“We’re all gonna die!”
Amos grabbed the young soldier and hauled him back toward the flickering torch. “No, we’re not. Now run, for Gideon’s sake!”
The soldier scrambled back up the steep rocky tunnel, his bloodied sword clanging dully against the walls as he stumbled and gasped.
Amos glanced around one last time to make sure he had gotten the entire squad. One man had died, but the others were still alive and running back up the tunnel. Amos knelt by the one fallen soldier and studied his dirty face. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. But I promise you will know justice, even in death.”
A screech and roar echoed up from the cavern below. Amos rose to his feet, lowered his visor, and lifted his shield. “By the might of Gideon!”
His armor gleamed with a silvery light shaped like crystalline shards that sang softly like a chorus of triumphant clerics just as the wolfish demon raced out to meet him. Amos slashed twice with his sword as rings of celestial fire spun around the blade and the snarling fiend fell dead at his feet, the twisted corpse gushing foul black ichor and sulfurous fumes. Without pausing, the paladin darted forward and thrust his fiery sword up into the rocks above the entrance to the cavern and the ceiling collapsed, sealing off the demons beyond.
Amos turned to follow his wounded comrades back up toward the city, but he had barely gone a dozen paces when he heard his men screaming…
Three days later, Amos staggered out of the black tunnels, his heavy armor caked in dried blood, dead ichor, and dirt. He emerged from the narrow rift onto the streets of Kalahar, stumbled into the arms of the waiting soldiers and clerics at the barricade, and whispered, “I’m sorry…They’re gone. All of them.”
Mercifully, they gave him a night to recover. One night to rest and heal in the safety of the city, with a cleric chanting over him and a squire fetching food and water. One night to try to make sense of it all. One night to stare into the blood-soaked memories, over and over again, praying for guidance, asking his patron angel what he had done wrong, and what he could have done differently.
The angel did not answer.
The next morning, the questions began. Court ministers, old bearded clerics, and richly robed wizards sat around him asking about countless details, but it was always the same question really: What happened?
And he told them in slow careful words, leaving nothing out. Not one scream, not one drop of blood, not one inch of lost ground was omitted. He had led the scouts down into the rift, deep below the city, through the silent streets of the necropolis, and then lower still into the ancient tunnels. The unknown, uncharted black tunnels.
They had expected demons. Big ones, small ones. They knew about the snarling predators that ran like coyotes made of thin white flesh, long sharp bones, and grasping black tendrils. They knew about the hulking warriors that stalked like trolls, massive and heavy, with bone scimitars for claws. Screaming ichor. Dead black eyes. Poisonous fumes. They’d been told what to expect. They’d been given every weapon and tool. Swords and armor, a medic with rare herbs, a young cleric of Ariel with a lovely tenor voice and holy bells, and himself, a blessed paladin of Gideon.
And the demons had torn them to pieces, one by one, as they ran and cowered in the darkness, praying for a miracle that never came.
When he was done talking, Amos sat very still, waiting for the pronouncement. For the judgement. For the punishment.
But the old men merely patted him on the shoulder and shook their gray beards sadly, and sent him back to the Shrine of Gideon with their condolences.
It wasn’t your fault, they said.
Blame the demons, they said. Or blame the fool wizard who set them free.
The words rang hollow, and Amos went back to his small stone chamber at the Shrine and sat in the darkness, staring at his dull sword, staring at the holy emblem of Gideon, the great wheel of justice, sculpted across his battered shield. He thought of the soldiers and the brave young cleric who had fallen, one by one, right in front of him, down in the dark, screaming in terror.
“O holy Gideon…” He slipped to his knees. “Where is their justice? Where is my justice? Where is your justice?”
The wheel of Gideon sat behind the blood and filth in silence.
For eight days, Amos prayed and worked, trained and studied, and waited to be summoned for his next task, whatever that might be. On the ninth day, he overheard two clerics returning from the market say that a patrol of soldiers had found a strange man wandering the southern deserts, covered in wounds, exhausted and starving, babbling about witches and ghosts.
