The next three days I have the wonderful opportunity to post excerpts of the book The Last Sacrifice by . I hope everyone enjoys! I appreciate being able to post this. Thank You James and Angry Robot Books for this opportunity!
Is out January 3, 2017!
So go get your copy!
Check back tomorrow for Ch. 2
JAMES A MOORE
The Last Sacrifice
The Tides of War book I
Was there ever a finer word?
Brogan McTyre and his cohorts had spent the last eight weeks riding along the Hollum trails and the plains of Arthorne, serving as guards and guides alike to the merchant trains. It was hard work, and it was unfulfilling, but it put enough coin in their purses to keep them through the worst of the winters.
Now, after two months’ travel, they were heading back to where they all wanted to be – except for Harper, who seemed perfectly content wherever he settled. Back to their homes.
The leaves had started their slow burn, and to counteract the oranges and yellows that imitated a hearth’s fire, the air had grown cold, and frost covered the ground every morning.
That meant the air was chilled enough that every breath offered a gust of steam and every intake sapped just a touch of the internal heat.
Still, they were heading home.
The Broken Swords were behind them. According to the legends Brogan’s father had told him when he was a lad, the collection of mountains hid the remains of old giants, and the gigantic spears of crystal that thrust from the earth and stone of the area were supposed to be fragments of the giants’ swords.
He didn’t believe the tales, but he remembered them fondly and had shared them with his own children more than once.
A smile crept across his face as Brogan thought of his little ones. Braghe was his pride, of course, a hearty lad who at only five years was already an adventurer and constantly getting into battles with whatever monsters his imagination could summon. His daughters, the twins, were as lovely as their mother and happily too young for him to worry yet about the sort of lads who thought as he had before he married. Leidhe and Sherla were eight, and their hair was spun from the same fire as his. They had his locks and their mother’s looks. A combination that would doubtless cause him plenty of grief, as they became young women. Also like their mother, they were fighters. When they weren’t trying to be prim and proper they were out fighting imaginary beasties with Braghe.
Much to their mother’s chagrin, they were seldom prim and proper.
His smile grew broader as he thought of their mother. Nora was reason enough to come home and the thought of being with her again took a great deal of chill from the morning.
“You’re thinking of your woman again, aren’t you?” Harper’s voice cut through his thoughts and he looked toward his lifelong friend. Harper was the only man he knew who looked as comfortable on a saddle as he did on the ground. There was something of a cat about the man. He seemed perfectly relaxed all the time, until you looked at his eyes. They were constantly moving, roaming even when his body seemed incapable of doing more than stretching lazily.
“Why do you say that?” The thing with having Harper as a friend was you never knew when he was going to tease ruthlessly or try to provoke a fight. He looked perpetually calm – but that meant nothing.
“Because you’ve got that dreamy smile on your face again. You only ever get that smile when you’ve just been laid or when you’re thinking about Nora.”
“How would you know how I look when I’ve just had sex?”
“Because I’ve seen you after you get home to Nora as well as when you’re thinking about getting home to her.”
Brogan shook his head and smiled. If nothing else he could always trust Harper to observe the world around him very well.
“What are your plans for the winter, Harper?”
“I’ll be finding a place to stay and a woman to keep me warm, I suppose.”
That was always Harper’s plan for the future. It was as reliable an answer as could be found in the Five Kingdoms.
Up ahead of them Mosely was rounding the final curve in the road leading to Kinnett. Not far from him stood Volkner, who owned the homestead nearest Brogan’s.
The look on Volkner’s face when he saw Brogan was enough to cause panic to set in.
Brogan urged his horse forward and kept his eyes locked on his neighbor, a dread sinking into his stomach that was deep and abiding.
Mosely looked back over his shoulder as Brogan rode forward.
Volkner’s dark eyes were wide and filled with sorrow. “Brogan, lad, I’m so very sorry. We’ve been trying to reach you. I sent Tamra to find which path you were on. He must have chosen badly.”
“What is it, Volkner?” His voice shook.
There are rules all people follow. Most of those rules are made by kings.
Volkner’s hands were empty.
“There are coins, Brogan. At your door. Four of them.”
“Coins?” Brogan frowned and shook his head. “What are you talking about?”
