Padeshahi (the Kingdom)

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Io's Story III

Even though the Ring had stopped its undulating and pulsing, it still appeared menacing. They all walked inside with some trepidation but determined, fear intermingling with resolution on all of their faces…except Arash. The duelist looked angry, as out of all of them this place was like a second home to him, and to see it perverted by Bahram must have fueled his fire. Leading them into the coliseum Io was glad that none of his companions could see his face, for if they could it may have broken their will and caused them to just give up. The Deva couldn’t help it; he was both saddened and terrified about what had to happen.

It wasn’t the fear of death that had him scared; he had died so many times, and most of them for good causes, that dying held no more mystery for him than waking up every morning held for most people. It wasn’t fear of his companions dying; while he didn’t want to throw their lives away needlessly, if they passed on as Basma’s mate Kambiz did in pursuit of their noble goal and protecting each other -and the citizens of Amol- it would be worth it. No, if he had to say (and he prayed to E’laa’hi that he wouldn’t), Io would admit it was the fear of seeing his brother once more after all these many years, and sadness at having to take away the gift of immortality that he had convinced a Yazata to give to him.

While the rest of the party had fought off and killed the magi that the evil sheikh had sent out against them, Io had stood by. Oh sure, they probably all thought it was because he was trying not to use his divine magic and alert Bahram that his brother was here. Or maybe, they assumed it was something to do with his being a sheikh and not wanting to end a life. The Deva did slightly agree with that part, since even he didn’t know what happened to most mortals when they passed through that final curtain; but, he’d had to send plenty of miscreants through it over the centuries, and E’laa’hi willing he would continue to do so for many more centuries to come. As long as he did it in defense of his own being or for others, he felt no regret for his actions.

No, he argued with himself, he couldn’t afford to give in to nostalgia or familial love. Not now, not after everything Shaghad had done. Thinking that name gave one who was once known as Rostam pause. The last time he had even thought of his brother by that name had been when Shaghad had driven his blade down through his brother’s torso and spit on him, ending that life and sending him back through the familiar cycle of waiting and rebirth. If Io recalled that time correctly, the shock of his own brother killing him had affected him greatly, and he hadn’t been reborn for another ten years.

Io realized he was getting lost in memories again –a common problem for those who’ve lived for so many lives- and came back to the present to find his companions waiting for him in front of one of the hallway entrances to the sand-covered floor where the duels and other fights were held. “Forgive me all, I’m sorry for making you wait.”

“It’s all right, honored sheikh, I was just explaining to them how you had told me that sometimes your mind goes back into your past and it takes you a minute to find your way back,” Firuzeh offered from his left.

“Which I was saying makes no logical sense; this isn’t the same mind or body as he had in his previous life, or the one before that, or the one before that. How then does he keep all of his memories?” Yuri argued from behind the young alchemist, and Io couldn’t help but smile.

“Some things you have to accept on faith, Sandstrider,” Olgun sneered from Io’s right.

“His name is Yuri,” Arash sneered right back, “and while I don’t understand his science too much I do agree with him on that things that I can touch, smell, see and hear make a lot more sense than something I can’t.” The diminutive Sha’ir looked like she was ready to tear into the duelist for his tone, so before that could happen Io needed to put a stop to their bickering.

“Everyone, please,” Io said with a raised voice, and thankfully their mutual respect of him was enough that within a few seconds they had all stopped their muttering. “Now, debating faith and science aside, could someone tell me why we are stopped here,” and the Deva pointed to the arch of the hallway entrance, “instead of inside setting up honored Yuri’s device?”

“Well, that is, I just need to make sure that I can make all the necessary adjustments when we’re inside, don’t want to make any mistakes…” Yuri stammered out.

“I believe what the young gadgeteer isn’t saying but implying is that he’s frightened of what’s to come, and he’s not the only one,” Lahahana said. Basma nodded stoically –obviously barely holding it together after Kambiz’s death- but the younger companions looked uncomfortable at what they perceived to be a display of weakness. The sheikh smiled sadly to himself, knowing that if they lived long enough all of the young heroes would realize that being open with your emotions wasn’t a weakness but a strength.

