Maliken Grimm stood in his cavernous, billowing tent at the base of the magma fields and surveyed the map of Caldavar. It was his personal map, and the only one like it in existence.
Jaru the Corrupted Disciple had offered it as a gift, spreading the expansive map before him and telling his Lord General, “I ordered the shamans to create this for you, and they did not disappoint. The ink is derived from the blood of Amiteah the Empath, collected after a battle at the base of the Sefir Tree.” Jaru lifted the edge to show the underside. “And see here, my lord. The map is inked upon the hide of an Emerald Warden. Both have been imbued by the shamans with the tortured souls of warriors from the Fourth Clan of Man: the Scouts. They are compelled to see all, and report. Now, watch my lord.”
Maliken had smiled as the ink marking Legion and Hellbourne units faded, shifted, and grew as they moved through Caldavar. He focused on a blurry array of his soldiers along the river in Darkwood Vale, unmoving as a single line of Legion men approached.
“A patrol,” Jaru whispered.
“An ambush,” Maliken corrected.
They watched as the slashes denoting Hellbourne warriors sprang into sharp relief on the map, out of their concealment and into the flank of the Legion unit. One by one those round symbols glistened briefly as fresh blood, then seeped into the hide and vanished. The Hellbourne slashes lingered at the site of the massacre.
Jaru cleared his throat. “They are feeding, my lord.”
“Let them. They earned it.”
The map had been invaluable to Maliken, an advantage kept secure in his minimal kit as he prowled the front lines looking for gaps in the Legion defenses. His Lord General’s tent was large, indeed, though the space was not for material things, but for assembling his subordinates and disseminating tactical orders in an efficient manner.
Efficiency, Maliken knew, was one of the attributes that set him before all others in the ways of warfare. If a thousand prisoners needed executing, there was no sense wasting manpower and sharp steel to entertain a bloodthirsty crowd, be they human or daemon. Simply drive the prisoners off a cliff by fire and spearpoint and let gravity do the work.
Now, he required an efficient manner of locating and assassinating this Blind Prophet and his Five Disciples who were causing such a ruckus. The fringes of his map rolled over the edges of his dining table, a slab of petrified wood cut from a bulging root of the World Tree, and he searched for a sign of them among the creeping, shifting ink.
Maliken sipped his bloodbroth and waited. He suspected these rumored “soldiers of Sol” possessed a magic that kept their location from him. Understandable, and respectable. But there was also no sign of the daemons he had sent to kill them.
He had dispatched Tressa the Succubus to lure his own flesh, Jeraziah, to his death. Maliken vaguely remembered when he had been human and how hot his blood had coursed after battle. If his son had a fraction of that passion in him, Tressa would make short work of it.
Now she was missing.
As was Vament the Torturer, who had been pulled so far into the Hellbourne fold he no longer knew his own name. Maliken placed him in his cave of horrors to wait for Tressa’s string of victims.
Now the map showed that cavern empty.
Also notable was the absence of Chronos, who had recently set upon a Legion encampment and scoured it from the map completely as Maliken watched. Fine work, indeed, but where was he now?
Maliken inspected every inch of the map and felt…not troubled, certainly.
He went so far as to doubt the accuracy of the infernal map. Perhaps the delirious shamans with their ridiculous bones and elixirs had been too intoxicated by the spirits to do a good job of it.
That suspicion grew when the Lord General glanced at his own location on the map. He traveled with no less than fifty elite guardsmen, and the map showed half of that.
He scowled as the slashes surrounding his tent disappeared in groups until none remained.
“Damned shamans,” Maliken growled and strode to the heavy canvas flaps. He tore through them, furious at the conjurers but also with himself for relying on enchantments when his own eyes were all he could truly trust.
He blinked in the torchlight and wondered if even that was true. Arrayed before him were twelve Legion soldiers the likes of which he had never seen. They stood above the steaming corpses of his guards, their dazzling armor and weapons showing no rust or dents. Not even blood.
Yet it was the lack of something else that struck him hardest: fear.
These warriors were not afraid of him.
The man in the center stepped forward. He wore a hooded purple cloak, the edges made of burning feathers, and carried a double-bladed staff. This he stuck into the bloody soil, and with the same hand pulled a thick, ancient book from his satchel. He drew the hood away from his face and let it fall onto his shoulders.
“The Blind Prophet,” Maliken said.
