Ferl the gaoler staggered into my tavern stinking of the dungeons, ripe enough that even the Blacksmith playing pegs near the door caught a whiff through his greasy mustache. Ferl left the door open to the cold night winds cutting through the streets of The Capital, earning a scowl from the Blacksmith that died against the gaoler’s back. It was nice to have some fresh air to move the smell of him around, but I gave a tilt of my head to the Smith, who kicked the door shut with a grumble.
When Ferl was on the other side of the oaken slab—shaped by my own hands, thank you—I had to step back to keep my eyes from burning. The smell was unlike anything I’d experienced. If I hadn’t known every face in my tavern that night, I would have sworn on the Codex there was a daemon present. Ferl stared at something between us only he could see, the eyes of a haunted man.
I cleared my throat. “Brought the keys with you this time, Ferlie?”
He snapped out of it. “Eh?”
I pointed to the ring of heavy keys swaying from a hook on his belt. Ferl looked at them and jerked as if they were a coiled serpent. Removing them from the prison could mean a hanging. He yanked them off the hook and dumped them down the front of his shirt, eyes darting around the tavern.
“Give us a drink, Koop. The firewater, if you please.”
My hand moved from his usual choice of the gentle mead to the red bottle. “You’re sure?”
“Aye. I’ve seen something tonight I’d pay dearly to burn out of my recollection, it’s all the same to you.”
I poured him a shallow glass. “They say the burden of a heavy memory can be lightened by spreading the weight.”
“They do, eh? Don’t give me the child’s share, Koop, upend the damned thing. Whoever said that about spreading the weight would change their mind right quick, they touched an ounce of what I saw.”
In hindsight, he was right. I must admit, at that moment I was more concerned with satisfying my curiosity than allaying his distress. I refilled his glass from the red bottle, knowing after the third dose he’d be jabbering like a chiprel in a windstorm. And now I am telling you, spreading the weight, because it was a heavy, soiled burden indeed.
Ferl emptied the glass and set it down with a grimace. “King Jeraziah came to the prison tonight.”
I blinked, then sniffed the lip of the red bottle. If it had turned, Ferl was a walking corpse. But it smelled as it always did—like dragon spit. “Ferl, you don’t mean the actual King.”
“I mean Jeraziah himself, in all his glory, chosen by Sol and shining like a new blasted coin.”
“Keep your voice down.”
“Comes through my door with his royal guard, most of ‘em afraid to let their precious cloaks touch the walls. It was only the fifth sub-level, Koop. Wasn’t even any sewage on the floor. But not the King, no. He didn’t notice any of it, just looks me in the eye and says, ‘I’m here for 945.’”
I waited. “All right, what’s 945?”
“Same thing I said. So the King asks me how long I’ve been a gaoler. Some kind of test? I tell him the truth: I’m on my thirty-second year of keeping filth off your streets, good King. What’s he do? Smiles. Smiles at me and says, ‘They kept my secret well.’”
“Secret? Is it still his secret? Maybe you shouldn’t be telling me this.”
Ferl poured his glass full and slid it to me for a sip. It burned as it always did. He said, “No, Koop. No longer a secret, and soon everyone will know who 945 is.”
“A prisoner. But hear this—our convicts are numbered by which dungeon holds them. The forgers and liars are in the highest cells, 100, 101. As the crimes get worse—the thieves, murderers, politicians—they go deeper into the bowels of the prison, far below the streets. The 500 scum are on the fifth level down, you see?”
I gave a low whistle. “A man with a 900 number must be a twin to Maliken himself.”
“That’s the thing, Koop. There is no ninth dungeon. At least there wasn’t, until Jeraziah came through my door. The worst villains in our prison go into a hole on the eighth level and aren’t seen again until their bones have been cleaned by the rats. But Jeraziah, he pulls a rust-pocked key from a brittle leather pouch and hands it to me. ‘You’ll want more guards,’ he says. So I get the lads together and we follow the King down the narrow steps, down, down, to the deepest dungeon. Past the groans and curses and stench of those we call the Forgotten, all the way to the end of the passageway.”
He paused to drain his glass, a quick gulp before his shaking hand could spill a drop.
“Koop, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it, and I won’t blame you if you name me a liar. But as we stood there, staring at the damp stone wall, I swear I saw fear on Jeraziah’s face. Then it vanished, and that jaw of his clenched as he spoke a word of magic in some language I’ve never heard. Gutteral, it was. Then the wall fell away, this slab of what I thought was part of Newerth herself, our very bedrock, and here it’s easing on a massive hinge into pure blackness. All I see is more stairs, going down.”
I glanced around the tavern, suddenly aware that Ferl was the only one talking. Everyone had stopped their chatter and games, even their drinking, to listen. Ferl didn’t seem to notice. He stared at nothing and continued.
“The King steps in, and we scramble to follow him down with the torches. But he knows where he’s going, yes he does. I lost count of the steps, but we hit level stone and walk through high archways, around towering pillars. I hold my torch aloft and still can’t see the ceiling—the ninth dungeon is a cavern, carved smooth by water or magic. We finally come to cell 945, the number etched above the massive door, and Jeraziah stands aside and looks at me. I fumble the rusty key into the slot and twist with everything, not a budge. Another gaoler leans into it with me and the key fights us all the way. We pull the steel door open and it carries both of us with it, our boots dragging across the floor.”
Ferl reached for the bottle again and nearly knocked it over. I poured for him, half-hoping he would pass out before he finished his tale.