Volkner spoke again, carefully, with great emphasis, his eyes blinking wetly as he made sure Brogan was listening. “Coins, Brogan. There are coins at your doorstep. Four of them.”
“No.” Brogan could barely speak.
Harper came up from behind, his voice calm and cold. “Are you sure, Volkner?”
The older man looked to Harper and a faint contempt painted his broad features. “Oh, I’ve seen them before, Harper. Not as many as you, perhaps, but I’ve seen them.”
Brogan’s ears rang with a high, sweet note that tried to seal all other sounds away. “Have you looked in the house?”
“It’s forbidden, Brogan. You know that.” There was regret in the words.
“How long ago?” Harper again, asking the questions that Brogan would have asked if his heart wasn’t trying to break.
Volkner shook his head and spread his arms in a gesture of his sadness and frustration. “Five days since, that I know of. I visited two days before that and all was well.”
The winter grew in Brogan’s chest. Without another word, he drove his horse forward, brushing past all of them. The gelding charged hard and the familiar landscape nearly blurred but it was not fast enough.
His dismount was more of a leap than a proper climb from the saddle. Brogan only took five strides toward the door before he saw them.
He had heard of the coins before. Had seen one as a child, but only the one and he had never touched the thing.
That they were valuable was impossible to deny. Brogan could see the weight of them where they lay on the ground in front of his home. They were large and heavy and worth far more than he’d made in the last few weeks of travel. He stepped over them and opened the door, calling out to Nora and each of his children as he entered.
It was a good place. He’d built it himself with the assistance of Harper and others. The people around him had helped as he had aided them when the time came. The town was good that way. He left Kinnett and knew that all was well with his wife and children, and that people as good and solid as Volkner were always there.
But the coins were different, weren’t they?
No one answered his calls.
No one was home. He’d known they wouldn’t be. There were four coins, one for each of his children and one for his wife.
When they came, when they took from a family, they always left one coin behind for each person they stole away.
One coin for each and every sacrifice.
He backed away from the door and shook his head, that feeling of dread growing more profound.
“No. No. No. Nonononononononono…”
He looked to the ground again and saw them properly. Four coins. Just as Volkner had said.
Without thinking about the possibilities, he bent and touched them. They were weighty, to be sure. The largest gold coins he had ever seen or touched. The metal was as cold as the air, colder, perhaps, as he held them in his hands. They were marked with unfamiliar images and symbols.
As he held them, Harper dismounted and came toward him.
“Brogan…” Had he ever heard so much sorrow in his friend’s voice before? No, surely not. Harper was not a man who held onto his grief. He was gifted that way. When his mother died as a child he’d cried for fifteen minutes then never again that Brogan knew of. When his father grew ill and withered five years later there were no tears at all.
“Harper.” He could barely recognize his own voice. “You know the Grakhul. You’ve dealt with them.”
“Aye.” Harper did not turn away from him, did not flinch, but held his gaze. “What you would do, it’s forbidden. You know this.”
“Four of them, Harper? My entire family?”
“Brogan, it’s the law in all Five Kingdoms. ‘When the Grakhul offer coin it must be taken.’”
“My entire family, Harper.” Brogan’s voice was stronger now. Louder.
“My entire family! How many do they take at a time?”
“Four. You know this, too.”
The world did not grow gray, as he feared it might. It grew red.
“How long do they take to offer up their sacrifices?”
“How would I know that, Brogan?”
Part of Brogan knew Harper was trying to make him see reason. But where it mattered, Brogan did not care.
“Is there a chance that my Nora is still alive?”
Harper licked his lips. He looked as nervous as he ever had.
“There is a chance, yes, but it is slim.” Harper held up his hand as Brogan started for his horse. “You don’t know where they are, Brogan.”
“No. I do not.” He looked away from the gelding and toward his friend. “But you do.”
“I cannot. You know this too.”
“My entire family. All of them. Has that ever happened before?”
“No one knows how they make their choices.” Harper shook his head as Brogan started walking again.
“Take me to them. Maybe I can make them change their minds.”
He could see Harper wanting to argue again. He knew his friend well. They had fought side by side on a score of occasions and traveled together long enough that even if they had not grown together in the same town they’d have claimed fellowship.
“I have to try, Harper.” His hands clenched into fists around the four cold, metal coins. They were of such a size that his fists could not completely close. “I have to.”