On the tenth day, he learned that the strange man had been arrested because he was none other than the young wizard who had cracked the jade seals under the cities and unleashed the demons below, the demons that destroyed holy Antar and now beseiged Kalahar.
The rogue wizard.
For an hour, Amos sat in the darkness and stared at his polished shield, running his fingers along the edges of the holy wheel of Gideon and the sacred arrow of Saint Gad.
The wizard is in prison.
The wizard will be punished by the law.
There will be justice for the dead.
Amos whispered the words in his mind over and over again, but they brought no comfort, no certainty, no satisfaction. He knew the law better than any magistrate, but he also knew the city as well as any man. The law was just and wise and clear, but people were…less so.
Maybe the ministers will strike a bargain with him.
Maybe the Kalahar mages will protect him.
Maybe he will escape.
He is, after all, a wizard.
Amos chased the questions and answers around in circles, only to find himself as lost and uncertain as when he began.
Do I trust them to do what is right?
Do I go out on my own and do what I know is right?
He sank to his knees. “O just Gideon, I study the laws of angels and men. I know where things stand in the clear light of day, but now I stand in shifting shadows. Good men died at my side. They died protecting the innocents of this city from the horrors unleashed by Malachi Draas. Their deaths are on his head. The deaths of thousands more are on his head, the entire city of holy Antar! And now more each day here in Kalahar. This much is clear in my mind.”
He paused to stare up at the moons Qamar and Qaray silently sailing across the starry night out beyond his small square window. How many soldiers would never see the moons again? How many men and women, how many children? All because of the arrogance and selfishness of this one man, this Malachi Draas?
He dug his fingers into his legs, crushing the flesh with all his strength. The pain felt right and proper. He deserved pain for his failures. Just as others deserved pain for theirs. Two small dots of blood blossomed under his right hand. Two tears pattered on the floor.
“I do not trust the wheels of justice in this city, just as Gad the Judge did not trust them in Old Sahar.” Amos closed his eyes. “I know the ministers and the high tower wizards of Kalahar. They will discuss and delay for months or years. Malachi Draas won’t rot in a cell or burn in the square, he’ll be confined to a tower, living comfortably as long as the ministers think he might be valuable to them. Wizards don’t turn on their own. Draas won’t pay for his crimes. This much is certain in my heart.”
He placed his hand on the smooth steel wheel and clenched his teeth for a moment as his mind’s eye soared across his memories of his mission into the tunnels, across the still faces of the dead. “I know I’m just a man. I know there’s wrath in my blood. I know I want revenge for those men. I know that, and I know it’s wrong!” He pounded his fist on his bloody leg. “But I know the law and I know what justice is, and this wizard deserves to die for all the pain and misery he has caused. All the death. All the horror. Countless refugees are wandering the desert tonight because of him, their homes destroyed, their loved ones devoured…”
Amos rocked back and forth, his fists trembling, his jaw aching, his bloody leg throbbing, his weeping eyes burning. “Tell me, holy Gideon! Tell me to stay, and I’ll stay. Or tell me to go out there and do it, and I’ll do it. Tell me it’s the right thing to do. I think it is, but…” He shook his head. “I’m not sure, I don’t know. I’ve never done this before on my own. I need someone to tell me it’s the right thing to do. I need you to tell me. Please.”
The shield leaned against the wall in shadow, still and silent.
Amos lunged forward and grabbed the shield in both hands. “PLEASE!”
A searing silver-white light erupted from the shield, transforming the small cell into blinding glares and perfect black shadows. Amos gasped with relief and fell back against his cot, sagging and crying as the shield’s brilliant light slowly faded.
Sweating and shaking, Amos bowed his head. “Thank you. Thank you, just Gideon, thank you. Thank you for this sign.”
