The heavy canvas tents of the royal camp bucked and snapped in the heavy winds outside the walls of Adkarna. Dead leaves had gathered and begun to molder against the skirting, and King Jeraziah noted they would have to be removed soon or would freeze there and remain until spring. It was an absent thought, something to keep his mind from the task at hand. He’d avoided it for as long as he could.
He stood outside the tent staked furthest from the city, set apart from the rest. Not by much, but in the typical straight lines and exact spacing of Jeraziah’s camp, the outlier stood out like a tumor on a biscuit.
A voice mocked his hesitation: Why is the boy king frightened?
Jeraziah scowled at the all-too familiar inner dialogue, wondering yet again if all rulers shared the constant nattering and self-doubt. If they did, they kept it to themselves, just as he did. But that did not mean he had to take it idly.
I am not frightened. Simply irritated with this…chore.
The voice scoffed. I know of at least one ruler who doesn’t share this curse of indecision with you. And he’s waiting inside the tent.
It was true. Of all the things Maliken Grimm had been accused of, uncertainty was not among them. He was the sole reason for this long-term encampment; Jeraziah would not allow the allegedly redeemed man inside Adkarna, nor would he leave him unguarded and free to roam the Legion countryside. This, at least, had been an easy decision for Jeraziah, who pushed through the tent flaps if only to shut the chiding voice up. The sight of Maliken still lifted the hackles along his back, and Jeraziah had to stop himself from reaching for his sword even though the former Lord General of the Hellbourne sat at a small table with a steaming mug of tea and an open book spread before him, wearing a thick woolen sweater. His bald head was covered with a plain knit cap.
He looked up from the book and smiled. “Jeraziah. I’m glad you came.”
Jeraziah said nothing and strode toward the chair opposite Maliken, who pointed at a low bench covered with woolen blankets. “Please, ease your burden. Leave your sword there and take as many blankets as you like. They’re not as itchy as they look.”
Jeraziah sat with his sword strapped to his side and ignored the blankets. He could not will his jaw to relax and so spoke through clenched teeth. “I would seek your counsel.”
Maliken sat back, blinking. “And I shall give it, of course. I owe you eternally for offering me this second chance. This redemption.” He held a hand toward the polished Humility armor in the corner of the tent.
“I did not offer it,” Jeraziah snapped. “It was Sol’s will, carried to us by the Blind Prophet himself. Who am I to refuse? Who is anyone?”
Maliken nodded, reminded yet again of his son’s complete devotion to the Way of the Light and the Codex Solaris, often to the point of zealotry. Jeraziah had always been a serious boy and had grown into a humorless man. Maliken sipped his tea and spent a moment reflecting on his role in that result, but felt no guilt or remorse, for it had happened and what could be done? And it had brought them to this table, now, which is what truly mattered.
“How can I serve?” Maliken said.
Jeraziah studied him. This man—Jeraziah would not call him father, now or ever again—had caused more harm and chaos to Newerth than perhaps any human, beast, or daemon. If one of the Hellbourne surpassed him in cruelty and carnage, did it not still fall upon Maliken’s shoulders? The daemon would not have been able to emerge from the Scar to murder and maim without the fallen king’s acts of madness. And now he sat with his hands folded, waiting. Hands that had killed countless, crushed entire armies, and orchestrated unthinkable slaughter across vast campaign maps.
The Blind Prophet and the other Virtues had urged Jeraziah to accept the Lord General’s redemption, but he had resisted, waiting for the inevitable moment when Maliken showed his true self, his true intent. But in the time since leaving Maliken’s Hellbourne camp at the base of the magma fields, the fallen king had been a model soldier and servant of Sol. He’d discussed the Codex Solaris with the Blind Prophet into the small hours many times, never needing the book in hand to quote entire passages, and the damned blade Maliken claimed was now blessed and cleansed had caused no trouble.
And so when Jeraziah found himself at a complete loss for answers, when his advisors offered no help and even the house of Sol brought no reprieve, he realized that Sol was punishing him and would continue to do so until Jeraziah accepted the redemption of Maliken Grimm. The epiphany had come when a Sister of Sol threw herself at him—while he prayed at the very altar she’d sworn herself to—claiming true love and utter devotion before nearly searing his eyebrows off with a burst of Hellfire from her empty hand. This was clearly a message from Sol: Lack of faith has caused this house to crumble. Prove your conviction and return strength to the foundation.
