The pickaxe smashed into the sandstone wall, sending shockwaves up my forearm.
I stopped letting the pick slip from my palm dropping to the mine floor with a thump as I stretched out my lower back, my head nearly scraping the top of the tunnel. Damn cheap picks were more heavy than sharp, dull after years without replacement. The sound of picks filled the tunnel, only occasionally broken by the crack of a whip and accompanying scream of pain. Sighing, I tried to use the bottom of my shirt to wipe the sweat off my brow but it too was drenched, I squeezed it with frustration, thick beads of sweat dripping from it. If there was anywhere in creation that rivaled the hells I expect the artifact mines of Tandoor rivaled it. An ancient civilization buried under the desert dunes, once upon a time artifact after artifact was pulled from this ruin, wealth for merchants and miners alike, but no longer. When the wealth vanished the cooling and ventilation artifacts were the first to go, paid miners were replaced by slaves shortly after that and-
I grunted as I felt the sharp pain of the whip across my back. Wincing with anger as much as pain I looked back at the guard who had just whipped me, his eyes scanned me with open disdain.
“Back to work, Ogre.”
Ignoring the casual insult I studied his equipment, breathable chainmail without gambeson and only leather bracers, it was too hot in the mines for anything more heavy duty. In his hand he held a whip but it wouldn’t do much in a fight, it was meant to make slaves work after all, not permanently injure them. It was the cludgel at his side that might be a problem, but I bet I could pin him before he could hit anything vital.
“I said back to work!”
The whip cracked inches from my face but I didn’t blink, enough years of the whip and the pain, the sound, it all becomes normal. The guard failed to hide his concern as I continued to ignore his commands and he moved his other hand towards his cludgel. Untrained and inexperienced, his kind always died early in the mercenary wars. I took one step forward and the chain shackle around my foot rattled heavily, it was the kind hunters favored for captured sand bears, the regular kind didn’t fit on me. The guard's eyes widened with fear as he fumbled for his cludgel, dropping the whip.
Sloppy, he was so sloppy.
The mercenary wars had scraped the bottom of the barrel and there were very few left who could put up a proper fight in the City of Sand and Stone, this guard was no exception. He brandished his blade, pointing it at me screaming “You dare disobey?! You’ve earned ten lashes for this Ogre.” He blew into a whistle which all guards wore around their neck smiling slyly at me. “I know what you did to the last guard, I won't take you on alone you brute.” I cocked my head laughing deeply. Already I could hear the clinking of chainmail as nearby guards were coming to investigate.
I guess he was smarter than I gave him credit for.
But I was crazier than he gave me credit for. I took another large step forward and the guard hesitated for a moment before his face scrunched up in fury raising his cludgel high to strike me down. The fool wasn’t used to the weapon and it smashed against the ceiling, his grip was weak so it tumbled out of his hand. I reached out and fury drained from his face, replaced with panic as he fell on his butt grasping for the cludgel but I was closer, I picked it up and he fearfully pushed himself back against a tunnel support “BACK, GET BACK YOU MONSTER!”. It was at that moment that other guards showed up and seeing the scene they instantly began yelling for me to drop the weapon brandishing their own, I saw one of them whisper into another's ear before he ran off.
And as I stood there surrounded I couldn’t help but feel a familiar thumping as the world went deaf, all I could hear was my own blood pumping in my ears. Was this it? The day I finally went too far? How many could I take down with me?
Three? Four? A dozen?
In my mind I saw her and she spoke to me, voice thick with judgment. “Is this worth fighting for?”
I paused, then reached down and picked up the whip slowly and stepped up to the fallen guard, despite their threats none of the others tried to stop me, it seemed they were less inclined to fight an armed man even when outnumbered. Despite the blood that pounded loudly in my ears I only flipped the cludgel and offered both the whip and the cludgel handle to the guard on the floor who stared back with a mix of fear and confusion.
I smiled a shit eating grin and innocently explained “You dropped these, so I picked them up for you.”
The guard slowly took the whip and cludgel from me, his mouth growing thin as he surveyed his fellow guardsmen who were poorly concealing smirks. I stepped back, my hands raised in surrender as he regained his composure and rose to his feet.
