Pushing through the harsh green foliage of deciduous trees, the golden gauntlet of King Jeraziah could be seen only as a flicker in the moonlight, obscured almost fully by the dusk that enveloped the northern forest of Caldavar. It was in this shrouded stretch of woods, miles from the nearest guard post or wagon trail, that the Blind Prophet had seen visions of the next to be redeemed. Through Sol it was commanded, and so it was to be, that the King must deliver the unholy on his own, venturing to the haven where creatures of the night slither silently, preying on those who carry not enough light of their own.
Jeraziah stood patiently beside a crumbling oak with precarious scratchings, his own breath echoing through his helmet, too loud, he suspected, for anyone to assume he was in hiding. The armor of Sol was beginning to weigh heavy against his frame after hours of trudging through dense thickets and murky streams without a place to sit and rest. His sword and shield remained in his aching arms, never touching the dirt of the forest floor, as he stared into the bleakness offered by the night. His head bobbed as sleep attempted to encumber him, but he fastened his hands tighter each time he realized what was happening.
The stars seemed to dance and play above the helmet of the King. Pulsing with light, but offering little through the shrubbery, Jeraziah contemplated their emotions. He remembered, vaguely, being taught about them by the court scientists as a boy: how it was speculated that every star was only the light from a long dead piece of rock, the shine a mere echo of a fallen soldier, travelling through the cosmos with no purpose. And still, they seemed unaffected, delighted to frolic as ghosts their entire lives. He exhaled heavily.
A short giggle permeated the cold night air. Jeraziah snapped awake, looking hurriedly around the vicinity. The laughter bounced from tree to tree, as if the forest itself had come to life, mocking Jeraziah for his folly of entering the domain of the wicked. The wind picked up, and the long, thin branches of the oak rubbed themselves against the King’s polished armor. They seemed to gain an erotic satisfaction from the touch of cold steel, the scratching sound intertwining with the breeze to generate a sickening, pleasurable moan. A pair of glowing green eyes peered at him, nestled between two nearby tree trunks, and instantly he knew not what he was searching for, but what was searching for him.
Jeraziah drew his shield closer and held his sword tightly.
“What’s wrong? A big, bad knight like you scared of a little fun?”
Tressa the succubus emerged from the gloomy shade of the trees, stepping in rhythm to Jeraziah’s heartbeat. Her tail swirled around her body flirtatiously, the tip waving to Jeraziah. Large wings spread forth from her back, their veins throbbing with anticipation; they scraped the bark of the trees, leaving tiny scratch marks in their wake. Despite her demonic appearance, she possessed a virtually irresistible allure, the perfect curves of her body standing in stark contrast to the sharp edges and gnarled limbs of the aging flora.
“So,” she asked wryly, uncoiling her tail and using the tip to stroke Jeraziah’s chin. “What brings you into my neck of the woods?”
“Sol has asked that I reclaim you for his army.”
The succubus held her bosom and cackled, her wings flaring wide. Birds flew from their nests as her voice rang to the top of the treeline.
“Oh my,” she sang. “That’s just wonderful! I’ve been waiting for someone to come along and save me; little did I know it would be the strong, handsome King of the Legion himself!”
She reached out with a seductive hand, gliding her index finger up and down the blade of Jeraziah’s sword.
“Mm, it certainly is big. Is that why they made you King?”
Jeraziah quickly pulled his blade, slicing the finger of the succubus. She shrieked and jumped backward, clutching her hand tightly. Blood trickled from the open wound, a small river following a large drop, slowly cascading down the smooth pink skin of her forearm. She shot a grimace at Jeraziah, then placed her mouth close to her elbow and ran her tongue sensually from the bottom of her arm to the tip of her finger, allowing the tiny pool of blood to rest momentarily in the curve of her tongue before swallowing it.
“Do not try to deceive me, daemon,” Jeraziah warned. “I know full well that you are a deviant and a temptress. What you lack is not another body to warm yours, but the warmth offered by divinity.”
“That wasn’t very nice,” she grumbled. “But I guess you like to be naughty. I can be naughty too…”
The succubus locked her eyes onto Jeraziah’s. Immediately, he felt a sensation in the pit of his stomach. It flittered as if full of butterflies, then flew through his body with haste: from each nerve ending in every finger and toe, to all corners of his mind, gliding without cessation along the walls of his body like thieves in a temple. He loosened his grip on the handles of his sword and shield and his eyes darted between them, trying in vain to keep them lifted.
“Feeling a little weak in the knees?”
