Foulness hung in the air, thicker than the most humid summer day. The deeper they progressed into the depths, the heavier it became. Breathing itself was a struggle; no matter how deeply Adan inhaled, he never felt like he had enough air in his lungs.
The pervasive shortness of breath wasn't physical: Adan's body still responded at the peak of its perfectly conditioned reflexes. The impenetrable defense and inescapable offense of his sword art had lost not one whit of their effectiveness. Suffocation came as a result of the assault on the mind, the putrid psychic waves that grew denser with every step into the decrepit bowels of Lashute. Every step was a struggle to keep the vileness from penetrating into the soul.
Which was not to say that their descent proceeded unchallenged. The demons the Lashutans so venerated in their artwork reigned supreme in the metallic underworld below Rulakir's throne. Stout, muscular creatures with misshapen skull-like heads, four-legged beasts covered in armor, diminutive fiends with sharp beaks and bat-like wings, and many more besides, the detritus of at least two thousand years of nightmares roamed the shadows, voracious for blood, unholy disturbances of the natural order.
In that, at least, there was some advantage. They were beings that did not belong in this world, so their very existences jarred against the universe. Even under the suffocating fog of evil, their distortion allowed him and his twin to detect ambushes before they came.
Combat within the cramped corridors was restricted, but not impossible, especially not for Wren and Mieu. The black war machine and the red gynoid worked in combination to clear their path, the restricted space not so much as a trifle for two of Orakio's strongest servants.
His ears picked up the wet sound of mastication as they pressed on. His stomach rolled as he realized that their flank was secure as much because of the unholy hunger of demons as it was because of their sensitivity toward evil.
"Adan," Kara whispered, her voice pained.
One hand caught his sleeve even as the other clutched her head. Savagery filled him as he saw the suffering on Kara's face. He would-
"Keep a leash on it, big brother," Gwyn snapped, her tone needle-sharp. "Kara, I know it hurts. But we can't afford to stop. It's waiting."
Adan gritted his teeth as he fought to keep his rage under control. By all rights, he and Gwyn should have been in as much pain, if not more, than Kara. The reason they were not was simple.
They were used to it.
Dark Force had lurked beneath Landen for a thousand years. From what Gwyn had said, the archfiend had hunted her as a child, an idea that resonated deep within him. Just at the edge of recollection, Adan could sense primordial fear, the terror of death stalking him before his mind could form before memories. Instinct told him this too had been Dark Force.
Reality weakened. Strange striations appeared not only on walls, floor, and ceiling, but in the very air itself. The clusters of color pulsed, their hues lurid and inconsistent. His steps became uneven as he slowly felt the world begin to whirl. The rapidly-changing stimuli made his stomach roll even as bile crawled up his throat. With an effort, he swallowed and forced his mind to calm.
Even through the miasma of evil and unnatural existences, he could clearly feel Gwyn's suffering. A maelstrom called grief tore through her soul, its reverberations squeezing his heart through their bond. When they had departed Lashute that first time, Gwyn had revealed to him that Rulakir was the dream man she had spoken of so often as children, the man who kept at bay the monster that had sought to consume her. Without hesitation, Gwyn had accepted, nay, seized Rulakir as family. With complete trust, Gwyn had put them in his hands and asked for guidance.
She had done all that even as the darkness twisted around Rulakir like a whirlpool. Even so, there had been something within the one called the Undying King that had made Adan empathise with him, something that made the Prince of Landen show genuine deference for the first time in his life. Perhaps their naivete had led to their salvation, since it had been Rulakir who revealed where Orakio's sword rested.
And when the time had come for battle, the archwizard had held back.
Anger, pain, and guilt writhed inside him. Even in the end, as a slave to Dark Force, Rulakir had fought for them. Even when they two, the last family he had in this world, had inflicted two mortal blows upon him, he had forgiven them. He had even ordered Wren to end his life so the mortal sin of breaking the Law of Orakio and Laya would not rest on their shoulders. Rulakir's face had been ground into the dust for a thousand years, and yet he died proudly in order to save them.
Hot, bitter tears leaked from his eyes. They had not been able to save him. He had deserved better than the grim fate that had been his lot.
