Authors: Julius Schenk
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Dark Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Magical Realism
TAKE MY HEART &
GIVE ME JUDGMENT
Dark Gods and Tainted Souls: Book Three of Three
A hand touched his own. Seth flinched back by instinct. He drew it away from the pain pressing against his raw and broken skin, but there was no pain. Just the soft warmth of a human hand in his. Seth opened his eyes and raised his head, the taste of Silver’s blood still on his lips. He saw a vision of Pelloss fading in front of his eyes and Seraphina staring at it, watching it go, the only passage to her homeland closing before her.
His body felt good and whole, but empty. Any power he had held from the coins was long gone. He was just Seth again, but still much more than the man he’d once been in that debtor’s prison. The tormenting memory of burning on the beach was with him every time he blinked. Every time he closed his eyes, he imagined his black and tortured body burning again and again. Looking into the sky at the sun, all he could see was the pain it had caused him, not the changes it was already causing in the land. Fucking gods. Impersonal bastards.
A familiar, dark voice sounded in his mind.
Seth reached down to the soft sand and pushed himself fully to his feet. He looked at his company of odd companions and friends. Giant wolf. Silver goddess and especially Seraphina, looking like she might break down and cry, and not because he’d survived.
“Looks that way,” he said. “Sorry, Seraphina. It’s gone.”
Seth held up his hands. They were smooth and free of the sun and the moon scars he had carried.
Seraphina turned and smiled at him sadly. “I know it had to be done. What would the world do without its Druheim?”
“Get a new one. There is more than the one you know,” Silver said. “There are lots of them.”
Her words, blunt as ever, broke the tension at least. They laughed for what seemed like the first time in days. Seth looked out across the water. It was a beautiful sight, if he looked past what it had cost him. The sun reflected across the deep, dark water of the sea. Slowly, small wooden boats began to bob up from the water, their tiny unpainted hulls dripping with water. The human’s he had turned back from monsters had gathered to watch as the wooden vessels came floating to shore. The boats were minuscule and held only one person.
Seth saw the first girl he’d brought back. She waded into the gentle waters up to her knees and climbed into the craft. She sat facing the horizon. There were no oars. It was a scene repeated again and again. The boats slowly began to float away from the shore, across the water, towards the horizon. Towards whatever lay beyond it. Seth felt he should be going as well.
A lot had happened to Josette in the span of a week. She’d gone from a simple archer to some sort of assassin-in-training. Most happily, she hadn’t let down everyone that was looking to her to save the day. She had never been surrounded by so many people who actually seemed to value her for more than what she had between her legs.
“Sit next to me, child.” Minsetta patted a small wooden stool with a red embroidered cushion on it. Josette gladly complied as the small command tent of the former duchess of Twin Plains filled with people. The duchess herself was nowhere to be seen. Josette thought the old desert man, Quest, probably had something to do with that. He was entitled to his revenge, as far as she was concerned.
“Good. We’re all here,” Goldie said.
Goldie was the only one standing. His smug face was covered in blood, but that just made him look more like a victor. The man glowed with self-satisfaction, like a boy after he’d bedded his first woman. Josette almost had to laugh, but he had truly come through for them all. The Keep was saved, the enemy destroyed and pretty much everyone she cared about was still alive. Seth hadn’t come back. She felt he may never now, but she knew wherever he was that he’d be proud of his friends at this moment. She’d fulfilled her life debt to him, in saving them all and killing Seth’s foe, the duke.
Goldie shouted, “We fucking won!”
The tent was filled with Red Faced bastards, with their streaked and faded war paint, and Cold Death soldiers who had been blooded in their first real battle and survived. Well, mostly. The assembled soldiers cheered with what seemed relief that it was all over. Instead of being dead, as they thought, they were the very unlikely victors.
Grimm and the two silent brothers stood by Goldie’s side. Grimm’s war axe dripped blood onto the tent floor as he stood silently. Dagosh had quickly given Farirkar, the new leader of the bastards, a chest of real gold. The beast of a man happily counted it, letting the coins drip from his fingers, and allowed his new friend and patron take the floor.
“To the victors go the spoils. The Keep is saved. Our loses will be felt dearly, but they weren’t as bad as they could have been. Most important of all, everyone’s been paid. So why are we still here? What are we doing?”
He hooted, “We're getting drunk! That’s what we’re doing.”
As if by magic, two of Goldie’s men. Skinner and the scarred girl entered the tent. They struggled to carry a huge wooden box between them. The chest had the Twin Plains crest burned on the side. Neat rows of green bottles tinkled together in the case as they bumped their way through the crowd of exhausted soldiers.
“The duchess’s own supply. Wine, not blood, for her planned victory. Now get out of my tent, but don’t go far. We’ve got stories to tell and songs to sing!” Goldie yelled.
Skinner handed Josette a large bottle of wine and took the cork out with his yellow rat teeth, grinning at her. She tried not to be disgusted by the action and smiled back.
