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.
These were the same tiles on which he had knelt as a child, raised by his father’s advisors and priests while the King mourned the death of his first love. She was Astarte, Jeraziah’s mother, who left the mortal plane as the prince entered it. The memory of her fierce celebration of life still lingered in the city, and Jeraziah’s soul—calloused as it was—still felt the sting of her death every time one of his people looked away as he passed.
Why would Sol require her life to allow Jeraziah his?
Our King had asked this countless times.
Each time, no voice answered.
Each time, Jeraziah’s faith held fast, filling the void of silence with devout conviction that a higher purpose was being served. He was the chosen son, selected by Sol to carry the Legion to glory after Maliken’s downfall. A heavy burden, indeed. He imagined every life lost under his reign tipping onto a scale, filling the bowl and counterbalancing…what?
Once it reached the tipping point, what would happen?
Our King knelt in the chapel and believed he finally knew.
He would lose his faith.
Tears fell onto the mosaic, as they had when the young prince listened to his father’s pacing footfalls echo through the tombs below the chapel. The steps never came toward Jeraziah. They were never close enough for Maliken to put a hand on his son’s shoulder, to whisper to his boy that he loved him. Forgave him.
A passage from the Codex Solaris floated through Jeraziah’s thoughts:
If a Man does sin against Sol, let him be punished, and his children also, and their children also, unto the last of them, for no good springs of evil. But if he should repent, let them be spared.
The words had tormented him for decades.
If he should repent, let them be spared.
They proved Sol was a just god. A forgiving god.
But they also demanded that Jeraziah and his sister Ophelia be condemned for the sins of Maliken. He who would never repent.
Jeraziah wept, for he finally realized it mattered not what he did, nor how much faith he carried. His god would continue to punish him, and his children, should he ever produce an heir, and their children. And so on.
The revelation crushed him not in a single violent blow, but with the suffocating weight of the final rock placed upon a stoning victim. The stones were piled high. Our King wondered, when they toppled, would they demolish the entire Legion?
He hoped Ophelia did not feel the same suffocation, for he would not wish it upon anyone, even she who had led the Beast Horde so savagely against Man. There was solace in the fact that his sister did not look to the heavens for divinity. She found it in every blade of grass, every butterfly’s wing. Jeraziah envied the tangible evidence of her faith, and immediately felt his face flush with the sin of his coveting.
He cursed and slammed a fist against the tiles, the echoes of both dying in the corners of the chapel. What good was his shame, his devotion, when his god only asked for more?
Jeraziah sat back and gazed through his tears at the marble statues standing between the towering stained glass windows in the curved chapel wall. They seemed so assured of themselves and their cause.
They were the Five Disciples, the devoted followers of the Blind Prophet. The statues had appeared in Adkarna over two hundred years ago, each one delivered by unknown craftsmen on the morning after one of the Five Disciples passed into the next realm. They were left in a meadow outside the city walls, facing each other in a ring, and the clerics had proclaimed it a sign. They built the Solaris Chapel around the statues and expanded Adkarna’s walls to keep their precious church safe.
No one ever came forward to take credit for the statues. Whoever they were, Jeraziah thought, the sculptors had left no grain of doubt in the marble.
The sixth statue, that of the Blind Prophet, stood closest to the altar, its face turned toward the glass ceiling so the light could fall upon its blank eyes. It was a fitting tribute to a man so committed to Sol’s glory he stared at the sun until it seared his vision, turning the world into a white burst of light. Seeing Sol’s truth, the priests called it. Jeraziah had heard the story countless times as a boy, touting the Blind Prophet as the pinnacle of service to Sol.
He was a fool, Jeraziah thought. He and his Disciples.
Jeraziah rose, steadied himself on the smooth wooden back of a long pew, and approached the Blind Prophet’s effigy. There was an inscription in the stone base:
He who turns from Sol faces his own shadow.