“Everyone, gather around please,” Io asked his companions, and begrudgingly (for some) they did, getting in as close as they could or could stand. Once they did, he began to speak. “I know that in all the Naqqāli or Ta’zieh you may have seen, the heroes win because they are just and they have E’laa’hi on their side. Well, this isn’t a play and this isn’t theater - this is real life.” They all became deathly still. “There is a chance that we may die; some of us already have.” Basma let a single tear escape from her clenched eyelids, but otherwise remained unmoved when Lahahana put one of his massive hands on her shoulder in solidarity. “But, if we don’t go in there and face this monster and stop him from enslaving not just Amol but eventually all of Padeshahi, then all of our lives and sacrifices will have been for naught. And I, for one, cannot just stand aside and let that happen. Are we all in agreement?”

Some nodded right away, others after doing a little bit of soul-searching, but eventually they all had accepted what he had said. Io let out an internal sigh of relief. “Then, we know what we have to do. Protect Yuri while he sets up the, what was the name you came up with?”

“The field frequency disruptor generator or FFDG, honored sheikh,” the Liyudi said.

“Yes, that. We all make sure that the young gadgeteer is kept safe so he can set the device up. The honored shaman and I will make sure that if any of us gets hurt, we will heal their wounds. Firuzeh, my dear, your job will be to defend Yuri; as for the rest of you, it’s your job to fight off what should be dozens of magi that my brother has recruited just for this purpose. Feel no regret for their deaths, for they would shed not a single tear for yours. If anyone has anything to say or anything they’d like to protest about this plan, now is the time.” He couldn’t help but hold his breath while he waited for all of them to acknowledge their roles. Thankfully, no one found fault with it, and Io could breathe again. “Now, let’s get it done.” Without a cheer, they all went down the hallway and onto the dueling floor.

When they emerged from the darkened tunnel, they were suddenly blinded by lots of bright lights being turned on all at once. More than one of the companions moaned or had tears escape through eyes shut hastily against the barrage. Before they all could recover their vision, a loud obnoxious voice rang out. “Io! So glad to see you could be bothered to make it! And I see you brought some sacrificial lambs to the slaughter! How very thoughtful of you!”

“Shaghad!” the Deva shouted out as he wiped his eyes and blinked them rapidly, trying to get them to adjust quickly. “We can end all of this without any bloodshed, if you’ll just agree to reverse the curse you inflicted on the good people of Amol and surrender for judgement.”

“Judgement! You can’t judge me, Rostam, no one can!” the evil sheikh spit out, and Io’s vision cleared up enough to see his brother practically foaming at the mouth from his seat in the box usually reserved for the Shahan-shah. Oddly enough, no magi accompanied him. “I’ve become more than you could have ever imagined with your tiny mind!”

“Don’t you know what you’re becoming? Haven’t you heard the legends?” Io shouted back to his brother. Behind him, he could see out of the corner of his eye Yuri starting to take all of the pieces for the FFDG out of his knapsack. Good lad, he thought proudly, don’t get distracted and stay focused on the task at hand. Putting the young gadgeteer out of his mind for the moment, he continued his conversation with Bahram. “Do you know what they call a Deva who falls to the darkness and turns their back on E’laa’hi?”

“I imagine they call one so lucky ‘free’, as I will be known as after today,” Bahram sneered. The darkness inside of the evil sheikh seemed to pulse proudly, and it took all of Io’s self-discipline not to fall over and retch from that much evil being near him.

“They call them Rakshasa, brother! Beings so twisted and depraved that even the Deev steer clear of them! Is that what you want, for your soul to be lost to the darkness forever?” Behind Io, Yuri seemed to be making some final adjustments to his device. The Deva knew that there would be no convincing his brother of the futility of his path; he just wanted to stall for enough time so they might have a chance of defeating Bahram.

“You know nothing of me or what I want!” the evil sheikh shrieked.

“Honestly, do you think that you’re the first person this darkness inside of you has chosen?” Io shook his head no, saddened for the truth he was about to deliver. “You are not; there have been others throughout the centuries, and there will be more after you are dust.”

Bahram just stared at Io before he began to chuckle, softly at first but growing in volume until his laughter shook his wiry frame and he could stand no more, forced to take a seat. “You idiot!” he finally choked out. “I’m not some naïve boy, wondering if my lover only has eyes for me! I know that there’s been others before me, but unlike those pathetic weaklings, I will not surrender to its will so easily. It is not in command of me, I am in command of it!” Upon those words, Bahram twisted up in agony and waves of pure darkness pulsed out from him; thankfully, they all were below the sheikh and none of the waves made contact with the heroes.

