Into the Darkness

 

Dais has just finished telling the story of how he came to serve Talpa to the Ronins, Sentinels, and Warlords at Mia’s campfire get-together.  Check out Illusions of Power for the whole story.  Kale is angry at a remark Dais made at the end of his tale.

 

Kale stood up and turned to Dais, anger in his eyes.  “You honestly think the other Warlords and I forced ourselves on the women Talpa gave us?”

 

“Didn’t you?  You boasted often enough of your conquests.”

 

“Only with those women who willingly wanted to be in my bed.  There were plenty of them who were attracted to my good looks and exceptional strength…”

 

Sage and Kento rolled their eyes at each other.  “Oh, brother.”

 

“Shut up!”  He turned back to Dais.  “Enough that I didn’t have to drag them to my chambers.  I would never…could never take a woman like that—not even under Talpa’s influence!  What kind of monster do you think I am?”

There was complete silence for several minutes.  It was Sekhmet who broke it.  “Perhaps it is time for you to tell your story, Kale.”

 

Kale glared at him.

 

Sekhmet laughed.  “You always could tell a good tale.  Now you have a captive audience.”

 

“This is idiotic.”

“After you are done, I will share my story.”

 

Anubis stood up.  “And I as well.”  He looked across at Oshay.  “There are many things still unsettled.”

 

Kale was weakening.  “I don’t know…perhaps.  Fine!  But no one interrupts!”

 

Dais had told his story sitting at the fire.  Kale was going to be much more animated.  He paced back and forth.  He stopped near the fire and looked out into the darkness.  “Where did it all start to go wrong…?”

 

LONG AGO

 

“Kale!”

 

“Yes father?”

 

“How many times do I have to tell you to make sure the brush looks undisturbed after you lay the traps?  Even a blind man could tell there’s a pit trap under there!  Our lives depend on these traps being invisible.  This is the direction the barbarians will come to reach the village proper.  Redo it like I showed you.”

 

“Yes father.”  Kale thought his traps looked good.  But then they always looked wrong to father.  Nothing ever pleased him anymore.  He was always moody and short-tempered.  Father also drank more than ever now, trying to dull the pain from his battle wounds.  Even Mother’s disapproval did not sway him.  His father had been a great soldier for the local lord once—until his warhorse fell on him during battle.  He almost died.  Luckily, or not so luckily, he pulled through.  But they’d had to remove the leg.  Father was never the same.  The ungrateful lord had released him from service without hesitation, without compensation.  He’d saved that worthless coward’s life and had fought in his stupid little skirmishes with nearby provinces for nothing.  And now their “benevolent, generous” lord had deserted them in their hour of need.  When he heard that the barbarian horde was coming, he fled to his cousin’s lands in the north, taking his soldiers with him.  In return for the moneys and goods the villagers had paid him in taxes, he was supposed to protect them from outside forces.  It made Kale’s blood boil to think that soft, flabby worm would be warm in a silk-covered bed while they were being slaughtered like pigs.

 

“Hurry up, Kale!  We don’t have all day.”

 

Kale quickly finished disguising his traps and followed his father.  They spent the rest of the morning and afternoon laying a variety of traps in the great woods, knowing that the barbarians would have to come through there to get to the village.  They then headed for home.  As they neared their cottage, they could see two of the village elders waiting for them.

 

“Larak!  You and your group of troublemakers were setting traps weren’t you?  I thought we agreed you would wait until the elders had decided.”

 

“You agreed, not I.  If we waited for the council to make up its mind, we would all become elders.  You debate and debate but do nothing!  The horde is coming now!”

 

“We have decided—and you undermine everything we hope to accomplish, Larak.  This Mengaris must be an intelligent man for all the power and followers he has.  We can offer him an annual tribute, services and goods, if he’ll leave our village in peace.  We have decided to try negotiating with him, but we can’t do that with you setting deadly traps throughout the area.”

 

“Negotiate?  He’s a Hun, you old fool!  I’ve fought his kind before and they don’t negotiate!  He’ll spit in your face and take everything you have by force just for the pleasure of it.”

 

“He would be stupid to take by force what we would give him willingly.  Our decision is final.  The council has spoken and you will obey.”

 

“You and the other elders can dig a hole all the way to the lowest reaches of the Underworld for all I care!  I will follow my own conscious in this matter.”

 

“Your actions will endanger us all, Larak!  The village will suffer for your foolishness!  We can not, will not, let that happen.”

 

Larak grabbed Kale by the arm and went into the house, slamming the door shut behind them.

 

Uli couldn’t help but interrupt.  “Wow!  Real live Huns?  Like Attila the Hun?  We read about him in school.  He…”

 

“Will you be quiet, boy!  I said no interruptions!”  Uli deflated like a leaky balloon.