The harlot had then committed suicide on the same altar, proving beyond doubt that the house of Sol was in dire need of restoration.
Now Jeraziah took a deep breath and said to Maliken, “When we found you in your tent, you referred to Sol as a dying myth.”
“Oh my,” Maliken said, looking ashamed.
Jeraziah lifted a hand to silence him. “It is true. Not the myth blasphemy—which I have chosen to ignore—but the ill health of the Legion’s faith in the Creator.” He paused; a lifetime of hiding shortcomings from his father and weaknesses from his enemies prevented him from continuing. But the gentle words of the Blind Prophet echoed and nudged him on: ‘It is the things we fear most that Sol would have us do, especially when doing them embraces Humility and shuns Pride.’
How perfectly applicable, Jeraziah thought. Then he looked Maliken in the eye and spoke: “The strength of Sol’s grip weakens with each passing day. Archaic gods return from their dusty, divine realms to reclaim the people left wandering after turning away from Sol. A portal to the Great Rift, a land no sane god has ever touched, grows larger on the slope of Krula as we speak.”
Maliken closed the book and folded his hands, his full attention devoted to Jeraziah, who continued: “A rabid mongrel roams the land slaughtering anyone wearing a crown, and a gang of women calling themselves the URSA Corps have shirked all semblance of duty, hijacked an armory of salvaged weapons and proclaimed themselves the protectors of the innocent.”
“Who in Newerth is innocent?” Maliken wondered aloud.
Jeraziah pressed on before good sense got the better of him. “I thought the arrival of the Blind Prophet and his Five Disciples, and with them the Seven Heavenly Virtues, heralded the return of Sol’s pinnacle and glory. But now I see it was a desperate maneuver. Because if it does not work, what does Sol have left?”
Maliken thought the question rhetorical at first, but the wounded, pleading look in his son’s eyes showed a true desire for answers. “Jeraziah, my heart swells at the chance to help you in this troubling time.” Maliken ignored the grimace he got in response. “You always were a petulant lad when things didn’t seem to make sense. To you, the world should have order, rationale, and logic. When it didn’t cooperate, your tantrums were enough to send the servants scurrying for shelter. Do you remember?”
Jeraziah did. “I am speaking of the present.”
“As am I. You look at the state of the world and see chaos, disorder, insanity. I see the way things have always been.” Maliken shrugged. “I see life.”
“Life?” Jeraziah spat. “How can you walk past the trenches we dig for the corpses to nestle side-by-side, three deep, and use such a word?”
“Because I have seen worse. I have caused worse. When I united the clans under my banner, I had to commit acts of near genocide. But it was for the greater good. Near genocide is better than extinction, and that is what we faced if we stood and fought alone. Jeraziah, this is what your people are doing now. They think Sol has abandoned them, so they seek a band, a tribe, an army into which they can dive and hide. If they believe these Archaic gods offer safety and survival for their loved ones, they will smash Sol’s altars to light their pagan fires and use the pages of the Codex Solaris to wipe their heretic arses.”
Jeraziah was appalled.
“And you should let them,” Maliken said. “Let the wayward sheep divide themselves between Zeus, Jupiter, and Odin. Let the factions bicker over whose god knows more about war: Kali, Apollo, Guan Yu, Athena, Set, Týr…these are wrathful deities, Jeraziah, and the worshippers drawn to them have never belonged to Sol.”
“I know wrathful men who kneel before Sol,” Jeraziah said. “I am among them.”
“Yet you desire peace, and your actions guide you toward it. This is not wrath, my son. It is justice. That is what Sol offers. So let these Archaic gods gather their flocks. It will only make it easier to cull them when your justice arrives.”
Jeraziah did not want to admit it, but this brought him tremendous relief. His recruiting advisors and the Council of the Codex—those scaremongers in particular—had picked away at him about what he was going to do about the exodus of followers to the pagan rites. The fat churchmen were more concerned about the lost tributes, Jeraziah knew, but this was never spoken aloud. If he claimed the crisis of the Archaic gods would be solved by Sol’s day of reckoning, their grousing would cease. It mattered not if Jeraziah did not believe it outright; he did not disbelieve it, and so would include hope with his faith.
“You mentioned the Great Rift,” Maliken said, one eyebrow twitching. “A result, I believe, of your soldiers trying to force an eruption of Krula which would bury Hell’s Keep and the Scar beneath a wave of lava.”
