We believed it was us or them, Man or Beast, civilization or savagery. We poured all our hearts into that belief—a faith stronger than any religion—and devoted our arms, our blood, our sons, our very lives to its cause. We built whole battlements from the bones of the beasts we killed in the war, wiped out their tribes, fed flocks of crows fit to black out the sky. In return, they raised shrines to their false gods upon the broken bodies of men, devoured the fallen, and choked our streams with flesh and blood. We had to destroy them or they would destroy us. Man or Beast. That was the cause of our Legion, and we gave everything to it. In the end, we gave our souls.
The Hellbourne were a weapon, we convinced ourselves, no more than a burning sword or some spellbound siege engine. If we did not use that weapon, the Beast Horde would. In our creed of unlimited war, we knew this without any doubt. Prince Jeraziah knew this, and ordered us to claim their damned altars and practice the daemonic rites. Ophelia knew it, and ordered her Hordes to do the same. Only weapons in a war, and whatever price the Hellbourne demanded, that was the cost of victory. For we knew that defeat was riding hard upon us, never more than a day behind. And the beasts knew that destruction hungered at their heels. So Horde and Legion alike raced forward, heedless of the precipice toward which we rushed, our leaders howling victory at our backs and our dead brothers paving the way before us.
The Hellbourne laughed, as we plied them with souls.
And as Man and Beast worked tirelessly together to raise a gibbet large enough to hang all the world, the daemons waded through our ranks wielding butchers’ blades and spitting fire. As we summoned their armies to our land —our land— perhaps they allowed themselves a mockery of a smile. As our forces dwindled and theirs grew, as our faith in the justice of our cause drowned in the bloodbath that Newerth had become, Jeraziah and Ophelia discovered that the Hellbourne were not the puppets. They were the masters. And we, broken things, would soon be discarded.
It was said that Jeraziah and Ophelia were linked by birth, and though those bonds had been battered by war, they could not be sundered. The same fears haunted their mirrored souls, just as the same man, the once-king Maliken Grimm, roved their dreams and urged them onward. Both knew that there had to be an end to the endless struggle, something other than utter ruin, but neither dared to withdraw from the field of battle. How could they? For nearly twenty years their people had traded atrocities, and a whole generation had been taught nothing but war without quarter.
Wearily, warily, each moved war-bands like dwindling pawns across the lands of Newerth and shuddered at the inevitable need to call upon more and more daemons to augment their forces. Like long-separated friends, each imagined a glorious reunion that could turn their years of division to nothing; but whenever Prince and the Priestess met, their only words were war cries.
The Hellbourne hunger swelled with anticipation, and they shook us by our strings for a final dance.
The last forces of the Legion of Man—barely a fraction of those who had set out to unify the world a generation before—gathered themselves at the Old Stump, in the very heart of the beasts’ wilderness. It was a gesture of defiance, of desperation, but above all of the desire for a final closure to the struggle that had lasted so long.
The almost-feral tribes of the Beast Horde encircled them in the surrounding woodlands, starving, slavering, eager for the end.
Ophelia and Jeraziah each knew that no matter the outcome, Newerth was doomed. They faced this with the sad certainty that Fate, not their decisions, had brought them there. Destiny, they knew, could not be denied.
On the eve of battle, beneath a brooding, starless sky, they shivered and slept as fitfully as their followers. And in their sleep, divided by sword and claw, they dreamed together.
About them spread a vast paradise such as they had never seen. A golden sun shone upon them, not the crimson orb that hung like an omen over Newerth. They stood in a verdant field still damp with dew; all about them life could be seen and smelled and heard and touched. Butterflies and songbirds and the scent of a thousand wildflowers moved through the warm air. Woodland creatures, not so much tame as unafraid of man, stared at them with gentle curiosity. A stream rolled over worn stones and flashed silver with fish. It was a place that knew neither war nor death.
