Part 1: The Sins Return to Maliken
Maliken stood among the blood and screams of the deepest dungeon of Hell’s Keep and felt the Grimoire drawing near. He climbed the wide steps made of human and beast skulls and strode through the sludge-filled streets to the Ancient Cathedral to meet the Sins who would be the Legion’s downfall.
They waited for him in the central chamber.
Maliken surveyed the wicked work his Envy Parasite had done. Green mist swirled around Envy’s tentacles, slipped between his sharp teeth. He clutched the Grimoire in his claws. The ancient book glowed from the assembled evil around it.
Next to Envy stood Sloth, black mist oozing from a bulging blue cyst on its back. Insects scurried over the rough, filthy hide, in and out of the two mouths and four eyes. The ancient Armadon may have swatted them away, but Sloth let them nest.
One of Sloth’s heads moved with tremendous effort to stare at Lust, who leaned with her back against a stone pillar, her chest thrust toward Maliken. Blue mist curled into beckoning fingers. She cocked an eyebrow at the Lord of the Hellbourne. Maliken saw the Empath shrouded behind Lust’s hungry eyes, screaming to escape.
It made him smile.
The red mist that rose like flames around the Hammerstorm Wrath made the smile grow wider. Maliken expected the seething monstrosity to swing his distorted hammer and begin destroying the Cathedral at any moment. A ragged chiprel peered over Wrath’s shoulder. It seemed patient but eager to witness such carnage.
Maliken looked upon the restored body of Soulstealer, adorned with armor and gems writhing with trapped souls. The yellow mist pooling at Greed’s feet spread in all directions, lapping at every crevice of the stone floor.
When it slithered into the orange vapor roiling around Gluttony, the yellow mist tried to pull the orange closer. The possessed Devourer’s orange mist enveloped it. Gluttony stared back at Maliken. One of its mouths belched. A splintered femur spilled onto the floor.
Maliken turned at last to his son, Jeraziah, too consumed with his own reflection to show the proper respect to his father. Maliken understood—he and Pride were old friends. Still, possessed or not, Jeraziah’s body would bend the knee.
“You have done well,” Maliken told Envy. “These Sins have found powerful warriors ripe for picking. They will be fierce enemies on the battlefield.”
“Yes,” Envy said. He wished to feel the shock Maliken was about to experience.
Maliken extended his hand. “The Grimoire. We will attack as soon as we are ready.”
Envy slid the glowing tome behind his back. “We are ready now.”
Maliken’s hand went to his cursed sword.
Envy said, “We Sins were created to battle the Virtues of man. Kindness, Diligence, Chastity, Patience, Charity, Temperance, and Humility. They are worthy foes. You, Maliken, embody none of these. We will crush you.”
Part 2: Maliken is Not Alone
Maliken pulled his cursed sword from its scabbard.
“I summoned you,” he told the Sins. “I command you. You dare to challenge me?”
They stepped closer.
“Jeraziah,” Maliken said. “Look at me, child. Look!”
Pride tore his eyes from the reflection in his shield, upset at the interruption.
Maliken said, “You stand near me as an ally. Finally. Step out from that rabble and rule next to me. We will rein these Sins in and show them their place. Then we will ride into battle together.”
“You see what he does,” Envy whispered to Pride, “and how well he does it. Rule next to me, he says. Yes. Together. Close by, to hold his plate while he eats and catch the scraps he tosses away.”
Pride scowled at Jeraziah’s father. “I rule beast and man. I unite blood enemies to fight for one another. What have you done? Your daemons would fight with or without you—all you need do is point them in the right direction.”
Maliken said, “Make your choice, Jeraziah.”
Pride drew his sword. His eyes went to the reflection in the steel, lingered, ripped away to glare at his father.
“I am better than you.”
“I will kill you last,” Maliken said, “in case you change your mind.”
Greed was first to come forward, eager to lap up the fear that would precede Maliken’s demise. Then, to seal his soul in one of his rubies—maybe the large one atop his helm, yes—would be exquisite indeed.
“You crave my soul?” Maliken said. “Here is the sharp end of it.”
He threw his massive, damned sword in a sweeping arc that cleaved into Greed’s armor and lifted the Sin off his feet and slammed him into Gluttony’s gaping maw. Both of them slid across the stone floor past the other Sins.
Maliken teleported to the sword, appearing behind the Sins. He wrapped his hands around the hilt, tore it free from the armor and kicked Greed and Gluttony further away, spun and aimed the deathblow at the back of Envy’s skull.
Wrath knocked Envy aside in his rage to attack Maliken, whose sword crashed against the battered warhammer. Wrath twisted the hammer to lock the sword and unleashed his brute strength, tossing Maliken and the sword into the pillar above Lust.
Maliken crashed to the floor. Lust pounced onto him, linked to his essence and began to draw the life from him. Wrath stomped onto Maliken’s sword hand, pinning it to the floor. Sloth fell across his legs, nearly crushing them. He curled over the legs and fortified his exterior, welding himself in place.
