A/N: I apologize for this one, but the idea came to me after I had spent all night writing a paper about military coups and was running on 4 hours of sleep...
Spoilers for what is
written on the Seventh Fonstone. A what-if story delving into what
may have occurred if history had not been changed.
The Last Emperor
Thick black smoke rose over the skyline, choking out the sun. The waterfall had turned brown and muddy as soot poured into its crystalline waters. The screams of the wounded and dying echoed across the landscape and red fires lit the horizon as the ancient city of Grand Chokmah burned.
Peony IX, Emperor of Malkuth, paced the length of the audience hall, hands folded at the small of his back and eyebrows narrowed with worry. It was a pose he could not shake off lately. Too many problems he was powerless to solve had been thrust upon his shoulders in the past few weeks. Malkuth was facing the greatest crisis in its history and its emperor had no way of stopping it.
The palace was eerily quiet now. All the guards had left to hold off the invasion and the servants had long since fled. Even his pet rappigs were gone. Since Engeve had been taken and their supply lines were severed, food had grown incredibly scarce. Peony had ended up sacrificing the creatures so that others could eat. It had pained him to do so, but in the end, the lives of his human subjects mattered much more.
But now Kimlasca had entered the city and food was the least of his problems. He had stopped receiving military updates a few hours ago. This either meant the fighting was now too intense for Jade to reach him, or the man was dead. Peony did not want to even consider the latter option. Jade had always been dependable, infallible, invincible. He had returned alive at the head of a ragged column of his troops when most of the rest of his brigade had been annihilated in the last major battle, which had resulted in the Kimlascan army pressing north to Grand Chokmah. Yet the twisted, poisonous feeling that had lodged itself at the bottom of his stomach told him that the red-eyed colonel was still mortal.
The mortality of them all was far too apparent these days.
Frings had been one of the first to die, lost in the battle of Rugnica Plains. Many of the other military officers, too, had fallen. Jade alone of the senior officers remained and Peony had placed him in charge of the city's defense. It worried the emperor to place his friend in so much danger, but he really had no choice. However, the situation had worsened so much in the past few hours that Peony now doubted that even Jade could win the battle. Grand Chokmah, and Malkuth along with it, seemed doomed to fall.
Peony was still unable to come to terms with the situation. Relations with Kimlasca had been fraying in recent years, but all that had exploded with the destruction of Akzeriuth. The deaths of the Princess and her cousin, the son of Duke Fabre, had been blamed on Malkuth, while in turn Peony suspected Kimlasca of having engineered the deaths of tens of thousands of his citizens in the mining city. Whatever the case, war had broken out swiftly and bloodily. The Kimlascan army had marched through his country, leaving death and destruction in their wake. And now they had arrived at the gates of the capital, intent on finishing the job. Centuries of tension had culminated in this final war.
The emperor shook his head to clear it and turned again, marching back across the chamber but this time, pushing open the door. He may as well wait for Jade in the entrance hall instead of in the audience chamber. The large main doors were tightly barred, secured with extra wood and nails to withstand a siege, but Jade had the key to the side door and so would enter that way. The change of venue did nothing to cure Peony's pacing however. He began walking back and forth across the marble floor, feeling more useless with every step. What was he doing here? There must have been something he could have done differently, some action he could have taken that would have kept the situation from coming to this. He was supposed to be the emperor, supposed to protect his people, but instead he was reduced to pacing an empty palace while his country died around him. He shouldn't have listened to Jade's logic, he should have picked up a weapon and gone to help...
The side door opened. Peony whirled, for an instant afraid that soldiers were beginning to come pouring through, but he was greeted by only a lone figure. The man slipped through the portal and slammed it shut behind him, then slowly made his way out of the shadows. The light hit silver rimmed glasses and glimmering red eyes.
"Jade!" said Peony, immensely relieved. He ran across the entrance hall toward the man. The Colonel was moving rather slowly, leaning heavily on his spear, but Peony ignored that as he approached. "Jade, I'm glad to see you. I was—"
His words abruptly cut off as Jade stumbled, beginning to fall. The spear clattered to the floor as he lost his grip. In an instant Peony stepped forward and caught the man before he could slump to the ground. Placing a hand around his friend's back, he attempted to hold him upright. "Jade, what is—"
Then he slowly removed his hand, bringing it up so he could see it clearly. It was completely covered with sticky blood.
