The damage had been done. The battle had begun. The war, only starting. And I had been the fool. My dark hatred of my foe had driven me to do the unthinkable. I had sold my soul for victory over my rival.
An empty victory it was, too. One that heralded a dark accounting for my wrong. But I was reveling in the glory of my victory. My self- glorifying victory.
Though I had insisted that I had been in the right, and had demanded satisfaction, I had also realized that I was starting a war I would lose on my own. But I cared not. If I could win a victory over the Council, I could wage the war as I saw fit.
I, the king, had to show them that I was in control. And so I argued the point. The enemy had already set his armies at our borders, I told them. Our spies and scouts had confirmed as much.
20 leagues from our first village, I pointed out, stood four legions of the enemy’s best fighting men. His elite. We needed to send our Wolfhounds to guard our people. We had to muster an army twice that size.
And I had won the day. Little did I know that we had a traitor in our midst that day. Count Riglio was always treacherous. Always. That day was no different.
I knew not that he had already pledged his loyalty to my enemy. Nor would I until I rode into that first battle. And by then, I would realize that he had taken half the Council with him. That left me with only half my kingdom standing behind me….and no allies from the outside.
Thus, I sought allegiances with my neighbors. Thornovia declined. They, too, were in the midst of a war. Vylea also declined. Rovia claimed neutrality. Zolodia, alone, offered their aid…but at a price. A big price.
And I, like a fool, as desperate as I was, agreed. In one pen-stroke, I sealed the fates of half of my subjects. All due to their lords siding with a traitor. Or because their lord was the traitor.
I should have known that Zolodia’s lords would ride through the rebellious duchies, putting all in their path to death. They had ever been barbaric in their ways and ruthless as mercenaries. Agents of the Devil himself, they were. Burning the land, raping the women, slaughtering the men and children.
Weakening my kingdom. Making it ripe for their own conquest. Destroying what inner peace my kingdom had known. And I was to blame.
And so, I watched helplessly as they destroyed the lands of those who had rebelled. And as they rode on to do battle, where I awaited their arrival, they continued their path of destruction. Weakening our economy, destroying our crops, and taking all they felt was theirs.
And my people moaned under their oppression. Their flagrant misuse of freedoms granted them in my treaty with them. Yea, even the misappropriation of powers I had not ceded to them. And so, I would have to account for that bargain once the war was over.
I had not given them free reign. I had not even given them instructions to punish the people for the sins of their masters. Nor had I told them to put torch to my land’s food supply. They had never once been given permission to touch our women or children.
They had been told that those who had been guilty of treason would be given over to them to punish as they saw fit after the war was over. But this, I suppose, in their barbaric minds, allowed them to rape and pillage like the mindless hordes of the southern wastes.
And so, to make right the wrong, I called unto the King of the Dark. To him, I
vowed to render my soul. For victory over both my allies and my enemy. In desperation,
I committed another unforgivable sin. A sin against Heaven and my kingdom. I had sold myself, my own soul and freedom for an unholy victory.
On the eve of the first battle, I turned my armies toward the approaching allies and struck treacherously against them. With legions of unholy demons at my command, I was unstoppable. Soon, the lords of Zolodia fell to me and I took their king prisoner. It seemed a boon that he had allowed his only son and daughter to ride into battle with him at the time, and I made good of the opportunity that had been presented.
I forced him to give his daughter’s hand to me in marriage as my first stroke at his power. Then, I made him watch, after sending the daughter away from camp to my dungeons in the capitol, as I impaled his son for his share of the crimes committed against my kingdom.
I later sent word to his queen that her husband was dead and that she was expected to give herself to me in marriage. The girl, I set aside for my own son who would succeed me to the throne. But she would slowly be integrated into our lives in the palace when the war was finished. At the moment, she was a prisoner and a prize of war. And her father was still living.
Once the deathblow had been struck at Zolodia, I turned my unholy armies toward my enemy and those who had treacherously sided with him and Count Riglio. The battle was glorious. As a blood-red sun sank in the west, I knew I had won the day yet again. I felt glorious.
As the sun rose, blood-red, in the sky the next morning, I readied to do battle once more. Riglio had been defeated and lay near death in the enemy camp. Those who had rebelled were now abandoning the enemy’s camp and returning, penitent, to mine. Unforgiving, I condemned them all of treason and sent them to languish in my prisons. Their soldiers, I added to my own armies and carried the fight to my enemy once more.
Riglio died as I struck the final blow. No more could I punish him for his treason. Yet, in my mind, someone had to pay. So I stripped his family of their land, unjustly, and forced them into exile.
As I smashed the armies of my enemy, I saw him fall as well. I watched to see, with some hope that he would, if he rose again. He did not. He, too, had died a warrior’s death and my need for vengeance was stoked against his armies. Yet, they had done nothing but follow his commands.
