The Nomad sat alone. Against a tall basaltic rock in the southern Great Waste, surrounded by nothing but the sounds of sand being picked up on the wind, the wanderer sat. His prerogative had come to an end; the blistering days and frosty nights of hunting Sand Wraiths had once and for all eroded him like the rock face against which he rested his weary body. It would have been cathartic had it not been ironic; the very same desert that inspired him to pick up his sword years ago had been the one to weather him, day by tedious day, until his body could take no more. Now, with tattered cape and brittle bones, he rested for the first, and perhaps last, time, knowing his efforts were not in vain, but grieving for the Wraiths that would continue to saunter long after he had become one with the earth. Continue reading The Seven Heavenly Virtues: Diligence
King Jeraziah had not set eyes upon the former rebel known as Prisoner 945 since he hand-delivered the decree which freed the brute from his years of imprisonment below Adkarna.
This was intentional.
Try as he might to forgive the failed uprising of the Titans Brutavious, Baaracko, and Prisoner 945, the grudge weighed heavily upon his shoulders. That, and he half-suspected the four-armed Titan still wanted to bash his head in with that spiked ball and chain he used to decimate the Hellbourne ranks. So our King had kept his distance.
The agonized entity known only as Torturer finished laying his tools out in preparation for his next guest. He had emptied his chests and racks, examining the blades, spikes, and needle brands to ensure they were sharp when necessary, dull when desired, and always slick with the filth and tears of previous suffering. Some of his victims survived long enough to become infected by the dirty instruments, but none of them lived long enough to die from it.
He wanted all of the tools handy, for his next guest was important indeed. Advance sentries had reported sightings of Jeraziah himself, the ridiculous, self-important King of the Legion. Lord General Maliken had dispatched Tressa the succubus to seduce his only son, lure him deeper into Hellbourne territory and finally to this cave, where his screams would echo as he spilled every truth and secret within his head and heart.
Torturer fondled a heavy set of pliers with sawtooth jaws, imagining how the King’s agony would be embedded in the cold stone, haunting the cave the until the end of days. The ceiling was black with soot from pools of oil burning in crevices along the jagged walls, for this was the Torturer’s favorite workshop outside his Hell’s Keep dungeon. The floor was tacky with blood and viscera which never seemed to dry, instead clotting with the fur and singed hair sometimes pulled out by his guests’ own hands.
He set the pliers down and listened—someone approached. Tressa had taken longer than usual to bring this one in, but with the haughty Jeraziah, he who prided himself on abstinence from all things enjoyable, this was to be expected.
Torturer faced the cave entrance and waited. His first wave of pleasure always came when his guests realized who they would spend the rest of their short lives with. The footsteps drew near, and his guest finally moved into the firelight.
Torturer’s anticipation soured into confusion. “You?”
“Me,” the Blind Prophet said.
“Oh, you’ll do until Jeraziah arrives.” Torturer floated toward him, smiling. “Even the most pious cannot resist the succubus, eh?”
Oddly, Tressa had not taken his weapons or stripped him of his clothing, as she typically did with her victims. The Blind Prophet stepped fully into the cave. The succubus’ compulsion was strong, for he showed no sign of fear or hesitation.
Torturer said, “If only your followers, your sheep, could see you now. Just another man, slave to his base desires.” He lifted an iron wedge meant for splitting firewood that worked even better for spreading ribs until they cracked. “Though if you think your shame is torment enough, you are mistaken.”
“Listening to you prattle on is ample misery,” the Blind Prophet said.
Torturer stopped, uncertainty clouding his ethereal face.
The Blind Prophet drove his bladed staff into the stone floor and pulled a thick, ancient book from his satchel. “I am here to collect you, not entertain you.”
“The…the succubus does not hold you?”
“She holds the light of Sol within her. And because of this, she need hold nothing else.”
Torturer could not remember what fear felt like. What he did know: this Blind Prophet was not here to die in anguish.
He was a threat.
Torturer had no guards or assistants in his cave. His guests were always gravely injured, too weak to fight back, or controlled by daemon magic when they arrived. For his pleasure, he preferred the magic removed once they were bound by his chains—his chains!
Torturer summoned the harrowing links with needle-sharp tips from thin air and drove them toward the Blind Prophet, who shot his arms forward as if he could catch the incoming assault. The cave was bathed in heat and light as blazing phoenixes flew from his palms. They swooped and dove, cutting the chains into glowing fragments that fell to the cave floor and sizzled in the bloody mire. The divine birds circled the Blind Prophet, searching for more threats, before fading into pale sparks.
“On your deathbed,” the Blind Prophet said, “you made a pact with the daemons. Eternal life, you begged. And they gave it, as I can see. An endless life of agony and hate. Tell me: would you accept those terms again?”
