"Guildmaster Kamek," a Magikoopa healer reported as Kamek entered the medic-bay of Fallen Angel, "Adept Kammy is regaining consciousness."
"Good," Kamek replied neutrally, never stopping as he walked toward the examination bed where she lay. "She and I both have work to do."
"Ah… Kamek," Kammy glanced up as the Guildmaster approached. "I take it the battle went well."
"The battle is still going on, Kammy," Kamek corrected. "Several Cultists made it off of the submarine before shots were fired, and they're in the process of reviving Belome. We have, at best, minutes to stop them."
Kammy sat upright. "What? How are we going to do that?"
"There's some kind of magic leyline running through this area," was Kamek's answer. "I would guess that's why the Cult picked this location to build their temple. Dark sorcerers working here will wield greater power than they could normally imagine."
"A leyline," Kammy repeated incredulously. "How did the Guild never find out about it?"
Kamek shook his head. "I don't know. But it's there. I can feel it, and if you look, you can too."
"Yes," Kammy agreed. "Yes, it's there. I feel it too. The question is how…" Kammy was interrupted by a roaring sound as the ship rumbled. "Now what?"
Kamek sighed in irritation. "I don't know, but…" his eyes widened as realization came over him. "Dark powers amplified… Belome!"
"Cease fire," Fortinbras ordered as bolts of blue lightning ripped through the chamber from the altar, shattering the stone pillars and destroying everything they touched in fiery explosions. "Cease fire and fall back to the tunnel."
"You can't run, Human," a voice from nowhere spoke so loudly that the entire assault team dropped their weapons and covered their ears. "You are insects, and I am all-powerful. Look now upon the face of your race's extinction."
Fortinbras turned toward the altar and saw Cassius and Martine drop to their knees as the lightning gathered up into one place at the center of the altar. As Fortinbras shielded his eyes from the near-blinding light, it began to take a form. First, the form was made purely of chilling blue light, then features began to appear. Fortinbras gasped in revulsion as he began to behold the horrific form of a large, bearlike dog with sickening yellowish brown hair.
The creature had markings all over its body that appeared to be some ancient form of writing. It walked on its hind legs, and its head would have seemed little more than a growth on the front of his chest had it not been for the terrible face on the front of it. Its lips seemed unable to close completely, leaving its teeth perpetually bared. A flaming red tongue, nearly a meter in length, hung from its mouth, giving it an almost absurd quality, and it glared at Fortinbras with four piercing, pupil-less black eyes that seemed to gaze into his very soul. "So this is Belome," Fortinbras thought.
Fortinbras had little time to think further, however, because as Belome pointed one large hairy claw at him, he felt a hand grab him by the arm and yank him behind one of the only pillars left standing. No sooner had Fortinbras returned to his senses and thanked Brutus, the man attached to that hand, than the floor where Fortinbras had been sitting moments before exploded.
"Brutus," Fortinbras panted, "please tell me you have an idea what to do now."
"I would say 'prepare yourself for the halls of your ancestors'," Brutus admitted, "but that would require a soul that remains intact after death, and Belome won't be likely to grant us that luxury."
"Brutus," Fortinbras hissed, "this isn't helping any."
"Fortinbras, Brutus," Cassius called from the altar, "you might as well come out. You're only delaying the inevitable."
"I think we'll keep delaying it then," Fortinbras replied, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt, "and we'll see what's inevitable."
Cassius shook his head. "Why do you resist? What are you fighting for? Your life? And what do you gain by keeping your life? If you were to survive today you would just go on living out your meaningless little existence, struggling every day to get through to the next, only to find eventually that time will catch up with you. Death is the only constant in life, Fortinbras. As I said, you're ultimately only delaying the inevitable." As Cassius said this, he picked up his Super Scope and pointed it at the pillar where Fortinbras and Brutus hid. "Death comes to us all, Prime Minister, and today it comes to you."
"No," Belome stopped Cassius.
Cassius stopped, and looked toward Belome. "No? Master, they're powerless. Look at them: the leaders of the Sarasi Military, cowering in fear? They haven't earned the right to the peace you offer. Let me eliminate them."