"You don't... have any time, Peony," Jade said, his voice muffled by the Emperor's shoulder. Peony's eyes widened as shifted his grip so he could see what was wrong with his friend. The sight nearly made him nauseous. The man's back was a mass of red, crossed by a stab wound that had just missed his spine. Blood continued to well from the injury, dripping down the teal uniform and beginning to fall to the floor. "You have... to get out... The palace is surrounded..."
Peony was in too much shock to listen to his friend's words. "Jade, you're hurt, we have to get you some help—"
"From where?" Jade replied, with a strangled laugh that turned into a gasp as the movement jostled his injury. "There is no one else here. Everyone is dead."
Peony sank to the ground, cradling his friend's body, and began to one-handedly tear at the fabric of his clothes to obtain cloth to staunch Jade's wound. The man was losing blood fast. Peony cursed the Fates that had not allowed him the ability to use the Seventh Fonon. "There must be some gels somewhere in this castle," he muttered, looking for the closest door. Where would the servants keep them? Perhaps in the kitchen...
"It's too late for that," Jade said. "Listen... your majesty, you have to leave."
"How did this happen?" Peony continued, ignoring the request. "Were you ambushed?"
"Too many soldiers, all on my own," Jade replied. "I... was too careless. They are all dead now, though, not that it means much..." He lifted his head as much as he could to stare intently into the emperor's eyes. "Peony. You must leave me and get out of here." His voice was becoming rather ragged. "If not for your sake, then for mine. Go find Nephry... I need you... to look out for her."
"Jade, stop this," Peony said stubbornly. "I'm not abandoning you. I'll go find some gels, a life bottle, something... You'll be fine."
"I'd be gone before you get back," Jade replied. "I did what I could... to buy you some time. Now go."
"I'm not leaving you!" Peony replied. His eyes were starting to prickle as tears welled up in the inside corners. He tried his best to hold them back.
Jade chuckled, a painful sound to the Emperor's ears. "You're too stubborn... but if you want to watch me being pathetic, I can't exactly stop you..."
"Jade—" Peony began.
"I've never... really understood death, you know," the man said, somewhat absently, the blood loss obviously beginning to sap his energy. "And it's funny... I'm not sure I do... even now. But I hope that... my death... at least was worth something." A small smile appeared on his face.
"Jade!" The tears were openly falling now. Peony did not bother to stop them. There was no one left to care. With a final shudder, Jade expired in his arms as the last of his strength gave out, his body falling limp against the emperor's chest. Malkuth's feared Necromancer had finally been defeated.
Peony was shaking. He had seen death before; he had even been on a battlefield, though far behind the front lines. He had grown used to reports of the deaths of people he knew over the past few weeks. But this was different, this was real... This was his best friend lying lifeless in a pool of blood slowly staining the emperor's blue robes violet. Peony was thirty-six years old but he felt like an ignorant child again, trying to come to terms with the loss of his entire world.
It seemed forever before he could push Jade away, propping the man's lacerated back against a nearby pillar. The red eyes stared blankly across the room. Peony reached out and closed the colonel's eyes, straightening the glasses before he pulled back again. He lacked the strength to try and stand. Instead, he could only kneel in his soaked robes, gazing at the corpse of his oldest friend. The small smile still graced Jade's face and it seemed as though any moment he could wake up and admonish Peony with his usual biting sarcasm for being so concerned about him.
He would have given anything for that to happen.
A loud noise somewhere outside broke the spell. The palace was still surrounded. Peony would soon be joining Jade if he did not act. At the moment, he almost wished he could do so, save that it would be an insult to his friend's memory. He had given his life for his emperor; in turn, Peony had to do all he could to give meaning to that sacrifice.
He stood up and glanced across the room. To his left he noticed Jade's discarded spear lying on the tile floor, the tip coated in the blood of Kimlascan soldiers. "Sorry, old friend," he murmured apologetically to the silent colonel as he reached to scoop up the abandoned item. "I know you don't like others messing with your weapons, but this isn't exactly normal circumstances..."
Now armed, Peony turned to leave the entrance hall. The sound outside became more intense, and the front door began to shudder. He had to leave, and quickly. The route Jade had used to enter was most likely blocked by now, as would the other side entrance. That left only one avenue of escape. Peony hurried up the steps towards the audience chamber.
This room had a secret exit that some ancestor of his had installed as an emergency escape in times of trouble. Peony could think of no more appropriate time than now. Jade had urged the emperor to use the route earlier, but he had refused, not wanting to leave his city or his friend while some hope still remained. Now, however...