Harper stood completely still for one more moment, then he sighed. “So let’s go see if we can get your family back.”
“I owe you.”
“I’ve owed you for a lifetime.” Harper shook his head and spat. He was not happy. There was nothing to be happy about.
Volkner was coming his way, his ambling stride leaving him swaying one way then the other. Brogan knew exactly how much the man ached inside for failing to stop Nora and the children from being taken.
“I am so sorry, Brogan.”
“You could not have stopped them.” It was all he could manage as a defense for his friend. It was the truth. No one could stop the Grakhul. They were called by many names, not the least of which was the Undying. Every story of anyone trying to prevent a family member from being taken ended poorly for the would-be saviors.
Brogan climbed back into the saddle and turned toward the Broken Swords. The sun gleamed off the distant shards in a display of colors that was the envy of rainbows, and Brogan did not care in the least.
Somewhere beyond those mountains his family was being dragged to their deaths.
He would save them or he would die trying.
Niall Leraby walked through the woods and let himself commune with the world around him. Not far away he could hear the Weeping River living up to its name, the waters sighing and crying as they pattered over the crystalline rocks and worried their way past the thick roots from the garrah trees that leaned over the river as if to protect their young.
A dozen paces away a doe looked at him and froze, waiting to see what he would do. He nodded in her direction and ignored her otherwise. He loved a good cut of venison, but he wasn’t here to hunt for meat. He was looking for the proper herbs to satisfy Mosara’s needs. The master gardener was not a hard man to work for, but he expected nothing less than perfection in what was brought to him. Less than that, he often said, would lead to a person dying.
There were some gardeners who tended to the trees on an estate or two, and then there were gardeners like Mosara, who handled the landscape at the palace. Some day, if he were bright enough and learned his lessons well, Niall would take his place there. For now he learned and in the process he wandered the woods outside of the city and plucked this root or that leaf or even an occasional berry, because Mosara told him he had to.
“All and well,” he said to himself. “There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.” That was the truth of it, too. He was happy with his lot in life. There were few who could say that in his estimation.
The deer was almost behind him now, and he had let her drift from his attention when she suddenly bolted, charging past him and leaping a distance that was startling to witness. She did not wait around, but continued her rapid escape from the area.
He turned to see what might have startled her, and saw the cloaked figure a dozen feet away.
Niall was not a fool. Upon occasion he was accused of being too trusting, but he seldom let himself get caught unawares.
His fingers tightened on the walking staff in his right hand and he made himself appear calm.
The cowl was filled only with darkness and whomever it was that looked back from under it made no response.
“Was there something you needed help with? Are you lost?” It happened from time to time, even away from the city. People could get lost. In the woods if they ate the wrong things they could easily get addled and forget where they were going.
Instead of speaking the figure tossed a glittering trinket into the air and Niall watched as the shining metal arced toward him. No. Not a trinket.
The metal hit the ground in front of Niall and landed on its edge. The loam under his feet was soft, and the heavy coin cut the surface of the stuff and stood at a nearly impossible angle, like a dagger driven into flesh.
“What are you doing?” Niall asked, but he already knew the answer.
He took a step back and shifted his balance. The staff rose up from the ground and he held it in a two-handed grip.
“I do not follow your gods.” He did his best to sound stern. “Find another.”
The cloaked figure shuddered and came toward him, moving quickly. “No.” The word was not spoken, it was hissed.
Niall brought his staff around in a brutal arc and aimed the thicker end of the hard wood at the blackness of the cowl’s depths. Somehow he missed. His aim was good, but the stranger moved too quickly and dodged his attack.
Niall shook his head. He wanted this done and sooner rather than later.
While he was contemplating what he wanted something hit him hard in the back of his head. The wooden staff fell from his hands and he grunted then fell forward.
When he hit the ground, the cold coin of the Grakhul scraped along his jaw and narrowly avoided drawing blood.
There were more of them. Not one shape, but half a dozen or more, and they moved around him, cutting off any chance of escape.
He would have risen if he could have. The cloaked figure leaned over him and spoke again. “The gods do not need your faith. They need your life.”
They fell on him then, their hands feverishly hot, their breath rancid and diseased. He did not know how many of them attacked; he could not tell for certain, but he saw their faces and knew a fear deeper than he ever had before.
