The Emperor of Forever

by Billy Wong

Ruby screamed as Yossel Frex, Lord of the Crimson Stain and one of the Four Devil Kings, plunged his huge three-bladed sword through her chest and middle. His mailed fingers tight around her throat, he smashed her into the granite wall nearly hard enough to crack her spine. Staring into her teary eyes, he grinned like a wolf.

"So, the indestructible Ruby Little Blade lives up to her fame. Good, I wanted to give you a last kiss before you die."

He leered and bent closer, drooling. Before he could make contact, she brought her poniard up and rammed it through the underside of his jaw. He froze, then toppled away.

"Justice prevails again," Ruby whispered through the blood choking her. She had been impaled before, but never by three blades at once and she didn't know if she would make it. Vermin-like resilience, don't fail me now!

She leaned against the wall and attempted to stand, but her strength gave out and she pitched forward. The poniard flew out of her hand as she hit the ground, and she lay struggling not to faint. No way could she die! There were still many cakes she wanted to bake, and sandwiches to make for her man--the swordsman who shone like no other, Max... and what about her duties as the team's cook, maid, and scribe?

Despite her agony and great dizziness, Ruby tried her best to rise. She had to help her friends. Yet her body yearned to sleep, and as she fell back she wondered if they would not be fine on their own. After all, she was only the kingdom's fourth strongest warrior. Would she even be able to help, or just prove a hindrance in her current state?

But then she remembered that though they were better than her her friends likewise faced stronger opponents. Splitting up had not been an ideal solution, but they had only hours to defeat all four Devil Kings before the Dark Spell was complete and their world overrun by demons. Ruby had to believe she could find some way to aid her comrades. She would not be helpless! Unable to stand just yet, she began to crawl forward.

Love and friendship, she thought repeatedly to herself as she dragged her body across the grand hall, leaving a river of blood in her wake. Love and friendship!

When she reached the stairs, she paused. How would she ever get back down this tower, let alone up another, in her condition? Certainly not by crawling. There was, of course, only one possible answer. Love and friendship! She thought she felt her bleeding slow, as if from her sheer desire. With a groan, she pushed herself to her feet.

She placed a hand against the wall to steady herself as she walked. To her surprise, the block she touched receded with a click and the wall opened up. She lost her balance and fell into the hole.

Ruby rolled over and over before her crash onto hard floor, the impact jarring her wounds and sending lances of pain through her insides. Bloody coughs wracked her frame, and her eyes blurred. Love and friendship! she screamed to herself as she willed herself to keep breathing. Blinking her vision slightly clearer, she rolled over and took in her surroundings.

She had fallen into a square gray chamber, its every surface covered with complex geometric patterns drawn in silvery paint. Her way in seemed to have closed up, for she could not see where she had entered. Lights swirled in the shape of a column at the room's center and were sharply reflected off the painted patterns. Her eyes widened at what she thought she glimpsed among those lights--a face. A sleek, shiny, inhuman face.

Touching her light head, Ruby felt a sudden and terrifying doubt. "Are you really dying, Ruby Little Blade?" she asked herself with a shudder. "Is your body still lying on the tower floor, and this nothing more than your fading dream?"

"No, you are not lying down," a voice echoed from within the light. "Accept your destiny, chosen savior, and free me."

Ruby blinked, still unsure if she was hallucinating. Everything seemed too bright to be real. "Free you, how? If you can't get out through that light, I doubt I can get in."

"Use your magic."

"Magic? I'm just a simple fighter. I don't have any magic."

The creature laughed, a dry, rattly sound which upset her ears. Its face resembled that of a wasp, or perhaps a cockroach. "No? How, then, did you find this place?"

"It was an accident," she said with a shake of her head. "I really don't know magic."

"You need not know a thing to have it. I can see your wounds would be fatal for most, so from where do you summon the strength to stand? Yours is the magic of the heart, which you only need to harness."

Its words reminded Ruby of her slogan about love and friendship. That did give her a decent well of strength to draw from, but hardly applied here. She didn't even know the... thing, let alone have any emotional connection to it.