She leaned in close and her gaze intensified. Jeraziah’s heart beat faster and louder, shaking his chestplate with miniature earthquakes. The succubus ran her hand over his large shoulder pauldron and brushed his cheek with her lips, leaving behind a stinging kiss. She giggled as she had earlier, and another breeze blew through the forest. The weight was too much for the King; one of his legs buckled as he struggled to retain control of his own body.
“Baby, don’t you understand? Even royalty bows to me.” She imitated the legs of a person with her fingers, walking daintily across Jeraziah’s waistcloth, then slid her hand under his belt. “You’re mine now.”
A sudden burst of light spilled forth from the seams in Jeraziah’s armor, igniting the dead leaves of the forest floor and catching nearby branches on fire. The succubus was thrown backward by the force, hitting her head against the rotting trunk of an adjacent oak. The tiny clearing was illuminated, casting shadows that danced nervously on leaves hanging tenaciously to their branches. A bright aura surrounded the King as he stood once more, empowered by righteousness, his armor gleaming and reflective.
To the succubus, it was nearly blinding; she howled and shut her eyes tightly, covering them with an arm that was once stained by blood. She curled her legs up under her as she tried to sit up, propping herself against the old oak. The claws of her free hand dug into the scorched bark, gripping forcefully as she straightened her back.
“You have been given a rare gift,” Jeraziah explained. “A choice from the holy one himself: leave behind your wretchedness and embrace the glory of Sol, who cleanses and protects, providing love beyond measure, or continue to seek temporary bliss, wandering hopelessly in the land of the dead.”
The succubus peeked between her fingers, her head still turned to the side. “Is he as charming as you?”
Jeraziah snarled, his eyes glowing white like the Prophet’s: “Do you tempt Sol as he stares into your eyes with his own?”
As the succubus opened her mouth wide, revealing fangs, she pushed off the tree trunk, leaping at Jeraziah. He lifted his sword high, then dug the tip into the ground with incredible strength. Another explosion of light tore through the cracks in the ground, incinerating the area and blasting the succubus out of the air. She landed in a contorted posture, injuring her arm with a gasp, and slumped near the rotten tree. Her clothes had been singed, baring her naked body completely, and burns covered parts of her limbs. She promptly wrapped her arms around her body and curled into a fetal position, facing away from the King.
“You have been exposed and your shame laid bare before Sol!” Jeraziah shouted, withdrawing the sword from the dirt and pointing it at the succubus. “Your nakedness writhes in agony, transparent to the creatures of the earth. Now you are given a final chance.”
A long silence overtook the forest. Dawn broke through the trees, but Jeraziah’s armor remained as bright and illustrious as ever. Ash blew from the wavering stalks of grass that remained, floating into the morning air until they became invisible. There were no birds to alert the two that a change had taken place in the atmosphere, but they seemed irrelevant: the stillness would have remained in the blighted circle where man and demon endured. Tiny, crackling flames, a reminder of Sol’s power, produced the only noise, powered by the death of rocks long gone.
What Jeraziah had expected to hear—an answer—did not come. In its place, breaking the painful silence, was a quiet, stifled cry. From behind the tangled head of hair, facing opposite the King, the demon sobbed: inaudibly at first, then louder, until it became uncontrollable. Her tears fell from downcast eyes, caressing her cheekbones before disappearing into the black dirt. Jeraziah sheathed his sword, then removed the waistcloth from the back of his armor. He walked toward the succubus, a gracious smile spreading across his face.
“Come,” he said, draping the white cloth over her shoulders. “You will no longer be a slave to your carnal desires. Sol has seen the good in you; the insatiable appetite of longing, who masqueraded as Lust. No longer will He let it taint you.”
“Please…” She sputtered through quick breaths. Her face glistened with rivers of perplexity. “Why do you still want me?”
Jeraziah helped her to her feet as she braced against the old oak, standing strong amidst the strife. He looked her again in the eyes.
“For what have you thirsted that you could not have? Who could turn you away?”
Her lips trembled. “I only want not to want…”
The two walked from the smoking circle. Steadily, with his shield covering her nudity, Jeraziah guided her through the tall grass, tracing the path southbound which he had traveled to find her. The fires died down and most ash had flown freely from the underbrush. As they left, birds returned to their nests one by one, filling the ruined patch with song.
“Then you have been redeemed.”
King Midas sat upon his throne and brooded, as he was wont to do. He considered his guests, arrayed in a line across his cavernous throne room, and felt shame. Surely they could only hold contempt for their opulent surroundings: golden statues, pillars, floor tiles—even the paintings and draperies were of solid gold.
If I could turn it all back to stone, wood, cloth, and dust, Midas thought, I would.
