The Longest Battle – Ch 24 – Shedding Skin

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Serdar tasted blood in his mouth and considered if the time had come to transform into a giant snake. As the Grand Vizier of the Shifting Kingdoms, he’d had access to knowledged locked away from all but the most privileged of men. It had been difficult translating the old works, the ones which spoke of the enduring magics. He’d been burned many times in his attempts to learn which of those mighty spells still held their potency across the gulf of the Great Sundering when the djinn were banished and the magics that held the world in the thrall of alien powers were shattered.

“Your machinations are at an end, Grand Vizier. You will never destroy the the Ever Shining Blade!” a young man said. The boy had the fires of righteous certainty blazing in his eyes. He and his band of miscreant friends had managed to foil every plot that Serdar had laid in motion against them. They had undone the work of decades and exposed the Grand Vizier as the traitor to the realm that he had been since he was five years old.

Behind the fiery youth, the Sultan’s youngest daughter stood, determination written on her face. In her hands, she held a staff that glowed with searing white light. His conjurations evaporated under the glares of the staff’s revealing illumination. None of his extra-dimensional minions could stand in its presence. The only magics he had left were the ones inside himself.

Serdar looked at the youth’s other friends. They had discovered or been granted special gifts, every one of them. Despite that Serdar knew those lesser threats wouldn’t be able to stand against him. Not if he unveiled his full power. The Ever Shining Blade in the youth’s hands, and the Staff of Clarity the princess wielded were another matter though. Those were formidable artifacts. Ones that he had gone to great and terrible lengths to remove from the Kingdom’s grasp.

All for naught.

Decades of work and all his efforts were reduced to the taste of blood in his mouth. It was a familiar sensation. There was still a chance to reclaim what he had lost, to see his long plans through to their necessary fulfillment. It would require a sacrifice though.

Serdar cast his thoughts back to the first time he’d tasted his own blood. He sought the core of the anger that had driven him onwards for over fifty years.

In his mind’s eye, he saw the small boy he’d been. Not Grand Vizier then, just a pauper. The angry young man holding the Ever Shining Blade reminded him of how he’d once felt, but he’d never shown that face to the world.

The Fates had never loved Serdar. At best he had amused them. Where the boy before him had attracted the princess’s eye and stolen her heart, Serdar had only ever been fortunate enough to attract the attention of a near-blind sage. The sword wielding boy’s future promised to be one of wealth and luxury. Defeat the Evil Grand Vizier, become the hero of the people, marry an unimportant daughter of the royal house and live the sort of life he could have only dreamed of as a street rat.  Serdar’s road, by contrast, had been one of constant struggle. Guile and deception, subterfuge and plans, these had been the weapons with which he had fought his way to the top.

To make it from pauper to trusted scribe had been a work of daring far surpassing any physical trials the youth with the glowing sword had endured. To rise from scribe to scholar, and then to sage and finally to Grand Vizier? It was a feat unequaled in the kingdom’s history. To do so had required that Serdar understand the kingdom the way a potter understands his wheel or a blacksmith understands his forge. Understanding hadn’t been enough though. Serdar understood the kingdom by the time he was twenty two. Had he wished it, a life of indolence would have been his for the taking. It was only his anger that had kept him going, that had forced him onwards.

That anger was old and tired though. He had fought so many battles in its name. The images of a family lost, of a home ruined and a land despoiled, their grip on his heart hadn’t faded over half a century but, perhaps, he thought, his heart had shrunk. Withered from the constant fighting.

If the Fates would turn even a poor youth against him, if all of these heralds of the next generation wished the world to continue on as it had, then perhaps they should have it. Perhaps in their old age they would see their actions for the folly they were, or perhaps they would live in happiness all the days of their lives, blind to what they had done.

A small spark of the old fire, the old rebellion against the icy grip of the Fates stirred in the Grand Vizier’s breast. If they were to have their happiness, it would be built on his suffering. Even if death was certain, he would not succumb and, if but a sliver to hope remained, then he would fight to see their tyranny cast down. No sacrifice was too great for that.

Serdar called the name of the Ideal of Snakes to his lips. He prepared to cast his humanity away, to lose himself in a singular power and purpose that would be undeniable by even gods themselves.

That was when the great stained glass dome of the cathedral shattered inwards and a strange blonde haired girl arrived.

She had fallen through the dome but none of the shards of glass had cut her skin. She rose from where she had landed, and Serdar felt a power radiating out from her that had nothing to do with serpents, or blades or staves.

Everyone in the room was silent in shock, as she turned to Serdar and spoke in a calm, soothing voice.

“Hold the word that you were going to say.” she told him.