But it was the great tree that rose before them that demanded the greatest share of their reverence, that compelled their silent awe. Ancient, massive, and holy, it seemed to encompass within its boughs time itself. Upon its trunk was the sunspot of Sol, God of Man, yet its majesty was that of the Earth Goddess, to whom the Beast paid homage, and upon its branches were the long and slender seedpods that were the Horde’s most sacred relics.
Proceeding as the dream directed them, Jeraziah and Ophelia turned from the tree. Their vision stretched far and they saw that at the edges of their paradise was a land blighted by hellfire and disease and despair. And they knew, as one knows in a dream, that it was the tree that held these things at bay.
A sound and smell pulled their eyes back to the tree. Standing at its base, the ground beneath him scorched and withered, was their father, Maliken Grimm. Gone was the withered form that age had left to him, gone the madness, the weakness, the doubt. This was the King who had conquered the world, grown huge and mighty. But his eyes were dead and burned with hellfire, and when he spoke his voice was like the grave. For his children he had but a single word. “Fools.”
And then they woke, upon the day decreed to be the end of all things.
Few of the haggard human warriors had slept that night. Faces chiseled by hunger, bodies matted with the dust of endless marches, eyes drained of emotion by the extremes their hearts had known, they seemed like gargoyles strewn upon the field by an architect of nightmarish imagination and no coherent vision. Here they crouched about the dying embers of a fire. There they sharpened notched blades on whetstones worn down by the long years of use. Across the way, stewing in the gangrenous air of the hospital-tent, they lay waiting for a weary chaplain’s last rites. Some, having waited years for death’s last mercy, could not stay their impatience and departed early. Such were Man’s finest warriors.
On the low rises in the otherwise flat meadow, scouts locked their keen eyes on the trees, waiting for any movement beyond the ripple of leaves in the wind. The dull thud of workmen’s hammers marked the passage of time and the slow construction of rough battlements and arrow towers.
Jeraziah paced, said prayers he did not believe. He turned his eyes to the dawn sky and found it scabbed over with clouds. He closed the book of Sol and checked his blade against his fingertip, drawing blood. It rose in a perfect bead, like a seedling, and then raced down from his fingertip, plotting a streamway to his palm. He watched with muted curiosity, then wiped the still-bleeding finger on his breeches. Of pain, he felt nothing.
The stench of brimstone was heavy in the camp, even though the Hellbourne stood at the fringes. They knew no need for sleep or comfort. What hunger they had was not a mortal’s need for food but a daemon’s need for destruction; insatiable, yet it had found forage aplenty as they marched with the army like scavenging vultures and wolves. Jeraziah had no need to speak to them. He felt them in his mind, bade them array themselves for battle with his will alone, and watched as they ringed out around the camp. He readied the archers, ordered the legionnaires to form a wall before them. Called the chaplains from their duties with the dying so that they might aid in killing instead. His savage barbarian warriors moved into place without instruction.
It was morning, though there was no sun. And in his heart, he knew what was coming.
Amidst her snarling, whimpering, keening Horde, Ophelia paced and gathered her thoughts. Her shamans grunted their plans and visions in her ear, their schemes to envelop and annihilate the Legion once and for all. They spoke of predators’ blades sunk deep in human hearts, of hunters gliding like death itself across the enemy ranks. They hooted of smoking Hellbourne monstrosities blasting the battlefield with fireballs and hewing through the lines of Legionnaires, as once behemoths and tempests might have done if they were not so few, so diminished. Above all, they set forth a vision of annihilation.
Ophelia paid them no heed, wrapped as she was in her own more subtle plans. Unlike Jeraziah, Ophelia had never lost her faith, for she felt in her very bones the suffering of the Goddess Earth. Each smoldering Hellbourne footstep, every forest hacked down for siege weapons, every battlefield blighted by their endless warring was like a wound unto her own flesh. In this suffering her faith redoubled, and so she believed the past night’s dream to be a vision, a promise, or, at least, a possibility for a Newerth reborn.
