Even though the lamp of the Nine Kings of the Great Waste no longer held him, Salomon still felt the fetters of imprisonment. He only remained free of the lamp as long as Ophelia and the Legion desired it.
Who would call that free?
Long ago, he had roamed the Great Waste with his beloved, the woman he called Djinn for the spells she cast over his eyes and heart so that he only saw and lived for her. When he told her these words she would laugh and tell him to hush; she knew no spells or magic, just how to hold him close through the cold desert nights.
They carried all of their belongings from village to village, city to city, kingdom to kingdom, where Salomon would offer his services. His bravery and skill in exterminating Sand Wraiths soon became legend, and messengers flocked to Salomon and Djinn carrying stories of massacred families, terrorized flocks, villages turned to graveyards. To these places Salomon and Djinn would hurry, and not leave until peace was certain.
Salomon kept his weapons clean and sharp despite their constant use, and the messengers turned from dozens to hundreds. Some of them Salomon and Djinn recognized, and had helped previously—the Wraiths had returned. That was when the Nine Kings of the Great Waste summoned Salomon and Djinn. They offered great wealth in return for eliminating the very source of the Sand Wraiths, a region within the Great Waste known as Arcoma.
Salomon and Djinn discussed this alone. She urged him to decline the offer; the Nine Kings were notorious for their egos and hubris, and they cared not whether Salomon survived the ordeal. “They only want their people to stop complaining,” she told Salomon.
“And we want them to stop dying,” Salomon said. “The reason matters not, for the means is the same.”
And so he agreed, and journeyed alone across the Great Waste until he reached the source of the Sand Wraiths. They boiled from the pits of Arcoma as hornets from a kicked hive. There were no witnesses other than Salomon, and when he returned from the battle, nearly dead but victorious, he spoke of days of endless combat, savagery, and suffering. The wounds on his body supported this, yet whispers spread that he had struck a bargain with the Wraiths to spare his own life.
This contract, the whispers said, allowed the Wraiths to continue their murderous ways on a smaller scale while Salomon grew rich pretending to hunt and kill them. No one dared ask Salomon about this. No one, except for Djinn.
“Is it true?” she asked.
He took her hands in his. His nails were split and caked with dried blood and sand that would not wash away. “I will tell you the truth,” he said.
It was then the guards of the Nine Kings arrived and demanded Salomon accompany them immediately. Salomon went, still holding the hand of Djinn. She waited for an opportunity to finish their conversation, but it never came.
Salomon stood alone before the Nine Kings, who displayed the riches they had set aside in return for his bravery. What Salomon did not know: the whisper had reached the ears of the Nine Kings, and they had prepared a test. When a human enters a bargain with the Sand Wraiths, they are forever tainted with the harsh grit of the Great Waste. It permeates their clothes, skin, and hair. No amount of cleansing will remove it.
“You have bathed?” one of the Nine asked.
“Yes,” Salomon said.
“Yet we still see blood and sand upon you.”
“Of all my battles, I have never emerged unblemished after just one cleansing.”
“Indeed, brave Salomon. Then our deal has come to a close. Bow to your Kings and be on your way.”
The Nine Kings leaned forward, watching for the telltale sand to fall from Salomon’s hair when he knelt. But he did not kneel.
“I have no King,” Salomon said. “We are nomads.”
“You will bow,” another King said, his voice rising.
Djinn watched this and silently urged her love to forgo his pride and acquiesce. She cared not for the riches; she only wanted to be away from these Kings and their wicked souls.
But Salomon said, “No.”
The Nine Kings took this as evidence of Salomon’s bargain with the Sand Wraiths. They leaped from their thrones and bellowed heresy, rogue, conspirator! No one noticed the curtains of sand that flew from their sleeves or the pools of grit in their thrones. The Nine Kings ordered the gold and jewels sent back to their vaults and accused Salomon of sowing discord and treason, a crime punishable by death.
“But you will not die, Salomon,” a King said. He brought forth his gypsy wizard, who carried with him a lamp. “Your soul will remain in this prison for eternity, buried in the very sand you chose over your Kings. You will hear the screams of those you have left to suffer at the hands of the Sand Wraiths. Starting with your beloved Djinn.”
Salomon and Djinn locked eyes one last time before his soul was torn from his body and locked within the lamp. From inside, he heard the shrieks of the Sand Wraiths as they fell upon the gathered people. He heard Djinn’s screams as she was restrained by the guards and sacrificed to the howling daemons.
The echoes remained in the lamp with him for hundreds of years, until Ophelia released his soul.
Salomon was grateful to Ophelia for releasing him. But gratitude did nothing to quell his rage for what the Nine Kings and Sand Wraiths had done to Djinn. During his centuries of imprisonment, Salomon had discovered abilities available only to those in the spirit realm, abilities that enhanced his already superior combat skills.
He learned to inflict damage to more than one enemy at a time, and also give life back to those fighting with him. He learned to mask his movements and leave his enemies floundering in the dust of the Great Waste, rather than be hindered by it himself. With his heart torn by what he had brought upon Djinn, he sought and found ways to protect those around him, even at a cost to himself.
The memories of Djinn caused Salomon such anguish and rage, he knew he must harness the pain and learn to separate it from his soul. Through the decades he learned to collect the fury in spheres, and when necessary unleash them in a spiral to share the pain with his enemies.
All of these he learned with only the hope that one day he would be released to exact his revenge. When Ophelia drew Salomon forth from the lamp, that revenge began. At first Salomon was satisfied venting his anger and using his newfound abilities against the Hellbourne. They were daemons, after all, of the same ilk as the Sand Wraiths. And on the occasions when he encountered a Wraith upon the battlefield, Salomon reveled in blasting, dusting, and destroying it completely.
