Darkness Ascending by James A. Hillebrecht on the Independent Author Index
In this third and final novel of the Paladin Trilogy, the dark purpose of the demonic scepter, the Ohric, is revealed at last. The Juggernaut is gone, Jalan’s Drift is broken, and the Paladin has been cast down into darkness. Nothing now stands in the way of the scepter’s true intent, and the Ohric now gathers all its forces to exert against a hidden monastery locked in the middle of an impassible wood and guarded by a legion of warrior monks sworn to defend the walls with their lives. They have good reason for their fealty. Secured deep beneath the monastery beyond a deadly labyrinth lies a talisman of power forged by the gods themselves to give dominion over all the creatures of the earth. And this is the treasure for which the Ohric’s dark master now extends his hand…
Father Joshua reeled backwa rds amid the crowd on the Third Wall of Jalan’s Drift, eyes wide, heart thundering, unable to grasp all that had transpired in such little time.
The entire city was in chaos. The great battle between champions had ended with the re-animation of the Juggernaut, and just as quickly, the horror had been blasted out of existence, taking the Paladin Darius with it . The Arch-Wizard Malcolm had appeared unexpectedly right in their midst, a guardian angel revealed to save them from the dread forces unleashed against the city, and the next moment, the man had been obliterated by the very powers he had come to challenge. The attending Median who h ad watched over the struggle between champions and was prepared to enforce the conclusion had declared victory for the city, only to h ave Duke Argus emerge with the green scepter called the Oh ric and encapsulate Brillis, the Mayor of the Drift, in green fire, before claiming command of both the invading Silver Horde and the city itself.
Joshua felt stone against his back, some kind of support, and he grabbed it blindly like a drowning man. He was one of the few who had truly believed that Darius would prevail against Regnar’s champions, despite the overwhelming odds, for he had seen Darius fight before and understood his strength came from the purity he carried within him. The destruction of Malcolm and the emergence of Argus with the Ohric seemed almost like secondary effects from the failure of Darius to prevail.
Someone ran into him, and he staggered, losing his hold on the stone and not caring. Above, Argus was wielding the Ohric and one of the Dukes was addressing the stunned crowd, but none of it ‘was registering on Joshua’s mind. There were other yellow cassocks around him, the uniform of priests of Mirna, but he didn’t even remember that he had been standing with a number of his brother priests to witness the combat. He felt a vague need to get off the rampart, to retreat, to…hide. Evil was laughing triumphantly, the city was lost, and the Paladin was gone.
One other fragment of thought kept nagging at his consciousness, a combination of destiny, black irony, and guilt all rolled together. I brought Darius out of prison. I set him free. Only to bring him to this fate…
Somebody grabbed his arm and pulled him hard off to the side, half-dragged him into the shadow of one of the guard towers on the wall. Joshua blinked and stared at his assailant, a priest only a few years older than him with burning eyes and a h ard face.
“Father Rathman?” he said, the man just one more piece of the madness.
“We h ave to get out!” Rathman hissed at him. “We have to get out of the city!”
Joshua shook his head slightly, more at the confusion than the suggestion. Rathman was far from being a friend. Indeed, his testimony against Darius had been one of the factors that contributed to the Paladin’s conviction for heresy.
Rathman, however, was dearly not concerned with the past. He shook Joshua hard, making the young man’s teeth rattle, and snapped, “Get hold of yourself! We need to get word of this to the others as quickly as possible! We have to spread the alarm!”
Joshua blinked as the thought went home. Of course. Even if Jalan’s Drift were lost, there were still all the Southlands that would resist. Warhaven. Gemsbrook. The Church itself. With a shock of anxiety, he thought of the Patriarch sitting in the Cathedral of Ascension, the very heart of the Church of Mirna, and he knew it was only a matter of time before this new tyrant marched against that holy site.
That called his attention back to his companion. Rathman’s desperation went beyond the need to simply alert their superiors to the new danger, and another connection clicked into place. Rathman had made a personal enemy of Argus by accusing him of serving the black arts, and he would be one of the first victims of the Duke’s new power. Of course, that may mean he dies only a few minutes before the rest of the priests of Mirna, Joshua realized.
“We need to get word to the Patriarch,” he said, but that seemed the limit of his capacity, a single thought with no sense of how to execute it.
Rathman shook him again, even harder. “First we have to get out of the city! We have to get out!”
The shaking helped to clear Joshua’s head a little, and he looked closer at the other priest’s wide eyes and locked teeth, the signs of intensity and terror. He could see Rathman was even more staggered by the turns of events than he was, the new reality shaking him to the very roots of his being. Of course. For years, Argus had been the center of the man’s fears and loathing, the ultimate threat to the Church and its people, and now to see him standing supreme over the city and all the Southlands must be rending his sanity apart. He needed an alternative, any alternative, to the nightmare leering down from the rooftop above them.
That’s why he grabbed me, Joshua realized. He sees me as a last link to the Paladin. The last link to hope.
“We have to get out!” Rathman snarled again. “We have to escape before Argus’ men come for us!”
Joshua nodded, the immediate threat penetrating through the last of the numbness that held him. Thoughts broke loose, tumbling together, an avalanche that helped to form a plan.
“There’s a stable just south of the city that is used by the forces of Norealm,” he said . “If we can get there, we should be able to get help, perhaps even horses.”
Rathman nodded instantly and released one of Joshua’s arms. But he held the other as hard as ever as if unable to totally release h im. As if desperate for the reassurance of human contact.
“Come on!” Joshua said, heading towards the nearest stair. “There will soon be a flood of people making for the gates. And Argus won’t leave them open for long.”
Copyright© James A. Hillebrecht. All rights reserved.