 

Jack glared at Kale.  “Don’t be such a jerk.  He’s just a kid.  And correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you butt in twice when Dais was telling his story?”

 

Kale balled up his fist and walked over to Jack.  “And who might you be, insect?  Oh, wait.  You’re the newest Sentinel—the Warrior of Storms.  You’re even younger than these other children.  Perhaps you should learn to keep your mouth shut and learn your place.”

 

A dark gleam shone in Jack’s eyes.  A deadly cold smile turned up the corners of his mouth.  “And who’s going to teach me?  You?  You pompous windbag.”

 

Kale grabbed Jack by the shirt, but Jack’s expression didn’t waver.

 

Mia and Anubis exchanged a worried look.  The sky was clouding up.  A flash of lightning shot overhead.  Mia was sitting near Jack.  The electric charge he was generating was making the hairs on her arms stand on end. 

Kale let go of Jack, momentarily distracted by the strong wind whipping around him.

 

Jack was intently staring at Kale as if lost in a trance.  Anubis grabbed his arm.  “Jack!  Jack, stop it!  Snap out of it!”

 

Jack’s eyes focused on Anubis.  The wind dissipated.  The clouds parted and blew away.  Jack was shaking.  He looked at Kale, horrified.  “I’m…sorry…I…”  He got up and hurried into the house.

 

Kale sneered.  “What’s the matter with him?  Can’t stand a few harmless, heated words?”

 

Mia looked at him like he was an idiot.  “Harmless?  Anubis just prevented him from hurting, maybe even killing you!  Jack has to watch his temper.  Otherwise…people can get hurt.  The Dark Warlords aren’t the only ones who’ve been touched by Talpa’s evil.”

 

(*author’s note—see SW3: Lord of Storms for Jack’s story)

 

Anubis followed Jack into the house.  The two of the came out several minutes later.  Jack raked his hand through his hair with an exasperated sigh.  “Um.  Sorry, guys.  Anubis convinced me that I shouldn’t miss the rest of the story.  He’s sure it will be interesting.  Sorry to interrupt.  Please go on, Kale.”

 

Kale looked at him oddly but went on.  “Now where was I…”

 

Three days later, a friend of the family came to the house.  He’d been one of the men that believed Larak was right and had helped him litter the woods with deadly traps.  “Larak, come quickly!  The elders want everyone to come to the village square.”

 

“Why?  They have already made their feelings known.  And so have I.”

 

“I don’t know.  They said it was important, so they sent for everyone to gather for an announcement.”

 

Kale was listening in.  “Should I come with you?”

 

His father patted him on the shoulder.  “No, son.  I’m sure it won’t take long.  The council thinks everything it does is supremely important.  Where’s your mother?”

 

“In the garden with Kami.”

 

“Tell her I should be home in time for dinner.  Now go help your mother and sister.”

 

Kale did as he was told.  But he couldn’t help but feel something was wrong.

 

He wasn’t home in time for dinner.  They waited all evening and still he did not appear.  Kale’s mother grabbed her shawl from its peg by the door.  “Kale, Kami.  We’re going into the village.  I’m probably just being silly, but he should have been here by now.  If he stopped at the tavern…well, I’ll need your help to bring him home.”

 

The three of them walked the family’s secret path from the cottage to the little village.  Father had made them all learn alternate ways to get around and ways to avoid the traps.  It was dark, but they weren’t afraid.  They’d gotten used to the peace and quiet of the dark woods where they lived.  When they came upon the village, they were struck by how empty the streets were.  People were always about at this time of night.  Then they saw something in the middle of town.  Several poles were grouped together.  And something else…Kami started to scream.  Mother quickly clamped a hand over Kami’s mouth and tried to push the two of them out of the square.  Her eyes were glistening with tears.  Kale was struck dumb.  He let his mother push him from the square without resistance.  He hardly noticed she was there.  He kept staring at the poles…the lifeless bodies speared to the poles.  Father.  Father.

 

Kale stopped talking for a minute and sat down by the fire.  “My father could be…strict sometimes.  But he could also be very generous.  And he always let us know how important we were to him.  Especially mother.  Father said she could have had any man, but she chose him—a rough-looking soldier.  But she said there could never have been anyone else.  Many men wanted her for her black-pearl eyes, her night-sky hair, but father had told her she had the power to shape the cold steel of his heart with her fiery soul.  That was when she knew he was the one.  To me he was a true warrior—intelligent, articulate, honorable, strong, courageous. 