The Five Disciples had long ago forsaken material wealth to serve Sol and the Blind Prophet. Yet here they all were—including the Blind Prophet himself, staring with his milky eyes—and people only visited the throne room of Midas for one reason.
So even Sol’s precious Prophet needs my sullied gold. Who will ask for it, him or the King?
King Jeraziah stood beside the Blind Prophet in the blessed armor of Omen. This was the second time Jeraziah had entered the golden castle. On the first occasion, he was alone and unarmed, carrying only a basket of fresh fruit from the orchards of Adkarna—a priceless gift in the parched lands over which Midas ruled.
They had not always been so.
When the alchemist Auric Midas discovered the power of transmutation and conjured the blend of science and magic that caused all he touched to turn to gold, he ran in a panic to wash the precious metal from his hands in the cold, clear mountain river that fed the streams, tributaries, and irrigation fields of his lands.
The water instantly turned to gold.
This was a thrill at first, a blessing. Midas built his castle of gold and filled it with riches beyond imagination. He purchased a mercenary army, adorned them with golden armor, and sent them into battle against the upstart general in the central plains. The one called Maliken Grimm, who sought to combine the clans of Man.
Midas’ soldiers were routed. They were exhausted from marching beneath the weight of their King’s golden armor and could not lift their shields above their knees to block the killing blows. Indeed, Maliken’s soldiers had no mercy on them, for they followed their general’s lead.
Midas stayed within his golden walls and waited for Maliken to claim his head. Instead, the general sent an emissary with a message.
It was brief, writ in the hand of Maliken himself: “Fill my coffers or die.”
Midas sent the messenger back with a caravan of gold that, if you stopped to let it cross before you, would leave an entire day lost. General Maliken did not kill Midas. Not that time, nor the next, nor any time he sent his brief message—Fill my coffers or die—because each time Midas piled the wagons until they sagged.
When Maliken succumbed to grief and madness after Sylvia’s betrayal and brought about the Second Corruption, Midas remained within his walls, forgotten by the armies fighting for survival, for their souls. The daemons cared not for gold and had no use for the cursed king in his wasted lands.
Then Jeraziah arrived with his gift, which he set before Midas. The Golden King’s hand shook as he slid his fork into a succulent slice of highgrove orange and brought it to his lips. His memory could not recall such flavor, such life.
“My father was cruel to you,” Jeraziah said. “He used you. I am not like him. I will not be false and claim I do not need your gold—we lack rations, weapons, armor. But I will not take it from you. Instead, I ask you to join the fight.”
Midas looked surprised beneath his heavy crown, then his brow fell. “I have not left this castle in many years, young King. Nor have I lifted a sword.”
“Yet you are still strong. Everything you lift is made of gold.”
Midas shook his head. “Even so, I am of no use on a battlefield. I bring only my curse.”
“Yes,” Jeraziah said, stepping forward. “Come with me. Make my enemies yours, for they are, whether you accept it or not. Come, turn our enemies to gold, and we will use their bodies to buy steel, and pay the smiths to craft blades. The golden corpses will fund the destruction of the Hellbourne, and you will be honored above all.”
Midas shook his head. “Honor? I do not seek it. Nor fame, nor glory.”
Jeraziah tried to hide his desperation. “What, then? Silver?”
Midas smiled at the jest. “Redemption. My lust for wealth, my greed, consumed me. I neglected those who loved me and killed those who opposed. Now I have all the gold I could ever want, and nothing else. Sol does not hear my prayers, no matter how many chapels I construct, how many collection bowls I gild. All I ask is relief from this curse. Let me touch a loved one’s cheek again, so I may make sure they are well. Let me cup my hands in water, so I may offer it to those who are thirsty.”
Jeraziah considered this, then did something that shocked Midas.
Jeraziah said, “I swear to you, as King of the Legion and Chosen Warrior of Sol, if you fight beside me I will bring redemption to you.”
Midas was moved by the vehemence of the oath. Still, he had doubts. “How will you do such a thing?”
Jeraziah paused. “I do not know.”
Midas was so startled by the unguarded honesty he burst out laughing. It felt almost as good as the fruit tasted. “And tell me, if I join you and fight against these Hellbourne and you cannot find redemption for me, what then?”
“I will not care,” Jeraziah said. “I have given you my word, and the only way I will not honor my word is if I am dead. Even then, I’ll see what I can do for you.”
Midas nodded, pointed a golden finger at Jeraziah. “I think I shall enjoy fighting beside you, my King.”
