The agonized entity known only as Torturer finished laying his tools out in preparation for his next guest. He had emptied his chests and racks, examining the blades, spikes, and needle brands to ensure they were sharp when necessary, dull when desired, and always slick with the filth and tears of previous suffering. Some of his victims survived long enough to become infected by the dirty instruments, but none of them lived long enough to die from it.
He wanted all of the tools handy, for his next guest was important indeed. Advance sentries had reported sightings of Jeraziah himself, the ridiculous, self-important King of the Legion. Lord General Maliken had dispatched Tressa the succubus to seduce his only son, lure him deeper into Hellbourne territory and finally to this cave, where his screams would echo as he spilled every truth and secret within his head and heart.
Torturer fondled a heavy set of pliers with sawtooth jaws, imagining how the King’s agony would be embedded in the cold stone, haunting the cave the until the end of days. The ceiling was black with soot from pools of oil burning in crevices along the jagged walls, for this was the Torturer’s favorite workshop outside his Hell’s Keep dungeon. The floor was tacky with blood and viscera which never seemed to dry, instead clotting with the fur and singed hair sometimes pulled out by his guests’ own hands.
He set the pliers down and listened—someone approached. Tressa had taken longer than usual to bring this one in, but with the haughty Jeraziah, he who prided himself on abstinence from all things enjoyable, this was to be expected.
Torturer faced the cave entrance and waited. His first wave of pleasure always came when his guests realized who they would spend the rest of their short lives with. The footsteps drew near, and his guest finally moved into the firelight.
Torturer’s anticipation soured into confusion. “You?”
“Me,” the Blind Prophet said.
“Oh, you’ll do until Jeraziah arrives.” Torturer floated toward him, smiling. “Even the most pious cannot resist the succubus, eh?”
Oddly, Tressa had not taken his weapons or stripped him of his clothing, as she typically did with her victims. The Blind Prophet stepped fully into the cave. The succubus’ compulsion was strong, for he showed no sign of fear or hesitation.
Torturer said, “If only your followers, your sheep, could see you now. Just another man, slave to his base desires.” He lifted an iron wedge meant for splitting firewood that worked even better for spreading ribs until they cracked. “Though if you think your shame is torment enough, you are mistaken.”
“Listening to you prattle on is ample misery,” the Blind Prophet said.
Torturer stopped, uncertainty clouding his ethereal face.
The Blind Prophet drove his bladed staff into the stone floor and pulled a thick, ancient book from his satchel. “I am here to collect you, not entertain you.”
“The…the succubus does not hold you?”
“She holds the light of Sol within her. And because of this, she need hold nothing else.”
Torturer could not remember what fear felt like. What he did know: this Blind Prophet was not here to die in anguish.
He was a threat.
Torturer had no guards or assistants in his cave. His guests were always gravely injured, too weak to fight back, or controlled by daemon magic when they arrived. For his pleasure, he preferred the magic removed once they were bound by his chains—his chains!
Torturer summoned the harrowing links with needle-sharp tips from thin air and drove them toward the Blind Prophet, who shot his arms forward as if he could catch the incoming assault. The cave was bathed in heat and light as blazing phoenixes flew from his palms. They swooped and dove, cutting the chains into glowing fragments that fell to the cave floor and sizzled in the bloody mire. The divine birds circled the Blind Prophet, searching for more threats, before fading into pale sparks.
“On your deathbed,” the Blind Prophet said, “you made a pact with the daemons. Eternal life, you begged. And they gave it, as I can see. An endless life of agony and hate. Tell me: would you accept those terms again?”
Torturer lifted a heavier chain from a hook on the wall. This one would not be sliced by mere bird wings—it had been forged beneath the Scar and tempered with Valkyrie blood.
“Do not bother begging with terms of surrender, priest. I take no prisoners.”
The Blind Prophet’s eyes flared. “I offer you nothing, wraith! I follow the path of Sol, who has brought me here. He has use of you. If he did not, I would leave you a mere heap among your severed chains and be free of this foul pit. Now answer me true. Would you accept the daemon terms again, if they were offered?”
Torturer hesitated. Lord General Maliken had many spies who moved in endless forms. If this were one of them, sent to test his loyalty…but Torturer could sense pain, and this Blind Prophet held more pain within him than any living being he had ever encountered.
No daemon would carry such a burden. It intrigued Torturer, for pain was his trade.
The Blind Prophet asked again, “Would you?”
“No,” Torturer whispered.
The Blind Prophet nodded. “Then Sol was right to send me. The daemons left you with no physical body. They corrupted you into the embodiment of pain, but you feel nothing. You are free of hunger, fear, and cold. Yet when Anubis Pharaoh offered you a corporeal form in his attempt to summon Ra, you embraced the chance. Tell me why.”
“I wanted to feel again,” Torturer said. “Something. Anything.”
“Pain is pure,” Torturer said. “It is not clouded by emotion. I envied my victims, for they experienced something I never could. I wanted to feel the pain.”
Torturer shuddered. “Yes. It was…exquisite.”
The Blind Prophet said, “And the pain within me. You can sense it?”
“Please. Tell me how you hold so much. How you carry it, yet it does not crush you beneath its weight.”
“Unconditional love,” the Blind Prophet said. “Kindness and compassion toward all things, no matter how they treat you. No matter how they respond, if they do at all.”
Torturer dropped the heavy chain. “Kindness?”
“Open your heart to the suffering of all things. Allow it to break, again and again, at their helplessness. Seek them out and lend them succor. Then find those who tread upon them, and offer them your full heart as well. I promise you, this will bring you all the pain you could want, and more.”
“All I want?” Torturer said.
“Even more important, child of Sol, is what else it will bring you.”
Torturer gasped. “Tell me, please.”
“A desire to end the pain.”
“Yes. For everyone, without prejudice or envy.”
“But…if the pain is gone, I won’t feel it anymore.”
The Blind Prophet offered a warm smile. “Child, there are feelings other than pain. This, I promise. Do you wish to experience them?”
“I do,” Torturer said.
The Blind Prophet bowed his head, then read aloud from his book. The flames along the cave walls grew and burned with tongues of yellow and purple.
Torturer’s vaporous body began to harden and become flesh. He screamed and his hands clutched at his armor. “Stop! You’re tearing me to pieces!”
“You are being remade,” the Blind Prophet said. “This is what it feels like to care.”
“I cannot take it!”
The Blind Prophet did not look up from the Grimoire of Power. “If that is true, then you will not. You will die.”
Torturer collapsed to his hands and knees. Knees now made of skin and bone, blood and…nerves. He could feel! Seedlings rose from the crusted gore that coated the bottom of the cave and blossomed into wildflowers, filling the dank cavern with the aroma of life.
The Blind Prophet continued to recite the words of Sol as Torturer’s tainted armor shattered and was replaced by a golden sunburst, iron flower petals, and vines reaching toward the heavens.
When the Blind Prophet was finished he fell to one knee, the Grimoire clapping shut to contain its power. When he lifted his head, the sight before him jolted him to his feet.
“Thank you,” Kindness said. A white-gloved hand flew to her mouth in shock. “Why do I sound like a woman?”
“Because you are one,” the Blind Prophet said. He threw his head back and laughed.
Kindness considered this. She was not upset or judgemental. “Interesting. I wonder why Sol would do this.”
“My child, it was you who chose this form. For reasons known only to you and glorious Sol, this is how you shall redeem yourself.”
Kindness took his hand and pulled him toward the mouth of the cave, careful not to step on any of the fresh young flowers.
“Come then,” she said. “There is much to do.”
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.”