"I really don't understand what you want me to do. Can you please just tell me how to get out of here, preferably straight into one of the other towers? Maybe I could bring my friend Ace back to help later; he knows a lot more about magic than me."

"I will tell you nothing until you release me."

Ruby looked around in frustration, hoping to find a way out by herself. But though she tested every section of wall she could reach, she found no sign of an exit. She returned her gaze to the creature.

"All right. I can't promise anything, but maybe we can figure out how to free you without teaching me magic. What are you, and why are you here?"

"I am what you would call a mage, if not of your race, and almost certainly the oldest one alive. Those few who still know of me call me the Emperor of Forever."

For all her anxiety and physical discomfort, Ruby found herself growing curious. What a grand moniker, and if anything gave a memorable first impression it was a good grand moniker. "Nice name. I get it--it means you're immortal, right?"

"Yes, but there is more to it than that. As even you must know, most magic taps the elements, and almost every element has its opposite; fire and water, and so on. The element I devoted myself to study, however, did not... for it was time."

"But wouldn't being immortal require something sort of like an opposite to time?"

The Emperor nodded its approval. "You catch on fast. Yes, I created the antithesis to time, in myself. Indeed, I am the very reason your friends cannot possibly succeed."

Ruby took a step back. "What are you saying? Are you our ultimate enemy?"

"I have no particular desire for you to fail. But it is because of me that you must. My presence here provides the Four Devil Kings with their immortality, and so long as that holds true they cannot be defeated."

At that, Ruby started laughing. "Cannot be defeated?! Must you ancient types always underestimate the power of good? With these little hands, Ikilled one of the Devil Kings! Not that it was easy, but you can hardly count us out yet."

There was a brief pause while the Emperor recovered from its surprise. "So you beat the odds. I suppose it is not completely impossible one could overcome a thousand years' advantage in experience. Impressive, but that was you. What do you think the chances are your friends can do the same?"

"What are you talking about? I'm just the weakest of our little gang. There's nothing I can do, that my friends can't!"

"I do not know your friends, but I see that yours is the magic of the heart, and that makes all the difference."

Ruby frowned as she wrestled with the Emperor's claim. She had long considered herself the weak link on the team, being a regular loser in sparring. But thinking back, how many battles had been won thanks to some impossible feat on her part? Perhaps it was right, and her "heart" made her superior in true combat.

"Let me go, then!" she yelled desperately. "If what you're saying is true, I have to get back now to help my friends."

"Do not overestimate yourself. Your heart is strong, but you have already used up your miracle for the day. It is all your body can do to keep from dying; the only way to save them now is to release me."

"What will that do?"

"Without their connection to my anti-time, all the extra years they have lived will catch up to them. In no time at all, they will age away into nothing."

Though hesitant to trust a strange bug thing with an unreadable face, Ruby saw little choice at the moment. "How exactly do I free you?"

"I am not sure. The power of the heart can take many forms, and you must find the one which is yours."

She stared at the column of light imprisoning the Emperor. It was highly unlikely she would learn to externally manifest whatever "magic" she had anytime soon. As her previous extraordinary deeds had always involved pushing her body beyond reasonable limits, she decided to try that once more. Gritting her teeth, she reached towards the light. Love and friendship!

Her hands passed into the column, and to her surprise there was no pain. In fact, she felt nothing until her fingers brushed the Emperor's hard carapace. How, then, did the light keep it trapped? Grasping its arms, she pulled. Its weight proved too much for her wounded body. She lost her balance and fell backwards; dragged along, the Emperor landed atop her.

"I told you you would succeed," the insect-like creature straddling her said. "What did you feel?"

"Nothing," she gasped once the pain had faded enough for her to speak, "from the spell. Was there anything I should have?"

"You just ignored the Veil of Lethal Suffering. It kills by overloading the body with pain, and under normal circumstances nothing can survive it. But because you believed you could overcome it, you did. See? You do have the magic of the heart."

Ruby grinned weakly. "I guess maybe I do. Can we get out of here now?"

The Emperor rose and made a huge leap up, hitting a spot on the ceiling. Near where she had entered, the wall opened up. "You go," it said, falling to a crouch. "I must rest first and recover my strength."

