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.
Jeraziah stepped across the threshold of the rustic tavern deep within Caldavar, really no more than a thatched lean-to with four walls. The mossy shingle hanging outside the door claimed “The Fifth Clan’s Torch,” which meant it had either been in existence for over seventy years—unlikely in this war-torn region—or its proprietor was attempting to evoke an age long gone and never to return.
The muted light from the paltry fire painted his Disciple’s armor with a dull glow. Jeraziah would not allow his fatigue to show, but he silently cursed Omen for bearing such thick plate and heavy mail in service of the Blind Prophet.
He did not carry a kingdom as well, Jeraziah thought as his eyes adjusted to the gloom.
He did not carry a Legion.
At first, Jeraziah mistook the Titan for part of the tavern’s structure. When he realized the hulking mass seated upon the chest-high stump was indeed Prisoner 945, the King walked across the mud floor and stood before him.
If the Prisoner realized his ruler and commander had joined him, he gave no sign. Only lifted his bucket of steaming broth and gristle with one of his free lower arms and poured half of it down his throat. His upper arms were secured in an iron stock that wrapped around his neck and looked heavy enough to crush a strong man.
Jeraziah waited until the grunts and smacking quieted. “Hail.”
The Prisoner tilted forward. Broth ran off the stock and splashed in the mud. The Prisoner blinked once, belched, and emptied his bucket. He then pulled the iron rings off the wooden pail, tore the staves apart and began to chew one of them to splinters.
An ancient scrap of a man with no teeth popped his head out of the kitchen, a corner of the tavern separated from the sitting area by tattered oilcloth strung from the ceiling. “That one’s on your tab, too.”
“I heard you the first time!” the Prisoner snarled.
Jeraziah gritted his teeth and waited, finally said, “Your King hailed you.”
Splinters flew from the Prisoner’s mouth when he laughed. “My King?” His voice was a low rumble that shook dust from the moldy ceiling. “You are no more my King than I am your loyal subject.”
“You fight for the Legion.”
“I kill daemons.”
“These are one and the same,” Jeraziah said.
“Not to the daemons. And not to me.”
Jeraziah realized his hands had balled to fists. He opened them, made his fingers relax. “You agreed to the terms I set before you, when you were still shackled to the damp stone in the ninth dungeon below Adkarna. Have you already forgotten?”
The Prisoner lurched to his feet and had to stand bent at the waist to keep from collapsing the roof on both of them. He loomed over Jeraziah, the gnawed wooden stave groaning in his hand.
“Forgotten?” He recited: “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.”
He looked at his upper left hand, then his right. The runes branded onto his scarred flesh.
“I think it is you who has forgotten, boy. Else you would not be within arm’s reach of me.” The Prisoner’s shackled arms flexed and strained against the pillory. “Now, why do you risk your life and test my temper? Why are you here?”
Jeraziah steeled himself. “I am here to personally serve the warrant for your arrest and—”
“—and imprisonment. My guards will escort you back to Adkarna, where you will return to the Ninth Dungeon and resume your sentence.”
Pulp fell from the corners of the Prisoner’s mouth. “I will not.”
“You were released under my royal command. I hereby revoke that release.”
The Prisoner swelled with rage. His head shook side to side—as much as it could within the stock—and slammed into one of the bare log rafters, cracking the wood. The tavern owner leaned through the oilcloth for another scolding, assessed the situation with darting eyes, and wisely ducked away.
“You revoke…” the Prisoner seethed. “Why?”
Jeraziah shrugged. “I changed my mind. You haven’t proven yourself worthy of freedom.”
“I have killed more daemons with one arm than you and that Disciple’s sword.”
Jeraziah stifled a yawn. “So you say. I was still undecided while tracking you here, hoping I might find you in the midst of destroying a Hellbourne encampment. At least using your two good arms and clearing the roads for our supply wagons. Instead, you’re here. Guzzling fetid broth and eating buckets.” The King inclined his head a fraction. “You have my gratitude. You made my choice easy.”
“You are making a mistake, Jeraziah.”
“My mistake was letting you and your fellow rebels out of your cages in the first place. Time to remedy that. Now come with me. Peacefully.”
The Prisoner’s chest heaved as he struggled to contain his rage. He still bore fresh wounds from the last battle, slices and gouges that crisscrossed barely scabbed gashes from the one before that, and before that, each served by a daemon who no longer walked upon Newerth.