After that the darkness swallowed Niall whole.
They rode hard, and as they went they gathered more riders to join them.
They did not manage an army, but there were enough folk who either owed Brogan for past deeds, had suffered from the same loss in the past, or would work for coin, that they gathered twenty in all. More would have been too cumbersome.
Harper led the way.
Harper, who could be so secretive and who had spent time among the Grakhul, protecting deliveries to their nameless keep in the forsaken northeast. The laws of the Five Kingdoms forbade travel to the area. It was the land reserved for the Grakhul, and unless those very people offered safe passage, the foolish that trespassed did not live long to speak of their journeys.
“We have to follow the proper passages across the land. Stray too far and death will follow.”
Harper’s words dragged Brogan from his thoughts.
“How do you know these paths?”
The man’s smile was thin and unreadable. “I was trained to be here. I’m betraying a trust.”
“Do you think I don’t know what I’ve asked of you?” Brogan’s voice was soft as the finest leather. “Do you think I ask it lightly?”
“If I doubted you, I would not be here.” Harper did not flinch from his gaze. “She is your wife, and they are your children, but I’ve loved them too. They’re as much my family as you are, Brogan.”
“Why do they take them, Harper?”
“Why does the wind blow? The gods make demands and those who follow them obey those demands.”
Really there was no more to say and so they rode on as quickly as they safely could.
The land they finally reached was bleak, a dismal collection of black rock and broken shale that fell toward a dim, gray shoreline of more shale and dark sands. The ocean beyond it was equally uninviting and violent besides. The waves at high tide slammed themselves furiously against the shoreline and dashed into the blades of rock with murderous force. The vibrations from the impacts could be felt through the leather of his boot heels.
According to Harper more than one fool had attempted to attack by that route but none had succeeded. Few had ever approached the nameless keep of the Grakhul and come back. Those that did were never the same. Strong men were broken by what they saw and their flesh sometimes withered where they had strayed too far from the proper path.
Harper pointed out the Gateway to them. The place that the Grakhul claimed led to the home of the gods.
At a distance the monolithic Gateway rose from the night time waters, a massive bridge of dark stone that sometimes was merely an arch and other times revealed the land beneath it. They had heard of the Gateway before, but only one of them had ever seen it. Few saw the Gateway and fewer still saw the keep. These were forbidden things, as ordered by the royal families of the Five Kingdoms. Those rare few given permission to visit were allowed only because the Grakhul deemed them worthy. Harper was one of the fortunate souls trained to find his way through what seemed like an unremarkable terrain.
None of them looked at the Gateway for long. There was something about that odd stone bridge over the waters that hurt the eyes and made the mind ache.
After a scan of the area Brogan McTyre pushed aside the idea of attacking from the shore below. There were other ways that might prove slightly less dangerous.
“Well, now we know why no one ever attacks this place.” Laram scowled as he spoke.
The keep was built into the side of the dark stone cliff. Somewhere in the distant past madmen had decided to risk life and limb and carve the damnable place into existence. The very structure gave off a feeling of extreme age, even if one didn’t take the time to notice where the winds had smoothed a few of the edges.
Brogan looked toward Laram and nodded. He felt exactly the same way. The difference was that he was the one leading the assault and couldn’t actually voice that opinion.
He shook his head and spat into the cold sea air. If he thought too much about the dangerous air of the place, if he let himself worry, he’d lose his anger. He needed that right now to keep him warm and to keep him brave.
Unconsciously he let his fingers roam into the pouch secured on the inside of his broad leather belt, where the four coins rested. He did not need to see them. He’d memorized every detail of their surfaces. They’d been pressed between his belt and the fabric of his kilt for days, but when his fingers touched the heavy gold coins they still felt cold. He understood cold as he never had before.
“Enough. The sun’s up in a few hours.” He squinted into the wind and looked toward the east. “Though around here it might be hard to tell. Let’s find a way in. We’ve bloody work to do.”
A few voices muttered agreement but most were silent. They were here because they owed Brogan a debt or because they had experienced similar pains. Brogan couldn’t hope to offer enough to offend the gods. Where others had allowed the old ways to continue, Brogan intended to get his family back or make sure it never happened again.