"True," Belome agreed. "They're a miserable sight, cowering behind a pillar of stone, expecting it to hide them from the gaping jaws of oblivion. But you and your weapon need to be more concerned with him." Belome pointed to the foot of the altar where Raz lay, in shock at his wife's death, not a step from where he stood when Brutus ordered the assault team to open fire."
"Oh no," Fortinbras sighed. "Dayweather, get up! Run!"
"He won't," Martine gloated. "He has no reason to. He's lost everything. First his wife, and soon, his world."
"Hardly so," Ludwig announced defiantly from just outside the room. As Belome, Martine, and Cassius all three turned toward the source of the voice, the Koopa assault team swarmed into the room, pelting the demon and his priests with a hail of their weapons, including a volley from Ludwig's Bill Blaster. As Cassius and Martine ducked behind the altar for protection and Cassius readied his Super Scope to return fire, flames erupted from Belome's fingertips, engulfing the team and forcing Ludwig back behind the cover of the tunnel.
"So it shall be with all who challenge me," Belome declared triumphantly. "Idiots. How can you hope to defeat me through force? Your hate only makes me that much stronger. I'm the sum of all the evils in your world."
Cassius paused. "M…Master? What did you just say?"
"The sum of what?" Martine furthered.
As Belome turned and glared at his priests, apparently repulsed by their ignorance, Brutus took the time to escape from the safety of the column behind which he hid, grab Raz, and drag him forcefully back to the safety of the column.
"But, this can't be," Cassius wailed. "Your own Ancient Texts claim you offer the world peace."
"Indeed I do," Belome replied. "There is no conflict, no toil, no struggle at all in the void of non-existence. That is the only true peace, and I will make your world a towering monument to it. In fact, for your loyalty, perhaps you two should be the next additions to my monument." Having spoken this, he raised his hand and Cassius and Martine's screams of agony echoed through the temple as their bodies burst into blue flame, a flame which left not even their bones or ashes, but merely a blue mist, which Belome breathed deeply into his nostrils. "The familiar taste of Human souls," he relished.
As Belome savored his sadistic meal, Brutus turned to Fortinbras and Raz. "There's only one hope now," he whispered, "and a dim hope at that."
"We're listening," Fortinbras prodded.
"Belome was awakened by a sacrifice, performed in the name of darkness. It will take an equal sacrifice, done in the name of good, to seal him away."
"You mean one of us has to die," Fortinbras asked.
Brutus shook his head. "It's worse than death I'm afraid. The priestess sacrificed herself using the Tooth of Belome, an implement of darkness. To lose one's life to that blade is to surrender one's soul into Belome's grasp until the day when the Star Road Guardian will finally defeat him."
"So you're saying..." Fortinbras asked in shock.
"One of us has to give ourselves up to the Abyss until the end of time," Raz finished for him. "Is that what you mean?"
Brutus nodded, after a long silence. "I'm afraid so."
"How can I ask anyone to do that?" Fortinbras demanded. "To give up your own life is one thing, but your soul? How can anybody be willing to do something like that?"
"I will," Raz announced, stone-faced.
Brutus and Fortinbras turned toward him in shock. "Dayweather, don't do anything rash here. We're talking about your immortal soul."
"Yes," Raz agreed. "And we're talking about my wife, and if what you've said is true, Brutus, then she's gone to the Abyss as we speak. If that's where I have to follow to stay with her, then that's what I'll do."
"Ensign," Fortinbras started to speak up, but something in Raz's voice told him the decision had already been made, with or without his approval. Finally, he nodded and saluted. "It's been an honor serving with you, Ensign."
Raz returned the salute.
"This isn't permanent," Brutus assured Raz as he in turn saluted him. "When the Guardian finally defeats him, you and Raini will both travel to the Star Road."
"Then I'll see you there." Raz returned Brute's salute. "Until then, farewell." He removed a small vial from his pocket, containing a gram of a clear, red liquid. "Sir, give this to Hinopio," he requested, handing it to Fortinbras. "Tell him to remember Seaside. He'll understand."