Lust whispered, “I’ll take what is yours, and replace it with pain. Newerth’s scars will be yours, as they should be. You made them.”
Envy had never had such attention. He wished to drop the Grimoire and join in, but the book was more important. He watched Pride walk to the helpless Maliken and stand with his sword point over Maliken’s wide eyes.
Pride smiled. “After all of those you have ruled, all you have led, you die here. Alone.”
Maliken smiled back. “Alone?”
The Four Horsemen laughed from the shadows of the Cathedral.
Part 3: The Four Horsemen vs. The Sins
Pride spun away from Maliken, his sword ready.
Envy was torn between shock and admiration for the trap Maliken had set.
He could not have known, Envy thought. It’s simply that he is always prepared for betrayal. So wise…
Greed and Gluttony staggered to regroup with the five Sins, who held Maliken down. Lust continued to drain Maliken’s essence, her eyes rolling upward. Gluttony bent to take a bite of the Lord of the Hellbourne.
Wrath slapped him away. “We have enemies to kill!”
“WE ARE STARVING,” the mouths screamed.
“Then feast on horseflesh.”
The mangy chiprel nodded from Wrath’s shoulder and ducked away before Gluttony could snatch him. Wrath whirled his warhammer above his head, ready to release it at the first glimpse of the Four Horsemen.
From the darkness at the perimeter of the Cathedral, hooves echoed on stone. War, Pestilence, Famine, and Death emerged into the torchlight.
The Parasite, Soulstealer, and Devourer possessed by Envy, Greed, and Gluttony had fought alongside these bringers of Apocalypse. The Horsemen had stolen glory on the battlefield until the Engineer’s machines had defeated them.
Now the Sins would take it back.
War summoned his hellhounds as he sprang forward, his steed snapping and kicking. Pride was first to meet them all. He took the hounds with one swipe of his sword and drove the blade through the fiery horse’s chest. War dropped forward to strike his own blow. Pride’s sword pierced his breastplate and erupted from his back, pinning him to his horse.
“War,” Pride said, “meet your best pupil.”
He pulled the blade loose and brought a guillotine stroke down with his full strength. Horse and Horseman alike lost their heads. Their bodies hit the stone floor and vanished in a cloud of ash.
Pestilence rushed to free Maliken, a swarm of flesh-eating insects swirling before him. Greed intercepted the diseased rider and drew the insects to him, pulling them into his cursed jewels to torment the souls already trapped within.
As Pestilence galloped forward, Greed released a burst of the furious souls and flung them in a torrent at the Horseman. The screaming souls pierced his exoskeleton and tore through his body, ripping him from his horse. Pestilence fell to the floor. His riderless horse wheeled and fled, its thin wings a blur.
Wrath took one massive step, tearing loose the bone sword fused to his back. He drove it through Pestilence’s helmet and into the floor. Pestilence’s body collapsed into a pile ash.
The chiprel appeared on Wrath’s shoulder and pulled his head to the left just before Famine’s shriveled finger could touch his flesh. Wrath recoiled—a mere graze from Famine would leave him a desiccated corpse. Famine’s clawed teeth grinned as he leaned from his skeletal horse to end Wrath’s sinful life.
A meaty hand clamped onto Famine’s bony wrist and yanked him from the horse.
“WHY ARE YOU SO SKINNY?” Gluttony roared.
Famine rattled to his feet. “I am Famine. I will—”
Gluttony dumped Famine into his gaping abdominal maw and swallowed him whole.
“WHAT IS FAMINE?”
He belched a puff of ash.
Lust was still atop Maliken’s chest, stealing his life force. It filled her, gave her a feeling of power she had never experienced. Her eyes rolled forward, focused. A horse’s skull stared at her, an inch from her face. Death had crept around the chaos and now towered above her, his double-scythed sword scraping the stone floor. His fearsome skull helm showed no emotion.
Lust stood, her feet straddling Maliken’s motionless body. Sloth retracted his fortifications and rolled off Maliken’s legs, leaving a trail of snot from both noses.
Maliken’s essence roiled and shrieked through Lust’s body. She struggled to stay upright.
“You take life,” she said to Death. Black blood oozed from her mouth.
Death said nothing. Only raised his sword.
Lust’s voice was thick. “You can have this one.”
She released Maliken’s dark essence before it consumed her from within. It burst from her mouth and roared through Death, a soul and life force so dark even Death himself could not withstand it. His armor peeled away piece by piece under the onslaught, then his bones, finally his own oily core.
Lust collapsed against Envy, who watched Maliken’s essence swirl near the ceiling before it dove at Gluttony. It battered into the Sin’s torso and snaked through the huge mouth into his belly.
“FOUL TASTE,” Gluttony screamed.
Maliken’s essence poured out and slithered between Wrath’s feet. It swept through the ashes of Pestilence and left nothing behind. It did the same to War’s remains before rising to the domed ceiling of the Cathedral.
Envy yelled, “Burn his body! Hack it to pieces!”
But it was too late.
Maliken’s essence, once again fortified with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, speared from the ceiling into Maliken’s body. The Cathedral torches, fueled by the rendered fat of dead enemies, were extinguished in a massive burst of black energy.