Harper spoke up, dark hair flipping lazily around his lean face, dark eyes staring intently at Brogan. “You are sure you want to do this? It breaks all of the laws.”
Brogan knew the man was trying to be the voice of reason, but anger and reason have never been close associates. “I did not ask you here to stop me, Harper, and you know that.”
His thin mouth broke into a crooked grin that made the man look younger by years. “I never said I would stop you, Brogan. Only that I would aid you in any way I can. Sometimes that means saying the things you do not want to hear.”
Brogan put a heavy hand on his friend’s shoulder and nodded. “I thank you for that, but I mean to have my family today. Will you join me?”
Harper licked his lips. “I have never been one to turn away from blood. No reason to start now.” The leaner man looked toward the shore and the odd, rough stone that marked the top of the Grakhul keep. “There is a pathway. It’s right at the edge and it is steep. If you are afraid of heights, you might wish to turn back.” Almost as an afterthought he added, “The horses will have to stay behind. They’d never manage to keep their footing.”
“How do the Grakhul manage it?”
Harper looked at him for a long moment and barely even seemed to breathe. The man was seldom bothered by much. “They aren’t human, Brogan. Make no mistake of it. They are not like us, no matter how much they might look the part.”
Brogan spat again. “No turning back. Let’s go.”
Harper, the only one of them who knew the ways to enter the keep without dying for the effort, led the way with that same half-smile on his face.
Harper sighed. “No turning back, indeed, Brogan. No turning back now. Not ever again.”
Brogan had heard the warnings before. They had all been raised on admonitions about what it meant to defy the Grakhul. Those had always been enough in the past.
Everything changed when it happened to your loved ones. He understood that now. There would be no forgiveness for whatever happened. For that reason alone he owed a debt of blood to each of the men with him.
They were mostly mercenaries. They’d fought at one time or another for each of the kingdoms. The thing about being sought for crimes was first people had to know you had committed them. None of them were foolish enough to admit to the crimes. Well, except possibly Harper, but he could only hope the man kept his tongue.
Brogan looked to his friend and took a deep breath. “I don’t know what I’ll do if we’re too late.”
“I’d say we should pray, but that might not go the right way. I mean who would we pray to?”
He could always trust Harper to find the most challenging part of a quandary. Who indeed?
The others would not talk. Like him they were here for personal reasons. Blood sometimes calls for blood.
Harper was right. Madmen had surely designed the slope down into the keep. The stone was slicked with algae and nearly too smooth to allow a man to walk. Instead they clutched at the wall of the winding, twisting path, and half-walked, half-slid toward the plateau below.
Brogan, a man bent on either salvation or revenge, could feel his heart hammering in his chest. After ten minutes of doing their best to keep their footing, Harper and the men he was leading made it to the flat land of the keep itself.
The ground here was just as damp, and the green slime that had been under their feet coated the walls of the ancient structure as well, lending it an unsettling level of camouflage.
The winds along the cliff face were rough and those men who had long hair and had not already tied it back began the task almost immediately. The sole exception was Harper, who remained as calm as ever.
For one moment Brogan pondered whether the man would betray him, then crushed the thought. They had grown up in the same town and been friends as long as he could recall.
Harper looked his way and drew his chosen weapons. In his right hand he carried a long blade with a hook at the end. In his other hand he gripped a thin sword that was perfectly designed for a man of his leaner stature.
Harper broke the silence. He spoke softly, but did not whisper. The wind would have stolen his words away too easily. The men moved closer to hear him. “We move around the first wall here, and we’ll see their sacrificial pits. There are four of them. They are large, but they have no decorations to let you know they are there. Be very careful. You have already felt the surface of the ground here. Those pits, they are where the bodies go.” He didn’t have to say which bodies. They all knew.
The Grakhul had always come and they demanded their sacrifices.
The Grakhul did not ask. They took. They left only the coins. The weight of them pulled at Brogan’s belt.
Harper looked his way and Brogan realized the man was still speaking. “Beyond the pits is the great hall. It’s where the prisoners are kept and where all of the Grakhul feast.” He looked at the ground ahead. Dark and green and damp against a gray sky that showed no sign of a sun. There were clouds out there, a gathering black bank that rose up the gods alone knew how far. The waves raged and threw themselves at the land.
