An Incident in the Final Battle of the Dead Kingdom's War
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The knife felt like a serpent in Kiev's hand. The ornate metalwork on the handle seemed to slither in between his sweaty palm, as if anticipating what would soon occur. He looked down, and saw his knuckles were white with tension. A quick glance around him assuaged his fears. Nobody was staring at him. No one had seen. He was, for now, safe.

The crowd's attention was focused entirely on the view from the balcony. Though the crush of bodies blocked any glimpse Kiev may have caught of what lay there, it was easy enough to imagine. The invaders had already torn down the city's walls. Smoke rose from the ruins of buildings. The force of their magic stained the sky with red streets. If they were not already at the palace gates, they would be soon, with their weapons and spells and rage, ready to strip the kingdom's thousand-year history to dust. The thought of the savages pouring over their rubble, fondling the kingdom's prized artifacts, reveling in the ashes of a beauty they could never appreciate made Kiev's throat catch. No. Such events could not be allowed to pass.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned. Kyra stared at him with near-black eyes. The expression on his sister's face was one he had never imagined he would see her wear—angry, confused, and fearful. And piercing. Always piercing. When she looked at him, he felt like a cadaver on a table, sliced open and exposed.

“You're sure this is right?” she said.

“Look around you.” He made a small gesture around the room with his free hand. “How could it be right to let this continue?”

She released his shoulder without a word. Her eyes seemed to narrow further into him, and he looked away quickly.

“All that has happened, and you wish to spill more of our blood?”

He leaned in to ensure not a syllable of speech drifted to an outside listener. “I would gladly spill a hundred rivers of our people's blood if it meant a hundred and one of theirs would fall.”

A disturbed murmer came from the crowd. Kiev looked up, startled, but their attention was still entirely focused on the battle below. The expressions on their faces did not stir any hope within him. Some held drink or pipes of wetroot. As he watched some people separated from the crowd and wandered off into the halls, staring grimly at the floor. Tears shone in the eyes of one man.

Through the crowd, Kiev could see his father. It was impossible not to see the man—he already towered above every other person in height, and the gaudy, golden crown he wore like a tentpole sticking from his skull only ensured his presence would be felt in any room he entered. He gripped the edge of the balcony with clenched fists and teeth. He stood in a circle of people-less space. None dared go near him in this state.

On the edge of the crowd, a short, red-haired man glanced in Kiev's direction, then approached the pair. “Grim times,” he said as he drew near.

Kiev nodded, trying to keep the venom from his voice. “Indeed, Arlo. But they will pass. They always do.”

“You believe that?” Arlo chuckled and took a sip of his drink.

“I believe that this kingdom cannot fall.”

Arlo shrugged. “Maybe not. But our walls have.” He stalked off into the hallway, no doubt searching to partake in a final act of degeneracy.

Kiev allowed himself a brief glance at the night. The tip of the blade twitched. Perhaps it could sense the bloodshed around it, knew that there would only be more to come. He sometimes wondered if it was the blade's thoughts that filled his mind, darkened his dreams. Was it the creature inside that whispered to him at night? Was it merely trying to sate its endless hunger? But staring through the crowd and the war and the enemy, he now understood the truth. This needed to be done. There was no other way to stop the storm.

He advanced, and the crowd parted as they saw him and realized his identity, until he had a clear path to stand next to his father. The man who had raised him did not acknowledge his son's presence. His focus was too centered on the battle below. And Kiev, transfixed by the horror of the war, did not want it.

A sea of bloodied bodies surged forward against the city wall, rushing forward and falling back and rushing forward again like waves battering a stormy shore. With each charge, more of the invaders fell, but before their bodies touched the ground three more would run screaming forward to take their place. They clutched spears and broken blades and crude clubs and anything else they could find to crack an imperialist skull.

Their mages floated on the backlines. Filthy rags fluttered in the wind behind them. Had Kiev been closer, he would have seen the arcane symbols stitched into each one, throwbacks to dark rituals of power too terrible even for this war. Light erupted from the mages as, in turn, they threw forward the power they held within. Kaleidoscope daggers spiraled between rainbow missiles, crashing against the walls, sending chunks of brick flying. The castle's defenses glowed with the effort of trying to maintain the building's shape.

“They have yet to take the gate,” said Kiev. “There may still be some hope.”

“What do you know of hope?” said the King. His gripped on the bannister tightened. “Hope is a sick thing that rips husbands from their wives and gold from its pockets. It is the darkness' whisper that tempts us forward into oblivion. Is that what you see down there? Hope?”

“I see men,” said Kiev. “Men we can kill.”

The King turned to stare at Kiev. How long had it been since they were last this close? Since they last spoke so many words to each other? Were it not for the circumstances, Kiev might have found joy in this moment. “Not these men. Not today.”

“To be cursed with anything but a fool for a father,” said Kiev. “Don't you see their corpses on our steps? Their blood soaking our earth? We could slaughter them all, were you not so cowardly.”

His father looked away, again hypnotized by the battle. “I would have thought the same, when I was younger.”

“And now?”

He no longer seemed to be addressing his son but a memory, a faded ghost seen only to him. “Now I wonder if it is not best for us to die.”

That was it then. The answer. The one Kiev had not expected but still dreaded. The one the Blade had whispered to him through these long weeks. Only one way to save the kingdom then. A trade. Kiev stepped forward and drove the Blade into his father's back.

His father stumbled forward, grasping at the air. Blood streamed from his mouth and nose and the wound and covered the stone, the knife, Kiev's hands. Ripping the blade free, Kiev stepped back, stared. He had expected to feel more. He had expected, perhaps, some sort of regret or horror. But watching his father writhing in blood, he felt only a weak satisfaction. The King turned to look at his son for the final time. Kiev grabbed his shoulders, shoved him over the side of the bannister. The body fell and landed in the center of the scrambling invaders.

And Kiev's ears filled with the cackle of the Blade.

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