"This doesn't change anything!" he spat, addressing his men with a glare before turning to me. "You still get your ten lashes, Ogre." He tried to appear menacing, but I could see he was nervous. I'd backed him down, and that was a hard pill for him to swallow. He realized this and did what his kind do best, dish out cruelty to save face. "But before that we'll be giving you a different kind of lesson."
He nodded at the surrounding guards and not a moment later I felt the first blow land on my shoulder I let out a growl as I turned overshadowing the guard that had just hit me, I dwarfed him by a full head and he gulped as he saw how unaffected I was by the blow. But the next blow came to behind my knee and it brought me down to a kneel. Another guard snickered beside me “Not so tall now are ya?”. The blows came in a blur after that, even as I turtled covering the back of my head with my arms I felt my back take blow after painful blow. The entire time I endured I kept wondering to myself.
Why didn’t I fight? I had killed people in the mercenary war, I liked the fight, I wanted to fight them. So why, why did I stop?
Why did I see her?
An annoyed gruff voice sounded out from the tunnel entrance causing the beating to stop. “What the hell is going on here?”
Groaning I got back up to my feet, my entire back swollen and bruised, the skin throbbing with dull heat. Staring back at me was a merchant dressed in intricate chainmail of a much higher quality with fine brown and gold tunic. It was Reji, the mine overseer. He walked in between the guards looking at me with a complicated expression and rested his hand lazily on the scimitar at his waist, relaxed and threatening was the best way to describe him. His tan skin and turban on his head indicated he often spent much time outside the mine in the sun, unlike the rest of the miners who had paler skin. He motioned annoyingly at the guards “Well?”.
The guard from before spoke up “Sir, Brutus refused to work and attacked me.”
Reji let out a deep sigh, turning a raised eyebrow to me. “Really… again?” I smiled sheepishly back rolling my shoulder “Didn’t even lay a finger on him, not at all like the last time.”. Reji turned back, inspecting the guard “True, all your limbs seem intact. Send him back to work and be done with this.”
The guard tried to speak up pointing his finger at me “This brute owes me ten lashes he-”
A glint of metal was the only warning. A moment later the guard's hand fell to the sandy tunnel floor, the sand drank it all up thirsty. My eyes narrowed as Reji sheathed his blade, those of the merchant class rarely went into battle but they often trained and covered themselves with artifacts to protect themselves, it seemed that Reji was no different. His eyes were closed as he massaged his furrowed brows.
The guard stared at his gushing stump and fleshy hand on the ground, the pain should hit him soon. He screamed clutching his arm yelling for help. The other guards didn’t move and only stared hesitantly at Reji, he waved annoyingly at them. “Take him away, and let this be a reminder as to who pays your salaries in this god forsaken place. When I say something, do it.”
A couple guards gave quick soldier salutes before helping the screaming guard away. One hesitantly grabbed the fallen hand and ran after them leaving only Reji and me. He shook his head and chucked “Those idiots left me alone, what guard leaves their employer alone? Guess this is the best help you can get nowadays huh Brutus.”
True, the rest were dead.
Reji fixed a gold ring on his finger, casting me an appraising glance “But you wouldn’t hurt your master would you Brutus?”
I would kill you in a heartbeat, but the slave brand that pulsed with heat on my hand indicated otherwise. I stared at him, face blank. Reji snorted at my look and moved to the nearby sandstone wall, an ancient buried ruin from a long lost civilization, he picked up some of the chunks crushing them in his artifact enhanced gloves.
“Merchants would have killed each other to be assigned mine overseer, Merchants did kill each other for it. But these days there are only quotas that can’t be met and no profits to be made, a money sinkhole for the unlucky merchant assigned. When we came back from the mercenary campaign Brutus do you know what I expected?”
Reji stared at me, as if waiting for an answer. I would give none as the memory of those days still made my mind run red.
"I expected a homecoming, of course, a chance to get away from all the death and destruction and finally be at ease, retire in luxury. But instead, I was sent here to oversee a money pit. They voted me out here after I brought in contract after contract. We took the contracts no one else would, got our hands nice and dirty."
I nodded, “Very dirty.”