“It doesn’t look like that from here,” Io said loudly. “It looks like IT is in control.”

Staggering to his feet, Bahram steadied himself by gripping the rail in front of him. “We’ll see about that. But, you won’t be present for that conversation. Goodbye, brother, and don’t be surprised when I find you in your next life and rip you from the wheel of death and rebirth you’re tethered to. Your friends, unfortunately, won’t be so lucky.” And with that, he dropped his hand in some sort of signal and gates below and on either side of him raised up, spilling out dozens of magi. It was clear from looking into their eyes that they had no free will anymore and were simply puppets for Bahram to pull their strings. The evil sheikh smiled as his warriors charged towards Io and his companions.

“Yuri?” Io called out, wondering what was taking so long. He had thought the young Liyudi was almost ready. “Anything we can do to help?”

“I just need a few more minutes to complete the calibrations!” the young gadgeteer shouted out as Io risked taking a look at him. Yuri had just finished pouring a small amount of blood and what looked like a milky white substance from a vial into a funnel on his device. As he went to the gauges on his device and began checking them, he said, “Until then, stall them!”

“You heard him!” the Deva called out to his companions, and they all took up positions. Then, there was no more time for planning or preparations as the swarms of magi were upon Io and the other heroes. Hengameh and Arash met the charge willingly, her with feet and fists, him with his shamshir and pistol, and began to thin the ranks as best they could. Basma waded into battle right next to the monk and duelist, her hammer swinging in between commands for her Elementals and seeing to the wounds of her two partners.

At first, Io had a shameful sliver of doubt that Firuzeh would be up to her task, unsure if her training as an alchemist would enable her to keep herself and Yuri safe. Within seconds of combat starting, that doubt evaporated like dew in the morning sun. Her slingstaff whipping around so fast it was a blur, the young Aryan sent potion after potion into the throngs of magi, disabling many of them before they could get even close to her and her charge with sticky resin that trapped them in place and acid that left them weakened.

Working in tandem with Firuzeh (and apparently putting their differences aside), Olgun and her mentor used their gen servants to unleash a multitude of spells into the disabled crowds of magi, flinging them about with pounding waves and lethal slices of air. The gen were no longer cute and small, instead revealing their massive Elemental nature with every magi destroyed through one of their abilities. It was all so impressive that Io’s heart swelled with pride. This was what E’laa’hi had been trying to show him, this was what he had hoped would happen when he had first laid eyes on them just barely two days ago.

Before he could get lost in remembering once more, the sheikh paid attention to his companions. A few magi did get through the potions that Firuzeh had hurled and the spells that the Sha’ir cast and left wounds, cuts and scrapes in them. Calling on the Divine, Io sent healing magic into the heroes and took care of them with the soothing mists he generated. One magi did manage to avoid the alchemist and her potions and ran full speed towards Yuri, falchion raised high and ready to be brought down on the Liyudi. But before Io could call out a warning, the young gadgeteer took something small and egg-shaped out of his pouch, lit the rope on the end of it with a small device, and tossed it at the magi while yelling, “Catch!” Befuddled, the magi did just that, and only had time to stare at the device for a second before it exploded and turned him into lots of magi pieces. As viscera and bits of organs rained down upon them, Io could only stare in amazement and a little bit of horror at Yuri, who seemed to share his reaction.

“What was that? Lahahana called out.

“I don’t have a name for it yet; just an invention I thought of to keep me safe just in case,” Yuri yelled back over the sound of combat, returning to fiddling with his device.

“Not that; I meant whatever you used to light a fire on whatever it was you hurled. I smoke cigars, and that looks like a much better way to light them than using tongs and picking up coal from a small fire,” the Efreet said appreciatively.

“Tell you what, when this is all over, I’ll make you one!” the gadgeteer shouted back, and the elder Sha’ir nodded his head in thanks. Io watched as Yuri slowly turned one dial towards the left, then towards the right before he called out for the sheikh. Making sure to keep an eye on the magi, the Deva made his way over to the young Liyudi. When he got there, Yuri looked up at him and said, “I think I’m ready…well, as ready as I’ll ever be.”