Brogan knew how they felt.
“Lead the way, Harper. Let this be finished.” His words were low, but heard by all.
Harper nodded, and that smirk marred his features as he turned and moved forward, sliding across the ground with a grace that Brogan envied.
Brogan strode across the level deck, with stone on three sides and a severe drop to the sea below on his left, and pushed his boots into the thick slime, balancing himself with each step he took. After only a few paces the slippery surface lost its coating of green and became a surer, safer footing.
Harper moved around the last corner and he followed. Five steps and Brogan saw the first of the pits. They were vast, indeed, and dark: cavernous holes large enough to easily swallow a fully loaded wagon and as perfectly round as anything he had ever seen. The walls were completely smooth and as far as he could tell no lichen or moss touched the stone. He had no idea how far they went down, but the cliffs ran for a few hundred feet before they met the ocean and he could feel a breeze rising from the pit. The breeze smelled of the sea and darker things.
Some moments take forever. There was so much to see, so much to absorb, and Brogan’s mind was a sponge at that moment, thirsty for information.
No more than three heartbeats to take it all in, but only one was needed before Brogan was screaming.
There were four pits. The edges of three of them were coated in a residual wash of crimson that painted the dark stone.
At the pit closest to them a single man dropped a small, bloodied body into the well and looked up at the sound that came from Brogan’s mouth. The shape that fell into the pit was tiny, no larger than a young boy. Brogan recognized Braghe’s face before the figure dropped.
The second pit had already been abandoned, and the man who’d been standing there was walking toward the farthest of the four deep holes.
At the third, a man was looking down into the depths of the well – and turned toward the group as Brogan screamed.
At the fourth of the sacrificial pits seven men still stood. They held a woman by her wrists, by her ankles, to stop her from escaping. She tried, too. She thrashed and struggled and wailed at them.
Tears stained Nora’s face. Through the markings they had painted on her flesh, he could see the tears as they cut at the colors that tried to hide her beauty from him. A hundred strides and more away and he knew Nora’s face, her shape, as well as he knew his own hands. She was his world, his breath, his light.
Brogan charged forward, barely looking at anything beyond Nora.
She looked his way, her mouth an open wound showing her pain. Despite it all, his warrior’s brain calculated. There were four pits. Only one was still untouched. The sum was painfully simple. His children were dead. But there was still a chance, wasn’t there? There was the possibility that he could reach Nora in time.
He ran for Nora, and Harper ran beside him and raised his chosen weapons. As a unit the rest charged forward, spreading out in an effort to block any attempts their enemies might make at escape.
The single man standing at the first pit looked their way. He was dressed in a dark tunic and boots. His head was shaved clean and his skin was pale. He stared without any comprehension, an expression so completely shocked by the appearance of strangers that it bordered on comical. His eyes flew wide, his mouth dropped open and his hands raised up to clutch at his chest. And while he goggled in their direction, Harper ran a blade from his clavicle up to his nose, splitting everything between in one stroke.
The dead man fell as Harper pulled the sword free, never missing a step in his stride.
Brogan ran past the corpse and continued on. There would be time to look at bodies when the living had been sorted.
The wind roared and threatened to push him aside. The wind did not matter. There was Nora and nothing else.
As he went, Brogan pulled his axe from its sheath.
Four of the men around Nora came their way, most of them dressed much like the corpse left behind by Harper. Not a one of them was armed and as a whole they looked confused by the idea of anyone attacking them in this place of ritual and sacrifice.
Brogan sneered and raced toward them, his axe hefted up in his thick arms, his eyes locked on the closest of the pale bastards that had taken his family from him. He charged, a roar building in his chest. Four men stood between him and Nora. They would not stand for long.
The axe cut deeply into pale flesh and brought forth a river of crimson. He did not stop as the first of the bodies fell. The second man died where he stood. The next in line flinched back, tried to escape, but never had a chance. The blade cleaved through his chest and only stopped when it reached his backbone. A hard kick wrenched the body away from his weapon and Brogan roared again, the fury consuming him.
And up ahead Nora let out the smallest of sounds as a blade from the man beside her pierced her heart.
There was no thought left in him. Brogan smashed into the next fool between him and his wife and barged him into the pit. Another came too close and suffered the same fate as he reached for Nora.