Jeraziah remained still. The Black Legion had penetrated deep behind enemy lines and planted the explosives within the volcano, but Valreia the Riftwalker, in her panicked attempt to stop the lava flow, had ripped open the gateway into the land of eternal dark and terror.
Maliken did not press the issue. “I trust your elite soldiers have not been able to venture near enough to know the current state. Valreia and the Elder Riftwalker have been able to stop the expansion of the portal, though closing it has eluded them so far. The purple tentacles still slither across to drop their odorous stalagmites, but my detachment of Malphas daemons make quick enough work of them. The Rift terraforming has stopped, for now. I would advise against any plans to send units to that location, as distracting the daemons from their work will only benefit the Great Rift.”
Jeraziah nodded. Maliken was right—the Legion had no recent intelligence regarding the Great Rift. The damned thing could have swallowed half of Hell’s Keep already, or it could be closed altogether. Maliken’s face betrayed no guile, and though Jeraziah was still beyond skeptical of the former Lord General’s motives, he wanted to believe the Rift was no longer a dire matter. Dangerous, of course, and a menace that must be dealt with, but if its growth was truly stabilized and manageable, the king could focus on more urgent matters.
“What do you know of this Kane?” he asked. “The one who aims to take my crown, along with my head?”
Maliken’s eyes widened innocently. “The name is Kane, you say?”
“The Usurper. Some say he was bred and trained by you to be a king killer.”
Maliken chuckled. “I think we both know I lack the patience for anything beyond the sunset. I was a king once too, remember. Does this Kane pose a threat to me? Should I be concerned?”
“If he shows himself to me,” Jeraziah said, “I’ll ask him. Right before I kill him.”
Jeraziah shuddered but kept his face unreadable.
Maliken said, “This URSA Corps. An interesting name. Fierce bears, these women? You say they claim to defend the innocent, but I think they’ve caused more harm to the Legion’s campaign over these past months than the daemons. They disrupt your supply lines, tear down the fences around refugee camps, and pull vital resources away from the front lines.” A scowl pulled at Jeraziah’s face, and Maliken raised his hands. “Truce, Jeraziah. They are not my agents. They wreak even more havoc among the Hellbourne. Prisoners within the Bonedust Camps are constantly escaping because of these women, and the search parties sent out to recover the property rarely return.”
Jeraziah continued to scowl. “I know they aren’t yours, because their founder came to me. She told me why she formed the URSA Corps, and was very clear about it. It was because of you.”
“I’m flattered,” Maliken said. “But also confused. Why would this gaggle unite because of me, yet harry your Legion as well?”
Jeraziah swept a hand toward the gleaming Humility armor. “Because of your redemption. She asked me if you of all people could be forgiven and welcomed into our ranks, what had she been fighting for all these years? Why had she buried so many brothers and sisters if the enemy could simply decide to step across the no man’s land between us and turn around?”
“Which I have asked myself countless times. But rather than sit and pray over them like a helpless fool, as I have, she decided to do something about it. And even though it was devastating to lose such a devoted warrior, I cannot help but respect her for it.”
Maliken’s mouth twitched. “Is it…your sister?”
“Ophelia?” Jeraziah enjoyed the pang the name caused his father, then caught himself. Sol wanted him to accept this redemption, not risk it, and Maliken was being helpful, surreal as it may be. “No. Not her. Valkyrie.”
“Ah. Yes, I can sympathize. Even before the Liberation, I waged a few battles against her kind while pursuing the Savages into the Frost Fields. People of the north…when your enemy enjoys misery more than you do comfort, you cannot win.”
Jeraziah did not hear this last bit. “Did you say ‘the Liberation’?”
“Did I?” Maliken waved a hand. “It is what you call the Second Corruption. Some of the more sensitive daemons don’t appreciate the condemnatory tone.”
Jeraziah was at a loss. He blinked and tried to make sense of it while Maliken waited, shifting in his chair, until the Lord General finally broke the silence.
“If you want the URSA Corps to become less of a burr under your saddle, locate someone with an even greater sense of injustice who will find the URSA’s behavior just as offensive as they find yours. You of all people should know, Jeraziah, there is no shortage of martyrs in this world. Find them, and let them fight the URSA Corps to see who can suffer more for their silly cause.”
Jeraziah clenched his jaw at the sense of it. If he did this, and Valkyrie and her soldiers ever found out, they would be lost to the Legion forever. He could only hope they would be persuaded to see the greater good in fighting as a unified front against the true enemy.
