Judas’ awaking was greeted by the darkness. He looked down to find steel chains strapped around his wrists and ankles, binding him to the stone floor. His back was pressed against the far wall. He was in a dungeon, and the worst part of it all, was that he had not been here when he fell asleep. His initial reaction was to think that he was dreaming. He remembered drinking far too much, falling asleep to sailor stories, so perhaps he had fallen in one. When he reached to pinch his skin, the metal braces sliced at his flesh, sinking in and spilling blood. It pained him. Judas had had many dreams in his past, nightmares included, yet in none of them did he feel actual pain. Wherever he was, it was most certainly not a dream.
To keep himself from panicking, he thought back to where he last was, and how he could have possibly gotten into this situation. What he recalled was the seaport. Being an avid trader, and the owner of five of the finest galleys in the west, Judas spent much of his time keeping watch over his investment. At least… that’s what he would tell his wife. In truth, Judas paid other men to look after his well-being whilst he whored and gambled until his cock was numb and his pockets empty. In his most recent recollection, that was exactly what he had been doing. He was on the docks, sitting on a small stool, looming over a round table with four other men, each of them oarsmen. Judas had been gambling since the time he got his first coin, but it seemed to him that sailors learned the trade as soon as they were in the womb. Because of this, rarely could he ever compete with them. He had no notion as to why he continued to play. Most who share the addiction, do so because, however rare it is, they eventually end up winning a lump-sum. Judas, on the other hand, had never won at all. If he was not the first to be booted from the table, then he was most certainly the second, and always he was the one to bring the most to the pot.
After the dice had spat in his face the same way they had all his life, he went off to find himself a whore. Just like gambling, he had no notion as to why he did this either. He had a wife, a beautiful wife whom he had a beautiful little girl with. Being a merchant, and a very wealthy one at that, Judas could have earned the hand of any woman he wanted, for no father would stint himself of such a prize. Being the man that he was, Judas sought after many suitors until he found the one with the loveliest face, and the best set of breasts. Remarkably, she was not like most beautiful woman, and she did not love Judas just for his money. Though he was not the comeliest man, she looked at him with those doe-eyes of her, as though he was. Each time she did, he hated her all the more for it. It was much easier to do that than saying he hated himself.
The brothels by the docks were filled with no such woman even nearing his wife’s beauty. You had to pick either one of two options: A whore with a good face, or a whore with a large bosom. There was none who had both. Since he did the act out of desire and not love, Judas often chose the one with the largest bosom, such as he had last night. There is something to be said about having sex with a whore, or having sex with any woman whom you did not truly love. As there was no passion between the two, the act was more mechanical than it was caring. It was one of the curses of being born a man. Judas would regret it if he did not do it, but just as well, he regretted after he did. While in the moment, it was great, and he would never try to argue that it wasn’t, but once the deed was done, all that was left was confusion. Why was he here? Why had he done this? Why was he not back at home with his wife and child, two women who actually cared for him?
Perhaps that was the answer to his question. Judas was a man who feared two things: Commitment and complacency. There was also death, but every man feared death, even the ones who swore they did not, that’s why they looked to God in the fleeting moments, even if they did not believe in him, so he left that out. With his wife and child, he saw nothing but a means to an end. That one day, he would grow old, bedding the same woman, watching his child grow into her own as he grew into an early grave. There was not a single thought so frightening in the world. Every man had ambitions of being great. Of being worthy of the history books, whose name shall never be forgotten. Judas was no different, and upon realization that he was, and never would be, that man, he had no other choice but to whore and gamble.
As he did not want to sleep on his lonesome, he paid extra to have the lady-of-the-night stay with him. He had fallen asleep with his back curled to her, and he had woken up here. So, what was the correlation? There had to be one. His only guess was that the whore sold him out to one of the debt collectors he was buried up to his neck in. He had become well versed in avoiding them, but apparently he could not keep himself from being sold out. Serves him right for trusting a slut.
The dungeon he was being held in had no cells. There were no bars to keep a man from leaving, only the thick chains that harnessed them to the stone walls. Judas was not alone. There were men both to his left and right. The nearest could have been no more than two bodies lengths away. His head was slumped down his shoulders, and a noise was vibrating past his lips. Snoring perhaps. His cloth was poor, soiled by his own excrement, the fabric patched and decaying. The man who wore it looked no better. His skin was pale, too pale, as if he had just recently walked from out a grave. The hair on his head was long and black, oily, covering most of the discernible features on his face.
“Excuse me,” Judas called. He kept his voice low. He did not know of there were guards patrolling, but if there were, he did not want to be heard. “Sir? Sir, can you hear me? Are you awake? What is this place? How long have you been down here?”