I rode, victorious, into his capitol city and took his throne as my own. I demanded the hand of his widowed queen and was awarded it as spoils of war. His son was thrown into the dungeons under the very castle he had called home, never to emerge alive.
His borders upon my own lands were dissolved. His throne destroyed. His legacy forgotten. His heirs, slaughtered like lambs.
But my legacy had just begun. Or so I thought. Once I took his kingdom for my own, as well as his widowed queen, I rode toward Zolodia. I had to claim their kingdom as my own as well, as payment for the crimes of their king and their soldiers.
Behind me, I left a string of carcasses impaled upon spires of ash to warn all what would happen to those who betrayed me or waged war against me. Among them, I left the king of Zolodia and all his soldiers. I also left those who had betrayed me.
Somewhere behind me, judgment for my own soul rode in the form of my own son and the Wolfhounds who were loyal only to him. As they followed, they took down those I had impaled and burned their bodies, giving them a warrior’s funerary rite. With him rode the archangel Gabriel with his horn which would call legions of angels to their aid against the demonic armies I commanded.
And I would deserve whatever judgment he would pass upon my soul. I would deserve the death he would deal unto me. I had no more right to live than those I had executed as traitors. I, too, had betrayed my people. Not once, but twice.
But to Zolodia I rode. Behind me, the queen-widow of my enemy hung herself in shame for entering herself into unholy marriage with me. Her daughter, on the other hand, would not suffer such a fate. My second son would see to that.
The daughter of the Zolodian monarch would not suffer either, for she would fall in love with the son who now nipped at my heels. And he would love her as well. Not that this at all mattered to me, for it did not. I had been intent on punishing and defeating. And I did.
What had been done to my own kingdom, I meted back to the people of Zolodia…burning, looting, raping and murdering. I was fulfilling the “eye for an eye” of vengeance and it mattered not that these were now my people as well. I had taken the crown held by their king. It was now mine.
And so, I rode on to the capitol of Zolodia. I had yet another wife to take. Not that I didn’t already have one, but I was the conqueror. I deserved the new wife. I had won her from her now deceased husband, the king. Of course, there was nothing physical about the marriage. No, it was merely political and symbolic. While I was married to their queen, I was their rightful king.
And so there was a grand fete. So grand it was, that all those who had refused to ally themselves with me marveled at the spectacle and wonder of it all. But it was just show. And the marriage bed would never be shared for I had to return to my own kingdom the victor and resume my own kingship.
Thus, I rode for home. Reveling in the glory being showered upon me, I had forgotten who and what had helped me conquer all that I now possessed. And I neglected to realize that I still had an army ahead to face, an army I could not win-even with Hell’s legions-against. An army led by my pure-hearted son and heir.
So this was what I had sold my soul for. My redemption would be found at the hands of my son. My sins would be cleansed by the judgment he passed upon me.
Yet, I would not emerge victorious. Nor would I emerge alive. For my sins, I would have to die a traitor’s death. Not one meted by man, but one meted by Heaven above. I would no longer be in league with the Devil, nor would I be allowed into Heaven. I would be condemned to wander the earth a ghost, a harbinger of evil, an ill omen to the living until my penance was fulfilled according to the judgment passed.
But I rode on blindly toward my fate, unaware it would be so costly. Basking in the glory I had earned myself, lavishing upon myself the riches plundered from the fallen. Congratulating myself for conquering and destroying my enemies. Not once had I realized I had allied myself with my worst enemy of all. I had sold myself to the one who destroys all hope of redemption.
Nor did I realize that I had fated myself for life in Hell. I had given up my salvation for a fleeting earthly victory. I had refused to accept the mistakes I had made. I had committed the ultimate sin and the ultimate betrayal.
But, I had run out of time. Now, before me sat the armies that my son led. At their head, he sat beside Gabriel whose horn was ever at the ready. His sword drawn, my son was ready to lead the charge. And charge they did, Gabriel’s horn blowing the advance and legions of angels joining the battle.
So this was what I had sold my soul for. A hollow victory of a meaningless war that resulted in my conviction. Another war I could never win, even with the unholy armies I now led, and who was now abandoning me or vanishing from existence. For a small infinity where my soul was now being asked of me for the victories I had won…
Not I, but the hordes of demons now fleeing from battle. Those demons who had since been vanquished by the light of Heaven. My own earthly armies had long since abandoned me, unable to fight beside the unholy legions. My subjects had long since begun to shun me for what I had become. But, blinded by the illusion of victories won, I had fallen to my own delusion of being a savior and a hero. I was neither.
Now stripped of my mighty army, I saw myself for what I had become. A miserable wretch. Unholy. Unclean. Loathsome. Evil. Empty.
Out of nowhere, the Devil appeared.
“‘Tis time,” quoth he, “to pay your price. ‘Tis time for you to render your soul unto me.”
“Wrong, Old Goat,” quoth my beloved son, “he owes you nothing. For he has now seen the wrong in his bargain and God calls for the rightful judgment now. Get thee gone, old dragon, and let him suffer whatever fate Heaven holds in store for him.”