 

Anubis had known Kale for many years, but rarely saw the depths of the man.  He saw that Kale could be abrasive, but he could also be quite eloquent.  Now, free of Talpa’s influence, all the Dark Warlords were becoming their true selves.  It was a strange and fascinating thing to watch.

 

Kale noticed everyone staring at him like he’d grown an extra head.  “What?!  None of you ever have a father?”

 

Mia shook her head.  Kale really knew all the wrong things to say.  The man had no tact.  If he had, he would’ve remembered that he was in the company of several fatherless people and orphans—herself included.  Thankfully, no one said a word and Kale went on with the story.

 

They turned to flee back into the woods, but it was too late.  Several large, leering barbarians were coming towards them, blocking their way.  “Where are you headed, beautiful?  Not leaving us already?  We’re going to have a party at the tavern.  The innkeeper is going to be very generous tonight.”  They all laughed.  More men came out.  One wore a richly ornate cloak and a fancy sword.  He had to be Mengaris.  The trembling village elders followed meekly.

 

His eyes hungrily pawed at Kale’s mother.  “Now how could I have overlooked such a tasty morsel as yourself?”  He turned to one of his men.  “Where was she hiding?”

 

“She just came into town with her children a few minutes ago.”

 

“One of the elders spoke up hesitantly.  “She’s harmless, Great Lord.  Just a woman with a young girl and a son who is not yet a man.  Let us take her to the hall with the others.”

 

“No.  I like the look of this one.  She makes the other women of your village look like my horse.  And I don’t like my horse.”  His men laughed.  The elders tittered nervously.

 

Kale’s mother turned to the elders with a look of hatred.  “What have you done?  What have you fools done?”  The shame in their eyes just before they looked away told Kale everything.  His mother could see it, too.  “You betrayed him!  You gave my husband and his friends to these filthy animals to save yourselves!  I hope they skin you while you scream before they take your worthless lives!  No one trusts a traitor.”  She pulled out the longknife she always carried.  Kale pulled his out, too.

 

Two of the barbarians approached her without drawing their weapons.  They didn’t think a woman could hurt them—even if she did have a knife.  Kale’s mother swung out her foot and hooked the leg of one of the men, tripping him.  Before he could get up, she slammed down on his neck with her foot, crushing his windpipe.  The other warrior was momentarily stunned by this beautiful woman turned savage.  His hesitation was long enough for her to knee him in the stomach.  As he hunched over, she thrust her knife up under his jaw.  His falling weight did the rest.  She took the dead man’s sword and threw her longknife to Kale.  Kale gave one to his sister.

 

Kale turned aside as many blows as he could with his longknife.  He used a technique of slice-retreat.  It took longer, but it enraged the barbarians and made them careless.  He elbowed one in the neck and spun the body to use it as a shield against the man behind him.  The man’s thrust brought him close enough for Kale to slice open his throat.  He picked up the fallen man’s sword and cut another rushing man across the stomach.  But Kale was getting tired.  His father had taught him how to fight, but he was no match for these men and he lacked the strength and endurance their years gave them.  He noticed Mengaris watching his mother and laughing as she fought off his men.  Kale charged the barbarian leader, yelling like a madman.  Mengaris drew his sword.

 

“So, boy.  Your father was one of the men I killed today.  Which one I wonder?  I suppose it doesn’t matter.  They were all a bunch of stupid dirt-digging farmers and sheep-lovers.”

 

“My father was the greatest warrior this ungrateful village has ever seen!  He served his cowardly emperor faithfully and gave his leg to save his life!  His name was Larak and I’ll kill you in his name!”

 

“Oh!  That one!  He was pathetic.  But I suppose he did put up a good fight for a peg-legged cripple.  Perhaps you should be proud, whelp.  He did manage to give me this scar.  I think it would be only right if I gave his son a matching one.”  He moved like the wind.  Kale could barely keep up.  It felt like Mengaris was toying with him. 

 

The barbarians had strength and reach, but lithe Kami had speed and agility.  Kami dodged each thrust and twirled away, slicing at their sides and legs as she spun.  But more warriors came and she was soon overwhelmed.  One of them reached out and managed to grab her by the hair.  She cried out.

 

Kale was distracted for the barest of seconds—long enough for Mengaris to cut him across the eye.  The eye was okay.  Kale could still see.  But blood was running down his face.  Then Kale saw only a bright light and nothing more as he was struck hard.

 

Astarte interrupted.  “So that is how you got the scar?”

 

Kale sounded exasperated.  “Yes.”

 

“For ones so young, it sounds like you and your sister fought bravely and well.  Did they kill her?”