– Codex Solaris
Our King had found those words inspiring, once. Now they tasted bitter and sanctimonious. All the good the Blind Prophet had done—the countless sick he had healed, the hungry he had fed, the helpless he and his Disciples had defended—and the clergy chose to make his epitaph a threat.
Jeraziah turned from the statue and walked to the next one. He had examined each of them again and again, searching for the mark of a chisel or scuff of a smoothing stone. He had yet to find one.
There was Edium, the Disciple who discovered within the cryptic language of the Codex Solaris a means to harness Sol’s light and use it as a weapon. When the Blind Prophet was assassinated, he turned to his book and eschewed worldly ways. The followers who gathered around him eventually formed the Order of the Chapel, the First Clan of Men. His statue was blinded by the hands of Sol, showing his complete trust in his god.
And Orbode, the massive brute who had protected so many of Sol’s lambs from slaughter, and who had gone nearly mad after the Blind Prophet’s murder. He left the Disciples and stalked the borders of Man’s territory, keeping the ravenous Beasts at bay. His warriors became known as the Savages, the Second Clan of Men. His statue was blinded by the chains of his faith, wrapped tight with his own hands to anchor himself to his god and the Blind Prophet.
Our King moved to the next statue, of Augur, one of the two female Disciples who caused such consternation among those who felt men were superior in Sol’s eyes. Jeraziah knew these cretins had never faced a woman in battle. When the Blind Prophet lived, Augur used her blessed powers of the mind to design and build shelters for the homeless and barriers against those who sought to harm Sol’s flock. The simple, indestructible structures were still used by travellers and Legion soldiers on the march.
Augur’s statue seemed to float with the effortless grace of a dancer. Her eyes were shielded by the shards of her faith in mankind, shattered when the Blind Prophet was murdered. In mourning, she had traveled into the mountains and worked tirelessly to rebuild Man’s lost cities and her own belief in her brothers and sisters. The Blacksmiths and Engineers were fiercely proud their clan—the Builders, Third Clan of Men—had been founded by a woman, known among their guilds as the Mother of Iron.
Jeraziah came to the statue of Arbinger, the Disciple still cloaked in layers of mystery despite centuries of research by the clerics. She was the Blind Prophet’s fiercest protector, and her secrets were guarded just as closely. When the Blind Prophet fell, Arbinger condemned mankind for his death. She swore a vow of silence and left civilization to its folly, retreating into the darkest heart of the forests to stalk and kill anything that crossed her path.
Her statue was blinded and silenced by a solid mask engraved with the symbol of the Blind Prophet, a burning eye surrounded by the flames of Sol’s glory. The mask was fitting, and not only to portray her blind faith and silence. Those who had followed Arbinger into the shadows became the Scouts, the Fourth Clan of Man, and their victims never saw or heard them.
The final Disciple, Omen, stood as tall as Orbode, yet while the father of the Savages was barechested, unadorned except for his chains, Omen’s statue was carved as a glorious suit of armor. He carried a shield large enough to protect a half-dozen children and a holy blade to deliver the sharp truth of the Blind Prophet’s gospel. His winged helmet included a solid face shield in the shape of his sword. It blinded him completely, yet no man or beast ever scratched his armor in battle.
When the Blind Prophet was slain, Omen traveled to the central plains and planted his standard. He called his brethren to join him in raising an army that would reclaim Newerth for Man and Sol once and for all. Omen and his people became the Fifth Clan of Man, the Chosen, and their standard grew into a camp, a village, a town, a city, and finally Adkarna, where our King Jeraziah now stood.
He shook his head at the irony of it all. Omen created the clan that gave rise to Maliken Grimm, who did everything in his power to end Man’s time on Newerth.
Jeraziah returned to the statue of the Blind Prophet. He willed the marble eyes to look upon him, offer a sign that would renew his faith. Jeraziah followed the Blind Prophet’s gaze to the glass ceiling and the heavens beyond. Perhaps the answers were there, attained only when this life was done.