Torturer lifted a heavier chain from a hook on the wall. This one would not be sliced by mere bird wings—it had been forged beneath the Scar and tempered with Valkyrie blood.
“Do not bother begging with terms of surrender, priest. I take no prisoners.”
The Blind Prophet’s eyes flared. “I offer you nothing, wraith! I follow the path of Sol, who has brought me here. He has use of you. If he did not, I would leave you a mere heap among your severed chains and be free of this foul pit. Now answer me true. Would you accept the daemon terms again, if they were offered?”
Torturer hesitated. Lord General Maliken had many spies who moved in endless forms. If this were one of them, sent to test his loyalty…but Torturer could sense pain, and this Blind Prophet held more pain within him than any living being he had ever encountered.
No daemon would carry such a burden. It intrigued Torturer, for pain was his trade.
The Blind Prophet asked again, “Would you?”
“No,” Torturer whispered.
The Blind Prophet nodded. “Then Sol was right to send me. The daemons left you with no physical body. They corrupted you into the embodiment of pain, but you feel nothing. You are free of hunger, fear, and cold. Yet when Anubis Pharaoh offered you a corporeal form in his attempt to summon Ra, you embraced the chance. Tell me why.”
“I wanted to feel again,” Torturer said. “Something. Anything.”
“Pain is pure,” Torturer said. “It is not clouded by emotion. I envied my victims, for they experienced something I never could. I wanted to feel the pain.”
Torturer shuddered. “Yes. It was…exquisite.”
The Blind Prophet said, “And the pain within me. You can sense it?”
“Please. Tell me how you hold so much. How you carry it, yet it does not crush you beneath its weight.”
“Unconditional love,” the Blind Prophet said. “Kindness and compassion toward all things, no matter how they treat you. No matter how they respond, if they do at all.”
Torturer dropped the heavy chain. “Kindness?”
“Open your heart to the suffering of all things. Allow it to break, again and again, at their helplessness. Seek them out and lend them succor. Then find those who tread upon them, and offer them your full heart as well. I promise you, this will bring you all the pain you could want, and more.”
“All I want?” Torturer said.
“Even more important, child of Sol, is what else it will bring you.”
Torturer gasped. “Tell me, please.”
“A desire to end the pain.”
“Yes. For everyone, without prejudice or envy.”
“But…if the pain is gone, I won’t feel it anymore.”
The Blind Prophet offered a warm smile. “Child, there are feelings other than pain. This, I promise. Do you wish to experience them?”
“I do,” Torturer said.
The Blind Prophet bowed his head, then read aloud from his book. The flames along the cave walls grew and burned with tongues of yellow and purple.
Torturer’s vaporous body began to harden and become flesh. He screamed and his hands clutched at his armor. “Stop! You’re tearing me to pieces!”
“You are being remade,” the Blind Prophet said. “This is what it feels like to care.”
“I cannot take it!”
The Blind Prophet did not look up from the Grimoire of Power. “If that is true, then you will not. You will die.”
Torturer collapsed to his hands and knees. Knees now made of skin and bone, blood and…nerves. He could feel! Seedlings rose from the crusted gore that coated the bottom of the cave and blossomed into wildflowers, filling the dank cavern with the aroma of life.
The Blind Prophet continued to recite the words of Sol as Torturer’s tainted armor shattered and was replaced by a golden sunburst, iron flower petals, and vines reaching toward the heavens.
When the Blind Prophet was finished he fell to one knee, the Grimoire clapping shut to contain its power. When he lifted his head, the sight before him jolted him to his feet.
“Thank you,” Kindness said. A white-gloved hand flew to her mouth in shock. “Why do I sound like a woman?”
“Because you are one,” the Blind Prophet said. He threw his head back and laughed.
Kindness considered this. She was not upset or judgemental. “Interesting. I wonder why Sol would do this.”
“My child, it was you who chose this form. For reasons known only to you and glorious Sol, this is how you shall redeem yourself.”
Kindness took his hand and pulled him toward the mouth of the cave, careful not to step on any of the fresh young flowers.
“Come then,” she said. “There is much to do.”
Pushing through the harsh green foliage of deciduous trees, the golden gauntlet of King Jeraziah could be seen only as a flicker in the moonlight, obscured almost fully by the dusk that enveloped the northern forest of Caldavar. It was in this shrouded stretch of woods, miles from the nearest guard post or wagon trail, that the Blind Prophet had seen visions of the next to be redeemed. Through Sol it was commanded, and so it was to be, that the King must deliver the unholy on his own, venturing to the haven where creatures of the night slither silently, preying on those who carry not enough light of their own.
Jeraziah stood patiently beside a crumbling oak with precarious scratchings, his own breath echoing through his helmet, too loud, he suspected, for anyone to assume he was in hiding. The armor of Sol was beginning to weigh heavy against his frame after hours of trudging through dense thickets and murky streams without a place to sit and rest. His sword and shield remained in his aching arms, never touching the dirt of the forest floor, as he stared into the bleakness offered by the night. His head bobbed as sleep attempted to encumber him, but he fastened his hands tighter each time he realized what was happening.