“What will it do?” Io asked him. “Will it kill him outright?” As much as he wanted his brother stopped, the Deva had no desire to murder the evil sheikh like this, unknown and hidden like some sort of assassin striking from the shadows. That was Bahram’s way, not his.

Yuri shook his head no. “No, it isn’t a weapon. What it should do is cancel out his field that he’s generating through his magic. You know, the one that’s keeping everyone else in Amol a sheep and protecting him from our attacks.” Io looked up to see Arash trying in vain to fire a shot from his pistol at the smirking Bahram, only to have the bullet disintegrate before it even reached the evil sheikh. “Just say the word and I’ll activate it.”

Io watched his brother taunting the livid duelist, watched him ignoring the slaughter of his people, and watched him seeming to draw strength from their deaths. He tried not to see him as when they were both young Aryan boys, playing with sticks and pretending to be great warriors, going everywhere together and having lots of imaginary adventures. “Honored sheikh?” Yuri called out, and Io refused to surrender to his memories. The Deva knew it was his mind trying to protect him from what was about to happen. “Are you ready?” the gadgeteer said again. Not trusting himself to speak, he merely nodded his head once, and the young Liyudi took a deep breath before pushing a button. “I need the storm now, Basma!” he shouted out, unwilling to look away to see if she heard him.

The shaman turned from the magi she had been fighting, either trusting that her companions would defeat him or not caring if he struck her down. Walking over to Io and Yuri, Basma began chanting while pulling out the components of the ritual from her belt pouch. The Ring had no ceiling above them, and as Io looked up he saw what had been a clear night becoming full of storm clouds, lightning bolts illuminating the dark morass. When she arrived, the shaman stuck a piece of charred wood into a slot that Yuri indicated. It appeared to have been in some sort of fire, and then Io made the connection. If he had to guess, he would say this branch came from a tree that had survived being struck by lightning.

As Basma sped up her chant, drops of rain began to fall from the sky, softly and first and then becoming a deluge. Eventually, the sand that covered the floor of the dueling area they were all fighting on become slick with mud, and combat became even more precarious than it usually was. Not stopping, Basma raised her voice, each stressed syllable seemingly echoed by a thunder crack and a flash of lightning high above her. Without warning, she raised one hand high and grabbed the charred wood with the other, and shouted out “STRIKE!” Obeying the command of the shaman, a giant bolt of lightning slammed down from the storm clouds and into her upraised arm, then travelled through her body and into Yuri’s device. She stood there, body jerking and twitching with electricity for a full five seconds, before the bolt stopped. When it was over, she crumbled to the ground.

Dashing to her side, Io put his hands on her chest and prayed to E’laa’hi to restore her health and to allow her to live once more. His hands glowed as the Divine answered, and he could feel her heart begin to beat. She slowly opened her eyes, looked at him, and began to softly sob. He could barely hear her over the sound of the storm, but it sounded like she repeatedly said, “Why did you bring me back? I wanted to be with him on the other side.”

He knew it wasn’t what she wanted to hear, but Io held her hand and said, “Because it wasn’t your time to die.” She gripped his hand tightly, like she was drowning and he was her only lifeline, but still kept sobbing.

The next thing Io knew, he heard Yuri shouting out, “NOW!” and then some kind of pulse emitted from his device and formed a softly glowing bubble in the center of the Ring. Thankfully, it reached up to the box seat where Bahram was standing, and to Io’s amazement the evil sheikh began to shake before finally collapsing. When he did, the magi that were left slumped to the mud-soaked ground. Only a handful, which meant that Bahram had probably scoured the whole city of Amol for able-bodied young men to enslave. A lot of families would be grieving over the losses of their sons in the morning.

“Is it over?” Firuzeh yelled out over the sounds of the slowly fading storm, and Io hoped that it was indeed over. His elation soured when he heard Bahram’s mocking laughter as the evil sheikh used the rail in front of him to pull himself up. Even through the rain, Shaghad’s eyes found Rostam’s, and he raised his hand up and gave a defiant gesture.