 

Kale frowned. “No, they didn’t kill her.  Mengaris and his people had recently lost many slaves to sickness, so they took all the able-bodied villagers they could—except the men who’d had the guts to fight them.  He spared me because I amused him.  But those sniveling elders got what they deserved.  Mengaris was no fool.  If they would betray one of their own, how easily would they betray him?  He had the council executed soon after.  He took what he wanted from the village and burned the rest before he dragged us all away.”

 

Dais sat with Kayura on the other side of the fire, their fingers entwined.  “And what of Kami and your mother?  Whatever became of them?”

 

“Mengaris took my mother for himself.  He liked breaking spirited women.  I had to watch my bright, beautiful mother turn into a shadowy thing with hollowed eyes.  He couldn’t truly break her, but she was never the same.  One day Mengaris lost his patience and his temper.  He beat her to death and left her body in the fields for the carrion birds.”  Kale got up to pace again, his fists tightly clenched.

 

Uli popped his head up from where he’d withdrawn after Kale snapped at him earlier. He started to say something but was interrupted by a coughing fit. After a minute or so it subsided.  “Is that when Talpa showed up?”

Astarte eyed Uli worriedly. He'd been having a lot of coughing fits lately. And his eyes had a hollow, sunken look these days. Something wasn't right.

 

“Hm?  Oh.  No.  I wasn’t ready yet.  Dais is right.  For Talpa to latch onto your soul, he needs you to be in a very dark place.  I had the anger, but I still had a little bit of sunlight in my life—Kami.  I took care of her, looked after her for the next few years.  She diffused some of the darkness that threatened my soul.  But then things changed.  Kami was getting older…and more beautiful.  She’d been assigned to the barbarian women as a helper, but now Mengaris began to notice how much she looked like our mother.  One night she was dragged back into the slave tent and dropped to the floor.  She was…she could barely move.  He’d beaten her and raped her.  She was bloody and stiff with pain.  She knew she wasn’t as strong as mother.  She couldn’t bear the thought of him pawing her, putting his lips on her…Kami knew she would break so she asked me to…”  Kale stopped.

 

Sekhmet put a hand on Kale’s shoulder.  In a quiet voice he asked, “What did she want you to do, Kale?”

 

“She asked me to put her out of her misery.  I couldn’t do it!  But after weeks of seeing her like that so many times, pulling into herself more and more…She kept begging me.  She didn’t have the physical strength or the strength of will to do it herself.  She was still just a girl.  One night after a particularly bad incident, I sat next to her and held her hand.  I took an old blanket.  She knew what I was going to do.  She smiled and closed her eyes.  I smothered her.”

 

Rowen was shocked.  The words came out a harsh whisper.  “You killed your sister?”

 

Kale looked down at the ground.  Several tears dripped onto the hard earth.  He savagely turned away.

 

Zane and Zoe looked around the campfire to see some very uncomfortable faces.  Zane looked at Zoe.  They understood why Kale did it.  Zane had once asked Zoe to promise him the same thing if he should become a danger to others.  She agreed only if he would do the same for her.

 

(*author’s note—the reasons why they made this pact was explained in SW4:Wrath of the Aesir). 

 

Zane spoke up.  “He had no other choice, even though it was probably the hardest thing he ever had to do.”

 

Zoe finished his thought.  “It was what she wanted and it spared her a life of pain.  How can that be evil?”  No one said anything, but she could tell they didn’t all agree.  Most of them probably had mixed feelings about it.

 

Kale looked back at Zane and Zoe and saw that at least someone understood.  He shook himself out of his thoughts.  “Mengaris was furious.  I’d gotten rid of his toy before he could break it.  He had me flogged near to death and left behind to die and rot as the barbarians moved on.  That was when Talpa came.  I had no hope left, nothing to give me light.  So I gladly accepted darkness.  I took the armor and destroyed the barbarians.  But then I gave my soul into Talpa’s hands by killing the slaves as well.  At the time I was so full of hatred that I wanted them all to die.  I felt like the whole village had betrayed my father, my family.  But not all of them had helped the elders or even agreed with them.  But I let my rage blind me.  Talpa then came into my soul and filled it with his evil presence.  He had his next Dark Warlord.”

 

No one said anything for a while.  Ryo finally broke the silence.  “I think we all need to take a short break—get some more soda, more food from the house, stretch our legs.”

 

Kento was up like a shot.  “Did you say more food?  I’m all for that!”  Sage and Sai were right behind him.  The others milled around the fire, stretching their legs.  Kale and Dais were talking quietly.  Quietly was a good thing for them.

 

Ryo spoke to Mia and Anubis.  “It’s weird to see the Dark Warlords so…human.”

 

Anubis laughed softly.  “Without Talpa’s influence we are all becoming the people we would have been.  Dais is still a bit arrogant, but otherwise more calm and serene.