"Excuse me," Belome interrupted, still standing in front of the altar, as if toying with the three. "Are you hatching some kind of sinister plot to destroy me? Oh, I do hope so. There's nothing more fun than making martyrs out of would-be heroes. It's my favorite game."
"You want a game," Brutus yelled angrily, "try this one. It's called 'how many fireballs do you see?'" At this he drew his Flower-Rifle and leapt from behind the post, firing as he went, and charged straight at Belome. Fortinbras, drawing his own rifle, followed suit from the other side of the pillar. Through the flames, they could both just barely see Belome shrugging off their attacks.
Belome sighed. "I'm disappointed, warmonger," he griped. "I expected you to at least provide me a challenge." He thrust a hand in the direction of Brutus, causing great blue lightning bolts to fly from it. Brutus screamed as electricity coursed through him, dropping his Flower-Rifle.
"Legionnaire!" Ludwig's cry reverberated off the walls as he barreled into the room, hurling his Bill Blaster into the path of Belome's attack. As the metal cannon absorbed the blast, Ludwig threw himself between Belome and the fallen general. Before Belome could react to the change in the situation, his vision was obscured by another blast from Fortinbras' Flower-Rifle.
"Oof!" Belome grunted as he backed away from the unexpected fireball. "I grow weary of this," he began, his voice rising. "The time has come to end our little game."
"I couldn't agree more, Demon," came a voice from the altar. Belome turned in shock toward the obelisk just in time to watch Raz Dayweather fall dead upon the altar, his hands locked even in death around the bejeweled hilt of the Ivory Dagger. The ritual to bind Belome for another thousand years was complete.
"That makes the six hundred fifty-third lap he's made around the bridge pacing like that," Kammy gritted her teeth as she thought. "It's getting a little unnerving." Of course, she couldn't blame Kamek completely. It had been 18 hours since Baron Ludwig's team had left the Amadeus. Half an hour into the team's excursion, unexplainable bolts of energy had gripped the ship, threatening to peel the wings off while crippling the three Doomships. Things had remained that way for only fifteen minutes before they suddenly, and without apparent reason, stopped. Kammy was sure, as was Kamek, that the energy bolts had been somehow linked to Belome's reawakening. But that, like everything else they "knew" about the situation, was a guess.
"I wish I knew what was going on down there," Kamek wondered. "One minute the ship was caught in that energy storm, and the next everything was calm. Even the seas are flat."
"Maybe they stopped Belome," Kammy offered.
"Then where are they?" Kamek countered. "After 18 hours we should have heard from them."
"They may be trapped inside somehow," Kammy said. "We should probably send a team to investigate."
Kamek shook his head. "And risk not knowing what happened to the team too? I don't think so, unless you want to lead the group." He curled his lip as he continued. "That might make the loss worth it."
"Charming," Kammy retorted. "Is there a place we could land the ship? Somewhere near the temple opening?"
"To what end?"
"So when they come out they'll be right near the ship, rather than having to wait to call."
Kamek sighed. "I doubt there's much hope that there's anyone left to call us at this point, but it's as good an idea as any."
"They're down there, Kamek," Kammy insisted. "Why else would that storm have stopped? They've beaten him."
Kamek shook his head. "I don't know how you're able to be so optimistic, but just to shut you up I'll do it. It's not as though I have any better ideas for once." He turned toward his radio operator. "Signal Amadeus and the sister ships that we're landing."
"Aye, Guildmaster," the guard replied and picked up the radio mouthpiece.
"Helm," Kamek turned his attention toward the front of the bridge, "start landing sequence. Bring us down right beside Archangel, and start looking for survivors."
"Actually," Kammy interrupted as the Archangel entered her view from the forward window, "I don't think the search will be necessary."
Kamek rolled his eyes. "Would you make up your mind?"
"It's made up," Kammy declared flatly, pointing toward what was little more than a gathering of dots underneath Archangel's wing at this distance. "The search won't be necessary because there they are."