“To you, little one. You’ve earned it and so much more,” he said quietly.
Standing quickly, Josette took the full bottle in her small hand and Minsetta’s hand in the other, before following the rush of bodies outside. The night was already lit with the orange glow of roaring fires and filled with flickering red and white laughing faces. Soon, the night filled with drunk and raucous voices and song; she knew it would be a long night.
Minsetta laughed and reached over for the bottle. She put it to her dark lips and took a swig like a sailor. She smiled as the expensive red wine trickled from her throat to her stomach and warmed her. Josette snatched the bottle back and took a drink herself. It had been years since she’d had expensive wine. Not since becoming a slave in a rich man’s house. It still tasted good.
“I like Goldie,” Minsetta said. “He’s very smart.”
Josette looked across the fire at the Northman in question. Just in time to see him engaging in an arm wrestling contest with Farirkar. The bull of a man almost ripped his arm from the socket, which sent Goldie whimpering away, amid howls of laughter from the Reds.
“Good at talking shit, yes. Smart. I’m not so sure.” Josette said, taking another drink.
“Don’t fool yourself; this is an uneasy alliance at best. The Keep we’ve saved is held by someone who is probably thinking right now of taking her guards and shutting her saviors out. Dagosh is wondering if he is still a leader and Grimm is wondering if he fought on the right side. We’re all wondering what the hell we should do now and if shedding even a drop of our blood was worth it. This celebration is as necessary as the battle.”
Elizebetha chose that moment to say something. She was standing apart from the frivolity, staring with a face that seemed less than impressed. She was dressed in fine leather armor that looked clean and untouched, its fine lines and golden inlays unsullied. Her hair was slicked back into a tight ponytail. She looked like a duchess. Putting her hand on Dagosh’s shoulder, she raised herself up on a small stool and began to speak.
“Brave men and women of the Cold Death, Red Bastards and my own Guard. I wish to thank you all.”
“You’ve done such amazing things. I can’t begin to thank you, but now that the threat is over. I think that the…”
Goldie stalked up to Elizebetha, bottle in his hand and forced her to lean down as he spoke in her ear for a moment. Josette watched her face turn bright red with anger and embarrassment. She regained herself and spoke on.
“… I think it’s time I send some men to the Keep for some more food and wine. Enjoy!” With a cheer from the men and women, she stepped down and walked away. Goldie stalked up to Minsetta and Josette, with Grimm in tow.
“What was that?” Josette asked.
“What do you think little sister? That cold bitch was about to say we could all fuck off and I told her that she’d let us have a night of drinking first, and show some damn gratitude. Otherwise, we’d be sleeping in the Keep tonight. All of us. If she plays it right, the Reds will leave tomorrow with full pouches and sore heads. If she acts like a bitch, then we’ll have a new duchess by morning. I think Farirkar would look like shit in a dress.”
“Why do you care?” asked Minsetta.
“Why do I do anything good? Cause Seth would want me to.”
The battle was an awful thing. Elizebetha had tried to keep Josette by her side to save the girl from herself, but she had run into the fray at the first moment she could get away. Elizebetha knew she had helped push the girl to her new darker path, but when she saw her walk back into the study covered in blood and smiling at her success, she felt only horror at her part in it. They had won the battle and Elizebetha had trotted on her horse across the plain in front of her Keep to the tent of the fallen duchess.
Her horse paced slowly across the moonlit field as it was forced to navigate through the maze of fallen and broken bodies, dented shields and burned banners. She saw faces of the dead looking up at her. They all seemed to accuse her. No difference now. Especially the young Twin Plains’ farm boys, who’d fallen in with mercenaries and her own Keep guard. Their black and gold uniforms, now ripped and torn. They were never men who were meant for fighting like this. They’d only been hired simply to guard her Keep and family. It had been a well-paid job and position of pride for the men of her small township.
The tent was a scene from hell. Red-faced devils frolicked and laughed and, above all, Goldie standing there like a blood-drenched king over his court of killers. He’d delivered her and the Keep, yet still she didn’t trust him. Her father’s words kept ringing in her mind.
The power will corrupt them all
She knew she had to protect the Keep from these killers and lock its secrets away. Seth, Grimm and now Josette, each one had grown darker with their newfound powers. What would happen if a man like Goldie and his new army of thugs got their greedy hands on that kind of power?
Elizebetha had gathered her courage into a little ball and stood to address them. She knew it was ungrateful, even heartless, but what choice did she have?
Goldie had stopped her. As he walked up to her, she felt a pit of fear. Who would stand with her against him? If he grabbed her down from that stool and thrust a dagger into her heart, would anyone stop him? She only intended to retain her own Black Rock guards. Even Dagosh and the Cold Death could no longer be a part of the secret. She’d come to view them in such a good light, yet in the battle, she saw what they were capable of. Now they mixed with the Reds, clearly brothers in arms. The joint bloodshed had united them.
Goldie grabbed her hand and looked into her eyes.