“I…” Jeraziah cleared his throat. “I thank you for your counsel. It has been helpful.”
Maliken beamed. “I only wish I could have joined your side sooner. My eyes, my mind, they were…shrouded…by the misery of your mother’s death. And after that, the shapeshifter. Then the whispers began, and I turned away from Sol completely. Corruption has never found more fertile ground, I’m afraid.”
“Corruption, not liberation?”
Maliken laughed. “Old habits, my son. Now, if your mind is at ease, perhaps you can help me. There is a passage here, in the Book of Radiance, where the Blind Prophet says—”
Maliken grunted as the earth shook and the table tipped, dumping the book in his lap. Jeraziah nearly fell from his chair and had to stagger to his feet to keep from sprawling across the rug-covered floor. Lanterns swayed and men shouted outside the tent. Jeraziah searched his father’s face for any knowledge of the tremors, but Maliken seemed just as baffled, possibly even afraid. He set the book upon the floor and pushed through the tent flaps. Jeraziah followed, struggling to keep his balance as the earth continued to quake. He emerged into the cold night and saw his soldiers, some of the Virtues among them, gaping toward the east.
Adkarna had been built upon the highest land in the region, and the ground stretched away in a gentle slope in all directions. To the east, far beyond the expansive green bowl of the Forest of Caldavar and the shadowed pool of Darkwood Vale, the Iron Mountains were barely visible as a jagged row of teeth. It was rare to witness their slopes from the city, as the great distance and a constant cloud of soot usually hid them, but Jeraziah could have counted the individual peaks at that moment. A fountain of orange, yellow, and violet flames erupted toward the skies, and the camp trembled and watched the inferno spread to the north and south like a fuse burning in both directions.
“What is it?” Jeraziah said. “What is happening?”
He asked no one in particular, but Maliken answered: “I suppose it’s someone pissing in my hearth.”
Jeraziah could not pull his eyes away from the distant carnage. The tremors and gouts of flame took him back to the day, years ago, when he’d stood ready to wipe Ophelia and her Beast Horde from the face of Newerth only to witness the land tearing apart to unleash the Second Corruption at the hands of their father.
So what was this?
Had Krula finally erupted?
Had another Scar ruptured the landscape?
If so, it could not be Maliken’s doing, for he had been in the camp for months. The wind pushed against Jeraziah’s back from the west, yet he could still smell the sulphur and soot rising in the east. It made no sense, until he finally turned to Maliken.
Humility was gone. The Lord General of the Hellbourne’s skin still smoked from the cleansing fire he’d sent coursing through his dead veins, flames which had turned the World Tree on his chest to a drifting wisp of smoke and made the daemonic runes carved into his flesh glow as they puckered the scar tissue around them. The human skulls on his belt grinned and rasped against each other.
Jeraziah did not think. He reacted. He drew his sword and swung it overhead, then brought it down in a two-handed blow that would surely cleave the unarmed Maliken to his collarbones.
Maliken watched the blade descend and casually opened his right hand. His cursed sword shredded the tent wall as it flew into his grip, and when Jeraziah’s steel met the sword a shower of green, festering sparks fell upon both men. The sound of the collision made the nearby Virtues turn in alarm, and they stared as Maliken kicked Jeraziah in the stomach, gripped both of his son’s wrists in one huge hand then flung his sword in a whirling loop that sent the onlookers diving for cover. When they rose to help their king, they found the cursed blade hovering behind Jeraziah, the point digging into the back of his neck.
Maliken yanked the king’s hands higher and held them there, immobile, and Jeraziah roared with the pain and humiliation of it.
“Hush now,” Maliken said. He flicked his right hand a fraction and the sword sank a bit deeper into Jeraziah’s neck. Maliken surveyed the Virtues and royal guardsmen edging closer. “Which one of you will take another step and kill your king?”
Temperance spread his massive arms out to the side, blocking the guardsmen near him. The rest of the soldiers of the Legion grew still, their eyes wide, hands twitching with helplessness.
Maliken smiled. “You see, Jeraziah? They love you more than they hate me. Remember this moment in that light, rather than dwelling on how easily I reverted you to the same whelp who pissed his breeches during thunderstorms.”
He turned and gazed upon the walls of Adkarna, and beyond them the intricate spires and glowing domes rising toward the night sky. There was a thread of nostalgia in his eyes and words. “I made this city. For my people, my family. My god.” He laughed. “I assumed the next time I stood here, it would be as a conqueror. Seems that will have to wait.”