The man who’d killed her – for even then, much as he wanted to believe otherwise, Brogan knew the truth of the matter – looked his way and tried to speak out a warning. His words were in a language Brogan did not know, but whatever he’d been saying in any tongue would have been wasted breath.
Brogan brought the axe up above his head and cut the man in two.
Whatever the plans, whatever possible ideas the Grakhul had in mind, they were forgotten when Brogan came forward. They fled from him, backing away and chattering in their foolish tongue as he dropped the axe from his grip and barely felt the sway of it on his wrist. Brogan moved to take Nora in his arms.
His wife looked at him. Her dark eyes rolled in their sockets and she looked his way, and whatever she might have wanted to say, whatever she might have been feeling, it faded from her, unuttered, as her ruined heart stopped beating.
There were only a dozen or so men. They never stood a chance against his gathering. If he had been alone Brogan would have died and never even noticed. He was lost staring at the remains of his beloved for a time. Who could say how long? Surely not Brogan himself.
He rose slowly, Nora in his arms, his axe swaying against his wrist, held in place by the heavy leather strap. It tapped against him several times but if it cut he did not notice.
Harper looked his way with haunted eyes and shook his head in sorrow.
“I am so very sorry, Brogan.”
Brogan had no words.
Around him his men stood guard and looked on. Not far away the ocean roared and the wind howled and Brogan understood all too well their fury.
For a moment he considered the possibility of taking Nora’s body home with him and giving her a proper burial.
Instead, he kissed her sweet face one last time and let her fall into the deep pit. A mother, he knew, would want to be with her children. “Let this be your last sacrifice.”
Harper put a hand on his shoulder with great care. “Brogan, there are more of them. There is a city’s worth of people here.”
As he spoke, their enemies made themselves known. They came running from the great hall Harper had spoken of, most of them dressed much like the corpses around them. None were armed. None had even contemplated being attacked in this place.
The axe found its way back to his hands. It felt weightless as Brogan contemplated his enemies.
The closest of them bellowed in his gibberish language and Harper held out a hand, stopping Brogan for a moment.
He called to the strangers and they quickly exchanged words. Harper turned to his friend. “Truly I am sorry, Brogan. All of your family…”
“I know this.” Four pits and now all four were painted with blood.
“They say the gods demand fresh sacrifices or they will tear this world apart.”
Brogan’s voice was hoarse with tension. “Let them.”
The time for considerations and discussions was done. Brogan charged toward the speaker and cut into his stomach with one hard swing. Before him, the gathered men of the Grakhul stared, horrified, and did little or nothing to defend themselves.
Around him, behind him, he heard more battle cries. They owed him debts and so they came. They had lost to the Grakhul and so they shared their rage. They all had their reasons for breaking the laws and not one of them felt any regret.
The battle was brutal and fast; a reaping of bloodied wheat that fell to the stone floors without much protest and few attempts at defense.
When it was done, all of them were winded – murder is exhausting work – and Brogan looked at the corpses and frowned. It made no sense. These were not, could not be, the Grakhul he had heard so much about.
Laram said it for him. “These are the brutes who demand sacrifices?”
Harper shook his head. “No. They must be out and seeking their next sacrifices.” He frowned. “The women, the children, they are hiding somewhere below. What do you want to do about that, Brogan?”
Brogan looked at the corpses. For as long as anyone knew, the Grakhul had come and taken and left their coins. For as long as he could remember it had not mattered. Now, however, his family, his entire family…
“We gather the children and the women. They come with us.”
Harper looked at him with one raised eyebrow and that damnable smirk. “What will you do with them?”
“Give them to those who lost their families.” He shrugged, not completely certain what he planned. “They can decide for themselves what should happen to scum who took their loved ones.”
“And the bodies? What if the families see the bodies?”
His face in that moment, he knew, was not the face of a loving man. “Let them know my loss. Our loss. Let them grieve for their loved ones before they are given to the people who will judge them.”
Laram spoke again. Laram, who was always a more decent man than Brogan. “We could push them into the pits.”
Brogan shook his head. “No. There will be no more bodies in those damned pits. They’ve had their blood.”
That was all there was to say about the matter.
The women and the children of the Grakhul did not go gently. They were not the least bit intimidated by the gathering of men and if they grieved for their loved ones they showed it by taking up weapons and fighting against the invaders.