Like Jeraziah, she knew that whoever won the day’s battle would find themselves overwhelmed by the daemons. There was a time when she, too, might have embraced the inevitable oblivion and sought only to end her life atop her fallen foes, rather than beneath their boot. But that had passed.
She sent the shamans to prepare the Horde for battle and sat alone among the ancient trees. The season had long since turned and most of the branches were skeletal and bare. Ophelia rustled her fingers idly through the parched, crimson leaves that blanketed the ground. Beneath them, she scratched the rich soil into which they would decay, from which would spring new growth when winter’s pall had passed. She smiled. Her fingers wandered to the pouch that hung around her neck, the pouch that held the holy seeds the shamans had given her when they proclaimed her Priestess.
The lore of the shamans said that they came from the Holy Ark—a place of refuge in some distant land where once the beasts had wandered when first they came to know themselves. Its location was lost to time, for the Beast language leant itself more to poetry and song than precision. The seeds, called Sefir, could not be coaxed into growing; they were merely symbols of a time of peace and life. But, with the vision still seared in her mind, Ophelia knew they were something more.
She lay back, surrounded by autumn’s metamorphosis, hanging in the threshold between life and death, and opened herself outward into the world. Her thoughts raced through the woods and over her war-frenzied Horde, along the treetops and into the ashen sky, a solitary bird in the silent dawning. She looked down upon the human army—tiny, from such a height, ill-kept and tarnished toy soldiers. She felt their fears and wrath and resentments, their love for those left behind—at home, on other battlefields—felt their adoration for Jeraziah and their hatred of him, felt their exhaustion and hopelessness. She winged through this mass of broken men until she found her brother, the Prince.
He was as alone as she was. But as she looked down upon him, he raised his face as if to meet her eyes. Prince and Priestess broadened, met minds, and understood, for just an instant, each other’s hearts.
At that moment, Ophelia awakened to the clamor of the Beast packs, driven toward battle by the Hellbourne. She knew that the moment was upon them.
A cry went up from one especially sharp-eyed scout. Soon it was picked up by the others, and raced like wildfire through the army. Prince Jeraziah broke from his reverie and tightened the last straps of his armor. He walked as if in a daze to the raised platform in the middle of the camp, trying to catch hold of a memory that slipped ever farther away with each passing second. Looking out over the last, lost Legion of Men, he tried to remember the hope and pride that had stirred his heart as a young man. A wistful smile came to his face. “Men of the Legion!” he cried out. “Now comes a last reckoning; now the appointed hour is upon us!”
A practiced roar answered him, as the beasts drew into readiness at the treeline.
“Though we cannot see it, there is a sun in the heavens,” he told them. “Though we have not been there for many years, there is a home awaiting our return. Though you do not feel it now, there will be peace.” He whispered the last lie to himself a second time.
“The Book of Sol tells us that once the world bathed in flames, and it seemed all life might perish. Yet we live. Our forefathers knew a time when the beasts drove men to the verge of utter destruction. Yet here we stand. We are not the first generation to be tested! No, my brothers, we are not the first to be tested, and like those before us we will defy destruction and leave our mark upon this world!”
The scouts cried out a second warning, as the Beast’s Hellbourne allies thundered forward. With the last of his hoarse voice, Prince Jeraziah cried, “We will not falter! We will not fail! For the Legion!”
The roar answered him: “For the Legion! For the Prince!”
And with that, he willed the daemons in his own army forward onto the field of battle.
At once, doubt assailed him, and prudence urged that he change course. “Hold them in reserve,” whispered his fears. In his mind, he saw his army’s weakness, knew that his flanks could never hold without the fearless Hellbourne. “The men are expendable. And they have failed you before. They will do so again.”
Jeraziah smiled and shook his head. He felt the daemons snarling against his control, wheedling, demanding, promising victory if he would only listen. It was all he could do to hold against them. His smile broadened as the two bands of daemons scorched the ground and drew ever closer. At last he had caught hold of the memory. He felt his sister beside him, and across the meadow he imagined he caught her gaze. They nodded to each other in acknowledgement as the veins in Jeraziah’s eyes began to burst and a thin line of blood trickled from one nostril. He gritted his teeth.