The stars seemed to dance and play above the helmet of the King. Pulsing with light, but offering little through the shrubbery, Jeraziah contemplated their emotions. He remembered, vaguely, being taught about them by the court scientists as a boy: how it was speculated that every star was only the light from a long dead piece of rock, the shine a mere echo of a fallen soldier, travelling through the cosmos with no purpose. And still, they seemed unaffected, delighted to frolic as ghosts their entire lives. He exhaled heavily.
A short giggle permeated the cold night air. Jeraziah snapped awake, looking hurriedly around the vicinity. The laughter bounced from tree to tree, as if the forest itself had come to life, mocking Jeraziah for his folly of entering the domain of the wicked. The wind picked up, and the long, thin branches of the oak rubbed themselves against the King’s polished armor. They seemed to gain an erotic satisfaction from the touch of cold steel, the scratching sound intertwining with the breeze to generate a sickening, pleasurable moan. A pair of glowing green eyes peered at him, nestled between two nearby tree trunks, and instantly he knew not what he was searching for, but what was searching for him.
Jeraziah drew his shield closer and held his sword tightly.
“What’s wrong? A big, bad knight like you scared of a little fun?”
Tressa the succubus emerged from the gloomy shade of the trees, stepping in rhythm to Jeraziah’s heartbeat. Her tail swirled around her body flirtatiously, the tip waving to Jeraziah. Large wings spread forth from her back, their veins throbbing with anticipation; they scraped the bark of the trees, leaving tiny scratch marks in their wake. Despite her demonic appearance, she possessed a virtually irresistible allure, the perfect curves of her body standing in stark contrast to the sharp edges and gnarled limbs of the aging flora.
“So,” she asked wryly, uncoiling her tail and using the tip to stroke Jeraziah’s chin. “What brings you into my neck of the woods?”
“Sol has asked that I reclaim you for his army.”
The succubus held her bosom and cackled, her wings flaring wide. Birds flew from their nests as her voice rang to the top of the treeline.
“Oh my,” she sang. “That’s just wonderful! I’ve been waiting for someone to come along and save me; little did I know it would be the strong, handsome King of the Legion himself!”
She reached out with a seductive hand, gliding her index finger up and down the blade of Jeraziah’s sword.
“Mm, it certainly is big. Is that why they made you King?”
Jeraziah quickly pulled his blade, slicing the finger of the succubus. She shrieked and jumped backward, clutching her hand tightly. Blood trickled from the open wound, a small river following a large drop, slowly cascading down the smooth pink skin of her forearm. She shot a grimace at Jeraziah, then placed her mouth close to her elbow and ran her tongue sensually from the bottom of her arm to the tip of her finger, allowing the tiny pool of blood to rest momentarily in the curve of her tongue before swallowing it.
“Do not try to deceive me, daemon,” Jeraziah warned. “I know full well that you are a deviant and a temptress. What you lack is not another body to warm yours, but the warmth offered by divinity.”
“That wasn’t very nice,” she grumbled. “But I guess you like to be naughty. I can be naughty too…”
The succubus locked her eyes onto Jeraziah’s. Immediately, he felt a sensation in the pit of his stomach. It flittered as if full of butterflies, then flew through his body with haste: from each nerve ending in every finger and toe, to all corners of his mind, gliding without cessation along the walls of his body like thieves in a temple. He loosened his grip on the handles of his sword and shield and his eyes darted between them, trying in vain to keep them lifted.
“Feeling a little weak in the knees?”
She leaned in close and her gaze intensified. Jeraziah’s heart beat faster and louder, shaking his chestplate with miniature earthquakes. The succubus ran her hand over his large shoulder pauldron and brushed his cheek with her lips, leaving behind a stinging kiss. She giggled as she had earlier, and another breeze blew through the forest. The weight was too much for the King; one of his legs buckled as he struggled to retain control of his own body.
“Baby, don’t you understand? Even royalty bows to me.” She imitated the legs of a person with her fingers, walking daintily across Jeraziah’s waistcloth, then slid her hand under his belt. “You’re mine now.”
A sudden burst of light spilled forth from the seams in Jeraziah’s armor, igniting the dead leaves of the forest floor and catching nearby branches on fire. The succubus was thrown backward by the force, hitting her head against the rotting trunk of an adjacent oak. The tiny clearing was illuminated, casting shadows that danced nervously on leaves hanging tenaciously to their branches. A bright aura surrounded the King as he stood once more, empowered by righteousness, his armor gleaming and reflective.
To the succubus, it was nearly blinding; she howled and shut her eyes tightly, covering them with an arm that was once stained by blood. She curled her legs up under her as she tried to sit up, propping herself against the old oak. The claws of her free hand dug into the scorched bark, gripping forcefully as she straightened her back.