Reji smiled, a mirthless yet amused smile as he retrieved a flask from his pocket. He took a swig and continued. “Aye, that we did. I was promised a place in the palace, but instead, I was assigned here with nothing but sand, bones, and broken dreams. Perhaps we should have continued the mercenary life, but alas there are few able bodies left in the City and after that contract I doubt any would take us on.”
He sighed, giving me a knowing look as he offered me the bottle; I shook my head in refusal fist clenched at my side. “Brutus, you are as strong as three men and nearly as tall as two, why do you insist on working in the mines? I could use someone of your size in my personal guard.”
I glared at him “You would free me?” Reji shook his head, "No Brutus, I know you still have a grudge against me. You will always be bound to my brand. However you could have more luxuries, earn coin, eat proper food, fuck you could sleep with a woman again. You always were popular with the ladies, I remember that one girl-"
I cut him off as she flashed in my mind, I turned away grabbing the pickaxe, swinging it with anger. The ruin wall shook and cracked, sand and dust rustling as the pickaxe sunk deep into the wall. I left the pickaxe embedded in the wall turning back to him.
His face twitched with annoyance, Reji hated being cut off. “Fine then, continue wasting your assets, get back to work.” Reji turned to leave but then stopped and whistled at a guard walking by. “Do give him 10 lashes, we can’t let the other slaves think you can get out of punishment.” The guard looked at me and gulped but nodded, pulling out the whip. Reji cast me one more disappointed gaze before walking off, I snorted yanking out the pickaxe slamming it back into the wall breaking chunk after chunk. I barely heard the whisper behind me.
I gritted my teeth as the guard laid whip after whip against my back, each whip made my entire back flair with the pain of a thousand knives as the unhealed wounds from the guards beating pulsed. I roared and the sound of picks and whips stopped all around, silent. I smashed my pick over and over against the wall speaking back at the stunned guard.
“Finish the lashes.”
Six years going from battle to battle, slaughter to slaughter, bloodbath to bloodbath. And at the end of it all, what did it achieve? I stared back at the guard and saw he couldn’t have been more than a boy. He held the whip loosely and stared at my shredded shirt and bleeding back with a queasy face. His eyes met mine and I growled “Finish the lashes boy.” he stuttered in response “I-I think it’s enough your back-”.
“FINISH THEM!” I screamed, whipped into motion, the boy cracked the whip against my back and I nodded continuing on mining.
Three years in these forsaken mines, enslaved.
Three years looking for an artifact to buy back my freedom, to escape from it all. Everything in the City of Sand and Stone could be bought, freedom too.
But the mine was empty. Still, I kept swinging, kept striking and the whip kept cracking.
Smash! Crack! Smash! Crack! Smash! Crack! Smash! Crack!
I should have taken Rejis offer, it wasn't the first time he made it, I should have wanted to take it. But everything had changed after I met her, the last drop that tipped the scales.
Oh I’m damned I know that much, have for a long time. There’s a special place in the nine hells reserved for me. I had gone across many lands for wealth, to save kingdoms, to raze them and finally at the end just for the fun of it.
The last whip hit and I felt nothing, I could only wonder.
What in this godforsaken land was worth fighting for?
Another day, another bowl of slop. A thick, gray-brown paste with chunks of food that had been cooked beyond recognition. It was glistening with grease as it oozed out of the bowl, giving off an unappetizing smell. The texture was slimy and lumpy. Parts of it were sticking to the sides of the bowl, forming clumps that made it look like something that even a creature in the depths of the sea wouldn't want to eat.
I shoved a spoonful of it into my mouth, chewing methodically on a piece of meat that I swore was in fact shoe leather. Whoever made this was either utterly cruel or entirely mad.
I eyed the mess hall, a dank, dismal place. The air was thick with the smell of overcooked food, emanating from the large metal pots that hung over the fire. Off to one side there was a long line of slaves waiting for their bowl of slop. On the other side, a few lonely figures huddled around their own bowl with grim determination, despite how horrible the food was, stealing was common, the labor here is intensive and one bowl just isn’t enough.
Scraping the last morsels out of the bowl I tossed it onto a pile of similarly emptied slop bowls. The rattling sound drew a few wary gazes, they looked to the pile then to me and gripped their bowls tighter looking away. Six today would be enough, usually I could make do with four but my wounded back demanded more.