He glared to the east, where the flames reached ever higher. Though no one could see the city at such a distance, all knew the destruction was close to, if not within, Hell’s Keep.
Maliken said, “I will not lose two cities.”
He let Jeraziah fall into a heap at his feet. The cursed blade followed and pivoted so the point rested between the king’s furious eyes. Diligence seemed on the verge of rushing to help Jeraziah, but Patience pressed a hand against his chest―to advance would be regicide, quickly followed by suicide.
“Combat,” Jeraziah growled. “Face me here, now, and decide this.”
Maliken scoffed. “What do you think just happened, boy? I once thought killing you would cripple the Legion, but it would only make you a symbol of inspiration, like your Blind Prophet and his Five. All the damned soldiers of Sol. They even call themselves Martyrs! A bit on the nose, but you can’t trust the sheep to appreciate subtlety, can you? No, Jeraziah, I won’t kill you. What I’ve done is much more catastrophic to your cause.”
Maliken knelt and spoke so only Jeraziah could hear him.
“I accepted the redemption offered by your god. Salvation I did not ask for, nor deserve. I let it rest on my tongue, tasted its potency. Then I spit it out. This, my son, will kill more of your people than my blade ever could. It corrupts their faith, severs them from their beloved god. For if the one man most in need of Sol’s love and guidance rejects it as worthless, they will know their god is dead.”
Maliken glanced up and saw the Blind Prophet stepping to the front rank of Legion warriors. Their anger was palpable, while the Blind Prophet only looked forlorn at the failure of his god.
Maliken whispered to Jeraziah, “And if your people are too stupid to know it, you still do. It will rot you to the core. Look no further than your own family to see what that does to a kingdom.”
The Lord General of the Hellbourne pulled one of the skulls from his belt and crushed it in his hand. The bone fell away in shards and dust, and the Homecoming Stone that had been concealed within began to glow. In a flash of brilliant light, Maliken was gone.
No one, not even the Blind Prophet, tried to stop Jeraziah when he finally got to his feet and staggered to the eastern fringe of the camp to stare at the geysers of flame painting the black, hovering clouds from below. He remained there, seemingly untouched by the cold, for hours. The Blind Prophet, Disciples and Virtues knew their king was in the throes of an epic struggle, but it was between him and his god, and no one had the right to interfere.
Word arrived from the east when the sun finally began to bleed from beyond the Iron Mountains. Its rays were filtered through a mass of smoke and soot, yet they still diminished the ongoing spectacle of the flames. Scouts stationed within Watchtower had pressed as close as they dared to the cataclysm, and their report said only that something had happened within the Scar. The gash in the earth was growing, they said, and this was all they could see before the new flood of daemons and souls sent them rushing for safety.
Some in the camp were calling it the Third Corruption.
This sort of news would normally send Jeraziah to kneel within the Solaris Cathedral of Arasunia to seek Sol’s guidance. The thought of it turned his stomach now. Kneeling and waiting had gotten him here, with blood in his mouth and shame draped over his shoulders like a cloak too heavy to shrug off.
Let Sol continue with what he has always done for me, Jeraziah thought. Watch silently and do nothing.
He turned to find a small crowd waiting for him. The Virtues were there: Charity, Chastity, Patience, Kindness, Temperance, and Diligence. Only Humility was missing, if he had ever truly been among them at all.
The Disciples also stood ready: Edium, Orbode, Augur, and Arbinger. The fifth, Omen, was supposedly embodied by Jeraziah himself, yet the king felt none of the honor or conviction synonymous with the founder of the Fifth Clan of Men, the Chosen.
Between the Virtues and the Disciples stood the Blind Prophet. He seemed small and frail wrapped within his cloak, staring at Jeraziah with his milky eyes, eyes that saw nothing yet knew all. It was clear he waited for a sign from the king to indicate all was not lost, that his faith in Sol could not be shaken.
Jeraziah pointed at him, and the Blind Prophet shuddered with relief. Then the king jerked his finger to the right, indicating the messenger of Sol should step aside. The Blind Prophet’s face fell as he turned to see who the king beckoned forward.
It was Cutter, a grizzled Legionnaire who had guarded Jeraziah since the king’s youth. The veteran soldier stepped past the Blind Prophet, the Virtues, the Disciples, and stood beside Jeraziah.
Jeraziah spoke three words that would forever change the Legion and its path: “Summon the Paragons.”