“You have been given a rare gift,” Jeraziah explained. “A choice from the holy one himself: leave behind your wretchedness and embrace the glory of Sol, who cleanses and protects, providing love beyond measure, or continue to seek temporary bliss, wandering hopelessly in the land of the dead.”
The succubus peeked between her fingers, her head still turned to the side. “Is he as charming as you?”
Jeraziah snarled, his eyes glowing white like the Prophet’s: “Do you tempt Sol as he stares into your eyes with his own?”
As the succubus opened her mouth wide, revealing fangs, she pushed off the tree trunk, leaping at Jeraziah. He lifted his sword high, then dug the tip into the ground with incredible strength. Another explosion of light tore through the cracks in the ground, incinerating the area and blasting the succubus out of the air. She landed in a contorted posture, injuring her arm with a gasp, and slumped near the rotten tree. Her clothes had been singed, baring her naked body completely, and burns covered parts of her limbs. She promptly wrapped her arms around her body and curled into a fetal position, facing away from the King.
“You have been exposed and your shame laid bare before Sol!” Jeraziah shouted, withdrawing the sword from the dirt and pointing it at the succubus. “Your nakedness writhes in agony, transparent to the creatures of the earth. Now you are given a final chance.”
A long silence overtook the forest. Dawn broke through the trees, but Jeraziah’s armor remained as bright and illustrious as ever. Ash blew from the wavering stalks of grass that remained, floating into the morning air until they became invisible. There were no birds to alert the two that a change had taken place in the atmosphere, but they seemed irrelevant: the stillness would have remained in the blighted circle where man and demon endured. Tiny, crackling flames, a reminder of Sol’s power, produced the only noise, powered by the death of rocks long gone.
What Jeraziah had expected to hear—an answer—did not come. In its place, breaking the painful silence, was a quiet, stifled cry. From behind the tangled head of hair, facing opposite the King, the demon sobbed: inaudibly at first, then louder, until it became uncontrollable. Her tears fell from downcast eyes, caressing her cheekbones before disappearing into the black dirt. Jeraziah sheathed his sword, then removed the waistcloth from the back of his armor. He walked toward the succubus, a gracious smile spreading across his face.
“Come,” he said, draping the white cloth over her shoulders. “You will no longer be a slave to your carnal desires. Sol has seen the good in you; the insatiable appetite of longing, who masqueraded as Lust. No longer will He let it taint you.”
“Please…” She sputtered through quick breaths. Her face glistened with rivers of perplexity. “Why do you still want me?”
Jeraziah helped her to her feet as she braced against the old oak, standing strong amidst the strife. He looked her again in the eyes.
“For what have you thirsted that you could not have? Who could turn you away?”
Her lips trembled. “I only want not to want…”
The two walked from the smoking circle. Steadily, with his shield covering her nudity, Jeraziah guided her through the tall grass, tracing the path southbound which he had traveled to find her. The fires died down and most ash had flown freely from the underbrush. As they left, birds returned to their nests one by one, filling the ruined patch with song.
“Then you have been redeemed.”
King Midas sat upon his throne and brooded, as he was wont to do. He considered his guests, arrayed in a line across his cavernous throne room, and felt shame. Surely they could only hold contempt for their opulent surroundings: golden statues, pillars, floor tiles—even the paintings and draperies were of solid gold.
If I could turn it all back to stone, wood, cloth, and dust, Midas thought, I would.
The Five Disciples had long ago forsaken material wealth to serve Sol and the Blind Prophet. Yet here they all were—including the Blind Prophet himself, staring with his milky eyes—and people only visited the throne room of Midas for one reason.
So even Sol’s precious Prophet needs my sullied gold. Who will ask for it, him or the King?
King Jeraziah stood beside the Blind Prophet in the blessed armor of Omen. This was the second time Jeraziah had entered the golden castle. On the first occasion, he was alone and unarmed, carrying only a basket of fresh fruit from the orchards of Adkarna—a priceless gift in the parched lands over which Midas ruled.
They had not always been so.
When the alchemist Auric Midas discovered the power of transmutation and conjured the blend of science and magic that caused all he touched to turn to gold, he ran in a panic to wash the precious metal from his hands in the cold, clear mountain river that fed the streams, tributaries, and irrigation fields of his lands.
The water instantly turned to gold.
This was a thrill at first, a blessing. Midas built his castle of gold and filled it with riches beyond imagination. He purchased a mercenary army, adorned them with golden armor, and sent them into battle against the upstart general in the central plains. The one called Maliken Grimm, who sought to combine the clans of Man.
Midas’ soldiers were routed. They were exhausted from marching beneath the weight of their King’s golden armor and could not lift their shields above their knees to block the killing blows. Indeed, Maliken’s soldiers had no mercy on them, for they followed their general’s lead.