“I know you want us gone and we will go soon. So just smile, be as grateful as you should be, and in the morning, we’ll have left. Act like a fool, though, and I can’t protect you from them. We’ll leave you to your little secrets and books, if you’ll just give us this night to feel like saving you was actually worth a damn.”
The words hit her hard. Elizebetha realized that she was being stupid, but also that Goldie’s grip on the Reds was weak, at best. Shame washed over her. She had used and used and used these people again. She’d turned these people into killers. What right did she have to be sickened by what they had done for her?
She walked through the field of the dead, back to her Keep and left her saviors behind to pretend her life was worth saving.
Grimm stalked up the deserted roadway, heavy boots crunching on the stone and sand. It was littered on all sides with bodies. He muttered to himself as he walked. Grimm knew he was an angry man, but he couldn’t recall a time when he’d been quite this angry. First Seth was taken from them. Then hundreds of good men died. His friends were dead and he had shed his blood. Risked their lives and how were his survivors rewarded? How are they treated? Like dogs begging at the door for scraps.
Grimm reached the hidden door at the side of the Keep and kicked it with all his new strength and rage. It budged but didn’t break. He kicked again and again, but the bastard thing held. Slowly, a crack of light appeared at the bottom and it began to open. A white-haired and frail old man, in a new Black Rock guard uniform, peered at him under the yellow light of a lantern he held in a shaky hand.
“Grimm? Oh, Master Grimm! Is it over?”
Grimm almost started laughing. “Of course, it’s over. We won and saved the bloody Keep.”
The man’s old face filled with relief. “Oh, that’s great news. I suppose you’re rushing to tell the duchess?”
“Yep, that’s it,” he said.
The man stepped out of his way and handed him the lantern.
“Stay here. Maybe more,” said Grimm, as he wandered deeper into the passage. He held the lantern high in front of him, casting its thin light into the stone corridor.
The man answered, “Yes sir” and Grimm made his way through the passage alone. Avoiding the staircase that would lead him to Elizebetha, he let her drink her tea and plot against them. He walked on and on until he found the room Josette had told him about.
His boots echoed loudly on the stone floor and the lantern reflected back what he’d sought. Rows and rows of neatly labeled bottles winked back at him in the low light, where they sat in their dark wooden racks.
“Good thing I can read now,” he said to himself, setting the lantern on a nearby table.
He knew there were rituals and words, and not just drinking involved. Grimm let himself be guided by his instincts. Apparently they were true in these matters. He looked at the bottles and simply said:
“By the blood I’ve spilt, share your secrets with me!”
Reaching out with his rough and calloused hand, he took a small metal goblet in one hand. It was steel but covered with carving and runes. With the other, he took the first bottle and pulled the cork with his teeth. The first bottle read, “The life of Master Jovan, axe, sword, knight of the order.”
Grimm smiled as he mixed a dribble from each. Skills and talents that would take a life to collect, just here for him to take and have. How many would have been saved if she’d be willing to share this power?
He started with weapons, sword, axe, bow, knives. Then other skills, sneak, climb, disguise. Things he’d always wanted to learn but were so beyond the means of a humble sailor like himself. Knowledge of the world. Navigation and movement of the stars, languages by the dozen; numbers and figures. It was all here. She could share this with the world and make it so much better, but no. This was too good for the likes of him. It was hard to keep someone under your boot when they knew their own worth and knew it was equal to yours.
Grimm mixed the dark, nasty brew and raised the cold metal goblet to his lips. He drank slowly. The wine was strong and tasted a lot more like blood than he thought it would, but as soon as it touched his tongue, he could feel it. Grimm closed his eyes as a feeling of warmth, strength, and pleasure coursed through his body. The memories of so many people washed over him. He saw lifetimes dedicated to perfection. The Master Jovan and his love of the Rapier. The skills he’d honed in himself over years and years of training. The young woman who knew Pellosi and so many other tongues; who was paid by the Gatherers for just a little of her gift.
Grimm opened his eyes suddenly. There was something in the room. Looking at the wall, he saw the dust had been moved from the floor in an arch. Searching the wall with his hands, Grimm found a small stone pushing out just a fraction and pulled it hard. A small doorway swung towards him. Pulling the door open all the way, he peered inside. Another small rack of bottles rested within. Only five in total. They were in the script of the desert people, but now he could finally read it.
They were simply labeled with the word that meant history or journey and marked with long spans of years. Here was the history of the Gatherers and the Dark Guild in one place. All that they had collected over lifetimes of searching. Maybe there was a way to bring Seth back with these memories. Grimm knew Elizebetha would never have the guts to use them. Grimm mixed all the bottles and drank deeply. The memories infused him with the power to summon creatures, people and even gatherings of the Guild. He now knew their lore, ways and techniques. He saw their battles against the Gatherers, who would keep the knowledge locked up forever.
Grimm left the room, staggering as much from the wine as the power. He floated past the old man at the door and made it back to the campfire before passing out to the laughter around him.