The command carried no mystical weight. Serdar was well defended against all the compulsions that djinn or man could lay upon another. Still, he obeyed those words, hearing in them a compassion for his well being that he hadn’t heard since he was a child.

“Who are you?” the youth with the Ever Shining Blade said. He thrust the sword at the girl as he spoke. He’d meant it as punctuation to his words but it had been a mistake. The girl grabbed the tip of the sword and with a small twist, took it right out of the youth’s grasp.

“You can call me Way. You can also leave here.” the blonde girl said.

“What are you doing?” the princess demanded. She was smart enough to hold her staff close when she spoke.

“Helping Grand Vizier Serdar complete his work.” Way said.

“How can you! He’s going to destroy the kingdom!” the princess objected.

“That depends what you think the kingdom is.” Way said. “Grand Vizier, tell them about your final plan.”

“I am going to destroy the Ever Shining Blade, the Staff of Clarity and the Cup of Fellowship.” he said.

“Why?” Way said.

“Because they are an abomination.” Serdar said.

“They are what keep us safe!” the boy objected. “They are the pillars the kingdom was founded on. You want to destroy us!”

“No, he doesn’t.” Way said.

“There will be destruction. There will be suffering and chaos. I know this.” Serdar said.

“Then why do you desire this?” the princess asked. “My father trusted you, he placed you in the highest position he could give you because he saw your wisdom.”

“He put Serdar in a position to reinforce his own authority. To help him continue his rule just as it had been.” Way said.

“What is wrong with how my father has ruled? He had been as great as all of the kings of the past!” the princess objected.

“As great a terror, as a great conqueror, as great a tyrant. Yes.” Serdar agreed.

“What do you mean?” the hero-boy asked.

“With these tools, the Blade, the Staff and the Cup, your father has led your kingdom to great victories and so you’ve cheered for him.” Way said. “Just like the people cheered for your grandfather and the kings before him. Did you ever stop to wonder about the peoples they defeated though? Did you ever ask yourself why there are so many poor in your country if it’s so great?”

“I don’t understand?” the princess said. She took a step back. “The poor receive alms. Those who are defeated are treated honorably.”

“Are those alms enough? Have you slept each night with a full belly?” Way asked the boy who had held the sword. “Has your mind been fed? Can you read? Do you know the world you live in or have you only seen the little part of it where the poor are allowed to live?”

The boy didn’t answer, so the princess stepped forward.

“She is wrong. My father is always giving alms to the poor. Tell her!” she said. The boy looked at her but in the light of the Staff couldn’t give her the words she wished to hear.

“He gives enough to set them against each other.” Serdar said. “He fears them and so he keeps them distrustful of one another.”

“And those are his own people. You must know what he does to those he conquers. You’ve seen the honor he shows to those he brings into his slave harem.” Way said.

“The women there are happy.” the princess said.

“Each of them is forced to drink from the Cup of Fellowship are they not?” Way asked. “Do you know what that does?”

The princess gripped the Staff of Clarity with a white knuckled grip. In its light the truth of others was revealed to her. She wanted to let it go, to deny what the strange girl and the Evil Vizier were saying, but she couldn’t. Too many other things were falling into place with their words.

“Why?” the princess asked.

“Because he can. Because no one can oppose him. Because the gods left behind three abominations on which this kingdom has built a legacy of pain and subjugation.” Serdar said. “Those weapons are supreme upon this Earth. With an army of loyal, mindless minions to support him and those tools in his grasp, your father cannot be defeated. His line will reign till the end of time and he, or his descendants, will sweep the whole of the world beneath their heels.”

“That’s why you would betray him?” the princess asked. It wasn’t an accusation.

“Serdar is not betraying the king. He is keeping a much older promise.” Way said.

“To who?” the boy asked.

Way passed the Ever Shining Blade over to the Grand Vizier.

Its weight felt far too light in his hands. He could barely lift it, but still it should have been heavier. A million times heavier.

With all of his might, Serdar lifted the blade over his head and turned his back on the rest of the people in the room. He looked at the dais that was an arm’s reach away and the golden chalice that rested on it.

The Cup of Fellowship. An inviolate, indestructible artifact. A gift from the gods meant to survive to the end of the days. Powered by the wills of those bound in service to it.

Above him, the Ever Shining Blade swayed. An unstoppable, all destroying artifact. A gift from the gods meant to sweep aside any that would stand before it. Powered by the souls of those it had slain.

Serdar thought of those for whom he had striven and schemed. Those who had been lost. Those whose light radiated from the blade in his hands.

“My family.” he said, his voice catching in his throat.

None of them should have survive the blast of the two artifacts annihilating each other, but where the Fates are not kind, Way is.

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