He had joined Brutavious’ rebellion because he believed it to be the best way to send the Hellbourne back into the Scar. Now, after countless battles experiencing what Maliken and his foul daemons were capable of, including a campaign dedicated to eradicating the Titans entirely, he knew the uprising would have fared no better, and likely worse.
As much as he disliked the taste of it, he had to concede: Jeraziah was the right man to lead the Legion.
But that did not give him the right to send a loyal soldier into that pit again, the endless blackness and rats the size of boots who crept closer while you slept and scurried away gnawing a chunk of flesh.
“I will not go with you,” the Prisoner growled.
Jeraziah said, “Your King commands it. You will obey.”
The Prisoner’s hand clutched the heavy chain that led to the spiked iron ball on the floor. “And if I do not?”
Jeraziah paused. “I will draw this Disciple’s sword and make a day’s work of you. Then I will send the pieces to the corners of Newerth to be put on stakes as an example of what becomes of traitors. The good news is you have more parts than most, so my message will reach farther.”
“I cannot go back into that hole,” the Prisoner warned.
“You seem to think you have a choice.”
Jeraziah rested his hand on the sword’s hilt. The leather wrappings creaked.
The Prisoner said, “Outside, then.”
The Prisoner dragged his shackles across the mud and ducked through the doorway into the night. Jeraziah closed his eyes for a moment, failure seeping into him, then followed.
They faced each other in the rutted track that widened for whatever this tiny village was named. It stretched into darkness to the left and right, cutting through Caldavar.
“You claimed you brought guards,” the Prisoner said.
“Did I? They’re about, somewhere.” Jeraziah did not take his attention from the two lower arms. When the first blow came, it would be from them.
“You’re going to need them.”
The King drew his blade. “Perhaps.”
The Prisoner began wrapping his chain around the wrists. “If the daemon spies learn the two of us are walking to Adkarna unguarded, they’ll fall upon us like locusts.”
Jeraziah froze, certain he had misheard. “What?”
The Prisoner snapped a massive padlock into place, shook his shackled arms. The chains held. “I am your prisoner.”
Jeraziah searched for the ruse, the decoy, and could not find it. He also searched for the proper thing to say. He settled for: “But…why?”
“Because I see now. You believe me too dangerous to be among your Legion. Not for the dissention I may sow, but because I am too savage, uncontrolled. You would rather slay me then let me fight for you, because one day I may kill the soldier next to me. The one next to him. And so on, until I get to you.”
The Prisoner gazed up at the endless stars he would never see again.
“And you are right. For the good of the Legion, I should be kept away from it.”
Jeraziah said, “You choose that cursed cell over death?”
“You are my King. I will not fight you. If you would rather have me dead than imprisoned, so be it. But make sure the first strike is true—if you do not kill me with it, I will not be able to keep myself from tearing you apart.”
The Prisoner knelt, bowed his head and pulled the iron stock down as far as he could to offer Jeraziah a clear target.
Jeraziah closed his eyes again and held the blade in front of his face, kissed it, and swung it deftly into its scabbard.
“Your self-restraint is stronger than you know, loyal soldier. Rise, Temperance, and stand with me in my greatest moment of need.”
A blue light began to swirl around the Prisoner. His eyes widened and he gasped as his chains vanished, the scars upon his body healed, and strong, clean wings unfurled from his back. He stood as Temperance, his four powerful arms free to stretch and touch, touch his head and face in disbelief. A long, thick leather strap lay coiled at his feet.
“What is this?” Temperance asked.
“Another choice,” Jeraziah said. “Leave it there or carry it with you. You know your strength. Your limits. If you believe it is safer for your arms and wings to be restrained, so be it. Regardless, it is now up to you whether you are bound.”
Temperance lifted the strap and tested its weight, strength. The leather was warm and soft, unlike the cold steel of his former stock and chains, and did not stretch or snap when he pulled it between all four hands.
“I pray to Sol I have the self-control to make this unnecessary. But until I am sure…” He wound the strap around his body, cinching the wings firmly against his back and clutching the ends in his upper arms.
Jeraziah said, “I have faith in you, Temperance. And I am grateful to you.”
“Choosing not to cave in my skull.”
Temperance smiled. “My King, do you not realize? It was your example that guided me here.”
“When we Titans rebelled, you could have executed every one of us. Perhaps should have. But you did not, and here we both stand. Release your guilt, Jeraziah, and your grudge. We are brothers now.”
The King felt the weight of his burden lift. Suddenly the thick armor of Omen was no longer heavy. Even the massive shield felt lighter.
“Then come, brother. Our virtuous path leads east. To the Scar.”