Gwyn had suffered horribly at his death. Even as her howls tore through that empty chamber, Adan had felt the depth of her pain rip deep into his own aggrieved heart. The twisted throne that had tortured their uncle for centuries had shattered when Gwyn had unleashed her hate in a single powerful blast. It had taken all of his strength to contain her grief long enough for them to realize that Rulakir sat upon the entrance to the demon's lair.
The fabric of the universe grew thinner.
Mist stained the color of blood drifted up and became the ground as a void darker than black replaced Lashute's corridors. There was a hole here, an emptiness in the universe so small that most could walk past it without noticing, yet so vast that its boundary could never be found. It was as if the real world had been inverted and replaced with a facsimile that followed alien laws.
"We've found you," Adan said.
From the crimson clouds, a shape began to emerge. Adan remembered too well that deformed skull with its long, serrated fangs and the burning red fires that passed for eyes, but this was the first time he had witnessed the true horror of its body.
Overlapping purples scales covered a massive torso that lacked legs of any kind. Veins pulsed disgustingly as hideous tumors beat in gut-wrenching tempo. Deformed horned faces panted like dogs on various points of the body as long, red tongues slavered from their mouths. Three talons quivered eagerly on each hand.
Terror whispered down his spine like the kisses of a thousand razors trailed down every nerve.
Pure malevolence given sound violated his ears as multiple voices spoke at once. "I am Dark Force, master of Death! Your sorrow, anger, and pain are my strength! Observe my might and despair of life, fools! I will greatly enjoy your painful deaths!"
Adan felt his fear dispel as his rage grow hotter. How many had suffered because of this monster? How many innocents had died, how many families had been torn apart? How much anguish had collected in the past thousand years because of this demon?
How many had been severed from life while still alive and had not even been allowed the solace of death?
"There is no meaning to your existence," he said coldly. "No longer shall we be your toys."
"What can mere insects like you do?"
"We'll believe in the future!" Gwyn shouted proudly.
"And we'll destroy you forever!" Kara added.
Adan felt a smile tug at his lips at the moon princess' fierceness. "We defy you, demon! You'll not cast us into eternal darkness!"
"Die, insignificant worms!"
Blackest abomination coalesced in the gaping maw of the demon's mouth. Suddenly, it spewed forth, a torrent of ebon anathema interlaced with crimson hatred, a wave of energy that had no place in the realm of mortals. Its target was-
His twin stood her ground as death flew toward her. Her expression was hard as laconia, her full lips a grim line, her eyes twin bores to pierce the darkness. Her bow glowed, though she seemed unaware of it. She made a queerly familiar gesture, but it was no part of any spell Adan knew.
Whatever she was doing was unimportant. Orakio's sword art allowed him to reach his top speed instantly as he raced to push his twin out of the way of that attack. Dark Force's strike would pierce her very soul and kill her from within by inches.
Black and red cascaded against a glass wall. The evil energy splashed in all directions but one: Gwyn's. His twin glared beyond it, at the source of death and terror, a fierce goddess of battle with a vow of retribution in her eyes.
Dark Force's torrent of death ended, and not a heartbeat too soon. The glass wall shattered into splinters of light. Gwyn fell to her knees, all the blood drained from her face. Adan scooped her up into his arms and continued running without skipping a beat. "Disperse!"
He could not spare the concentration required to confirm that his companions obeyed. Truth be told, it was foolishness that he even ran: all that could be seen was darkness and blood clouds, the alien world summoned by Dark Force. Still, he poured all his effort into his feet, half an eye on the demon from beyond death, the rest on his sister. It was foolish to focus so much on the tiny handful in his arms, but she was his flesh and blood, his other half. It concerned him far more that Gwyn's foolishness might cost her life than did the possibility that the demon might rend and tear him. Her breathing was too shallow, her skin too pale. Just when he worried that she might die in his arms, her indigo eyes fluttered open. He could not even spare the time to be relieved. "What idiocy were you trying to prove?"
She smirked at him, a smile he had seen a thousand times, if not more. However weak it was, it was the proof of her existence. "We are the blood of Laya and Orakio. We do not cringe before evil. We extinguish it."
There was no time to even rebuke her; Adan could sense the demon was growing stronger by the heartbeat. "Can you stand?"
"I can do more than that. I'm going to kill that monster."
"Not if I kill it first, little sister."
It was a challenge, one that felt only right. This was the source of their joint nightmares, the sovereign of their fears, the cause of not only the deaths of their ancestors, but their own potential demise, be it by the foulness it incarnated or the incomprehensible terrors of the black hole.