With a puff, the great deceiver was gone. No spiked tail, nor cloven hooves had he. But looked as one from Heaven above. All illusion, I know, but enough to lure the purest of hearts in times of trouble. I smiled in relief.
“Smile not, father,” my son admonished, “for Heaven hath decreed your death by my hand. But yet, the punishment you shall be given will be placed upon you as a great chain that must be slowly worn away over time as you do penance for your sin. Never shall you see Heaven until each link in the chain is gone and all who are sent to you are changed, heart and soul, through your help and guidance. Only then will Heaven allow you to enter.”
“But, My Son,” quoth I in protest, “this punishment is too much to bear. How will I ever overcome it?”
“Faith, father,” quoth he, “in mercy, you were released from your treaty with the Devil. Not by his hand, but by the hand of the Almighty alone, whom he cannot deny any prize. For before you fell, you were truly a great man, valiant and true. Full of goodness and mercy. Kindness and empathy. And faith. Whence did you lose that faith? When thine enemy stood at your gates? Or when thine ally proved to be unjust?”
I bowed my head. It had been before that, when I had learned of the betrayal of a handful of Counts and Dukes. It had been when I had seen the sneer upon the lips of Riglio. That had been when I had lost faith. Not only in Heaven, but in my own people. I had betrayed my own people through not showing any faith in them.
Now I saw it. I could have raised armies from my people beyond imagining. I could have defeated the Zolodian armies with my own army. I could have defeated the combined armies of the traitors and mine enemy as well. But I had lost faith in my people and, thus, snatched true victory from myself and the kingdom by relying on an army of lies and illusion. Of evil.
“Draw your sword, father,” he commanded, “I will not strike down an unarmed man. ‘Tis folly to choose the coward’s way. Be brave once more and do proud battle with me to pay for your redemption at my hands. It was I who pleaded for the release of your soul from the contract, that unholy treaty, that you signed with Hell. It was I who bought you your freedom from eternal punishment and sought for you something much more merciful. And now it is I who must free you of your earthly living existence so that you
may begin your penance.”
Without a word, and only a half a heart for battle, I drew my blade. It would be his soon, not that it mattered. For what he had done, I loved him all the more. No other son would have pleaded for his father’s soul and won, but this son…his heart was pure and he sinned not. He gloried not in war, nor in the sufferings of others. But he loved all and desired that all share that same love.
And now, out of mercy, he was to set me free. He had already paid my ransom. Now he was giving me my freedom.
“The widow-queen you left behind you took her own life in shame, for she knew what you had forced her to do was wrong. The one you are now leaving has done the same. All because you have lost faith and have done what is reviled by our laws and the laws of those you have destroyed.
“Is this the way you had wished it to be, father?”
“Nay, My son. If I could but do it over, I would have chosen faith. But it is too late for that now, I can see, so make mine end quick and release me from this living hell I have made myself.”
“So be it.”
His blade slid down my own. I felt it bite into me and slide deep. I knew the end had come. I looked into his eyes, relief in my own.
“Thanks be to you for this act of mercy, to allow me to die the death of a warrior. May our people sing your praises until our kingdom exists no more. May your memory last forever.”
He smiled back sadly as I slid off his bloody blade. Darkness overtook me and death was swift indeed. As I stood free of my earthly shell, I looked at how peaceful I had come to look. I watched as my son stooped and closed the lids of my eyes.
“Leave him lay,” I heard him command. “He is not to be buried. It is his fate to wander the earth. Burial will give him rest. His is an existence of penance now. Never shall he know sleep. Not until Heaven decrees that he has paid for his crimes.”
Over the resulting millennia, I watched as kings came and went. All three kingdoms were divided, one of my descendants taking each throne, and ruled wisely for centuries. Then, the kingdoms ceased to exist and new kingdoms rose to take their place. Somewhere, names changed, citied vanished only to rise with new names, and my descendants ceased to rule.
I watched in sadness as my house died out and was replaced with strangers who knew nothing of me or the tale of my downfall. I watched as they committed heinous crimes in the name of power and law. Law. In them, there seemed to be no law. As I had lost all sight of it in my final days.
I was sent a person, from time to time, to teach harsh lessons to. And I was able to do so. But I knew that these were not the worst of the offenders and I wondered why those had not been sent to me. But I soon learned that those who I had wanted to teach would need something harsher than anything I could instill into them. They were beyond me.
Thus, I made do with those I was sent. Much like you, they wondered at the fate I had been given. And like you, they were told the story. It is a part of my punishment, to relate how I fell and why I have been trapped here. It is also a part of that punishment to be forced to watch as those around me die, while I live on—a ghost forced to wonder through eternity. Yes, I must warn countless generations of the peril they put themselves in as they dance with the Devil, getting ever closer to signing the same pact that I had signed simply to gain something they did not really need or could do if they just had faith.