He tried half a dozen more questions, but none got him further than the first. The man still appeared to be sleeping, so as a means to wake him, Judas reached for a rock. He could not extend his reach far. The chains that bound him gave him no more than a few inches’ reach. Once he was able to collect a small group of stone pebbles, he could throw using only the momentum of his wrist. Most of his attempts rattled helplessly on the floor, not going half so far as they needed, but he was able to land a few. After the third one in a row striking his shoulder, Judas believed the man was beginning to stir.
“Sir,” he began again. “What is your name? Mine is Judas. I am a merchant. I do not know why I have been put down here. Perhaps you were awake when they brought me in. Were they saying anything as they chained me next to you?”
The snoring stopped and a gravelly growl began. It was quiet at first, but as the living corpse absorbed more energy, it grew slightly louder, echoing down the dark halls. Very slowly, the growling turned into words, but none that Judas could understand.
“I’m sorry,” Judas said. “I don’t understand. What are you? Where did you come from? Can you speak any of the common tongue? Any bit of information you can give me will be much appreciated.”
Instead of answering him, the man turned to face him. There were very few torches in the dungeon, only two in fact, and they emitted only a small bit of light. But the dim imagine that they were able to reflect off the man’s face was utterly repulsive. Where his hair had parted, cream colored flesh broke through. He had two holes where there should have been eyes, an infestation of maggots and miniscule insects crawling amidst his raw flesh. Judas did not have time to even notice the two dozen broken teeth the man hid behind his wrinkled lips, before he turned to one side and puked out all of last night’s ale. He went unconscious shortly after.
When he awoke for the second time, the man to his right was back to snoring. Judas could smell the stench of his bile clogging his nasal passage, burning the hairs from his nose. He did not know why he was here. At first, when he thought it was his debt collectors who had put him here, he felt relief that they would soon release him, for if they did not then they would surely never get their money back. But no debt collector ever threw a debtor in a place like this. Judas feared for his life.
Not knowing what else to do, he began crying for aid. “Help!” he bellowed. “I need help! I’m not supposed to be here! Someone get me out of this place!” But no one ever answered.
Down the hallway, there was a noise. The ear-bleeding sound of metal scraping against metal, and leather boots beating on a stone floor. A figure was approaching, dark and calculated, most of his body masked by the darkness of the room. He clung to the side of the wall. Slowly, he would walk, stopping patiently in front of each chained man, kicking him with the toe of his boot, waiting for a reaction, which he never got, then moved onto the next. He was a jailor, but no jailor like Judas had ever seen, and he had seen quite a few. His love for ale often made him do things many a man would regret, and wind up in places similar to this. Nothing near as terrible, but similar. Yet most jailors he knew were short and portly, wearing rags as poor or poorer than their own prisoners. The man approaching him now, was in full plate armor, steel as black as the room. He was a tall man. It was difficult to tell whilst he was sitting down, but he had to be standing near seven feet tall. When he kicking the eyeless man, the prisoner’s head swayed like a pendulum, but he never looked up.
Next in line was Judas. He could feel himself sweating profusely, the salty liquid staining at his pits and belly. As much as he wanted to gaze into the man’s face, he was too afraid and wished to live, so like his fellow jail-mate, he dropped his head and feigned as if he were dead. When the jailor’s boot struck his own, it was as if it had struck his gut, unable to stop his entire body from flinching. Even still, Judas did not look up, keeping his head lowered, waiting for the armored man to pass him by like he had all the rest, but he never did. Half a minute passed and the jailor kicked him again, this time a little harder. Expecting it, Judas sustained the blow, going limp like a dead fish. It was not enough to fool him. The man kicked him for the third time, and somehow Judas knew, if he did not look up, he’d never look again. Against his better nature, he lifted his chin.
The jailor had a helm on, the same black color as the rest of his armor, a visor pulled down, obscuring his face. When he knew Judas was looking, he put his hand on the steel grate and lifted. The room was dark, and having just recently woken up, it took time for his eyes to adjust. When they finally did, Judas would have preferred they hadn’t. The jailor’s face was no face at all, at least not human. It had the same color, texture, and appearance as that of a slug slick with mucus. The skin was grey and fleshy, two yellow eyes sunken into their fluctuating sockets, gazing at him from above. Judas could see no mouth on the beast, but it was making a noise, something like a clicking. He went unconscious.
Waking for a third time, there was a man standing in front of him. Not the jailor who had been when the world went dark, but an actual man. He had hair that went down to his neck, choppy in places. It was not white, and not grey, but almost something right in between. Almost silver. He wore a form fitting robe, the color black, or perhaps it was not. Color was a troublesome thing to decipher in a place like this. Judas had not recognized him until he saw his eyes, two blue beams, the furthest possible thing from natural.
“You,” Judas said.
“Me,” the man agreed.
It did not make sense. The man and Judas were not enemies. Last they had seen each other, they parted ways happily, after a bargain well-struck. So, what had changed. “Have you come to free me?”