Horrible wounds notwithstanding, Ruby had no time to rest. "All right. See you later, bug thing."

Ruby inched forward on her belly, blood spilling from her mouth as she wheezed for breath. She had collapsed again, but kept dragging herself forward by her fingernails. The floor seemed to shake under her body, rather uncomfortably given her injuries.

"Don't worry, Ace," she said in a tortured voice. "I'll be there soon... to help you."

She heard footsteps ahead, and her heart beat faster. Would she have to fight? Her muscles tensed with new energy as she prepared to get up. No way would she die to some nameless minions! However, the start of her second wind faded when she recognized the familiar red boots of the person headed her way.

"Short Stuff?" Ace asked in a small voice. The thin young man was covered in soot, with half his hair singed off, but seemed much less damaged than her. A welcome relief, when she had been especially concerned for her most overconfident friend. "How are you?"

"Hurts, but I'll live. Guess you... didn't need help after all, eh?"

He gazed past to the crimson trail she had left, then back at her. "Damn, are you tough. What did you get stuck through you this time, some sort of giant claw?"

"No, it's just Yossel's weird sword. Glad you beat your man, too."

Ace knelt beside her. Not wanting to seem weak, she rose on her knees and elbows. Fresh pain hit, and she screamed at the movement of her wrecked innards. She curled up moaning and sobbing, eyes squeezed shut with agony. Her hands shook as she clutched the huge holes through her torso.

"Don't go, Short Stuff," she heard Ace say softly, stroking her head. "I'd miss you if you left."

She opened her eyes and raised her upper body off the ground with her arms. "Don't worry, I'm all right." Ace ruffled her hair, and she brushed his hand away casually. He began to wrap her wounds. "How did your fight go?"

"It was easy," he said with a smug grin. "He couldn't last a minute with me before he fled."

That could only be the result of the Emperor's freedom weakening him. "So you didn't kill him? We'll have to chase him down, but at least you're okay." She smiled with pride. "But you'll never guess what I did."

He blinked curiously, and she explained. His eyes widened near the end of her story. "But that's impossible..."

"What is?"

"You say you ignored the effects of a spell by believing you could? Oh, Short Stuff, how stupid can you be? Magic doesn't work that way. Sure, maybe you could resist such a spell, especially with your will. But you can't just negate it by pretending it's not there."

Ruby frowned. "But he said it was the magic of the heart... and he's a much older mage than you. Are you sure you know better than him?"

"I know enough," he said with a sigh, "to realize you've been tricked. The spell you broke was probably only meant to keep something in, and no proof against outside intrusion."

"Tricked?! You mean..." Her face fell. Here she had been, relishing the idea she might not be so weak after all; and her hopes, it turned out, had been based but on a lie. She cursed herself for being a gullible fool.

"No wonder Purple Bat Lord ran so quickly. I suppose his attention must have shifted, though I'm sure I would have beaten him anyway. Damn, you might've gotten us in real big trouble this time. I'm almost certain the creature you released is evil, and an elder evil at that."

"How can you be so sure? You haven't even met it."

Ace shook his head. "Most ancient monsters released from magical prisons are. Add in the fact it tricked you, and..."

Ruby's eyes bulged with near panic. "Oh, no! Quick, we have to stop him." She moved to rise, delicate hands slipping in her own blood.

"No, Short Stuff. I'll stop it, and you'll wait right here. Even if you weren't so hurt, I'd be afraid of you screwing up after what you already did."

"I'm sorry." He started away, and Ruby grabbed his leg. "Wait! Don't you still have to catch Purple Bat Lord, though?"

He looked at her and groaned, then nodded. "I suppose so. Fine, then... you go after him, if you think you can handle it. I'll take care of the Emperor."

She struggled to her feet, and they exchanged directions. "Good luck," she said. "Stay alive."

"You too, kid. Take care."