The Hellbourne came nearer to each other, and a silence fell over the field, a calm before the first titanic clash. Archers notched arrows in nervous anticipation and even the savage barbarians whispered prayers to Sol.
Jeraziah’s arms trembled. His nails cut crescent wounds into his palms. Twin streams of blood rushed from his nose and his vision blurred with tears. He tasted bile in his mouth, then blood as he bit through his lip in concentration. His heart shuddered and stuttered, too drunk with terror to keep its beat. His legs shook. He burned and was wracked with chills.
He was dying. He knew it. His very body rebelled against his foolhardiness. Wasting the daemons! Wasting his chance to cleanse the world of the Beast for good and all! Betraying his father, his people!
Jeraziah fell to his knees. Tears and blood raced each other down his face. All he had to do was call the Hellbourne back, send in the soldiers, and have victory. Victory! No, not only victory. Peace. And rest. Darkness and no more dreams.
He shook his head and forced himself to his feet. “No,” he whispered. No more bargaining with the abyss.
And then it passed from him, with a screeching wail that almost deafened him. The control over the Hellbourne vanished entirely; the roaring in his ears that he had known for so long, the subtle voice that spoke in his sleep, all were gone. And at once, with no hesitation, the daemons turned away from each other and back toward the armies from which they had come.
The cords between puppets and masters were cut, and the Hellbourne had no more use for their mortal slaves.
Ophelia collapsed to the ground, breathless and faint. She watched almost helpless as the Hellbourne stormed forward toward her Horde. Pushing herself first to her knees and then to her feet, she shared her spirit and her voice with her chosen people. “The daemons!” she thundered in the Horde’s ears and in hearts and minds. “They are the enemy! Cleanse them from Newerth!”
It took a moment for the taint of Hellbourne sorcery to lift from the Horde as it had from Ophelia. But when it left them, the Beasts of Newerth awoke with the vigor and strength that had been sapped from them for so long. As the Priestess raced forward, the Horde joined her, a phalanx of fur and claw and fang charging toward the wall of daemons before them.
Across the battlefield, Jeraziah roared orders to his men as the daemons drew near. Their hellish allies had turned on them, as he had known they would. “Now, men, now!” he cried. And then, “Look, look to the Heavens!” Above them, the clouds peeled back, and for a moment a spear of sunlight stabbed the earth. “The eye of Sol is upon us, my brothers, and the eyes of our fathers! For them, and for Newerth!”
The daemons struck the Legion’s lines. The screams of the dying and the clang of steel weapons against daemonic bone and black iron rang out. A flight of arrows was loosed and burst into flames even before it reached the enemies. “Fight!” cried Jeraziah, charging forward.
And fight they did. Five, six, ten men ringed around a single daemon, hewing with their axes, charging to stab at any unguarded moment, striking with magic and weapon alike against their massive foes. With strength they had almost forgotten, legionnaires cleaved through Hellbourne armor. Arrows found purchase in daemon eyes. Twin, singing swords hacked and slashed against the foes.
But every charge the men mustered, every heroic surge against the daemons, did but glancing damage to those unholy creatures. It was the men who died, by the dozen, whimpering in the churned mud, crushed beneath chain-bound boots, clutching for mercy that no longer could be found in the world. “Fight on!” pleaded the Prince, pitting his own strength against a hulking monstrosity. So they did, flinging themselves to be broken against the enemy.
Even as their numbers dwindled, the Legion regrouped, fought shoulder to shoulder with men closer to them than their own kin. As if to mock the annihilation before them, they fought like they could still win. Some of the Hellbourne fell, and, almost in surprise, found their existence snuffed out. But more came onward, implacable.