Peony entered the room, heading towards the dais. There was a special lever on the throne that would open a passage in the back wall, revealing a tunnel leading beneath the waterfall and out of the city. From there he would have to travel overland, hopefully find a ship somewhere, and make his way to Keterburg. He would be safe there, at least for a time, and he could fulfill his promise to Jade to watch over his sister.
When he was halfway across the room, he heard a tremendous bang. The battering ram had breached the gates and Kimlascan soldiers would no doubt be pouring into the building now. The emperor quickened his pace, stopping beside his throne. A button embedded in the chair would open the path. Fumbling with a panel on the side of the handrest, he finally pried it open and pressed the button underneath.
The door did not open.
"Damn it, damn it..." Peony muttered. This was a fine time to be having technical difficulties. He pounded the switch again, but it was no use. The ancient door was rusted shut.
There was the clattering of armor on the stairs outside. The Kimlascan soldiers would be here any moment. There was nowhere to hide in the open audience chamber, and the exits were all sealed.
Peony glanced down at Jade's spear. His grip on the weapon had tightened without him realizing it, his knuckles turning white. It seemed that he had no choice. I'm sorry, Jade...
The squadron of Kimlascan soldiers burst into the audience chamber a few moments later to find the last emperor on the throne awaiting them.
"Good evening, gentlemen," Peony said, legs crossed, the spear resting across his lap. "Welcome to Grand Chokmah."
There were at least twenty soldiers in the group, all with swords drawn and ready. The leader nodded for his troops to hold their ground and took a step forward toward the throne. "Former Emperor Peony IX," he said, his voice booming from beneath his full helmet. "Drop your weapon and stand down and you will not be harmed."
Peony began to laugh. The noise echoed through the hall, muted by the steady falling of the black waterfall. "Surrender? In my own home? Hardly." He stood up, the spear falling loosely to his side as he stepped away from the throne and walked to the edge of the dais. His posture was almost relaxed as he gazed down on the invading army. His eyes showed no fear, only pity for those before him. "You bastards just killed my best friend," he said, his voice deadly calm. "And now you're going to kill me, too? Well, go ahead and try." He raised Jade's spear and made a cocky beckoning gesture with his free hand.
"...Kill him," said the lead knight.
The group around him began to surge forward, weapons ready, armor clanking on the marble floor. Peony was waiting. With blurring speed he whipped the weapon forward, tripping one man, then bringing the point around to stab another through the gap in his armor below his helmet. Wrenching the spear free, he beset another opponent, furiously parrying the swordstrokes aimed his way while simultaneously gaining the offensive.
Some people wondered where Jade had learned to fight so well. Little did they know, it came from long hours of mock battles with sticks in the snowy plains around Keterburg. Jade's true prowess, however, came in his mastery of fonic artes, which was something the emperor had never really learned. Attack spells were not exactly necessary knowledge for the crown prince. At the moment, however, he wished he had asked for a little more instruction. Without the added power of artes it was difficult to keep his foes at bay.
More soldiers kept arriving, and for every one he cut down, two more came through the door. A sword had nicked his arm and he was bleeding but he ignored it, concentrating on blocking, dodging, and counterattacking. He had to win. He had to live. He had to give Jade's death meaning.
The arrow came before he could react.
Peony looked down, almost surprised to see the oaken shaft now protruding from his chest. Glancing up, he saw the archer across the room, one of a group of reinforcements that was now pounding towards the dais. He had stopped caring now, though. Searing pain was followed all too suddenly by disturbing numbness. He was falling, slipping backwards, his descent caught by the throne directly behind him. He slumped in the seat, his vision beginning to be swallowed by blackness. He was only vaguely aware of the soldiers closing in before the last speck of light went out.
The blood of the last emperor will stain the throne...
Outside, a mountain of the slain festered in the sun. The smell of burning corpses filled the air as the victorious soldiers picked their way through piles of the dead, taking whatever valuables they could find. A torch was thrown into the palace, flames licking up the stately walls that had housed the Malkuth royal family for generations. Firelight danced on the empty face of its final resident, seated on the throne, his best friend's spear still clutched in nerveless hands. The bodies of two dozen Kimlascan soldiers were scattered at his feet.
The flames grew higher and the soldiers milling outside the building retreated from the heat of the inferno, cooling themselves with the water from the broken city fountains that misted the cobblestone streets, washing away the blood. A crow landed on the corpse of a dead civilian, cawed once, and then took off into the smoke-blackened sky. The soldiers in the streets laughed and congratulated one another as they shared wine pillaged from destroyed shops. The war was over. Malkuth had fallen.
The end of the world had begun.