Those white eyes stared through him. “Grimm.”
“Have you come to kill me?”
“Only part of you.”
The Lord General felt daemonic power stirring within his sword. It smelled battle, conquest. He studied each enemy before him, then scoffed. “You brought my son with you.”
“He brought me,” the Blind Prophet corrected.
“You can’t truly believe Virtue will overcome Sin. Not even in Sol’s best era could he compete with Greed, Lust, and Envy. Those led to Sloth, Wrath and Gluttony, each sin feeding the others until Pride brought the sinners before Sol for salvation. Your pathetic priests cleansed them, set them on the righteous path where they encountered War, Pestilence, Famine, and Death. This eroded their virtue until they fell again to Sin.”
“Virtue is temporary, blind man. It is a hobby. Sin is everlasting.”
“We know of Sin, Maliken. Your son embodied Pride itself, yet here he stands in the blessed armor of Omen, of the Fifth Clan of Men, from which you came.”
“And what is it that compels him to walk beneath that heavy armor? Virtue? Pride?” A sly grin pulled at Maliken’s lips. “From the thunder in his eyes, I daresay it is Wrath.”
Jeraziah stepped forward. “It is for Sol to determine your fate. I am simply his blade.”
“Keep telling yourself that, boy. Though it doesn’t get the bloodstains out any faster, does it?” Maliken rested his hand on the hilt of his cursed blade. “So. Shall we begin?”
One of the Virtues, a woman of soft beauty entwined with flowers, said, “We do not wish to harm you, Lord General.”
Maliken squinted. “Vament, is that you? This priest made you hang up your chains for landscaping, eh? And Chronos, time has not been good to you. Your lack of urgency will make you easy pickings. I feel sorry for both of you, but it is you, Tressa, who disappoints me most.”
The daemon he had once called Succubus did not flinch from his gaze.
“My body and spirit are whole now,” she said. “I no longer yearn for completion. Though I remember how many victims you set in my path, promising they would fill the void within me.”
Maliken cocked an eyebrow. “Did they not?”
“No. And now that I am whole, I wish the same for you. Despite how you used me.”
“I am more than whole,” Maliken said, patting his scabbard. “I call upon power that would incinerate any other man, wield it in ways that have brought Sol’s army to its knees.”
“That is where we fight best,” the Blind Prophet said “And you are certain that you are holding the sword? Or is the sword holding you?”
Maliken sighed. He was not afraid of these Disciples and Virtues, but he had never fought them before. The towering brutes Orbode and Temperance looked to be a handful in a melee, and the warrior called Diligence had the hard eyes of a relaxed killer.
Know your enemy, Maliken thought, before you seek to destroy him.
“It seems you are determined not to engage in battle.”
“Only as a last resort,” Jeraziah said. “It is Sol’s wish.”
Then Sol has wished you all to die here, Maliken thought as he pulled the tent flap aside. “I have been called the scourge of mankind, the Traitor King, and Maliken the Blood Drinker, among other names a priest should never hear. But never a bad host. Come, out of the night and away from these stinking corpses. See how long it takes before you arrive at your last resort.”
Maliken folded his Warden hide map and draped it over a half-filled sword rack, then took the high-backed chair at the head of the table. There were ample seats along the length for the Disciples and Virtues, but all chose to stand except for the Blind Prophet, who sat opposite Maliken at the far end of the massive table. The other Legion soldiers stood behind him, stone-faced with weapons at hand.
“Wine?” Maliken gestured at the smaller table near the canvas wall. “I have some barrels donated by a caravan trying to slip through Grimm’s Crossing. I cannot speak for its worth, but you’re welcome to it.”
“Donated?” Jeraziah said. “You mean you slaughtered them and took what they carried.”
Maliken shrugged. “It is my crossing.”
Jeraziah’s fingers curled around his sword hilt, opened, closed again.
“Calm yourself,” Maliken said. “You always were like a horse ready to bolt.”
“Who are you to say what I was? From the day I was born you cared only for yourself.”
“Long before that, boy.”
The Virtue Temperance put one of his four hands on Jeraziah’s shoulder. “We must keep our composure, my King. It is his desire to unsettle us.”
Jeraziah pulled a deep breath. The Virtue Chastity touched his face and said, “Desire does not have power over us, Jeraziah. We need of nothing. Only to deliver Sol’s word.”
“Sol?” Maliken scoffed. “You’re here for a dying myth?”