Jeraziah felt the constriction in his chest release. For it was true, he would never break his word. And just as he had given it to Midas, he had promised his vast army he would recruit the Golden King Midas to the Legion cause. Had he refused, that force was poised half a day’s march away, prepared to pull down the golden walls, smelt the castle and haul the cursed Midas away in chains to be milked like a golden sow.
Jeraziah was grateful his first option had been accepted. There would come a time when he would need to be ruthless for the survival of Man and Beast, and he was glad it had not yet come. Now, years later, he stood in the golden throne room again, in the very same spot he had once knelt.
General Midas had led Legion forces into countless battles and used his gold in every way conceivable to thwart the Hellbourne advance. He had sacrificed as much as any soldier, and it showed.
“Midas,” Jeraziah said, “you do not look happy to see me.”
“I am never happy here, my King. The gold hurts my eyes and weighs upon my heart. But it is why you are here, so out with it. How much do you need?”
“Midas, these long years you have fought beside me. You have shared your wealth though no one could help carry the burden of your curse. A curse that offers endless riches, yet the one thing you desire cannot be bought. It must be earned. The first time I visited you I brought a gift. This time, I bring what is owed.”
Midas watched as the Blind Prophet pulled a thick, ancient book from his leather satchel. His white eyes fell to the open pages and he began to read.
Midas felt a tingling in his fingertips—a sensation he had not felt in ages. The Blind Prophet lifted a hand toward the heavens and continued to read as Midas gaped at the flesh spreading over his golden hands. The Five Disciples bowed their heads, and Midas could see they were smiling.
They were happy for him.
King Jeraziah tossed something toward the throne.
Midas caught the orange and waited for it to turn to gold.
It did not.
He stared at the highgrove orange in the palm of his hand, felt the tenderness of its skin, the morning dew still clinging to its surface. A tear slipped from his eye and fell from his cheek onto the orange. It did not harden into a drop of gold and tumble to join the scattered pile at the base of his throne.
Midas asked, “I am free?”
Jeraziah nodded. “Free to choose.”
“Choose.” Midas was still in shock. “Choose what?”
“To love Sol and all of mankind as you once loved your gold.”
Midas turned the orange in his hand. “Yes. That is what I’m feeling, isn’t it? Love.”
The Blind Prophet returned the tome to his satchel. “Redeemed King, will you bring that love—that charity for all who walk in Sol’s light—will you carry it with us as we seek to cleanse this land of the Sin which brought you so much suffering?”
“Greed,” Midas growled.
“And the rest. Lust, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Sloth, and Pride. And when that is done, will you carry Sol’s light to the one who brought them forth?”
Fill my coffers or die.
Midas ground his teeth. “Maliken.”
The Blind Prophet nodded.
Charity stood. “Lead the way.”
In the once-modern laboratory buried deep below the Headless Hills northwest of Watchtower, the darkness was a solid object. As with most objects of darkness, the Blind Prophet was indifferent to its presence. He moved through the blackout as if in a meadow at noonday, his steps urgent and unwavering.
The object he sought called to him, for like the Codex Solaris, it contained words from Sol. Its pages also held entries from malignant sources, those aligned against Sol and the well-being of Newerth. Both types of passage—divine and fell—had been recorded ages ago by feverish hands ignorant of the source of their inspiration.
Also within this tome were words written by men fully aware of the source, for it came from within. Some of these entries were designs and schemes seeking power, calling for the outright destruction of the author’s brothers and sisters, while some were written under the false, myopic belief that widespread compliance would result in the greater good for all, a debaucherous nirvana where all who submitted would enjoy untold spoils.
These seven passages, the Blind Prophet knew, were the most insidious. The words had been twisted, bastardized, and corrupted until the very ink emitted noxious fumes.
These passages had brought about the Seven Deadly Sins.
The Blind Prophet’s fingers blistered as he turned the pages. He forced himself to read the toxic words—he could leave none of them unexamined—and when he was certain he had the complete entries for all Seven Sins he tore the pages from the Grimoire of Power in one ferocious swipe.
He spoke the lost language of Sol and cast the pages to the floor, where they burst into smokeless white fire. When the flames had done their work, not even ash remained.
The Blind Prophet climbed out of the subterranean structure, the Grimoire of Power tucked safely in his satchel. The Five Disciples had stood guard, arrayed around the entrance while he completed the destruction of the cursed pages, and now they turned to him.
“It is done,” the Blind Prophet said. His hand rested on the satchel. Within, he felt the Grimoire stirring. “Now we begin the task of eradicating what these Seven Sins have wrought upon Man and Beast. For this, we must seek virtue among the cursed.”
TO BE CONTINUED