Ace stepped through the secret door, gripping the rope he had secured to aid his silent descent down the passage Ruby had told him about. Ruby sure could be dumb. He liked her as a person, like the sister he never had, but who in their right mind would free an ancient monster so carelessly? She was such a weak fighter too, with no offensive special techniques and good mainly for soaking up damage. A sweet girl, but hardly suited to the job of hero; though perhaps Max should be blamed for allowing his little admirer to come along. Ace's big brother Ike had never approved, and Ace was beginning to see why.

At least she had the sheer determination to stay alive. Ace would never want to see serious harm come to her. He hoped she could deal with Purple Bat Lord, which she should be able to do given the beating Ace had already given him.

Perhaps Ruby had helped him by releasing the Emperor. Everybody thought Ace was weak, almost as weak as Ruby, but he absolutely believed they were wrong. His potential was second to no one's, and by defeating this elder evil he would have the chance to prove it. Soon, he would take his place among the strongest of the strong.

He touched down at the bottom of the shaft and spotted ahead the Emperor sitting on the floor. Painted all around it were spell-enhancing patterns to reinforce its prison; but to magically restrain such a powerful being was a delicate matter, and easily ruined by external disruption. Ace crept forward carefully, only to be given away by the door closing behind him. He wedged it open with ice formed by a quick spell, but the damage was done. The creature's head came up to regard him.

No matter. It had little chance of moving swiftly enough to dodge his attack. He mumbled a spell, shooting razor-sharp shards of ice from his fingertips. The deadly blades zoomed towards their target--and slowed, suddenly appearing to hover rather than fly forward. The Emperor rose almost casually and stepped neatly around the projectiles. Then it charged, fast as one would expect from a giant cockroach.

Ace tried to backpedal away, but as the Emperor closed the distance he felt his body grow extremely slow. He didn't feel any weaker or heavier, really; he simply moved at a fraction of his normal speed. A stone-hard fist smashed into his mouth and he found himself launched through the air like it was water. His landing hurt little, for he all but floated down, but he gagged as he swallowed a tooth.

He raised his hands and attempted another spell, but his lips reacted so very sluggishly. The Emperor strode forward at a mockingly easy gait, still faster now than Ace's most frantic efforts. Of course it was exempt from its aura of slowness. Then Ace felt something coming at him from behind, and tried instinctively to duck. To his surprise, the thing was moving at a speed with him, and glided overhead like an outsized kite. Purple Bat Lord!

The caped killer, a master of hidden weapons and poison, seemed to realize something was wrong and tried to change course. But that would have been difficult even without magical hindrance, and Purple Bat Lord could not stop himself from swooping into the Emperor's embrace.

Grabbing the villain by the arms, the bug opened great mandibles and bit a chunk from his chest. Bat Lord thrashed helplessly, and Ace saw the Emperor glow with a silvery-gray light. Was it reclaiming the power the Devil Kings had leeched from it? Probably, but now was not the time to ask. Taking advantage of its diverted attention, he stumbled to the entrance and got the hell out of there.

Ruby staggered towards the secret door, sparing a glance for the taut rope tied to a nearby pillar. She was about to begin her descent when she saw Ace climbing up her way, a frightful look on his face.

"What are you doing here?" he cried.

"Chasing after Purple Bat Lord, what do you think? What happened? Is he down there?"

He shook his head. "Forget about him and run! I'll explain later."

They fled through the halls, Ace half carrying her along, until both needed to stop and rest. Then Ace told his story. "It was eating him?" Ruby asked, grimacing in disgust.

"Yes... I think doing so helps it regain its powers more quickly. We can't take it in a straight up fight. We need to come up with a plan."

"Why don't we ask Max and Ike for help?"

"Feel the castle shaking under your feet? That means they're still busy fighting, and we should hardly trouble them over a problem you made. Besides, even they might not be able to beat it. That slowing field is one mean trick to deal with."

"Yeah, I guess it would be better for us to clean up our own mess." Ruby thought about it and licked her lips. "I know! Let's get it with a trap! It won't matter how slow the attack is if it can't see it coming."

"And what kind of trap," he said with a sigh, "do you plan to set with the stuff in this castle? For that matter, what are you going to use as bait?"

"You said it ate your Devil King, right? Well, there's still the one I killed." She gave a crafty grin. "So let's get him, and put your magic to some creative use."

