The door towered up towards the high arched ceiling. It was made of polished mahogany, each strip of wood a foot across. Gold bands crossed it. The brightest, in the middle, was adorned with a row of jewels. Writing covered the surface, unreadable, twisting symbols. Set in the white marble arch, precisely above the door's apex, was a scintillating star.
Indigo streaks blended with inky blackness. The rush of wind tugged at them, trying to pull them into empty space. The nothing was broken by bright trails of stars as they spiraled towards the center. Somewhere, out in that roaring darkness, there was a scream.
They looked at each other. A flash of yellow, like a burning flame, broken by a downwards slash of shadow. Blue like chips of ice, determined, cold. Blue like the sky, half-hidden behind white like clouds. Blue like the sea, sometimes serene, other times stormy. Now, those waters were a raging tempest, filled with the energy of the storm.
"I can't do this."
"You have to."
"I know. But I can't. Not now."
"There's no other choice!"
"Actually...there is. One."
...to join and fight...
Light flooded the chamber. Red flashes from one side, where two allies battled an onslaught of enemies. Orange, nearby, and yellow—fire. Green sparks flew as twenty tons of steel, circuitry, and pure power battled. Blue, violet, silver from another corner—the two of them fought like a single being. A rainbow of battle.
"I know I did."
"You lied to me!"
"If we flee now..."
"Then you break your promise and--"
"...we live to fight another day, when the odds are slightly more in our favor. Go!"
But even together...
Three hands and a claw went to the middle at once. Two more hands rested on top a moment later. After a slight pause, three more joined them.
"I'm not sure..."
"We can't do it alone."
There was silence...and the last hand broke the circle and joined.
...they may not be enough...
"There's too many."
He hesitated, looking at her. She had thrown out the taunt because she was determined to win this time. He wouldn't like that at all.
"There's too many. Pull back."
She opened her mouth to protest, but shut it again. She'd matured since this started. Enough to know that there were some battles she couldn't win. Both literally and metaphorically, this was one of them.
...to face this threat.
It was a limp, cold, dimly lit thing to everyone else, but to her, it was a true friend. He was so broken, so fragile. He opened his eyes and coughed. "Princess?" he whispered.
"Sh-sh-sh," she said softly.
He closed his eyes and slackened again, but he was alive. She knew it. As long as that bright light inside him shone through, even the tiniest bit, he would be okay.
"Oh," she said softly. "What did this to you?"
"Whatever it is," said the voice behind her, "I'm not anxious to face it."
She looked up. "I get the feeling we'll have to."
If they'll have any chance...
"We're sure not winning."
"But we aren't losing, either."
"Maybe, but we will be."
"What have we got over this?"
"Just one thing."
"We have hope."
..it's going to take all they have.
"I'm not sure we can do it."
She jumped up, hot fire in her eyes. "So try!"
"I am trying, but--"
"If you have doubts, you aren't trying hard enough!"
"What are you fighting for? Think of stars, ripped down from the sky! Think of people who look into the night and see nothing but black! Think of that poor, pathetic star the princess found! Think of towns, torn apart, people with their hands burned off, with half their skin gone but still alive because they have no way to die but from slowly bleeding out, or starving! Fight for that!"
He swallowed. "I know, but..."
"If that's not enough, fight for me! Fight so I never suffer that way! Fight so I live, even if you die! It doesn't matter what—but find something that's important enough to you to try!"
All their strength...
He flung himself into the door. "I can't," he gasped. "I don't have enough energy."
"You have to be strong!"
"I know, but I can't. Not right now."
"Every single living, thinking thing in all the worlds, all the kingdoms, everywhere, is sending their strength to us. Reach out and take it! Add it to your own! Break down all the barriers!"
...all their cunning...
"You're the one who has to do this."
"Because you have to. Don't you want to?"
"You need it to be me? You need it that badly?"
"Yes! You're the most cleverest of all of us. Go in there and use it!"
"I'm actually vital enough to this that you'll rest all your hopes on...me?"
"Yes! How many more times do I have to say it?"
He looked up, grinning. "I suppose there's no harm in using my superior intellect for something useful."
..all their caring...
She couldn't move any further. She was caught by the older girl's strong arms. "I know you don't want to go on," she whispered. "I know it's hard, and I'm sorry. If you want to go, I'll understand. We all will. If you can't do this, it's fine. I just didn't want you to leave without saying goodbye. I'll miss you a lot."
There was a pause. At last, the younger smiled. "I'll stay. Because I care about you, and I don't want you to be sad. And because I care about everyone, and I don't want them to be hurt."
...and all their determination...
"This is the last chance to leave."
Everyone looked at each other. He was right. Once they went into this, there would be no changing their minds.
"I'm ready." The very youngest of the group stepped forwards. She had come through so much, too much to turn back now.
"As am I."
Every single one of them stepped towards the path. He began to step onto it, then stopped. "Are you all sure?"
"You know that not all of us are definitely coming out of this alive. We'll be lucky if we all do. Very lucky."
"This is it," said the youngest, and she spoke for them all. "We're coming with you."
...to save the day this time.