He took his time getting ready. First he washed himself. Then piece by piece, he donned his garb and armor. Sometimes the lay priests insisted on having a squire help him, as he was the only paladin in Kalahar and deserving of some decorum. But he prefered to prepare alone. Layer by layer, he became the holy knight, became the warrior and the judge, became the holy instrument of the angel. One by one, he took up his mantle, his shield, and his sword as he recited his duties.
Whispered prayers intermingled with whispered laws, lists of rights and wrongs, parables of crimes and punishments.
He took his time.
Amos emerged from the Shrine of Gideon well after midnight, clad head to foot in heavy gray steel and dark gleaming chitin mail. His blue cloak hung close to him as he crossed the empty streets of Kalahar, walking boldly from square to square, not caring if he was seen or not.
When he arrived at the prison, the sleep-eyed guards snapped to attention and unbarred the door without a word. He paused. “Malachi Draas?”
“The lower cells, sir.” The guards looked straight ahead as he nodded and continued inside.
His mere visage opened three more doors as the young soldiers wearing Kalahar red hurried out of his way, flattened themselves against the walls, and avoided his gaze.
Of course they did. They let him pass because they knew he was here in the name of justice, in the service of the angels. They knew that whatever he had come to do, it would be justice. True justice.
Amos strode all the way down to the entrance to the lower cells, a wide stair descending to the thick-walled cellars, where he encountered a barred door and a square-jawed sergeant who met the paladin with a hard stare, and silence.
“Malachi Draas,” Amos said.
“Did the minister send for you, sir?” the sergeant asked carefully.
“The angel Gideon sent for me,” he replied quietly.
The sergeant frowned. “Sir, as you are aware, I need to—”
A thundrous detonation rocked the floor and deafened both men for a brief moment. A thin cloud of dust spilled out from beneath the iron door, and muffled voices echoed in the corridor beyond.
“He’s escaping!” Amos roared, reaching for his sword.
The sergeant leapt toward the door, keys in hand. Upstairs, soldiers were shouting in confusion. The keys jangled, the door opened, and Amos rushed in. The inner corridor was choked with dust, and the soft crackle of falling rocks echoed from up ahead. Prisoners in their cells coughed and complained, demanding to be let out. Amos ignored them as he prowled forward, sword and shield raised, squinting through the dust.
Distant whispers penetrated the general noise. Amos heard men talking softly in the cell at the end of the hall, the cell from which all the dust was swirling and flowing.
“…see you got my message,” one man coughed.
“And I told you never to show up in my dreams again,” a second man grunted.
“Well, I figured I could either call you in your dreams, or let them torture me into revealing all your little secrets, Ezra. Which would have you prefered?” the first asked.
“It’s all clear, let’s go,” a woman hissed.
Amos moved faster, still trying to keep his armor from clanking as he went.
“Wait, wait, wait!” the first man pleaded. “Where’s my book? I need my book. They took it, it could be anywhere, and I—”
“By all means, stay and look for it,” the second man (Ezra?) said.
Amos found the door of the last cell cracked but still standing in its frame. Without hesitating, he raised his shield and charged straight at the iron-bound door, crying out, “By the will of Gideon, open!”
At the moment of impact, the shield raged with silver light in the likeness of a ram’s head, its great horns curling with celestial radiance, and the door shattered inward. Amos ran in just in time to see three figures duck through the shattered brick wall and into a narrow earthen tunnel. He dashed after them, but the close confines of the crudely dug tunnel caught at his boots and the edges of his armor, leaving him struggling to keep up with the fleeing fugitive.
“Malachi Draas!” he hollered into the darkness. “Halt and be judged for your crimes!”
A youthful voice called back faintly, “No thank you!”
Manuevering sideways with sword and shield held at awkward angles, Amos jogged up the tunnel as quickly as he could, and emerged from the dank shadows just a minute later through a ring of dislodged paving tiles in the courtyard behind the prison.