“You fool! This is only a temporary setback; once that device powers down –and it will, since the storm is abating- I will get my powers back and when I do, you will all suffer! I’ll kill all of them while I make you watch, impotent to stop me!” Bahram chuckled, eyes flashing with madness and fury. “Zavaal says the only way to stop me is through the blood of a relative! Do you have it in you, Rostam? Can you kill your baby brother?”

Standing up, Io could feel all of their eyes upon him: his brother’s, his companions, all waiting to see what he was going to do. Walking over to one of the magi, the Deva picked up the fallen warrior’s falchion, and lifted it, his un-callused hands holding the weapon awkwardly. This body had never had to wield a weapon before, and it showed, even though he had many memories of doing so in previous lives. As he stepped closer to where Bahram stood, his hold on the weapon wavered, and soon it dragged in the ground. The sheikh hadn’t the strength to lift it, he didn’t even have the strength to lift his head and face his friends so they could see the shame in his eyes and the regret that he was powerless to kill his own brother. The irony was not lost on Io, since his brother hasn’t hesitated to slay him all those many lives ago.

“I knew it; you’re weak. Soon, this whole world will be mine,” Bahram spat on Io.

“Forgive me, honored sheikh,” Io heard from behind him, and he turned just in time to see Arash thrusting his shamshir through his chest. The duelist truly did appear sorry, and Io couldn’t help but wonder if Bahram had managed to exert some sort of control over the young Aryan. Then, before all of their shocked eyes, Arash hurled his shamshir like a spear and it pierced Bahram right through his heart and pinned him against the Shahan-shah’s seat. The evil sheikh struggled with the weapon, trying in vain to pull it out as his blood bubbled up around the wound, but he hadn’t the strength, and within seconds his head flopped forward, eyes staring blankly at nothing at all. Before any of them had time to wonder what was happening, Bahram’s head was flung back and inky rolling darkness shot out of his mouth as if it was a funnel in reverse. Within seconds, it had disappeared into the now clear sky, and the body resumed its former appearance in death.

Of course, the blood of a relative, Io thought as everything started to grow dark. He tried his best to smile at Arash, who now looked panic-stricken at what he had done. I don’t blame you my child, the sheikh wanted to say but was unable to make his lips work. You did what I didn’t have the strength to do, and in doing so saved us all. The Deva’s last thought before everything went dark was of how proud he was of all of them.

It was impossible to tell how much time had passed during the Lost Times, but when Io blearily opened his eyes, instead of seeing somewhere pure and pristine, he spotted a clear night sky above him. And, his body ached, which it had never done before when he had been reborn. “Where am I?” he mumbled.

A face blocked out his view of the night sky, and he struggled to focus on it before realizing it was Basma. “You’re still in the Ring, honored sheikh.” She smiled down at him.

“I thought I had died,” Io murmured.

Taking his head and squeezing it, she simply said, “You nearly did.”

“I thought I told you that sheikhs can’t cheat death,” he whispered.

Giving a little laugh, Basma reached down and hugged him tight. Into his ear, she whispered back, “That may be true, but I’m no sheikh.” Io wanted to chuckle, but didn’t have the strength. “Besides, your dying would have meant that death cheated us, and that I could not allow.” Then, she released him and helped him sit upright so he could look around.

They were all there, encircling him. Arash, looking apologetic for what he had done; Hengameh, shyly holding Arash’s hand while giving Io a warning glance that if he tried to enact revenge, he would have to get through her; Olgun and Firuzeh, leaning on each other for support and telling some sort of joke that had them giggling; and Lahahana taking the fire-starter from Yuri while the gadgeteer packed up the now-burnt out device. It had served its purpose, but Io could only imagine that the young Liyudi would be able to scavenge some of the parts to reuse. Reaching into his vest pocket, the Efreet pulled out a cigar that was miraculously not damp and lit it, puffing away contentedly for a second and blowing out smoke rings. Seeing that Io was awake, the elder Sha’ir smiled at the Deva and said, “So, what do we do now?”

Looking at all of them, smiling at how blessed he truly was, Io was proud to say, “Honestly, honored Ostaad? E’laa’hi never showed me anything past this point.”

“Well then, honored sheikh, what do you think we should do?” Lahahana continued, still smoking his cigar.

Io smiled up at him. “I have absolutely no idea…and for once, that makes me happy.”

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