“Still your tongue,” the Blind Prophet said. “He has sent us with a message, but He will not fault us for striking you down should you deride Him again.”
“Sol can fall head-first into the Scar and land where the serpents of the Seventh Pit have squatted for centuries.” Maliken held his hands out. “There. Let the striking down commence.”
“You will provoke no Wrath from us,” the Virtue Patience said.
“Then what good are you?”
The Blind Prophet’s fingers danced over the surface of the table, reading its history. “As I said, we carry a message.”
“From Sol.” Maliken did not bother to keep the boredom from his tone.
“May I guess? Stop slaughtering his worshippers. He has so few left, and the coffers are running dry. What will the priests use to pay their whores?”
“The coffers are overflowing,” the Virtue Charity said.
Chastity nodded. “And the women of the night are being saved as we speak.”
“You do realize,” Maliken said, “you’re making my recruiting efforts much easier.”
The Blind Prophet ignored him. “The message is one you have not heard, nor one you would expect. I also feel it is vastly undeserved, but it is not up to me.”
Maliken’s interest piqued. “Are you here to surrender?”
Jeraziah drew his sword. The Virtue Diligence stepped forward and blocked his path, but Maliken was already on his feet with blade in hand.
“Let him come!” Spittle flew from his mouth as he roared. “Stand aside, wanderer, and give him his wish! To die, to finally join his mother so he may look upon her and see what he stole from me.”
The air in the tent grew thick and heavy, like an armory filled with the fumes of sapper’s mines—a single spark would begin a chain reaction of destruction that would leave no survivors. Father and son glared at each other, two kings brought to the brink of savagery, until Jeraziah slid the blade into its scabbard. Diligence stayed close, as did Temperance.
“I imagine the passing of your wife in childbirth has something to do with Sol’s message,” the Blind Prophet said. He nodded to himself and spoke softly. “As does your bewitching at the hands of the shapeshifter Sylvia. Perhaps you were not yourself when you chose to open the Scar and unleash the Second Corruption upon Newerth. When you chose to slaughter man, woman, child, and beast, with no regard for your people, your own children. Or your own soul.”
Maliken lay his cursed sword across the table and stood over it. “Out with it, old man. Speak the empty words of Sol so I may etch them on the tomb that will soon hold all of you.”
“It is only one word,” the Blind Prophet said. “Redemption.”
The Virtues and Disciples—Jeraziah in particular—expected Maliken to scoff yet again. They readied themselves for the inevitable onslaught from the fallen king, and were shocked when the daemon Lord General sank to his chair.
“Redemption?” he whispered. “For which of my sins?”
“Each and all,” the Blind Prophet said.
Maliken’s eyes darted around the tent, yet his guests could not see the ruinous past he replayed on the canvas walls. The past he had sworn he would never revisit, never regret, for to do so would render every tormented moment of his life moot.
He saw the carnage he brought upon his brothers and sisters when he used an iron fist to unite the Five Clans. The piles of carcasses during the Beast Bone Years. The primal urge to bash his newborn son upon the rocks when the priests told him his beloved wife, Andraste, had died giving birth. An urge he contained, yes, but the shame of its very existence haunted him.
He relived his fury and humiliation upon the realization his precocious daughter, Ophelia, was half shapeshifting nightmare, brought into the world by the ageless creature Sylvia. His years of madness and self-imposed exile as he searched tirelessly for a way to bring mankind back to his days of prominence and purity. To rid the world of conniving gods who ripped loved-ones away despite years of devotion as His chosen soldier. To eliminate the magical things which no man truly understood and could wreak unending havoc upon his life.
Maliken remembered that night within the cramped cottage miles from any village or road. He’d built it from timber and moss and dragged to it every book he could salvage or steal, pored through the pages until he closed the last leather-bound cover and realized there was only one solution.
There was no returning to what once was.
Indeed, what may have never been.
The only way was to start anew.
He visited his children in their dreams, called them to the clearing upon which he would implore them to sacrifice themselves and their armies. All of mankind, every Beast within the horde.
Starve the gods of men and nature and let them rot. Whatever rose from the ashes, let it follow a truer path than the inhabitants of Newerth.
Maliken recalled the moment when he realized his children had too much of him in their blood, too much of their mothers, to step willingly into the grave. It was also the moment he knew it was too late. The earth tore open and the daemons poured out to claim his soul and those he had summoned to the clearing.