The Legion found itself driven toward the remnants of the Horde. Jeraziah himself charged forward once more, matched himself against a new enemy. Down swept the daemon’s black blade, up whipped his own to meet it, stroke for stroke. The Prince’s youth had left him years ago; his flesh was whittled down by endless campaigning. But his strength had not left him, and into his attacks he poured every lesson won in blood and battle. Outmatched but undaunted, he drove forward, now parrying, now stabbing, now dodging to the side and lunging in, every breath searing his lungs. Down again came the black blade, but Jeraziah was already gone, stepping in, drawing back, and plunging his royal sword with every bit of energy left to him. The blow went true and slid past armor into the daemon’s unholy flesh.
The Prince gulped ragged breaths and looked for a moment at his foe, waiting for it to collapse. But it did not. It was not slain. Jeraziah pulled at his sword to strike again, but felt it catch on some jagged edge of the daemon’s armor. Again he pulled, to no avail. The creature raised its sword like an executioner’s axe and the fires in its eyes danced with black joy.
Jeraziah staggered back before it, raised his arms to shield his face, futilely, knowing that death was sweeping downward. He whispered a prayer. But death did not come.
He opened his eyes and saw the daemon’s arms pinned behind it by a behemoth, the Beast roaring in agony as other Hellbourne slashed and scorched its sides. Jeraziah rushed forward, and grabbed the daemon’s own blade from where it had fallen. Ignoring the burning hellfire that licked at his hands, he thrust upward, knowing this time that the blow would not fail. He heard the daemon’s howl of agony as the sword sank into its empty heart. The behemoth dropped the fallen monster and for a moment locked its alien eyes upon the Prince’s. Then, with almost a nod of understanding, the two spun away to face new foes.
Now Man and Beast fought together, in desperation. Jeraziah found himself swept almost helplessly in the maelstrom of battle. There would be no victory, he knew, save the victory of fighting against the true enemy. The daemons were too many, too powerful.
The ground beneath him erupted in flames and he tumbled backward. A daemonic sorcerer raised its staff once more, but before it could slay the Prince, men and beasts hurled themselves in its path and dragged it down, hacking with their blades and claws against it. He turned again, and saw his sister before him.
She smiled and opened her hand to him and showed him the Sefir seed within. “The dream,” he whispered. A silence had enveloped them and the roar of battle faded. He took the seed from her and knelt, dug a hole for it and placed it within. “Hope,” she told him.
And then the battle returned, and they joined the warriors once more, all giving all they could against the Hellbourne. As the noose of daemons tightened, the survivors circled themselves, falling back step by step as Man and Beast fell side by side.
But something was happening. They all felt it, even the daemons. A shudder passing through the earth, a change in the wind bearing some last remnant of summer. And then the Sefir broke from the ground and rose, like life itself returning to the land. Its trunk shot ever upwards, its boughs stretching outward, the spreading of its leaves a song that each heard in his heart.
The warriors knew that they could not permit the tree to be destroyed, would not permit it. Almost with their backs to its bark, they renewed their defense, half berserk as determination outmatched desperation. Above them, the clouds broke once more. The midday sun shone overhead.
“For Newerth,” cried Jeraziah and Ophelia together, and the cry was taken up in human voices and bestial howls. A last charge against the darkness.
The daemons broke. Their numbers, it seemed, were not so limitless, their strength not so irresistible. And so they broke and fled, for the first time in their ageless existence, rushing frantically toward the blighted lands beyond the reach of the Sefir’s song, to long-dead scars of their passing or still-boiling portals to hell.
The victors collapsed, exhausted. They looked to each other, old adversaries, and remembered the old grievances and crimes, the old justifications for slaughter and genocide. Remembered, rejected, and forgave.
Jeraziah and Ophelia rose and stood before their people. At first they did not speak, or need to. But, like all newborn things, the alliance before them demanded a name. And so, joining their voices, they called it the Legion of Newerth.
For a moment, the new Legion rested beneath the Tree of Life, safe for a time in its shade. But they knew that safety was an island in a storm-tossed sea, barely more than an illusion. No, it was not a time of peace. But, for the first time in years, they had cause for hope.
For though it was not a time of peace, it was a time of heroes.