Midas stayed within his golden walls and waited for Maliken to claim his head. Instead, the general sent an emissary with a message.
It was brief, writ in the hand of Maliken himself: “Fill my coffers or die.”
Midas sent the messenger back with a caravan of gold that, if you stopped to let it cross before you, would leave an entire day lost. General Maliken did not kill Midas. Not that time, nor the next, nor any time he sent his brief message—Fill my coffers or die—because each time Midas piled the wagons until they sagged.
When Maliken succumbed to grief and madness after Sylvia’s betrayal and brought about the Second Corruption, Midas remained within his walls, forgotten by the armies fighting for survival, for their souls. The daemons cared not for gold and had no use for the cursed king in his wasted lands.
Then Jeraziah arrived with his gift, which he set before Midas. The Golden King’s hand shook as he slid his fork into a succulent slice of highgrove orange and brought it to his lips. His memory could not recall such flavor, such life.
“My father was cruel to you,” Jeraziah said. “He used you. I am not like him. I will not be false and claim I do not need your gold—we lack rations, weapons, armor. But I will not take it from you. Instead, I ask you to join the fight.”
Midas looked surprised beneath his heavy crown, then his brow fell. “I have not left this castle in many years, young King. Nor have I lifted a sword.”
“Yet you are still strong. Everything you lift is made of gold.”
Midas shook his head. “Even so, I am of no use on a battlefield. I bring only my curse.”
“Yes,” Jeraziah said, stepping forward. “Come with me. Make my enemies yours, for they are, whether you accept it or not. Come, turn our enemies to gold, and we will use their bodies to buy steel, and pay the smiths to craft blades. The golden corpses will fund the destruction of the Hellbourne, and you will be honored above all.”
Midas shook his head. “Honor? I do not seek it. Nor fame, nor glory.”
Jeraziah tried to hide his desperation. “What, then? Silver?”
Midas smiled at the jest. “Redemption. My lust for wealth, my greed, consumed me. I neglected those who loved me and killed those who opposed. Now I have all the gold I could ever want, and nothing else. Sol does not hear my prayers, no matter how many chapels I construct, how many collection bowls I gild. All I ask is relief from this curse. Let me touch a loved one’s cheek again, so I may make sure they are well. Let me cup my hands in water, so I may offer it to those who are thirsty.”
Jeraziah considered this, then did something that shocked Midas.
Jeraziah said, “I swear to you, as King of the Legion and Chosen Warrior of Sol, if you fight beside me I will bring redemption to you.”
Midas was moved by the vehemence of the oath. Still, he had doubts. “How will you do such a thing?”
Jeraziah paused. “I do not know.”
Midas was so startled by the unguarded honesty he burst out laughing. It felt almost as good as the fruit tasted. “And tell me, if I join you and fight against these Hellbourne and you cannot find redemption for me, what then?”
“I will not care,” Jeraziah said. “I have given you my word, and the only way I will not honor my word is if I am dead. Even then, I’ll see what I can do for you.”
Midas nodded, pointed a golden finger at Jeraziah. “I think I shall enjoy fighting beside you, my King.”
Jeraziah felt the constriction in his chest release. For it was true, he would never break his word. And just as he had given it to Midas, he had promised his vast army he would recruit the Golden King Midas to the Legion cause. Had he refused, that force was poised half a day’s march away, prepared to pull down the golden walls, smelt the castle and haul the cursed Midas away in chains to be milked like a golden sow.
Jeraziah was grateful his first option had been accepted. There would come a time when he would need to be ruthless for the survival of Man and Beast, and he was glad it had not yet come. Now, years later, he stood in the golden throne room again, in the very same spot he had once knelt.
General Midas had led Legion forces into countless battles and used his gold in every way conceivable to thwart the Hellbourne advance. He had sacrificed as much as any soldier, and it showed.
“Midas,” Jeraziah said, “you do not look happy to see me.”
“I am never happy here, my King. The gold hurts my eyes and weighs upon my heart. But it is why you are here, so out with it. How much do you need?”
“Midas, these long years you have fought beside me. You have shared your wealth though no one could help carry the burden of your curse. A curse that offers endless riches, yet the one thing you desire cannot be bought. It must be earned. The first time I visited you I brought a gift. This time, I bring what is owed.”
Midas watched as the Blind Prophet pulled a thick, ancient book from his leather satchel. His white eyes fell to the open pages and he began to read.
Midas felt a tingling in his fingertips—a sensation he had not felt in ages. The Blind Prophet lifted a hand toward the heavens and continued to read as Midas gaped at the flesh spreading over his golden hands. The Five Disciples bowed their heads, and Midas could see they were smiling.
They were happy for him.
King Jeraziah tossed something toward the throne.
Midas caught the orange and waited for it to turn to gold.