I eyed another slave walking by, cradling a fresh bowl of slop with hungry eyes, I stood up in front of him and he nearly walked into me, he scowled at me and I snorted. Reaching down I took the bowl of slop from his hands, he wacked my hand angrily but I only ignored him turning away with a wave.
“I’ll be needing this.”
The sound of curses followed me out of the mess hall, at least it was a little bit more lively if not with a pinch of hate.
Reaching the end of an abandoned tunnel shaft I came up to a collapsed section of stone, sand and old rotten wooden pillars. I plopped down sitting cross legged placing the bowl of slop on the ground in front of me.
It wouldn’t be long now.
My ears pricked at the sound of mewling, and a little sniffing nose peaked out from the wreckage. My mouth formed a smile as I spotted a cute cat family coming out from beneath the wreckage, a mama cat with three little kittens at their heels. The cats had been wary of me at first, but after a few days of bringing food they had warmed up nicely.
The mama cat was friendly enough, and allowed me to pet one of her kittens. Its little body purred happily as I rubbed behind its ears, and it struggled to climb up my leg so I gently picked it up with one hand settling it onto my lap. I fed it scraps from the slop letting it lick from my palm.
The little feline squeaked happily as it lapped up the food, glancing up at me with its big yellow eyes so common in Tandoor cats, with their sandy brown overcoats and white bellies to camouflage into the dunes and rocks. Perhaps the mother cat had come down here to avoid predators while she gave birth and nursed her kittens, whatever the reason I enjoyed their presence.
I scooped up the remaining slop in the bowl and squashed it into small pieces, feeding it to the mama cat and her kittens. They purred contentedly as they enjoyed their meal, and rubbed up against my legs before curling up around me in a warm embrace. I smiled and stroked the fur of each kitten in turn, enjoying the feeling of their little bodies against mine.
Soon enough their slumber was disturbed by the sound of approaching footsteps, the mother and her kittens waking up alertly cautiously retreating back to the safety of the wreckage, she looked at me once and meowed before disappearing.
An almost human like goodbye.
A slave I hadn’t seen before came up beside me peering into the wreckage, to my surprise a female voice sounded out.
“Ah the common desert cat. How many would you say are in there? Could make a good meal.”
I snorted, “They’d run circles around you.”
The slave laughed and nodded. “True, swiftness… was never a gift of mine.” she paused for a moment thinking "Can I ask you something?” I scratched the stubble on my chin peering into the wreckage seeing a pair of disapproving eyes stare back, mama cat didn’t like this particular visitor.
“You just did.”
Unabashedly she continued “Perfect, then you won’t mind another. Taking others' meals for yourself I can understand, but why did you steal a man's meal to feed these cats?”
I got to my feet grumbling all the way, it’s so annoying to get up and down when you're a big guy. “The slaves here will be slaves for life, if they don’t die in these tunnels they will die somewhere else, branded all the same. These cats will leave one day, they will live cat lives chasing rodents, causing mischief, sleeping, fucking and having more cats.”
I dusted off my ragged trousers turning to face her. “But really I just like them.” Her eyes widened and she laughed filling the tunnel with a pleasant sound. She was shorter than most men so compared to me she was small, but nonetheless she reached out to shake my hand.
“Names Anna, I’m a new slave here, and you are?” I eyed her hand for a moment and looked at her beaming smile which didn’t quite reach the eyes.
My gaze returned to her, “I wonder Anna, why you would lie to me, but more so I wonder why anyone would fake being a slave inside the mines of Tandoor of all places.”
Her smile froze in place and she continued on, a new stillness entering her gaze “I don’t quite understand what you mean.” I raised an eyebrow and started counting off reasons on my fingers.
“Women slaves aren’t sent to the mines, they’re sent to be entertainers, maids or whores. Second, you first referred to the cats as ‘common desert cats’. I once saw in foreign texts I saw abroad, but no one from the City of Sand and Stone calls them that because there are no other types of cat here. And finally, you said you are a new slave and asked me what my name was, orientation for new slaves these days has three rules, ‘do your work’, ‘obey the guards’ and ‘stay away from the big guy Brutus.’”