The first attack came from a boy of perhaps ten who charged out of a darkened doorway with a knife in his hand and came at Brogan. One step out of the way took care of the knife. One fist to the side of the boy’s head left him reeling on the ground.
The second attack came from the boy’s mother, who charged at Brogan, swinging a small axe. Laram tripped the woman in midstride and sent her sprawling. She let out a cry and dropped her weapon. Rather than stopping, she came back up a second time with a dagger drawn from her belt.
Harper stopped her with a word. She froze and looked at the men around her, her eyes wide. By the time she was done assessing the situation Harper had placed the blade of his weapon to her throat.
Harper’s words were a mystery but his tone clearly offered a warning. There were several exchanges between the woman and the soldier and when it was done he put away his sword.
“They’ll come with us.”
“What did you say to her?”
“They could come with us or they could die.” Harper eyed the woman for a moment. “I also told her we’d make sure the children suffered before they died.” The woman sighed, put her hand around her mouth to amplify her words, then bellowed out in the gibberish language of her people. Within minutes, a very large group was forming. Twenty men, all told. If the families got serious, Brogan’s group would never have a chance, despite the fact that half the women had little ones gathering around their knees. There were twenty able-bodied and well-armed men. There were hundreds of women and children.
Brogan shook his head and spat. “If we’re taking them, we need to be able to control them.”
Harper shook his head. “No reason. They’ll follow us.”
“Why would they?”
The very woman who’d tried to attack him answered. Her voice was thick with the strange accent of her usual tongue, but he understood her well enough. “Because you have damned this place and the people here. Our only hope, no matter how small, is to be away from here.”
She would say no more. Instead she soothed her child, the boy he’d punched in the head, and then she and the rest of her people followed after Brogan and Laram and the rest.
Harper and four others did not immediately leave. They caught up instead. Brogan noticed but said nothing.
Another exchange with one of the women and he and the others left again, coming back with a few wagons that had seen better days and horses to draw them.
One of the women led the horses and found a different route that wound upwards, to the top of the plateau. The exit point was nearly impossible to see and Brogan wasn’t surprised that Harper had not known of it.
Within an hour they were on their way from the keep and moving in a very large serpentine across the nearly barren land. A few of the women had gathered possessions, but most did not bother.
As they left the sky roared with a hundred strokes of thunder and fingers of light ripped through the darkening clouds, cutting their way across the skies and bullwhipping strokes across the horizon. Brogan turned to look at the great Gateway. He watched as tongue after tongue of lightning stroked the thing but did it no harm.
“How often does that happen?” Laram was making conversation, nothing more. The woman with her son was walking nearby and looked at them but did not answer. Her smile was not pleasant.
The sea behind them raged on, hammering at the shoreline. The winds blew harder, as if inviting them to leave the area even faster than planned.
Brogan should have felt victorious. He had avenged his family and stopped the bastard Grakhul from ever doing to another what they had done to him. Instead he felt hollowed out and left to wither and die.
JAMES A MOORE is the award-winning, bestselling, author of over forty novels, thrillers, dark fantasy and horror alike, including the critically acclaimed Fireworks,Under The Overtree, Blood Red, the Serenity Falls trilogy (featuring his recurring anti-hero, Jonathan Crowley) and his most recent novels, The Blasted Lands and City of Wonders both part of the Seven Forges series. In addition to writing multiple short stories, he has also edited, with Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, The British Invasion anthology for Cemetery Dance Publications.
Moore’s first short story collection, Slices, sold out before ever seeing print. He is currently at work on several additional projects, including the forthcoming The Last Sacrifice, book one in the Tides of War, series. Along with Jonathan Maberry and Christopher Golden, he hosts the Three Guys With Beards podcast and currently he lives in Massachusetts.
Since time began the Grakhul, immortal servants of the gods who choose who lives and who dies when it comes time to make sacrifices to their deities, have been seeking to keep the world in balance and the gods appeased. When they take the family of Brogan McTyre to offer as sacrifice, everything changes.
Brogan heads off on a quest to save his family from the Grakhul. The decision this time is costlier than they expected, leading to Brogan and his kin being hunted as criminals and the gods seeking to punish those who’ve defied them.