"Baron, we can't thank you enough for your help," Brutus gratefully spoke to Ludwig as Fortinbras draped a Sarasi flag over Ensign Raz Dayweather's metal coffin.
Ludwig shook his head. "The Ensign died a hero. My sense of honor demands that I ensure him a hero's burial." After a moment's pause he added, "I assume he will be buried with full martial honors?"
Brutus nodded. "As the rest of the Sarasi soldiers lost today. Anything less would be to belittle what they did."
Ludwig fidgeted with the spiked gauntlet on his right arm for a moment, unclasped it, and handed it to Brutus. As Brutus accepted the bangle, confused, he explained. "Tribute to the fallen: a Koopa memorial tradition."
"Isn't that gauntlet the symbol of your clan?" Brutus asked.
"It is," Ludwig answered. "Seven spikes for seven wars, lest the Clan of Morton forget the price of sovereignty. This will remind you, as well as me by its absence, of my people's debt to Sarasaland for Raz's sacrifice."
Brutus was unable to hide his shock. What he held in his hand was nothing less than the end of a millenia-old feud between the Koopa and Human races. "And you would make such a tribute in honor of a soldier of your enemies?"
"Today we were on the same side," was all Ludwig said.
"Yes," Fortinbras agreed, "today we were. But what now?" As silence settled over the group in wake of this question, he continued. "For all your talk about 'honor' and 'debt to Sarasaland', I doubt your Imperial friends are going to just let Archangel fly away from this one now that you have no need for us."
"Karma and Jazzman would only attack in retaliation against a hostile force," Ludwig explained. "I can promise you that. Kamek, on the other hand, gives me pause. Regarding Kamek and his vessel, I can make no guarantees."
"That, somehow, gives me very little comfort," Fortinbras snarled.
"It's all I can offer you," Ludwig said without emotion in his voice. "And I hope it's enough, because Fallen Angel approaches." He pointed toward a growing purple-and-white speck against the setting sun.
"All we can do now," Fortinbras whispered aside to Brutus, "is hope Ludwig was sincere."
With that bit of reassurance, the Sarasi Legionnaires approached the nose of the airship to await the arrival of their pro tempere comrades. Fallen Angel wasted no time with diplomatic procedures, landing nearly within an armslength of her Sarasi namesake. The juggernaut's engine turbines had not even had time to whir to a stop before the landing ramp lowered and Guildmaster Kamek half-ran down onto the brick-strewn ground in Ludwig's direction. "Baron," he demanded, barely able to keep some level of bearing as he spoke, "what happened? Is everyone alright?"
"Those you see here are well," Ludwig answered mobidly. "The rest…"
Kamek nodded, scarcely allowing himself a moment's concern for the fallen Koopa and Sarasi troops. "And Belome?"
"He has been contained, at least for our lifetimes."
Kamek nodded once again, suddenly reassured, and turned his attention to Fortinbras and Brutus, as well as the coffin behind them. "I take it from this that Legionnaire Cassius perished in the battle?"
"As far as we're concerned," Fortinbras said distastefully, "Cassius died long before today."
"A Sarasi soldier died binding Belome," Ludwig explained. "It will all be in my report to Father, which you may peruse at your discretion once he has viewed it."
"I see," Kamek said neutrally. "Well," he turned toward Fortinbras, "your ship is in shambles. I don't think I need to tell you how tempting it is to take the Baron, escape to the air, and rid myself of you."
"But you won't," Ludwig insisted, indicating the gauntlet in Brutus' hand. "They saved your ship from the Cult sub, and they saved our world from Belome. You, in return, will give them full quarter until they have repaired their ship and returned to Sarasaland."
Kamek beheld the gauntlet and gawked. "Baron! Do you know what you've done?"
"I know exactly what I've done," Ludwig said, resolved.
Kamek stammered for a moment, but finally sighed in defeat. "Your father will not be pleased," he told Ludwig.
"And this is a new circumstance in what way?"
"Fine," Kamek spat. "In either case, we're waiting to return you to Amadeus so you and your squadron can return to base."
"My squadron?" Ludwig asked. "You mean Fallen Angel won't be returning?"
