in as well, let it shine through the windows. It should not be possible, and yet...she just knew how to do. It felt like the most natural thing in the world, and that was great.
“This is Atlantis.”, Kardelios grinned. “This is who we are. This is what you'll never conquer.”
Kane'Oro was fuming with rage. He tried to fight back, to impose himself back in, but there was no fighting it. His own feelings have been wounded during the battle, and he could not order darkness back inside.
“Pathetic.”, he scoffed. “You are so pathetic, believing in folk tales. But it is only fitting that the very thing you believe in will be your undoing.”
And he smiled. Rana did not know what he meant, and it frightened her, but that is when he showed her. His own memory, his own knowledge.
The sun had come back to shine bright, and its light was enveloping the city. But in doing so, it also covered Lohikaarm's wings. The Wardragon had finally ended its charging cycle, and its systems were operative. It beat its wings, and deviated from its week-long course, starting to head to its destination. In its core, the solar stone was whirring.
Rana did not control herself. Her feet moved on her own, her fingers clenched, her mageia sparked. Her voice screamed, and her fist met with Kane'Oro's chest, punching him with all the force of an enraged and betrayed daughter.
He might be powerful and prideful; but even with all his powers, his bones remained old. His back hit a pillar, and gave way like nothing. Then Rana fell on her knees, and screamed out all her tears.
Nothing. She's done all of that for nothing!! It was too late to stop Lohikaarm, it was too late!!
Kardelios sat Fisaga in his chair and rushed to her, trying to hold her. But she kept crying, screaming out all that weighed on her. She's failed everyone! She was a failure, a failure!! Now everything would be gone, like nothing ever mattered!!
“What are we going to do!?”, she asked, in tears. “Are we going to stand here and watch it all disappear?!”
“We won't! There...there's got to be a way!”
He looked around, panicked. Then he turned to Fisaga, who was still under the shock of what had just happened.
“There is a way, right? We can...we can still stop it?”
Fisaga looked like he knew the answer, but did not want to say it. Rana knew that it was too late, that nothing could be done now. And it tore her apart, it tore at her more than knowing she would soon die.
“...there is one.”
She felt her breath cut short. She looked up, and almost crawled to her father's side, looking him in the eyes.
“There is? What is it?? Oh, father, I beg you to tell me!! We need to stop it!!”
Fisaga looked away, as if it weighed on his heart to say it. His fists clenched on his robe, and the dog whined with its ears down.
“Kane'Oro...knew you would try to stop the solarbeam.”, he said in a small voice. “It is automated: once it has launched, there is no stopping it...unless you enter the emergency code.”
From his pocket, he produced some small device with a keyboard input. He handed it to her, and she took it with shaking hands.
“...what is the code?”, she asked.
“I do not know it. Neither did Kane. The only ones who know are dead. And the only place to find it...”
He then put his hands to his chest, and slowly undid his shirt. Rana did not understand what he was doing, but she saw something intriguing.
Fisaga's torso bore some scars. There were those of his chest surgery, healed lines right under where his breasts used to be; Rana has heard him speak of it. But in-between, right in the middle of his ribcage, was one that looked much more recent. One that made her very nervous.
“What...what is this?”, she asked in a small voice.
“The Emperor can be very cruel.”, he said like it was a proverb. “He knew you would be the one to try to stop him. So he hid the emergency code where...where you would have to get it by yourself.”
Fisaga nodded. Then, he spoke in a grim voice.
“He has implanted the code in my heart. If you want to stop Lohikaarm, you will need to tear it from my chest and cut it open.”
Rana's breath simply stopped. Kardelios made a disgusted noise.
“What kind of freak even thinks such things!?”
“One with a lot of power, I am afraid.”
He took a deep breath. Rana didn't notice it, but he looked so tired, as if he's aged a whole decade in just a few years.
“Sweetheart.”, he said softly. “Only you can decide of what to do. If you want to save everyone, I will not stop you.”
“But...but what about you?”
“I guess I will die. But I know that my sacrifice will not have been in vain.”
He smiled weakly.