Gwyn understood, of course; they had shared the womb, and even now, shared a bond that was beyond words, beyond feeling, beyond the world itself. "You're on!"
She scrambled out of his arms, her strength restored not so much by the recuperation of her body but by the demand for revenge. Honesty compelled him to admit that the lust for retribution dwelled within him as much as it did within the depths of his twin. His house was an ancient one, but more than history demanded the destruction of Dark Force. Rulakir was one of ours. He was our uncle, generations be damned, and I intend to fulfill his last wish.
Dark Force roared, a sound that would unman even the greatest of warriors. The sound was the loss of home, the deaths of billions of innocents in eons lost to dreams, the horror that haunted not merely the darkness, but stalked the essence of the children of the Palmans. This is the destruction of Palma, long gone. This is the end of Orakio, of Laya, of every soul that swore fealty to the gods against evil and lost.
This will not be my end.
It was plain to see that the demon was outraged by Gwyn's unexpected defiance. Its right hand lashed out, a blow certain to rend flesh from bone, as it must have for the wretched android Miun. Adan extended his hands, fingers splayed. "Legeon!"
Energy burst in spheres of white, but there was no wall of exploding light. The unearthly darkness overruled the luminescence that had always accompanied this spell before, but Dark Force's other common sense did nothing to negate the power of the spell. The monster roared in pain as its hand smoked from the destructive power Adan had unleashed.
"That's enough of that, cheater," Gwyn said. "You go keep your pretty little betrothed in one piece."
He refrained from pointing out that Kara stood far taller than Gwyn. His sister was right, of course. They were twins trained by Laya herself in Esper arts, which gave them something to rely on in what amounted to battle to commit deicide. The androids could fend for themselves, but the princess scholar was at risk. "No cheating, then."
"Only a little bit to catch up, big brother."
Gwyn's attention remained on Dark Force as Adan sped off at top speed. He heard her cry out a single word. "Efess!"
It was the only spell he had not been able to learn from their mother. The way he understood it, it had nothing to do with talent or skill, but with the Esper's natural inclination. As an example, Lune's nature made him unsuited for healing spells, so his magic was pure destruction. For whatever reason, Gwyn had been able to inherit the spell of light that most damaged the servants of evil and Adan had not.
Kara looked at him apprehensively as he arrived at her side. "W-what... t-that... a-attack..."
"Don't be afraid. I'll protect you," he said.
Her answering smile melted his heart. "I believe in you, my prince."
Wren had opened fire. Spheres of light burst against the demon's armored hide as every round struck true. Kara launched her father's slicer. The slim weapon traced a trail of light as it cut the monster's many faces before it returned to its mistress' side. Mieu lingered by his twin, a shield in a battle where closing likely meant death. Gwyn herself paid the red-headed gynoid no mind as she unleashed her true might, each powerful spell damaging Dark Force. Adan drew his sword and added his own magic to his sister's onslaught, each gesture older than memory itself.
Always before, he had restrained his magic, had kept its destructive force nonlethal. They lived on a spaceship, after all; they had no idea when they would find a world to live on, so this fragile one of metal had to be protected. But though they faced the nightmare of Palma, this was a rare opportunity, something that he felt would only happen once in his lifetime: the chance to fight without holding anything back. Legeon, Tandle, Hewn, each attack sent Dark Force reeling.
The monster had not attempted its black energy wave since Gwyn had so decisively blunted the strike. It focused on physical strikes, its wicked yellow claws eager to rend and tear. Orakio and Laya favored them, however, for even as it lashed out, he or Gwyn would blunt its attacks with powerful magic. If they could continue to batter it as they did now, it was only a matter of ti-
Dark Force glowed red. Adan instinctively pushed his hands in front of him. "Warla!"
Red lightning lashed out from Dark Force's body. When the wicked tendrils reached his shield, it was everything he could do not to scream. Rulakir's own lightning attack may as well have been a baby's kiss compared to the brutality in this strike. His magic barrier shattered like so much cheap glass before the monstrous onslaught. Electricity lifted him off his feet and sent him flying through the emptiness. He crashed into the mist.
His body twitched, beyond his control. His limbs would not obey him. He took grim pride that even through that attack, he had not relinquished hold of his sword.