Running footsteps echoed from the lane to his left, and Amos sprinted after them. He heard them whispering and hissing at each other as they ran, catching words like “paladin” and “can’t believe we’re doing this” and “kill you myself”.
The paladin grimaced.
Barely a minute together, and they’re already at each other’s throats!
Amos raised his sword high, hollering, “Halt in the name of Gideon!” and radiant fire blazed in a great wheel rotating around the axis of the blade, illuminating all the buildings and lanes around him.
A muddled echo of voices began to grow louder with each passing moment and Amos saw a cheery glow of red and yellow torchlight dancing on the walls up ahead. People were clapping and dancing, musicians were tuning up, and everyone was laughing. The first song began to play.
A wedding dance.
And the fugitives ran straight toward it.
When Amos reached the edge of the market square where the wedding festivities had only just begun, the press of bodies and glare of firelight forced him into a shuffling walk with his blade lowered, its light extinguished. He waded through the tattered beggars and the sunken-eyed watchers until he reached the smiling revelers, singing and laughing and swaying to the tune. He yelled for everyone to make way, but few could hear him over the music. He firmly pushed the dancers aside with his shield, craning his neck to scan the crowd, but there was no sign of the robed wizard or his two confederates.
The paladin dashed and pushed, hastily begging a woman’s pardon or sharply asking a gentleman to move aside. The handful of people near him at any given moment would take note of him and shuffle quickly away with frightened eyes, sometimes grabbing a friend or child to pull them out of his way, huddling close to other family or friends to whisper and stare at the warrior rampaging through their midst. An older man failed to move aside quickly enough and the edge of the paladin’s shield caught his arm, tripping him over a knot of small children who shouted and cried as the elder fell on them. The song broke off as two of the musicians went to help the old man, and when the music resumed it was slower and more muted than before.
Amos spotted a gap in the crowd where the aromas of roasting goat and chicken, garlic flatbreads, stewing vegetables and spiced chickpeas filled the hot, close air. Yet when he passed by the tables of food, he found precious few dishes set out, far too few to feed the many people in the square, let alone the homeless masses gathered in the lanes outside it.
Unable to see where the wizard had gone, Amos hollered for the dancing people to stop the fugitives, for the smiling people to make way for him, but all he got in reply were pale flinches as the celebrants turned away, trying to avoid his gaze.
He saw no glimpse of his quarry.
No, no, no, they can’t get away, he can’t escape, not after what he’s done! Only a devil could loose the armies of hell upon our cities, destroy our homes, slaughter our families, and think he could continue to live, to walk freely…
Amos dashed and searched and jostled and peered. Sweat trickled down his face and neck, and his armor began to weigh heavier on his aching shoulders and knees.
“Everyone, stand back!” he ordered as he lifted his sword in both hands as though offering it to the varajah himself, and whispered, “By the wisdom of Gideon, seek the guilty!”
The sword glittered with desert frost and spun like a compass needle to point to the western lane, nearly tumbling from his hands as it turned. But he snatched up his weapon and plunged into the dark lane, running past a long row of beggars sitting in the shadows, refugees from fallen Antar, their thin hands outstretched in supplication. Amos ignored them, knowing that he would only have a few precious seconds before his sword stopped tugging him in the right direction.
Straight, left, straight, straight again, right…
The sword swung loose and heavy in his hand, no longer guiding him, and he knew better than to ask the same favor of his angel twice in one day. Indeed, he prefered not to utter the same holy invocation more than once per month, if he could manage it. It was an unspoken instinct among the few living paladins that the angels, while willing to help their mortal servants, did not like to be interrupted in their holy tasks any more than necessary.
But Amos didn’t need a compass now. Since leaving the wedding celebration, he had not been running toward some wizard’s tower, or the nearest city gate, or any other obvious destination for three criminals trying to escape him. They were heading toward the Basilica, and the only thing near the Basilica that could possibly benefit three fleeing fugitives was the rift.
The black pit.
The infernal stair.
The road to hell itself.