Kamek flinched. "Eh, just a few loose ends to tie up here in Land's End.
Ludwig said nothing.
"Well, I'll be on the bridge," Kamek responded. "I request you make all possible haste, however. Your brother and your fiancee are anxious to hear from you, to say nothing of your father's demand for a report." With that, Kamek turned and walked back up the landing ramp.
Once Kamek was out of earshot, Ludwig turned to Brutus. "Legionnaire, one final inquiry before I depart."
"Yes. I wondered if you might tell me what that vial was that Ensign Dayweather handed you in the temple."
"Yes," Brutus agreed. "I wondered that myself."
Fortinbras reached into the waistpocket of his uniform and produced the tiny, hourglass-shaped vial. "I can't be sure," he grinned reminiscingly, "but knowing what I know of those two I would guess it's a Thalidian wine called 'Red Essence'. There always seemed to be some connection between Dayweather and Hinopio's taste for this and outbreaks of trouble in the Officers' Mess as I recall."
"Red Essence," Ludwig repeated with understanding. "I know of that. It dulls the perception of pain quite well."
"I suppose this was the ensign's final toast to old times," Brutus chuckled. "A sort of don't cry for me to his friend."
"To dull the pain of his loss," Fortinbras agreed, and the trio stood silently for a moment. "Well, there will be time for mourning later. Right now we all have things to do on one ship or another, and homes to return to," he cast his eyes toward Raz's coffin, "and unfortunately, friends to bury."
Ludwig sighed. "I hope this will not be the last time we fight under the same banner, Legionnaires," he said with a knowing edge in his voice, and turned toward the landing ramp of Fallen Angel.
"Somehow," Fortinbras mused as he watched Ludwig leave, "I doubt it will."
Kamek entered his meditation chamber on Fallen Angel in disgust. "First Yoshi's Island, and now this," he grumbled. "Lord Bowser will be furious." As he voiced this thought, he placed his palm over a fist-sized crystal orb on a pedastal in the center of the room. "Milord," he called into thin air, "your servant begs an audience."
For a moment the orb began to glow red, and Bowser's voice filled the room. "Speak, Kamek," he commanded.
"It grieves me to report," Kamek announced, "that Baron Ludwig has now thrown in his lot with Fortinbras of Sarasaland."
The room seemed to rumble as Bowser's growl echoed over the vast distance between them. "What evidence do you have of this?"
Kamek clenched his wand tightly. "Archangel is right outside, within my grasp, and Ludwig has promised Fortinbras safe passage back to Sarasaland, despite the presence of three Doomships."
Despite Kamek's fury at the situation, Bowser seemed nonplussed. "And Belome?"
"Bound for another thousand years I presume. The Baron would only say that it would be in his report."
"Fine," Bowser replied. "That minor matter is settled, and Archangel is of little consequence."
"There is one other matter of interest, Milord."
"What is it?"
Kamek thought back over the day's events. "The Temple appears to have been built as a focusing point for dark magic."
"That makes sense," Bowser answered curtly. "Why else would the Cult have built it here? What difference does that make?"
"Because I believe I can tap into that focal point when I'm here. In fact, I think any adept could."
Bowser was silent. The implications of that comment were deep and thrilling. "Kamek," he announced at length, "I want you to remain at the temple, along with Kammy. If the two of you can draw power from the locale, it would be the perfect staging point to add an extra element to the assault on Monstro City."
"Of course, Milord," Kamek agreed. "However, might I be so bold as to suggest that Baron Ludwig and his companions might not be the ideal spearhead for this invasion?"
"Of course," Bowser said half-heartedly. "I'll alert Roy. The Crusher squadron should suffice. I trust you have Ludwig on board?"
"I do, Milord."
"Excellent. Return him to Amadeus, and instruct him to bring his ship home. Do not alert him to our plans for Monstro City."
"As you command, Milord," Kamek bowed.
"One week, Kamek," Bowser hissed. "One week, and the rebel stronghold will fall."
"It will be a glorious day for the Empire, Milord."
"So it shall, Kamek. So it shall."
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