Anthony Miller woke with a start and bolted upright in bed. He was suddenly conscious of his own panting, echoing through the sparse, stone room. The only other sound was a gentle whistling of wind coming from the open windows. He raised a trembling hand and stared at it in horror. Collecting himself, he threw the cover off his naked body and walked to the open window, steeling himself against the chill fall breeze as if in defiance against his body’s own weakness. The Lord Tenth of Apollyon did not shiver.
Below him stretched the vast expanse of the Great Temple. His tower of residence was part of a modest and ancient keep. Newer sections abutted the keep, and even newer sections abutted those, representing hundreds of years of work and expansion. Yet it would take a millennium before they were done building a castle worthy of the Heir to All Existence. Two large, scaly hands came to rest on his shoulders from behind. They squeezed gently and he could feel the razor sharp talons digging into his skin.
“Bad dreams, Anthony?”
The Lord Tenth bristled at the lack of decorum, “I am quite sure you know the answer without me telling you.” He felt the enormous hands tense and reconsidered his tone, “The same. Always the same.”
“No different this time?”
The Lord Tenth thought for a moment, “It is always the same. Nine figures in a circle, obscured in the way of dreams. I can see them clear as day, but could not now describe to you a single feature of their countenance. They are performing an immensely important ritual, and need a tenth to unite them. Always I try – to walk to them, to talk to them, to join the casting – and always I find myself unable; I find myself… too weak. It is the horrible way of dreams: You need to run, yet your legs are made of lead. You need to think, but your mind is foggy. You need to act, but find yourself impotent. It is a nightmare! I, the Lord Tenth, Chosen of Apollyon, unable to join the circle and perform my duties because I am too weak! And then I wake from my dream prison. That is the way it goes every time.”
“I see. So this dream was the same as all the others? No difference?”
“Mostly…” the Lord Tenth hesitated, thinking of what he had seen, “This time there was another. He walked to the middle of the circle. For a moment I thought I was seeing my own self, that in my mind I had conquered this dream world and forced my will upon it. Then I realized it was not I, but another – a specter sent to torment me, to do in front of my eyes that which I could not.” He shuddered.
The large beast’s low voice elevated with a tone of feigned surprise, “Oh? So you saw the tenth this time?”
The Lord Tenth steeled himself once more. If this was the end, and he suspected it was, he would face it with all the strength he’d shown in his long life. Apollyon would judge him, and perhaps he would be condemned to roast eternally in the fires of Baator, but he would die knowing he could have done no more. He whirled around, wrenching the claws off his shoulders, and leaving large gashes behind which he ignored. He drew up his chest and confronted the huge fiend, “Dispense with the riddles, Paymon, and tell me what I have seen! Is it past or portent?”
Paymon was taken aback by this mortal’s insolence, but a sense of respect also brewed deep within him. This mortal was strong, and a worthy disciple of his master. He deserved an explanation. “It is both. You see both past and present.” Seeing the confusion on the man’s face, he quickly continued, “Long ago it was decided by gods and men that they could no longer coexist. This was the end of the War of the Magi. An accord was struck and the decision made to place an impenetrable seal between Midgard and the outer planes. In order for this seal to be truly impenetrable, the accord required representatives from all covenants. Apollyon’s father and brother, lacking foresight, opposed this accord. They reveled in the chaos, and would just as soon see Midgard completely destroyed. This left the accord with only nine, unable to complete their ritual.
Apollyon, in his infinite wisdom, knew that destroying Midgard was foolish. As you are aware, worshippers are the source of a god’s power. Destroying Midgard would destroy all the worshippers and plunge the world – AND the gods – back into the early eons of creation. It would be like starting over.”
The Lord Tenth added the next part reflexively, “Apollyon knows he will eventually be lord to all creatures. Therefore, all creatures must be preserved so that one day they may see the light and supplicate themselves before the Throne of the World.”
“Very good, my dear Anthony. While our master awaits the time of his ascension, it is our duty to cull the herds and make them stronger, such that at his coronation we may present him with the most robust examples of the species. However, it is also our duty to preserve the species. This delicate balance requires the discipline which sets us apart from the mewling fools who worship Asmodeus.
“Apollyon saw the destruction of Midgard as the destruction of his subjects, even if they didn’t know it yet. So it was he, and not his father, who sent the tenth emissary to the join the accord. It was he that completed the circle, and saved the mortal world from total destruction. This emissary became known among non-believers as the Tenth of Apollyon. The mortals of Povos greatly recognized Apollyon’s wisdom in this matter, and in the years after The Sealing, the Tenth became a great prophet who drew a great many followers to Apollyon. Never had our master been more relevant.”