Only a madman would go into it willingly, but of course, this was the very wizard who cracked the jade seal and opened the rift in the first place.
Of course he’s mad.
Amos sprinted into the broad road in front of the Basilica just in time to see his prey walking up to the soldiers standing guard beside the jagged black scar in the ground. The wizard and his man-servant were talking to the red-cloaked guards at the barricade. The woman watched the road behind them, scanning the shadows for pursuit.
“Sieze them!” Amos shouted as he ran up the street. “In the name of Gideon, arrest those three now!”
The soldiers froze for a moment, their heads turned toward the approaching paladin, and then they turned back toward the three strangers and started grabbing their arms. Wrestling in their grip, the young black-haired man in the long black robes cried out a strange word and a sudden puff of wind lifted a cloud of dust from the road so thick that Amos lost all sight of the criminals and the soldiers as well.
As he charged into the cloud, Amos swung his shield to fan the dust away. Coughing and squinting, he stumbled into one red-cloaked soldier, and then a second.
“Find them!” he roared. “Don’t let them escape!”
He dashed left and right, but found only more soldiers rushing about through the spreading cloud, unable to see more than an arm’s length in any direction. Spitting the grit from his mouth, Amos raced in the direction of the rift, looking for the black gash in the ground along the front of the gray Vault and the red Basilica, looking for the broken stair down into the darkness.
Between the cold walls and the cracked cobbles, he found the rift and just a stone’s throw away, he saw a man in black robes climbing down into the shadows.
“No!” Amos felt a terrible chill in his bones, a weakness, a hollowness. But for a dozen paces, he was about to fail. The wizard would escape. His victims would know no justice. And the angel’s faith in him would prove unfounded.
But not yet, not yet! I still have this moment, I can still do something!
Amos hurled his sword. He had never thrown his sword before in his life, never practiced, never tried, never even considered it. But the idea of it struck him like a revelation, and he sent the long white blade spinning end over end, whirling through the dust, flying like the Wheel of Gideon itself, faster than any man could hope to outrun.
And in that moment, the dust cloud thinned to reveal a young soldier in red diving toward the rift, his arms reaching for the man in black, crying out, “I have him, sir!”
The whirling sword slammed into the soldier’s back, and he gasped as he fell flat on the road, his head lolling over the edge of the rift.
“No!” Amos raced to the soldier’s side and fell to his knees. A glance at the dust-shrouded rift revealed the wizard was gone. With shaking hands, Amos pulled his sword from the young man’s back and rolled him over. Blood ran everywhere. The soldier stared up at the eternal, uncaring stars.
Boots thumped behind him, and Amos heard the other soldiers muttering, gasping, questioning. Someone went running for a medic. Someone went to bang on the doors of the Basilica to summon a cleric.
Amos placed his hand over the wound and whispered, “By the mercy of Gideon.”
No radiance flared, no power thrummed, and the wound did not heal.
The blood flowed. The corpse stared.
“By the mercy of Gideon!”
The blood felt hot and thick, sticking to his skin.
“By the mercy of Gideon.”
Amos wept. He clutched the dead soldier in his shaking hands. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I just wanted justice for the dead. I’m so, so sorry.”
“So am I,” a deep voice snapped.
Amos looked up to see the silvery outline of a man standing over him. “Oh my…Holy Gideon?”
The angel stared down with hard eyes and a cruel grimace.
“I’m sorry, Holy Gideon.” Amos shook his head. “I was trying to do what you told me—”
“What I told you?” the angel’s voice was cold and metallic in the night air.
Amos nodded. “I asked if I should seek out justice against the wizard, and you gave me a sign, so I went to the prison…”
“Yes, the light, the light of your justice.” Amos nodded again, his eyes on the silvery feet before him.
“The light…of the shield.” Gideon bit off the word shield like it was a poisoned apple, bitter and burning in his mouth. “The shield protects. The shield is for the living, not the dead. Justice is for the living, not the dead. My paladins are shields, not swords. We are Law, not Chaos. Life, not death.”