Adan attempted to move his free hand into the mist, palm down, to help him stand, but the limb flailed in the opposite direction even as his legs performed an nonrhythmic staccato of their own. Stand. Stand. Stand. Stand Stand. Stand. Stand. I WILL NOT DIE LIKE THIS. I WILL NOT. STAND! BLOODY STAND!
The treacherous hand closed into a fist even as it spasmed unpredictably. He slammed it into the floor, but felt no pain. He braced himself up, his sword between himself and the demon, as much a hazard to himself as it was to Dark Force, as it twitched this way and that, beyond his control.
Adan's eyes began to clear. Despite the stiffness of his neck, he did his best to scan the battlefield. Dark Force had finished his attack, but had not yet recovered to strike again. Kara was near him. If the situation were not so dire, he might have laughed at the cloud her hair had become. It was clear that her body was in worse straights than his. Her eyes rolled in terror as she so clearly struggled to regain control of herself. He wanted to take her in his arms, but with the way his limbs spasmed, he dared not get close. He could not see his twin.
Terror seized his heart in a cold, clammy grip. No.
Gwyn wasn't standing. Where is she?
The grip grew tighter. Where is she?
This way and that, he looked for the slightest hint of her. Adan forced himself to his feet. Where is she where is she where is she where is she!
He saw her, her long blonde hair as disheveled as Kara's, her eyes closed as her body rebelled. She had managed to retain her grip on her weapon. Wren and Mieu were far from her, enveloped in the black android's energy barrier. Adan did not know when the gynoid had left his twin's side, but there was no time to ask. Dark Force had recovered. Once again, his yellow talons reached out for Gwyn. Even as Mieu dashed toward his fallen sister, he knew the redhead would not make it in time. His twin would die.
Something broke within him. Rage, fine and deep and rich, poured into his mind and lent his body the strength to once more command. The demon, the mists, the black void itself, everything turned red. He took a step, the black sword in his hand searing his sword hand. "You won't have my sister!"
Conflagration broke before him. The heat seared the mist even as Dark Force's flesh smoked. Where Legeon altered the fabric of the universe, this Technique drew upon anger and hatred from the depths of its caster's soul. It was the forbidden Technique, one he had only heard about in his mother's lore. He merely had to speak its true name for absolute annihilation to be released.
Hell itself roared out of the darkness as fire raged in destruction so savage it shattered the monster's tough chitinous hide. Its scream of agony tore through the fabric of its pocket dimension. That mattered to him not at all. "Megid!"
Fire and explosion once again raged wildly, but a second voice lent her strength to his. "Efess!"
Pillar of light and sea of flame struck without mercy. Soon, explosive round and slicer joined their offensive, but he paid that no mind. "Efess!" "Megid!"
Adan could not say how long they threw their power against the demon's. He only knew that no matter how it attempted to lash out at them, light and fire sent him reeling. Suddenly, the black void flashed red. The hole in the universe began to shrink into itself.
"Even if you destroy me now, another Dark Force shall return in one thousand years!"
He watched Dark Force sink into the mist even as the demon's alien reality collapsed. Adan stared the monster down proudly. "Even if you return, someone like me... like us will be waiting for you. Begone, our nightmare!"
They suddenly stood in the cramped corridors of Lashute's mechanical underbelly once again. Even so, Adan could still feel the miasma of evil that permeated the very stones of the place. Despite the loss of its king and its devil god, the city's aura of evil would never fade.
The hum of machinery caught his attention. He broke into a run, paying no heed to the alarmed cries of either his twin sister or the woman he loved. The corridor emptied into a large open area, filled with a bewildering array of machinery. Adan knew instinctively that this was the core that kept Lashute in the skies.
Rulakir's final words came to him. "This city is too evil to leave standing!"
Anger and hatred transformed into pure destructive force and fire fissured through everything in sight.
"Megid is tearing the city apart!"
Were he not so far into the depths of rage, Adan would have been terrified of the alarm in the voice of the usually unflappable Wren.
"Hurry, we've got to get out of here!" Mieu shouted.
A suitable plan quickly shot down by Wren's logic. "There's no time, we'll never make it!"
Faux stone and metal broke off from far above and shattered on the ground around them. There was no chance they could escape.
Gwyn's bow... Laya's bow glowed with blue energy. Blue luminescence spread out and encompassed them in an opaque cerulean sphere. Time and space bent as light triumphed over the dying darkness.