“It appears that you misunderstand our meeting here,” the sorcerer said. “So let me tell you. No, I am not here to free you, Judas. I am the one who brought you here.”
A flash of heat turned Judas’s cheeks to fire. He wanted to puke again, but he had nothing left in him. There was something about this man that he was afraid of. The sorcerer did not give him much of a reason to be, not before this. He was old… in a sense. Judas could not get a good read on his age, but somewhere in his late forties, perhaps early fifties, would be his guess. Not necessary was he a big man, tall, but not broad. Judas would have run had he not been chained to the floor.
“What do you want from me,” Judas demanded. “Why have you brought me here? I thought we had a deal.”
“And what deal was that,” the sorcerer asked. “Be so good as to remind me. I have an aging mind, and at times I tend to forget what’s already been said.”
“Gold,” Judas said. “I was to bring you gold, and you were to tell me how to become rich.”
That had been years ago. So long, Judas had almost forgotten it had happened. He was down on his luck, a foolish boy born into a wealthy family, with the weight of his name bearing on his shoulders. Even at a young age, Judas had been horrible with money. He pissed away as much as he could get his hands on. When both his mother and father passed, their fortune passed to him. Quickly, he had wasted it all, and he was soon to become the laughing stock of the realm. Selling what left he had, he was able to acquire enough to visit the sorcerer. The man was said to aid those in need, for a price, and Judas was most certainly in need. He gave the man all that remained to him, and through his wisdom, he had once again grown into wealth.
“And how has that worked for you,” the man asked. “Did I make good on my word? How fares your investments? Have you made enough coin to up hold your family name?”
“Yes,” Judas said weakly. “I thank you for that.”
“Then it seems to me I have made good on my bargain.” The sorcerer crouched on his knees, near eye level with Judas. “So, what seems to be the problem?”
“We are partners,” Judas said. “Why are you doing this to me? We made a deal.”
“A deal that I made good on,” the sorcerer said. “I have paid my part. It is time for you to pay yours.”
“But I already have,” Judas cried out. “The day we first met. I gave you everything. Everything I had. You told me that was enough. You told me that was what I needed to bring.”
“Did you truly believe it would be that simple,” the sorcerer asked. “You know what I deal in. Wishes. You pay me, and I give you whatever it is you so desire. I admit, my price is far from meager, but it is something nearly all can acquire, should they put their mind to it. Do you know what kind of trouble that can bring? Everybody wants something, and getting that something can only come at the expense of another. There must be a balance. You must understand that, Judas, more than anything else I tell you here. The world needs to have a balance. If one side is heavier than the other, we tilt off our axis, and all the pieces are through into the air. I am the countermeasure. I am the world’s one and only equilibrium.”
“What is it you want,” Judas asked. His chest was heaving, so scared to breath, he was almost forgetting how to. “Money? Is that it? You want more money? You can have it. As much as you want. I promise you, free me, and everything that I have shall be yours. Everything. I’ll give it all up. Put the world back to balance, just like you said. Just please… please let me live.”
“I do not want money,” the sorcerer said.
Judas hurried to think what else he had to offer him. “Ships! I have five ships. Take one! Take them all! Or… goods. I sell plenty. What do you need? Fur? Spices? Wine?”
“What about your daughter,” the sorcerer asked. “If I offered to spare your life, should you hand me over your daughter, would you do it?”
“My daughter…” Judas tried to recall his precious girl’s little face. He could not. It was dark here. All he could see in his mind was the darkness. “Nothing else? No gold? No ships?”
“Your daughter,” the man repeated. “Would you do it?”
“What would you do to her?”
“That was not part of the question.” The sorcerer leaned in, his blue eyes piercing Judas’s soul. “Would you do it?”
In his mind, Judas begged God for forgiveness. “...yes.”
The sorcerer rose back to his feet, a look of disappointment contorting his lips. “That’s what I thought,” he said bitterly.
“So it’s a deal,” Judas asked. “You’ll let me go?” He could always have another daughter, but there would only ever be one him.
“No,” the sorcerer said. And right then, Judas puked what little he had in him on his lap. “You do not understand how this works. You are mine. Everything you have is mine. All that you are currently bargaining with, is already mine. You have nothing to give me, for everything you are, I now am.”
“You’re not going to kill me,” Judas said with a renewed bit of confidence. “You wouldn’t tell me all this if you planned to kill me.”
The man smirked. “You’re wrong,” he said. “Consider this your final wish. One glance into mankind. A true understanding of what we are. That no matter how little we have; we can always have less. And no matter how much we beg, it will only ever fall on deaf ears.”
Directly before him, the sorcerer took his form. His true form, not the aging man he made himself out to be. The figure took light, so bright it could be seen by the blind, and blind the seeing. Judas closed his eyes expecting to meet his maker… and opened them to darkness.