“Look at him.” The angel pointed at the dead soldier. “Look at him! What have you wrought tonight, paladin? Have you brought law and order? Have you delivered justice? Have you healed the sick or fed the hungry? Have you raised up the hopeless? Have you made the world a better place than it was this morning? Or have you run through the streets like a mad dog, frightening and slaying the innocent? Is this your justice? Because it is not mine. WHERE IS MY JUSTICE?”
Amos shook, every muscle in his body trembling out of control. He wanted to vomit. He pawed helplessly at the dead soldier to straighten his cloak and shirt. “But that’s not what they…they taught me to…the law, I know the law, I recite the law, oh saints and angels…” He stared down into his bloody palms. “I didn’t mean to… I just…I made a mistake.”
“So did I.” The angel stepped back and a soft roar of thunder boomed across the cloudless sky as the silvery figure faded away into the shadows.
“What does that mean?” Amos looked up. “What does…?”
His wide-eyed, miserable stare fell on his bloody sword, and the bright crimson weapon began crumbling away into soft, colorless dust.
The weight of his shield on his arm suddenly melted away as it too dissolved into fine grains of gray sand.
“No, no, please, holy Gideon, please!” Amos cried out to the stars and the moons, but the street was silent. Twisting around, he saw the soldiers spread out in a half-circle behind him, their faces contorted with pity and disgust.
Amos staggered to his feet as the rest of his armor and garb fell away, decaying to nothing with each beat of his heart until he stood naked, bloody, and shivering in the road. “Please…I made a mistake, I know the law, I know what’s just, I know…”
“His name was Simon,” one of the men spat at him as he pointed at the dead soldier.
Amos fell silent and looked down at the body.
“He was my friend,” another said.
“Saints, who’s gonna tell Miriam?” a third muttered.
“What are we gonna tell his mum?” someone asked.
They all glared at Amos. “Where’s your precious justice, paladin? Where’s Simon’s justice?”
Amos took a step toward them and his bare foot plunged into cold, soft sand. The city was gone, the soldiers vanished. He stood alone on a low dune, looking about at strange broken walls of glinting crystal sitting on small islands of black stone. A perfect black sky stretched overhead, and the only light came from the muted glow of a few pale blue lichens and mosses clinging to the rock. Shaking and clutching himself for warmth, he shuffled in a circle, scanning the dark horizons, seeing only sand, stone, and crystal.
“Oh please, Holy Gideon,” he prayed. “I know I failed. I was…I was stupid and…please, just send me to prison and I’ll—”
“PRISON IS FOR MEN.” The presence of the angel pressed down on him as though the air itself were stone and iron weights on his mind and heart.
Amos fell to his knees as the voice boomed across the earth, echoing uncannily, as though he were huddled inside a great cavern deep in the bowels of the world. He gasped out, “I’m…I’m a man. A guilty man.”
“YOU ARE A PALADIN, MY PALADIN, UPHOLDING THE LAW IN MY NAME, PROTECTING THE INNOCENT IN MY NAME, WIELDING THE POWERS OF CREATION IN MY NAME…” The booming voice faded to a terrible whisper. “…and you killed in my name.”
“BEHOLD!” The moss glowed a bit brighter, illuminating more of the broken crystal walls. “The city of Ix. Once a shining paradise of wisdom, justice, and peace. Now a ruin, destroyed by evil many ages ago. But one day, the living will have need of this place again. Your sentence…is to rebuild it.”
Shivering, Amos looked about the gloomy cavern, hearing no trickle of water or murmur of life, no sign of people, no tools, no clothes. Only sand, stone, and broken crystal. “H-how?”
“With great effort.” The heavy presence of the angel receded up into the darkness and the moss dimmed to its natural state.
Amos shuffled a few steps through the cold, empty lanes of the dead city of Ix, barely able to see, hearing nothing, unable to stop shivering.