“Our god is absent,” Jeraziah said to the statue. Despite the near-whisper, the perfect acoustics in the Solaris Chapel carried his deep voice. “Archaic gods gain favor and return to power. The daemons recruit soldiers who once prayed beside me, for they have seen so much carnage they no longer believe in a benevolent god. And while I have urged our scientists and engineers to use Sol’s gifts to further Man’s cause, these newly made mechanical…things…rend through flesh with no reverence or remorse.”
Jeraziah surveyed all of the statues. “Our god has abandoned us. Now he is your god. I am through with him. I have no use for useless things.”
“But Sol still has use for you.”
Jeraziah had not heard the priest enter. He spun in a circle, searching for the man who had overheard his blasphemy. No one was there.
“Come forward,” Jeraziah said. “Do not skulk in the shadows.”
“But it is your shadow you address.”
The voice came from everywhere, and nowhere. Our King recalled the inscription beneath the Blind Prophet: He who turns from Sol faces his own shadow.
Jeraziah answered the voice, whoever—or whatever—it was. “If I face my shadow, I shall fall. For the sun has set on my faith, and my shadow has grown long and dark. It will swallow me whole.”
“That sun is not setting, my child,” the voice said. “It is only beginning to rise.”
Our King could not believe his eyes. The marble statue of the Blind Prophet shuddered, shifted, and became a true man. His stone robes shed their cold rigidity and flowed as he stepped down from his raised platform and reached a strong hand toward Jeraziah.
“This cannot be,” Jeraziah said.
Yet the grip on his shoulder was real enough. He stared into the Blind Prophet’s white eyes. They did not wander or search for that which they could not see. They bored into Jeraziah’s, seeing everything and more. Our King had seen many miracles in the war against the Hellbourne. Comrades brought back from the brink of death—beyond, even—to stand next to him in the ranks as if they hadn’t lost a drop of blood. Still, to have a statue come to life and speak to him, touch him…
The Blind Prophet said, “My son, you have questioned the power of Sol. Your faith wanes, a candle flickering as the wick grows short.”
Jeraziah could no longer meet the Blind Prophet’s gaze. His eyes fell to the mosaic floor. “I fear it has already been extinguished.”
“But you have studied the Codex Solaris. We have watched you. You know its truth.”
“Yes. The pages are full of Sol’s glory. Yet they offer no strategies for defeating mechanical daemons, or zealots devoted to ancient gods, or madmen hell-bent on engineering our demise.”
The Blind Prophet nodded slowly. Then he recited from the Codex: “And Sol promised, ‘In your time of need I will send you a champion, so that my children will not pass from the earth.’”
Jeraziah gave a tight grin. “I need no reminder of Maliken Grimm. Sol chose him, sent him to be Man’s champion, and my father turned his back on all of it. We all suffer for his betrayal.”
“My child,” the Blind Prophet said, “where in the great book does it say Sol will only send one champion, one time?”
Jeraziah heard heavy boots step onto the chapel floor. He turned in awe as Edium came forward, crackling with Sol’s light. And Orbode, his chains rattling as he hefted his massive hammer and axe.
The Blind Prophet said, “It is a time of need. Dire need. And Sol has responded.”
Augur floated from her platform, the symbol of the Blind Prophet and his Five Disciples swirling around her. Arbinger’s footsteps made no sound as she approached. Her blades were just as silent.
Only Omen’s statue did not move. Yet the marble suit of armor had been replaced by one of dazzling white and gold over a sheath of deep red chainmail.
“That is yours,” the Blind Prophet said. “The spirit of Omen is carried within, and it shall strengthen you, just as his armor and shield will protect you.”
Jeraziah nearly fell to his knees. The Five Disciples and their Blind Prophet, reborn in the flesh to salvage what he had destroyed. “I do not deserve this. I have failed. I have let Sol’s flock be run to exhaustion, hunted to near extinction.”
The Blind Prophet surveyed his Disciples, then the King Jeraziah. “Flock? Do we appear as sheep? My child, we are a pack. We are wolves. And now, we hunt.”