It did not.
He stared at the highgrove orange in the palm of his hand, felt the tenderness of its skin, the morning dew still clinging to its surface. A tear slipped from his eye and fell from his cheek onto the orange. It did not harden into a drop of gold and tumble to join the scattered pile at the base of his throne.
Midas asked, “I am free?”
Jeraziah nodded. “Free to choose.”
“Choose.” Midas was still in shock. “Choose what?”
“To love Sol and all of mankind as you once loved your gold.”
Midas turned the orange in his hand. “Yes. That is what I’m feeling, isn’t it? Love.”
The Blind Prophet returned the tome to his satchel. “Redeemed King, will you bring that love—that charity for all who walk in Sol’s light—will you carry it with us as we seek to cleanse this land of the Sin which brought you so much suffering?”
“Greed,” Midas growled.
“And the rest. Lust, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth, and Pride. And when that is done, will you carry Sol’s light to the one who brought them forth?”
Fill my coffers or die.
Midas ground his teeth. “Maliken.”
The Blind Prophet nodded.
Charity stood. “Lead the way.”
Our King had failed.
He had failed his people, his armies, and his destiny.
Most of all, he had failed his god.
Jeraziah knelt in the Solaris Chapel of Adkarna. The glass ceiling allowed sunlight to fill the circular vestry, bathing the altar and tapestries in hazy brightness, but Jeraziah did not look at these. His eyes were upon the worn mosaic beneath his knees, cast in shadow. Continue reading The Return of the Blind Prophet
Ophelia found Empath in the courtyard of Adkarna’s central armory, stockpiling arrows, bolts, and various gunpowders shipped from the City of Iron. The battlecarts Empath had gathered carried enough equipment to level a large village.
Empath halted, more out of surprise than respect, her arms heavy with chainmail and her face slick with sweat. “My Queen.”
Ophelia lifted the mail from Empath’s arms. “I know, it is strange to see me within a city’s walls.” She carried the mail to one of the carts and draped it over the edge, where a squire hefted as much as he could and threaded it over thick wooden dowels.
Ophelia said, “I dislike the confinement almost as much as the stench of daemon blood. But when the messenger delivered your note, I had to come.”
She offered a waterskin and towel.
Empath used both. “You haven’t come to talk me out of it, I hope.”
“No. To ask why you insist on leading this mission.”
“I spoke to my brother. We didn’t share much, but he did tell me the only reason he named you commander was because he was afraid not to. Apparently he believed if he hadn’t, you would have become one with him, issued the order, then left.”
“That would be disrespectful,” Empath said. “A violation.”
“But amusing, no? So tell me. Why is it so important for you to lead that odd band of warriors back into the Great Rift?”
Empath glanced at the Hunter’s Guild, those heroes who had been pulled into the Rift and survived—thrived, even—and returned to warn Newerth off the growing Riftspawn threat. They seemed even more uncomfortable than Ophelia, and rightfully so. Ophelia preferred the natural setting of Caldavar to anything man-made, but the Guild was suited to an entirely different realm.
Empath said, “I was there when they emerged. I saw what else came out of that rift, and what it intended for our world. I cannot in good conscience let another carry the responsibility.”
“But Jeraziah has granted you every resource you desire. I mean no offense, but there are other warriors better suited to spearhead an assault. The Black Legion comes to mind.”
“The mission is mine,” Empath said. She turned to collect another load of equipment, but Ophelia caught her arm.
“Tell me why.” Her voice was stern, that of a Queen, but her eyes were soft. Appealing. Empath felt within her a true desire to know…to find out if the Great Rift might offer what she hoped it would.
“Relief,” Empath said. “For years I have felt the suffering of Newerth. Of every living creature who has been tortured, maimed, killed. I will lead this mission into the Great Rift and close that gateway, because it will save Newerth. But while I am there, perhaps only for a moment…perhaps I won’t feel that suffering.”
Empath could not meet her eyes. “It is shameful. But the truth.”
“No,” Ophelia said. “No truth is shameful. It only is. And I, too, would embrace a moment of silence to avoid hearing my brothers and sisters of the natural world howling for the pain to stop. I wish you luck in your search for silence, even if it is only a moment.”
“Please,” Empath said. “Do not tell the King.”
Ophelia scoffed. “He wouldn’t understand. He might not even hear—he’s consumed by his dwindling faith. I feared the news of the Great Rift might topple him from his god’s altar completely. He cannot fathom an entire realm full of strange creatures, all of it beyond the touch of Sol. But he fears it.”
“He should,” Empath said.
“Have those Hunter rogues told you what to expect?”
“Chaos. Chaos and blood. They say our abilities will act erratically, as if we could swap them between us like items of clothing.”
Ophelia cocked an eyebrow. “So Jeraziah and Maliken could feel as you do, share the suffering of our world?”