“The King enters the cell and we follow. The smell is…primal. Feral. Our torchlight spreads to the back and falls over a creature unlike any I’ve seen. As big as the strongest Behemoth, I’d wager. He’s manacled to the wall with chains made of links larger than me and you together, Koop. Four giant arms, the top two bound to his head by a stone and iron stock. A spiked iron ball pulls the other two arms to the floor, but he lifts it with ease as he blinks at the flames, the first light in that forsaken room since Sol knows when. He sniffs the air and a growl comes from his throat. A growl that turns into a word: Jeraziah.”
“He knew our King?” I said.
Ferl didn’t seem to hear me. “We stand there, mouths agape, and Jeraziah pulls a scroll from his pouch. Hands it to me, says, ‘This goes to the criers, for public record.’”
Ferl pulled that same scroll from his pocket and set it on the oak bar. Everyone stared, as if the parchment was something built by the Engineers and had a lit fuse trailing from it.
I said, “You came here before obeying the command?”
“Read it,” Ferl said. “You’ll see why.”
I opened the scroll, my own hands shaking now, and read aloud.
“King Jeraziah, chosen by Sol to lead the Legion against the Hellbourne, has sworn the following statement is truth and beyond dispute.
In the early days after the Second Corruption, when the Hellbourne burst forth and the true threat of our enemy was still unknown, the convicts known as Brutavious, Baaracko, and Prisoner 945 formed a rebellion and rose against the sovereign and blessed command of King Jeraziah and Queen Ophelia.
Brutavious of the Iron Mountain Colossi began his revolt under the false belief he could better lead the Legion forces against the daemons. He recruited Baaracko and his Gray Sea Leviathans to attack our unsuspecting forces from the sea and a Titan from the Great Waste known only as Prisoner 945 to assail our ground troops. These assaults pulled precious Legion resources from the front lines, causing untold damage in our fight against the Hellbourne.
Baaracko and his corsair fleet sank dozens of brave Legion ships and formed illegal blockades across the bays of the Inner Sea, preventing vital supplies from reaching our troops and citizens. Prisoner 945 led raids against the innocent Blacksmiths and Engineers working in and around the City of Iron, and when these loyal soldiers advanced to defend our realm, Prisoner 945—in a cowardly act—swept behind them and destroyed the unguarded forges and foundries.
King Jeraziah, disregarding his own safety, sent his personal guard to stop the advance of Prisoner 945 and his royal navy to sink the marauding ships of Baaracko. Brutavious took this opportunity to attack our King directly and surrounded the royal camp, issuing a challenge for single combat. King Jeraziah accepted without hesitation, despite his traitorous adversary wielding four weapons in as many arms.
Our glorious King battled the rebel Brutavious from dawn to darkness. Fires were lit to allow the contest to continue. While no one present doubted King Jeraziah’s prowess, there came a moment in the darkness when Brutavious held the King with his lower arms and seemed poised to crush him with the upper. Then our illustrious god Sol made his true wishes clear, and a beam of sunlight broke through the pitch black of night and blinded the traitor. Our King freed himself and held his blade to Brutavious’s throat, demanding surrender.
Brutavious was immediately placed in irons. King Jeraziah commanded him to send messengers through portals to Baaracko and Prisoner 945 with orders to stand down and be taken into royal custody. The Titan and Leviathan were captured soon after, but only after more senseless blood was shed.
When they were finally brought before the royal court in shackles, all three rebels were sentenced by King Jeraziah.
Brutavious: Indefinite imprisonment in the Holy Cells beneath Arasunia. His false crown and throne shall be melted down and forged into the chains that bind his four arms as a punishment for his hubris.
Baaracko: Indefinite imprisonment in the Black Caves at the bottom of Blind Man’s Harbor. His vessel shall be destroyed, its captain’s wheel and anchors used to constrain his four arms as a reminder of his sins and what he once commanded.
Prisoner 945: Indefinite imprisonment in the Ninth Dungeon of The Capital. His barbarous weapons shall be reformed by the Blacksmiths into stocks and chains to restrain his four arms, and his flesh shall be marked with his crimes in the symbols of the old tongue so he may forever carry a warning of his true nature.
And so they have been held, until this day. This day finds our King, Queen, and Legion forces in a dire state against the foul Hellbourne. Because of this, it is the royal command of King Jeraziah that these prisoners be freed and immediately transported to the front lines.
Let this record show that our King does not make this decision lightly, and when the battle is won against the Hellbourne the sentences will recommence with leniency considered, dependent upon the performance of Brutavious, Baaracko, and Prisoner 945 on the battlefield.”
I let the scroll wind upon itself. “Ferl, these goliaths are free now?”
He nodded. “The King said as much to 945, to keep him from shattering the lot of us. He says to him, ‘As we stand here, Brutavious emerges from below Arasunia, and Baaracko rises from the depths of Blind Man’s Harbor to fight for me. Will you join them, or shall I lock the door and make this your tomb?’ The Titan just held his lower arms out so we could unlock the chains.”
Ferl put the scroll back in his pocket. I dreaded what might happen when word spread of the three rebels being set free. Many would panic, but some would rejoice. In silence, at first, but then…
Ferl said, “I step forward to free Prisoner 945, and the King tells me, ‘Leave his upper arms in the stock. He hasn’t earned any freedom yet—let him and his traitorous brothers prove they deserve to fight next to the free men and women of the Legion.’”
Ferl turned to the tavern, the wide eyes and open mouths.
“There it is, friends. Our King has freed them. I’m sorry to be the one to shed light on just how desperate things have become against the vile daemons. But we have this, at least: things are about to get much better, or much, much worse. So let’s drink to that.”