But that satisfaction waned.
The damage he caused the Hellbourne did not slake his desire for vengeance, for it had nothing to do with the Nine Kings. And it certainly did not bring his Djinn back from the dead.
This, Salomon vowed to change.
Even as he joined the campaign against the Hellbourne Salomon honed his skills further, exploring deep within the spirit realm for ways to strengthen his power. He discovered a method for attacking enemies near and far with a single blow, and imagined the Nine Kings before him as he practiced. One cleave could render them all wounded. This made Salomon smile, and even more eager to face them.
Beyond guarding the allies around him, he developed something better: the ability to help them defend themselves by attacking faster. Now when he faced Nine Kings of the Great Waste, he would not be so concerned with ensuring his comrades did not suffer because of him.
But there remained an unavoidable flaw in his plan for revenge—the Nine Kings were long dead, and far beyond the reach of even Salomon’s grasp within the spirit realm. He needed to draw them closer; if not into Newerth entirely, at least close enough to seize. This led Salomon to sharpen an entirely new weapon: greed. He traced the jewels and gold from the families of the Nine Kings to the present day, then set about gathering and hoarding it by killing those who carried even a single coin. He listened to the prayers of the Kings’ bloodlines, crying for the once-great Kings to save them from poverty and ruin.
Salomon continued to amass the wealth of the Nine, knowing their souls felt the nick and sting of every stolen piece. Draw enough blood, and eventually they must answer the call to fight. And when they did, Salomon would be ready. For he knew wishes as desperate as his, issued for hundreds of years, would only be granted once.
And in preparation for that day, Salomon worked in the spirit realm to create another version of himself. It grew into a physical effigy of his wrath capable of overwhelming power, leaping upon and decimating shocked enemies with dual cleaves while it bolstered allies. This form was not sustainable for long, and when Salomon felt this embodiment of vengeance weaken, he gathered his pain and fury as he had before and spiraled it out to inflict ultimate damage upon his enemies, usually to a permanent end.
The days passed. Salomon collected the tainted gold and jewels from his victims and kept his weapons and skills sharp upon the bones of the daemons while he waited for the Nine Kings to return. But beneath the red veil of revenge, Salomon knew achieving his wish for justice would not bring happiness. Satisfaction, perhaps, but not joy. Or love.
For that, he would need his Djinn. Salomon knew, in all his searchings though the spirit realm for the Nine Kings, he was also seeking the soul of his murdered beloved. In moments of honesty, he knew she was the primary reason for his explorations. But he buried that beneath vengeance, for if he could not find the Kings, at least he could kill other daemons. If he did not find Djinn, hope was ash in the desert wind.
Then one night, while Salomon sent his essence into the spirit realm, Djinn found him. Salomon’s joy could not be contained. He flew to her, then saw she was not alone. The Nine Kings emerged from the mists and stood in a ring around Djinn’s soul, preventing her from meeting Salomon’s outstretched arms.
Salomon’s joy turned to rage. He raised his cleave to annihilate them all with a single blow.
“Hold, brave Salomon,” one of the Nine said. Salomon could not tell which wicked mouth spoke the words. “Our souls are tied to hers in this realm; harm us and you do the same to her.”
Another King added, “Hasn’t she suffered enough at your hands?”
Another: “Return our gold to its rightful holders. Our bloodlines starve and die because of you.”
A fourth: “Stop hunting us and seeking to enact vengeance upon us.”
As one, the Nine said, “Do this, and we will spare Djinn’s soul further punishment. Continue on your path of revenge, and we will torment her for all of time.”
Salomon’s eyes met Djinn’s for the first time in centuries. They were haunted. She nodded. In the spirit realm, all Salomon felt from her was love and the desire that he finally be at peace.
He said to the Nine, “You will go, and allow her to stay here. With me.”
“No,” a King said. “The two of you forfeited your souls when you betrayed us. She will serve her sentence, even if you will not.”
Salomon said, “Then let it be known. I gladly choose the path of love over that of vengeance.”
The Nine Kings chuckled. Djinn tried to smile, but her eternity with the Nine Kings weighed heavily upon her.
“And today,” Salomon said, “those paths are the same.”
He summoned his mighty effigy of revenge and towered above the Nine, who gasped and cowered. Salomon spiraled his spheres of agony and wrath, eight in all, and each engulfed one of the Nine Kings. He grasped the ninth in a crushing grip, then lifted Djinn with his free hand and held her close as the spheres exploded, sending Salomon out of the spirit realm and back to Newerth.
He found himself in Ophelia’s forest beneath a massive tree. The branches formed a sweeping canopy above him. The spheres were gone, and he had returned to his normal state. The lingering memory of Djinn—her eyes, her face, her outstretched hands—haunted him and threatened to crush what was left of his heart. When he turned and saw that she was with him beneath the tree, that his plan had worked, he flew to her.
She met him and they embraced. After what could have been years, and not nearly long enough, she pulled away and looked down at her new form, the embodiment of a Djinn.
“How did you do this?” she asked.
“I will show you. In fact, I will show you many things.”
And so one of Salomon’s wishes had come true. He felt the happiness and joy that vengeance could never bring. But within him, that wish still festered. Both for himself and for Djinn, who had suffered at the hands of the Nine for centuries. He felt the wrath in her as well, a boiling wish that rivaled his own.
As he shared all he had learned with his beloved Djinn he knew the two of them would one day have the chance to fulfill that wish.
For if Djinn had come back to Newerth with Salomon, so had the Nine Kings.