“It seems so.”
“Maybe then these wars would end.” Ophelia considered this for a few moments, then shook her head. “Likely better if you or I borrowed Hammerstorm’s brute strength and just caved their fool heads in.”
“There is something else the Hunters speak of,” Empath said. “They call them Amulets of Rebirth. Activating one further scrambles the unknown Great Rift forces which grant them these new abilities. Use an Amulet, they say, and suddenly your abilities are different again.”
“Chaos doesn’t begin to describe this,” Ophelia said. “It will be anarchy on a level previously unknown.”
“The Hunter’s Guild claim it’s quite fun. Sporting, even.”
Ophelia studied the group of hardened soldiers, each one covered in skins, claws, teeth, and other trophies taken from their Rift prey. “I suppose they would.”
She put her hands on Empath’s shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Lead the way into the Great Rift, warrior of Newerth. We will follow. We will close that cursed gateway. And—most important—we will all return.”
“Everyone stand back!” Rally shouted at the crowd, bunched together and craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the devastation. “I have direct orders from King Jeraziah to keep this area secure until further investigation can occur. For the time being, you may return to your homes and your families; the Legion will take care of any possible threats in the area, you have my word.”
Naturally, this did little to persuade the citizens of Caldavar that everything was under control. After the defection of the former King Maliken to the Hellbourne ranks, it was easy to lose faith in those with power. Caldavar and its surrounding cities had been terrorized by numerous monsters, daemons, and corrupted soldiers under Jeraziah’s rule, despite messages from the capitol claiming that Scouts had been stationed on the outskirts of every major port and passageway.
The northern forests had seen plenty of action since that time, but nothing quite as perplexing as what now lay scorched and calloused in the crust of Newerth. A magnificent crater, spanning over a half-mile in diameter, stretched between the trees, blemishing the landscape and alerting townspeople to its presence with smoke trails flickering across the wind. The tremor that shook most of Caldavar was reason enough to worry, but with Jeraziah’s highest ranking generals standing guard around the base of the crater, the battlefield was left without their leadership for the time being: a wholly troubling concept considering the ruthlessness of the Hellbourne army.
Rally stood his ground, unflinching in the evening breeze, and scanning the crowd without pause. He suspected something was not right, but as of yet, nothing appeared extraordinary. The scent on the wind was that of curiosity and paranoia, intertwined with the humble and seemingly unfounded hope that, perhaps, this event would result in something favorable for the Legion. While the sun set, the singed leaves of neighboring trees blended into the background, while the ornaments on the king’s men seemed only to shine brighter.
As night approached, the crowd began to dissipate, sensing that no one would get a look inside until the king made his way through personally. The truth, however, is that the main cause of the disturbance had already been excavated and brought to the Iron City for examination long before the public had made their appearance at the crash site. Moments after the quake, a group of Scouts on routine surveillance duty had raced to the scene, marked their observations, and carried the yet unidentified object, wrapped in their cloaks, back to the Engineers for study.
“M’lord, you don’t honestly think it’s a sign from Sol. Even I know He doesn’t work that way.”
Tork walked alongside Jeraziah, the royal guard following close behind as the two strode through the gallery connected to the palace chapel. The red carpet lining the hall had been scuffed from years of travel between the place of worship and the king’s throne room.
“Perhaps,” Jeraziah said uncertainly. “Perhaps not. We will not know until your team examines it.”
The look on Tork’s face grew stern. Weapons did not fall from the sky, and as far back as he could remember, it was the science of the Engineers that provided the Legion with the equipment and technology necessary to conquer their foes. As his grandmother used to say, there was nothing new under the sun. It was up to man to provide for himself.
“And how should we defend against future attacks like this? Our troops are already sparse enough on the battlefield. Their morale is slipping. We shouldn’t gamble on this being a boon to our forces; that’s more of a Blacksmith mentality.”
“Have a new kind of watchtower built,” Jeraziah commanded.
“We barely have the resources to arm our current brigades, and you want us to build more towers?”
“One with a large lens, like those on your glasses, so we may better observe the stars. We can’t afford any more unnecessary casualties, especially from worlds beyond our own.”
Tork’s face twisted into a scowl, his lips quivering with contempt. Without a cigar to bite down on, the words seemed to flee his mouth like birds without a cage: “You just want another toy to play with, something to get a better look at your muse. You’re going to kill them.”
Jeraziah halted his movement and turned to face Tork, his voice deep and impassioned. “Excuse me?”
“These people aren’t toys,” Tork continued. “They’re real; they have real emotions, desires, actions… You think your God will protect them? Your God isn’t the one fitting them for breastplates and training them to kill. Your God isn’t testing every new alloy to make sure they won’t get their heads smashed in by daemon claws. Your Go–”
“Sol did not destroy man; man destroyed man.”
“And He let it happen!”