“I have lived a good life, Rana. I will leave no regrets.”
“No!”, she said, shaking her head. “I...I can't do that! I just can't!”
“There is no other option. Lohikaarm is already on its way to destroy Atlantis. I know you want to save them, and I cannot stop you. I will not be angry at you, I promise.”
And he held her hand, to point her hidden dagger at his chest. This sight horrified her to no end; she withdrew her hand, removed her dagger and threw it away.
“I cannot!!”, she protested. “I will not let you die! I have already lost too many people I cared about!!”
“But what about all of those that will perish? What about-”
His words were cut short by the strength of Rana's embrace. She's fallen on her knees, holding him by the waist, head on his lap. He sighed, and simply caressed her head, letting her cry all she needed. Kardelios knelt as well, patting her back gently.
“We were ready to sacrifice ourselves too, you know.”, he said quietly. “For the good of the world.”
“But this is different! He is my father, Kardelios! How can you expect me to kill him!?”
“How can you expect me to let you run away to your death? Rana, you feel in this instant the same way all of your people feel for you.”
He embraced her tight, letting her cry on his shoulder.
“You are loved, you know. By me, by Meliad, by everyone. And we feel that hurt when you speak of letting yourself die for peace.”
“But...but that's what I'm meant to do.”, she sobbed. “I knew since the start I would die, does that mean nothing?”
“We all know that! We're not immortal.”
He gently kissed her tears away.
“But that's what makes life beautiful. That's why we fight to preserve it.”
She sniffled, taking a moment to wipe her eyes. She felt Fisaga's hand on her shoulders, gently soothing her. It did not feel in this moment that everything would come to an end; it felt...oddly peaceful.
“So...we do nothing?”, she asked. “We're really doing nothing? Just...letting everything happen?”
“Well, that's up to you. I have no way of contacting Fasavis. Everything is already set in motion.”
One step after the other, he invited her to stand. Fisaga held her other hand, and the three of them made their way to the window. How the city looked so beautiful, minutes away from its destruction…
“Atlantis will cease to exist.”, she said. “But so will Mu. No one will hear of them for ten thousand years.”
“A country that puts itself above all others does not deserve to exist.”, Fisaga said. “Mu has grown into a twisted parody of itself. Perhaps...perhaps it is for the best.”
She leaned into Kardelios, rested her head on his shoulder. He felt his lips in her hair, and her heart started to beat fast. She felt...weird. She felt like doom was about to strike at any moment, an impending feeling of devastation; and yet, she did not move. She did not want to move from here. It would break the peace of this moment, and she'd hate it.
“This isn't such a bad way to go.”, Kardelios said. “At least, I got to be with you till the end.”
“Me too. I...I am glad we got to live what we've had.”
Their hands naturally found their way together. She held onto him tight, so tight that there would be no mistake as to who they were. For tens, hundreds of years, their bones would stay interlocked together, two lovers sharing a last embrace before the end, until they vanished into dust, carried away by the sea. And then she would be reborn, and...and perhaps he would be reborn too, and they would meet again. Perhaps his resemblance to Esteban was not a coincidence. Perhaps it was meant to be, perhaps it has always been meant to be.
She felt the earth start to shudder. She heard the ringing of the emergency alarm. In town, there was activity, and she was witnessing it. Perhaps on the other side of the world, Lohikaarm was getting ready too. She closed her eyes, savored the last instant of peace she could get, and just held on closer.
“You met me at a very strange time in my life.”, she said.
Kardelios chuckled, returning her touch. She couldn't help but think of Asterion, of Meliad and Pichu. They would be far, by now, they would be in a whole other country. Perhaps he'd return to his homeland, perhaps they'd be a family. The baby did not have golden eyes, and maybe no one else ever would anymore. But that would not last forever. She had a hunch it'd come back someday.
The time has come. She opened her eyes, and saw the light flare shine seconds before thunder rumbled all over the earth, and everything took place in a heartbeat. She did not even feel it, only felt this welcoming warmth that took a hold of everything, as if to hold the entire city in its arms.
I'm coming, mother.