Nodding, The Lord Tenth turned the pieces over in his head. A part of him felt enraptured – blessed was he to hear these words of Apollyon’s great history, lost to mankind for thousands of years. Another part was still confused, “You said I was seeing both past and present, yet you have only told me about the past.”
“The Sealing was imperfect. In particular, two gods were left in Midgard, for different reasons. The first you know well – Bahamut, the mad dragon god imprisoned in the Great Icelands. The second, you were unaware of. It turns out Indra Stormchild switched places with his servant Barakiel, binding himself to the great Nexus of Godsforge in his servant’s place. Until recently, this bond held him here in Midgard. Now he has been banished as well and the seal reforged. After nearly 3000 years, Povos is finally safe. Now will ensue a great age of mortal prosperity that will strengthen the species and prepare them for our Lord’s ascension.”
The Lord Tenth felt his heart jump with joy, “Then we have bound the great weapon to our cause, and there are none with the power of gods in Midgard who might oppose us!”
“Wrong. The power of the Nexus was used to seal Indra from this world. It is no more. This is all as Apollyon foresaw.”
The Lord Tenth was aghast, “Did you…” he paused and looked at Paymon, “Did you know about this?”
Paymon was silent for a moment, and then decided this mortal deserved a truthful response. “No. I believe now that none but our great Lord knew the truth. He is a master of deception when it befits his cause.”
“Then the nine souls which Cardinal An’Drow collected, which Decima informed me of?”
“…were necessary to perform the Sealing Ritual. I admit I am most surprised myself at this turn of events, but our master is most pleased and assures me that events proceeded most fabulously according to his plan, as he expected.”
It was not his place to question Apollyon’s will, but the Lord Tenth did not understand, “We lost the weapon! We are now no better off than we were before! I have spent my lifetime expanding Apollyon’s reach in Midgard, but for every two we add to the fold, another loses faith! For every temple we build, another is razed! Decades have been spent in tireless pursuit of this cause and yet our number is hardly more than it was a hundred years ago! Finally, fate puts within our reach a weapon capable of bending the world to our will, and it slips away! How can that possibly be according to Apollyon’s will!?”
The words of this mortal bordered on blasphemy, but Paymon stayed his hand a moment longer. With a curt, reprimanding tone, he addressed Anthony Miller, “Remember balance! Obliterating half the world to gain sway is the impatient way of Apollyon’s brother. Our order would swell in the short term, but in the end you would have fewer souls to lie at our Master’s feet. He does not wish to rule a devastated, broken civilization! It disappoints me that you do not see the wisdom of this outcome.”
“I am sorry to disappoint you, Paymon, but I truly do not see it. Pray, explain.”
“Did you not hear me say that mankind will now enter an age of prosperity? All will be strengthened in preparation for the Ascension. Furthermore, as was the case 3000 years ago, Apollyon’s part in all this has not been lost on the mortals. The name of Apollyon is on everyone’s lips. Look again out your window!”
The Lord Tenth turned once more toward the window, scanning across the various structures. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, until a slight movement caught his eye to the north. He trained his eyes on the northern gate and saw a twinkling light. No! It wasn’t just a single light; it was a whole line of lights, extending northward from the gate in a great column that disappeared in the fog of night. There were hundreds, at least. His breath caught in his throat and he whispered, “Pilgrims.”
Paymon stepped up behind him and those great, scaly hands came to rest once more upon his bloody shoulders, “It is the same around the world. In a time of great need, the Tenth of Apollyon returned and saved us all. Man, woman, and child name our Master savior, and they flock to him. Nowhere is it more profound than in New Aramar. The harbor of Nameless is gridlocked with boats, inns sleep three to a bed with more on the floor, and farmers have sold everything they can pull out of the ground or scrape off a rock. Nevertheless, they continue to flood to Nameless, just for a chance to worship at the temple in New Aramar, for An’Drow is no longer of this world and the Hierophant is now worshipped in his own right.”
A single tear ran down the cheek of Anthony Miller, then another and more after that. It was not from sadness, but from exultation, at having lived long enough to see such a sight as the glowing worm of pilgrims that wiggled even now through the gate of the Great Temple. He uttered the words he’d known to be true from the moment he first woke from the dream, “I am a false prophet.”
“Yes.” Devils are not prone to sympathies, and kings of Baator even less so, but Paymon found in this case that he uttered the single word with some degree of sadness for this mortal, an exemplary specimen of Apollyon’s creatures who had erred in this most egregious way only because those before him had erred in the same way.
Anthony Miller – for he would no longer think of himself as the Lord Tenth – turned around slowly. This time Paymon’s hands released themselves so that no wrenching was required. It was with an unburdened heart that he looked the great fiend in the eye and said, “Apollyon does not suffer false prophets.” It was as much a command as a statement of fact.
“No.” With that, Paymon closed his great talons around the mortal’s neck. He did not struggle.