Jeraziah stood a foot taller than Tork, and stared down at him with a grimace that fluctuated between disappointment and fury. Lanterns lighting the gallery cast shadows of the two on the walls, their personalities displayed in vivid silhouettes, standing larger than life against the brick and mortar of the hallway. Years seemed to pass in the seconds they stood face to face.
“You will do as your king commands.”
Tork’s cheeks grew red as he clenched his fists under worn leather gloves, holding back a flurry of curses. “Yes, of course. I’ll get my best men on it…”
He turned without saying goodbye, then reached deep into his pocket and pulled out a fresh cigar, igniting the end and breathing in deeply, despite Jeraziah’s prohibition of smoking while inside the castle walls. His grumbling could be heard the length of the hallway, growing fainter as he faded into the darkness leading to the east exit en route to the Iron City.
“The rest of you are dismissed,” Jeraziah said as he motioned to his guard. “Return to your quarters for the night, I will be back when I’m done here.”
The guard disassembled and marched back toward their rooms. Jeraziah turned to face the double doors of the chapel. He held his palm against the motif embossed in them momentarily as he took a breath, then pushed them open with one hand and made his way slowly to the front.
The Martyrs had left hours ago. Jeraziah lowered himself into a pew at the front of the chapel, helmet at his side. Decorated with finely crafted sculptures of angels and saints, and adorned in the highest quality gold of the old generation, the room nearly glowed with radiant light; however, the bright interior did little to ease his conscience. All around him, immortalized in the stained glass and woven into the tapestries, were the remnants of bygone eras and men who died for their beliefs. They surrounded him, staring holes through his armor and mocking his tether to reality. The king’s voice was soft as he spoke:
“I’d like to believe that You are looking down on us, protecting us.”
He fidgeted with the handle of his shield, head lowered. Staring at the repetitive tile pattern of the chapel floor, he began to lose his gaze in the design meticulously crafted by the Blacksmiths during his father’s reign. The war from the east, the mounting tension within his own advisors, and the pressure from the citizens under his rule burdened him greatly. It was not difficult to see why Maliken so easily walked away, searching for his peace in another realm. Jeraziah could almost feel the hand of his father on his shoulder as light poured in from every corner of the room.
The Blacksmiths and Engineers, as well as a few lucky apprentices, stood overlooking the alien contraption laid before them. On a large metal table, with myriad tools and measuring instruments directed at it, the object sat lifeless.
It resembled a suit of armor, but nothing like what the Legion had seen before, even from the most decorated of infernal Hellbourne soldiers. Long, clean cut lines blended smoothly into the joints of a human shape, the tarnished white material glowing under the intense lights of the workshop. Jagged edges protruded from the waist and legs, likely a result of the heat and force of impact upon landing on the forest floor. The missing pieces allowed full view inside, which appeared hollow, sans a few metal wires. Its face was distinctly human, drawing an eerie resemblance to the art of those who lived before the Fall of Man, as it stared blankly at the spectators with a tilted head: a marionette without a puppeteer, a past without a present.
One of Tork’s head Engineers began examining the specimen, careful to avoid any beads of sweat falling from his brow onto the subject of his concentration. His eyes moved quickly from side to side, comparing the thousands of blueprints in his mind with the advanced technology placed before him, attempting to quietly figure out the way each piece functioned with the rest. He had not noticed the shutter on the figure’s palm spiraling open and closed against the tabletop, and when its eyes illuminated with a flash, it sent the Engineer stumbling backward.
“Loading Operating System 3.2 Andromeda…” A female voice reverberated through motionless lips.
The circuits inside the armor shell sparked, the eyes flickering light through the helmet. A nebulous, purple gas swirled within, slowly expanding to fill the gaps in the armor. It was captivating, awing the group as it bathed them in a colorful aurora which stuck to the walls of the chamber. Stars pulsed through her body like a heartbeat, the breath of life entering her slender frame in the form of a miniature galaxy, constantly shifting: small enough to fit within her, and large enough to house the work of generations.
“I am at your service. Enter command prompt.”
The audience remained silent, their eyes glued to the cosmic marvel. No other sound but the fans on the robot could be heard as it awaited further instruction. The head Engineer stood at the front of the pack, his hands still nervously shaking.
“I, uh…” He managed to sputter. “I think we should wait for Tork.”
In ancient days it was the wanderers and adventurers who fell victim to the sorceress known as Circe the Deceiver, drawn to the island prison by her enchanted disguises of long-lost loved ones, missing sailors, even gods they worshipped and believed they had found.
In the days of the Lost Civilization, Circe grew weak as Man refined his gift of science; he knew all corners of the earth and had no sense of exploration. Circe’s wanderers dwindled, then vanished. The sorceress waited alone on her island for centuries, scanning the horizons for a glimpse of a topsail or debris from a shipwreck. Continue reading Circe the Deceiver