His children survived that day, and many since. Maliken still believed scorching Newerth to its bedrock was the only solution.
After all he had done, what choice did he have?
Maliken brought his gaze back to the Blind Prophet, who said, “Your tears are true, son of Sol.”
Maliken touched his cheek and brought his fingertips away, marveling at the drops glistening upon them. “I have had no water in my body for decades.”
“Why would you? Water supports life. Welcome back, King Grimm.”
“What…what must I do to claim this redemption?”
“Simply choose to accept it,” the Blind Prophet said, “and walk forward in Sol’s light. Will you do this?”
Maliken searched the faces of the Virtues and Disciples for deceit and found none. His son, however…
“Jeraziah, why are you not happy? Your god has offered me a place at your side. Would you not accept me?”
Jeraziah’s jaw clenched. “Every soldier and citizen of the Legion has suffered because of you. They have endured years of hardship and staggering loss at the hands of your bloodthirsty armies. And now you’re given the chance to cleanse yourself of these sins as though they never occurred. My people will not tolerate this.”
“Understandable,” Maliken said. “But apparently…your god wills it. So where do you stand?”
“The same place I have always stood. At the forefront of my soldiers and citizens.”
Maliken nodded. “If I am indeed redeemed, I will strive to earn your trust, my son.”
Jeraziah was unmoved. “Don’t bother. I cannot foresee the day I will believe your atonement anything but a ruse.”
“A shame,” Maliken said. “But upon me, not you.” He turned to the Blind Prophet. “I accept this gift of Sol.”
The Blind Prophet did not hesitate. He opened the Grimoire of Power and read, “You relinquish the power bestowed upon you by daemonic forces?”
“You forsake all Pride of what you once were, what you are, and what you may become?”
“I am ash in Sol’s hands. Let him form me as He sees fit.”
“Then bow, and arise as Humility, the final Virtue of Sol’s Heavens.”
The Blind Prophet spoke then in the tongue of Sol, and the Virtues and Disciples watched as Maliken Grimm clutched the edge of the table and gasped. The glowing runes on his flesh were mended and his gray, necrotic body was flushed with warm blood. A glowing symbol of the World Tree spread across his chest and he felt himself connect with the life that flows through all things.
Blessed armor formed over his feet and legs, chest and arms, and pauldrons grew from the shoulders into icons of devotion and respect for his children—Jeraziah’s stoic helm on his left, Ophelia’s bestial headdress on his right.
Pure white wings burst from his back and caressed the walls of the tent, drawing another gasp from Maliken and compelling the Virtues and Disciples to drop to a knee and bow their heads in recognition of Sol’s greatness.
All except Jeraziah, who remained standing, his hand on his sword hilt. “My eyes will not leave you, lest you choose that moment to reveal your true self.”
Maliken’s breath heaved with exhilaration. “I welcome your gaze, my son. For this is my true self, and it has missed you greatly.”
Jeraziah struggled to maintain his composure.
The Virtue Kindness said, “Go to him. He yearns for your forgiveness.”
Patience said, “His soul has waited long years to rejoin you.”
Even Diligence spoke. “All watches must come to an end. Stand down, King Jeraziah, and be with your father. Be his son.”
Jeraziah cuffed the tears from his cheeks, gazed upon the redeemed Maliken for a moment—Humility indeed—then turned and left the tent.
The Blind Prophet secured the Grimoire in his satchel and stood. “He will see the way of Sol, eventually. But only if you walk the path you have sworn to follow.”
“I can see no other,” Humility said. He lifted the heavy blade from the table and slid it into the wide scabbard on his hip. When he looked up he faced swords, warhammers, claws, and a massive whirling spiked ball and chain.
“You swore to forsake all things daemonic,” the Blind Prophet warned. “That blade was fed by your cursed soul and the blood of the Legion. Leave it behind.”
Humility patted the scabbard. “It has been blessed by Sol, my friend. I can feel it. What once carried the stain of the Hellbourne will now bring righteous ruin upon them.”
His blazing white wings flapped, quivering the torchlight and rippling the tent walls.
“I swear to you all, brothers and sisters. This blade serves Sol and no other.”
The Blind Prophet hesitated, then nodded and pushed through the flaps. The Virtues and Disciples followed, including Humility.
He kept one hand on the scabbard and allowed a small smile when he felt the blade stir within.