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.”