The Sins stood in pure darkness. Even the Grimoire’s blue glow was gone.
A white light began to rise where Maliken’s body had been. It grew brighter, reflecting off white and golden armor.
The Sins had to shield their eyes. The Cathedral torches burst alight with white flames.
Conquest stood before them.
“Now,” he said, “it begins.”
Part 4: Maliken Battles the Sins
Conquest appraised his foes from behind his massive, horned helm. The polished skulls of his fallen enemies strung over his armor seemed to mock the Sins, who all stepped away.
All, except for Pride. “Fall back if you will. When I defeat this dusty relic without you, all the glory will be mine.”
Conquest looked upon the face of his son. It had a fierce, twisted beauty behind the purple mist of Pride. The Horsemen united with him whispered, He is not your son. He is your enemy.
“I was wrong to summon you Sins,” Conquest said. “You represent weakness. Failure.”
“We are what compels man,” Greed said. “We are power.”
“We rule his desires,” Lust whispered. “We drive him to victory, to take what is his.”
“And more,” Wrath said.
Gluttony nodded his chins. “ALL.”
“Or none,” Sloth added.
Envy clutched the Grimoire to his chest, another layer of armor. He hoped. “We were born along with man. We will thrive as long as man lives.”
“One thing at a time,” Conquest said.
His damned sword burst into white fire as he swung and released it. The enchanted flames, reinforced by the ruin of the Horsemen within, spun through the Sins in a whirling arc. As each Sin was struck an eruption of colored mist exploded from the wound and left in its wake a stunned, collapsed mortal being.
The sword returned to Conquest.
The Soulstealer who was Greed looked at his missing legs and wailed.
The Devourer who feasted as Gluttony clutched his belly and sagged to his knees.
The Parasite who corrupted all of them as Envy dropped the Grimoire and searched for a crevice or muckpile in which to hide.
The Legion heroes stared at their surroundings and tried to make sense of them. The Armadon who was Sloth was too weak to launch any quills or fortify himself.
Hammerstorm, moments ago a seething Wrath, blinked at the stunned chiprel on his shoulder and tried to lift his hammer. He could not.
The Empath tried to cover what Lust had so readily exposed. The suffering within Hell’s Keep and the Ancient Cathedral crushed her to the floor.
Jeraziah, who had been Pride in the flesh, stepped between his weakened comrades and the Hellbourne. He ground his teeth and felt his muscles strain nearly to the point of tearing as he raised his sword and shield.
“You will not touch them.”
“They will leave unharmed,” Conquest said, “if you agree to remain. If not—you all die here.”
Jeraziah lowered his helm. Behind him Empath struggled to her feet. Hammerstorm raised his hammer. The Armadon bristled with quills.
A blue glow appeared between them and Conquest. For Jeraziah, it invoked dim memories of Envy and the Grimoire, tempting him, ruining him. He slashed at the glow, which grew into Nymphora, teleporting into Hell’s Keep.
Jeraziah shifted his sword at the last moment. The steel brushed Nymph’s wingtip and sparked against the stone floor. Nymph gasped and darted aside. Her eyes grew wider when she saw where they were, who stood nearby.
“I couldn’t feel any of you until moments ago,” she said. “Stand close!”
The Legion heroes huddled together and disappeared in a blue flash.
Conquest’s white sword cleaved the blue light in half, hitting nothing. He threw his head back and roared with fury. A black cloud poured from his mouth and split into four streams, which pooled and grew into The Four Horsemen.
They glanced at each other from atop their uneasy horses, facing an enraged Maliken.
“Be gone,” Maliken growled. “I care not where you go. Should I see you again, consider where you stand a battleground.”
The Four Horsemen fled, chased by fading echoes of hooves on stone.
Maliken didn’t bother looking at the Soulstealer, Devourer, or Parasite. He pointed at the stairs that led beneath the Cathedral, to one of the countless dungeons within Hell’s Keep. Whether they were going to be put to work, or worked upon, they did not know.
They just went.
Maliken lifted the Grimoire by its cover. The ancient pages flapped and curled as he carried it along dark corridors that grew smaller and tighter the deeper he went within the Cathedral.
He came to an iron-bound door with a lock the size of his fist. He had the key somewhere. He tore the lock off the wall and dropped it, pulled the door open and flung the Grimoire into the dark storage room stocked with artifacts and spoils of war.
“Worthless latrine paper,” Maliken said. He slammed the door, hoping he’d forget which of the dozens of storage rooms he’d used.
His heavy footfalls faded down the corridor.
Inside the black storage room, the Grimoire lay with a broken spine, pages turning from the door’s force. It was on top of a huge bone mask carved with runes and lined with spikes on the inner side. Next to the mask, a towering sarcophagus leaned against the dank wall.
A turning page from the Grimoire wavered in the dying breeze. It finally tipped and fell, its corner touching the smooth stone of the sarcophagus.
The Grimoire began to glow.
Inside the sarcophagus, the Pharaoh jolted to life and said two words: