The liquid in the bucket was a bright crimson. Not quite blood, more of a Marlboro or sports car color. Julius resented that dye cost too much because it looked a hell of a lot more like blood and that was the point they were trying to make. Symbols were important, so why couldn’t they spend a few more bucks to get the right colors? He remembered having to scrape the cash for this together from couch leavings. It just made him want to ‘feel the Bern’ more. Fat cats didn’t need their money, he did.
A friend passed him a stale bagel and he chomped on it while waiting. The night was perfectly warm in Dallas, and they waited for the governess outside of the convention hall. When the limo pulled up, he put the bagel in his pocket and stood with the paint.
Julius felt his heart swell. Tonight was a perfect photo-op for the Front. He adjusted the man bun in his hair, and put on his well-practiced mischievous grin. He adjusted a perfectly wrapped scarf and checked his teeth in a car mirror. His facial hair was impeccable, 2 days of rugged stubble with a looping mustache. He imagined himself looking like a young Stalin.
A young woman stepped out, followed by an old man. He was at least 30 years her senior, but his chiseled good looks made it seem as though the woman might not be in it for the money. She was long and lean, bronzed skin highlighted even more by the white coat of fur over her shoulders. A few reporters flashed photos outside of the fundraiser event and she beamed for them.
Julius gave a bird call, and he and his three friends ran across the street. The paint in the buckets shifted, spilling over the sides. A reporter turned and took a picture of him, burning a flash into his eyes. The governess saw the men incoming. So did her security detail.
The buxom blonde reached into her purse and pulled out a Taurus Judge. Julius didn’t see that his cohorts had peeled off and into the night. He charged ahead.
As he swung the bucket back he started to scream, “Fur is mu–”
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The governess held the smoking pistol, a look of terror on her face. The governor put a hand up to his mouth, aghast and then smiled. He knew this would get some donations from the gun lobby.
On the ground, Julius bled into the spilled paint. His head lolled to the left and he watched the crimson of his body mingle with the latex. In the middle of his pool was the half eaten bagel. The last thought before his mind went blank was that he wished it could have had real cream cheese.
When he awoke, he saw only grey skies and a slight drizzle. The world rocked back and forth for a few minutes before he realized he was on a boat, but that didn’t make any sense. He should be in a hospital. The organization should have reps there, he should have cards and flowers and fair trade coffee bags. He should have had a security guard oppressing him.
Instead it was only the sea and his thin naked body. The fog started to roll over the boat and he could only shiver. The marks on his chest, five circular holes, were covered in scar tissue. He didn’t even realize one of them had gone through his cheek.
A few hours later, the boat ran aground. A pebbly beach on a ragged shore greeted him. The mountains in the distance bore snow and the valleys in the distance were deep with short grass.
“All the abundance in the world and ye go to your death a string bean. I think you were Americaning wrong, lad,” a man on the shore says. He is heavily cloaked in furs. Studded leather armor covers his body and a dull colored steel sword rests at his hip.
“Where am I?” Julius asks.
“You are on the shores of Helheim, and I’m here to take you to the halls of your fathers in Valhalla,” the man said.
“Morphine is a hell of a drug,” Julius says as he climbs from the boat.
“Our libations are potent but we don’t really have opiates. Always sounds like Odin needs to take a trip to that plane and liven up our drugs,” the man says. He extends a hand to Julius. “I’m Asger. Your great-grandfather about six times back. The others wanted to come, but well, they didn’t really. We aren’t exactly getting fierce stock from modern times.”
Julius shakes Asger’s hand, and the grip makes him whimper. Asger sighs and adds, “And it looks like it isn’t getting any better. I think my cock gives a better handshake and it doesn’t have thumbs.”
“I’m sure it’s more used to that death grip,” Julius says, rubbing his hurt hand with the other.
Asger cackles. “Aye that it does. At least you have some wit about you. Even in death a man still has needs. Follow me, boy. Put on this cloak or you’ll catch your death… again.” Asger hands Julius a cloak of black fur. The size and shape makes Julius think it’s from a black bear.
“I don’t do fur.” Julius says.
Asger’s jaw hangs down a little and his head cocks to the side. “I don’t think I take your meaning.”
“I don’t wear fur. It’s cruel and barbaric and if you weren’t a figment of my dreams I’d show you a few videos that would make you never want to wear fur again.”
“This ain’t a dream son. By the looks of you, you got shot about five times. Big loads too. Shot and shells like some of the others down here,” Asger says as he wraps the pelt around the thin man. Julius dives out of the way, not wanting the dead beast to touch his skin.
“Gods you’re stupid. Fine then. You’ll find this so-called dream is a lot colder than any you’ve known before.” The old man turns and walks into the accumulating mist with a scoff.
They walk for hours, Julius willing himself to wake up. The countryside is pretty but the rain is slowly turning to snow. He shivers as he walks through the gloomy mist. He wills himself to wake up. He pinches his skin and bites his tongue. Any small jolt that could pull a person from a dream, but it doesn’t work. The pinches hurt, and the taste of blood fills his mouth. His teeth chatter and he asks Asger if he can have the pelt. The old man giggles to himself and throws it at Julius.
In the distance orange halos play through the fog, and a giant wooden and stone keep starts to take shape. Smoke rises from the keep’s many chimneys and the smell of wood and meat fills his nose. Julius’s stomach rumbles.
They enter the keep through a pair of doors that open without assistance. There are no guards on the walls, only men and women in the courtyard sparring and leading horses to stables. They all look massive, scarred and bearded. The women are huge too, armored and thick in a furiously beautiful way. They all seem familiar, similar bones in the cheeks. The same eyes as his own father and family.
They enter the keep and Julius runs to a brazier that burns slowly. He can’t see any fuel in it, it just seems to emit fire, but Julius doesn’t care why. To his left a scene of debauchery plays out. Giant men tear into roast pigs and other animals. Mead and wine flow from barrels. Gorgeous women tease the men and a mighty fire roars in all of the pits around the great tables. Songs are being sung. Small fights break out and end spontaneously. At the heads of the tables are mountainous men in hard plate armor, swords almost as tall as Julius himself.
“That man has to be 10 feet tall,” Julius says.
“At least. And we don’t abide the imperial system in the afterlife. You best brush up on your metric. We all had to.”
“How is it possible for a man to get so big?”
“Well, it could be a dream, or if you slay enough frost giants, dragons, and trolls, you start to become legend. The rules are different when you become immortal.”
“So I had to die to become immortal?”
“Aye, and you will die many times here, or at least suffer mortal wounds. Now, excuse me, I need to get drunk,” Asger says as he picks up a barrel and takes it to an empty spot at the tables.
Julius walks over to an empty seat, wearing only some linen pants and a bear pelt. He settles next to a redheaded warrior with an eye patch. The man turns to him and stares. Julius gets up and finds an empty table in a corner of the great hall.
For what feels like years, he can’t really tell the time here, he cleans the halls and serves mead. He watches his blood relative’s conquests and their defeats. Maimed men come back, singing songs with missing eyes and limbs. Some are so broken that they are buried in the vast courtyards outside, only to be dug up weeks later with their bones mended. Even severed heads slowly knit their way back on the shoulders of the fallen men.
He hears tales of frost giants, of greedy dragons, of other Norse clans who battle for pride and trinkets. One day when cleaning, Julius pulls on a torch that opens a secret room, one filled to the point of glowing with gold and jewels. He belly flops into the pile and swims through it. He makes a gold angel, expecting to find the floor but only sinks deeper into a pile.
Asger passes by the hall and whistles to his young kin, “I see you found our spoils. Might be the first Norse thing I’ve seen you do.”
Julius finds a column and climbs it. “Did any of the newer people tell you about a cartoon character named Scrooge McDuck?” Julius asks.
“Nay, though they never shut up about televisions. Seems like all the new ones care about is football, or futbol depending on where they perish. Why?”
“He used to do this at the beginning of every show!” Julius says and jumps headfirst into the pile.
His neck promptly snaps and his body folds around him. There is no pain below the neck. Nor is there any feeling. His face pulses with embarrassment and coins dug into the skin. Asger begins to cackle. “I take it your duck could do it without the broken neck! Wouldn’t make for much theatrics otherwise.”
The old man slogs across the gold, slipping here and there before he gets to the body that wheezes and gasps.
“Let me guess. You thought if you killed yourself in a dream you might wake up? Well boy, that’s not how things work down here.”
Julius gurgles, his face looking down his backside for the first time. Asger grabs his neck and sets it forward. It makes a strange slurping pop. The old man props Julius into a throne and covers him in fine cloaks and gold. He gives him a crown and scepter. Julius drools.
“I’ll check back on ye in a week. Should be enough time to feel your toes again.”
In the gold light, Julius can only think about his last moments on earth. He replays it over and over again. He thinks about the placement of the scars. Over his heart, over his stomach. The governess fired three .45 rounds and two buckshot into him. Four center mass, one to the face. Not a flesh wound in sight. He starts to understand that there is no way he got off the pavement. That this afterlife was destined to him by birth.
He weeps. His body cannot move but in that hall of gold and looted banners, tears stream down his face.
He also thinks about all the times he was meek. How afraid he had always been. The animal rights organization had given him a cause and it treated his fear like a salve, but was ultimately pointless. Could he fix the errors of his life in this world? Could he become like the others in his forefather’s house? They were never fearful. They just acted and warred and drank.
After some time, Feeling started to return to his body, and he crawled through the gold. He found a sword with a golden pommel and gleaming blade that looked almost platinum in its reflection. He sat against a wall, willing the strength in his arms to wield it.
Several weeks later, Asger opened the doors and found a very skinny man spinning a blade around like a drunken idiot. The old man clapped his hands at the boy. “I think we should take you to the sword master. I do love that you have chosen the blade over sulking in dark corners, but you should learn how to use it.”
Days with the sword master passed, and he was covered in nicks and gouges. Master Bjarke had a unique philosophy on sparring. He never used training swords, nor did he take well to smart assery. His lessons cost blood. Usually a few fingers as well.
Julius was exhausted. He sat at the table, the smell of mead and meat hung in the air. He had abstained from mead because apiaries were bee slave colonies for their human masters. He stared at the roast pig in front of him, the perfectly glazed turkey, and the seared beef steaks. He couldn’t take it anymore. He loaded his plate with a menagerie of meat stuffs, including some from animals of legend, and ate hearty.
He downed his mug of mead in a few hard gulps.
The red-haired man with the eye patch pointed at his gut and laughed. Mead fizzed out of a gut wound. Master Bjarke had cut him a little deeper than anticipated.
Julius shrugged and drank more mead. The red-haired man clapped him on the back and went back to his meal.
The taste of juicy meat seemed to reinvigorate his soul. Tears welled at the corner of his eyes as oils ran down his chin. He didn’t feel guilty, he just felt sustenance and gratitude for the animals that perished for his body.
Julius is in the middle of a column of men, marching toward grass fields he has only been told about. In the distance he hears the roars of blue giants, all of whom would consume him if given the chance. He shuddered at the thought of being put back together in that process.
The field is covered in giants. Dozens of them, but there are hundreds of Norsemen around him. Some of the older men come up to the middle of the giant’s chest. Julius is lucky to meet them mid-thigh, even with his tall and wiry frame.
A great horn blasts and the columns start to break apart. The men charge, seeking their individual glory. Tactics Tuesday is when they go for a team victory. Free for all Friday is when it is every man for his own glory. Speedsters fly by Julius with dual blades drawn. Archers with longbows are already popping arrows into eyes and kneecaps at incredible ranges.
Julius shudders and nearly pisses himself out of fear. It’s the first time he’s advanced into the fray. The ground between him and the nearest giant closes. It spots him, raises a mighty blade the length of a sedan and swings down.
Julius hears a curious *shump* noise, and then falls to the side. To both sides to be precise. A band saw could not have done a better job bisecting him top wise.
He lays in the mud, trying to pull his halves together. When the battle is over, the men sing songs of victory and brag about their scores. Asger sits in a meat wagon binding the two halves back together. In the end Julius is a barely wiggling mummy. A fine line of blood splits the linen bandages.
When they get back to base, a team of diggers bury the dead a few feet under the soil. Julius wonders if this is really necessary or if it is time to think about how they messed up in battle. Either way, it’ll be at least a month before he looks at the pale sky again.
The first victory Julius has is from a rival tribe. It’s an archer, a younger man who is wide-eyed and new to battle. The short blade sinks into the archer’s temple. The boy screams and falls over. Julius tries to pull the blade out of the man’s skull while he screams on the ground.
“Sorry! I’m so sorry.” Julius says, putting his boot on the archer’s face and yanking. When the boy still screams he stabs the blade in again. At least the archer will be unconscious for his mending.
A strange sense of pride washes over his body, and it tamps down the revulsion. He turns to join the battle again before being trampled half to death by a war-horse.
It’s the first battle Julius has ‘survived’ without a major injury. He helps Asger put the bodies back together, trying to avoid Frankenstein like monstrosities. Julius isn’t sure that can happen here, but he isn’t taking any chances. In his pouch he has the blue ear of an ice giant that is two palms across. He plans to nail it to the wall above his bed.
“Is there a point to this, Asger?” Julius asks. “If we are all immortal, why do we keep fighting?”
“To me, it’s more of a question as to what’s the point of existing if you can’t have a good fight. Think of that rush you got today. You can’t tell me it didn’t feel good to gore a few of those red bastards.”
Julius thinks back to the primal war cry that blasted out of his body. The feel of blood let loose and the horn sounding out their victory. It made him salivate. He wanted meat. There was something wrong with him.
A man on the wagon with missing legs grabbed Julius’s leg armor. He’s obviously new to the Valhallan plane as he had no armor yet. “Look at it this way kid, did they stop playing football because the Packers won the first Super Bowl? Or that the Broncos won the 50th? No. They keep playing the game because it will always be different. New players come and the dynamic changes. The weapons and game stay the same, only we change and grow.”
“Or get shorter in your case.”
“It happens. Point is, look at this as a game and all your troubles will be over. Eat, drink, screw, maim, and wander through the ages with your kin. It doesn’t get any better than that for a Norseman,” the legless man says.
Julius will never be as brawny as the others, but he will be faster. He sprints across the fields, dodging stones and spears, arrows and flaming jars. He swats away their wasted ammo as though it ever had a chance of hitting him. When he reaches the giants he dives at their abdomen, using his dual short blades to climb his enemy like a cat before sawing through the neck. The body crumples as the head slides down. Julius rides the body as it falls. His kin catch up and swarm into the field of giants. Their clubs swing and crush, swords clash and men fall. Julius huffs with a smile on his bloody face, looking for his next kill.
The game is on, and he intends to win.
Tony Southcotte: Tony hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.