The Emperor approached the bulky corpse of Yossel Frex, mouth opening and closing in anticipation of its next meal. It bent, jaws clamping down on stiffened flesh. Then spikes of frozen blood burst through the cadaver's skin, piercing its face and eyes. Yes! Ruby thought from her hiding place, as it reared back screeching in pain.

Ace sprang from behind a pillar, chanting an incantation at the same time he released the rope he held. The chandelier plummeted down, shattering against the floor when the blinded Emperor barely dodged; but it failed to also react in time to Ace's spell, and an icy lance punched into its shoulder and bore it away. Unfortunately, the missile’s lack of speed allowed for little real damage.

It scrambled to its feet and rushed the direction of Ace's voice, and though he fired off another spell the Emperor was ready this time and sidestepped the slow-moving blast of cold. Ace backed away as quickly as he could, but it was almost upon him when he rounded the pillar and shouted, "Ruby, now!"

She sat up, Ace's spear rising in her hands, and the Emperor impaled itself with all the momentum of its own charge. Black ichor dripping from its mouth, it snapped the shaft in its claws and lurched onward. Ruby attempted to grab the piece of spear still in its chest and push it in deeper, but it struck her in the face and sent her flying. Pain flared through her jaw. What a punch! The slowing effect added effectiveness to the blow, as she could not roll with the impact. Her head spun, and she could barely stay conscious.

The Emperor came on again, stomping towards her fallen form like it meant to crush her head. She struggled to rise, but apart from her dizziness, time was not on her side. Ace lunged in from the side, a prematurely made dive allowing him to catch the monster in a brief grapple. But it shrugged him off, flinging him against a wall to lie still and silent.

Ruby was trying to sit up when the Emperor reached her. Its hard foot crashed down straight into her face, smashing the back of her skull against stone. She pried desperately at the toes which continued to press down, forcing moans of agony from her bloody mouth. For a split-second she blacked out, succumbing to the will of death; then she heard herself think, No! I can't die! I still have to be the team's cook, maid, and scribe!

Her eyes snapped open, blazing with determination. She raised a leg high enough to make an acrobat proud and hooked it around the front of the Emperor's thigh. Hurt as it was, she managed to push it off her face. It reeled away, almost falling, and with a supreme effort Ruby came to her feet. She jumped into the air, looping her arms around the back of its neck, and held on as she fell slowly towards the ground. The wood jutting from its chest hit the floor, driving it all the way through, and, straddling Ruby like a lover, the Emperor froze in death.

On her back, Ruby rubbed her jaw and gasped for breath. Somehow they had won, and now she was just about ready to lose consciousness and await rescue. Wait! Was Ace all right? She would never forgive herself if-

Ace leapt past, knocking the Emperor's corpse off her with a flying kick. Its slowing field had dissipated with its demise, and now he vented his anger on a defenseless and dead target. "Icicle Kick! Glacier Splitter! Avalanche Bomb!" And between attacks, "That was for my tooth! And that was for my lip! And that was for Short Stuff!"

Ruby thought to speak, but stopped with a wince at the fiery pang in her jaw. Broken, most likely. She sighed at the sight of Ace demolishing the late Emperor with wrestling move after wrestling move. No doubt he would claim the lion's share of credit in its defeat; and that was fine with her, for she was more than content with being the team's cook, maid, and scribe.

Then there was a flash across her vision, as of metal moving incredibly fast, and the Emperor's body blew apart. Handsome Max stood before her, shining like a god in his silver armor, and beside him was Ike, all detached like always, not even looking at her but staring into space or some unknown paradise. Again they had won and saved the world. She had known they would.

Max looked over his wounded friends and their slain adversary with wide eyes. "Ace? Ruby! What happened? Are you all right?"

Releasing his current hold, Ace opened his mouth to explain--and fainted dead away, having exhausted himself completely with his posthumous beating of the enemy. Max looked to Ruby, but she could not speak with her broken jaw and had just about reached the limits of her endurance anyway. Reaching out with a bloody hand, she did her best to mouth "Save me" to her hero, her champion, her knight. Then she lay back and passed out, smiling.