I watched the emotion and smile slip away from her face like water off a clay mask. I held up three fingers at her. “There’s an old mercanay guideline for those who would be put on watch. Once is happenstance, Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”
She withdrew the hand drawing it into her pocket, her calculating eyes studying me, she spoke again but it lacked any of the artificial pleasantry from before “You are far too clever for someone your size. Brutus the Brute.”
I snorted, tapping my skull mockingly, “Big body, big brain.”
Turning away I began walking towards the sleeping quarters, I paused for a moment speaking without turning “Or maybe you're just not as clever as you think you are, Anna.” I felt her eyes boring into my back the entire way until I rounded the corner.
The following day in the mines, I kept an eye out for Anna. She was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she had been caught, or perhaps she had gotten away with… with whatever she wanted to achieve here. Soon enough the irregularity faded with the constant daily grind in the mines.
Loading and unloading carts filled with chunks of sandstone and ore from distant parts of the mines. Waddling to new sections to mine and hammer away. The days were long and grueling, and by nightfall, I was always exhausted, but atleast I never saw her again. The kittens were growing quickly, soon enough they would return to the surface, their mother to teach them how to hunt and survive without her. It saddened me to know they would go but I would make do without them.
One day a miner found an artifact.
I stayed in the back of the mess hall watching the crowd from a distance as Reji and an inspector from the City evaluated the artifact. He was a scrawny man in a tight fitting scholar tuning with goggles that he twisted as he crouched over the artifact, which in this case was a simple necklace. Reji spoke with anticipation “Well?”.
The inspector nodded repeatedly, jotting something down on a piece of parchment with a quill, “Yes, by the appearance of the runes inscribed it is deflective in nature, focusing on small-point impacts, although it is of low-storage” Reji let a beaming smile grow as he placed a hand on the slave who found the artifact, a brown-haired tan man who nodded along with the mood. He probably could only understand that what the inspector said was good based on Reji’s response.
All artifacts are traced with what we call runes. They are invisible lines of power that no one knows how to inscribe or use anymore and can only be seen with special spectacles, like the inspectors' goggles. The spectacles themselves are artifacts and a country's prized possession, as indicated by the influx of twenty or so guards fitted in full chainmail, scimitars and pointed helms who had accompanied the inspector. Over many years academics all over had tested and recorded the effects of various runes and their combinations, allowing learned individuals with spectacles to be able to judge the use of an artifact without random trial and error. Deflective means it would shift forces in a different direction, small-point impacts means it would only work on small areas, perfect for turning away arrows, it was a valuable and often-used artifact in war by the wealthier officers and generals. Low-storage meant it would only work a few times before the energy inside the runes was all used up.
It would fetch a pretty penny, and more importantly that slaves freedom.
I tsked in annoyance and a nearby slave looked at me cautiously before taking a large step away. Three years I had been looking for an artifact and seeing someone else get out left a bitter taste in my mouth.
The inspector leaned into Reji’s ear and whispered something that caused Reji to freeze for a moment before he curtly nodded, the smile soon returned. Reji shook hands with the inspector who began packing up his equipment, two of the inspector's guards came forward with a large metal box and stored the artifact away, they would leave tomorrow to reach the Cities vault.
Reji waved his hands wide to the crowd of slaves “Let it be known that any slave who finds an artifact will get his freedom back, just like this man here!” the brown-haired slave laughed and grinned with joy. Reji continued “So for the rest of you, mine hard, and for tonight enjoy a feast of fresh bread and chicken brought in from the City's farms.”. This brought on a roar of approval from the slaves as trays of bread and chicken were brought out, an average meal in the City but for a slave it was the king’s bounty.
As the other slaves began to line up I couldn’t help but feel the burn of envy as I stared at the brown-haired slave smiling, so instead of taking my own tray of food I turned away. The familiar sound of clinking shackles accompanied me as I walked deeper into the mine, my mood becoming more and more dour with each step. I had been searching for an artifact since I first arrived at this wretched place and had come up empty handed.
I let out a frustrated scream that echoed down in the tunnels but it wasn’t enough, noticing a nearby pickaxe leaning against a support I grabbed swinging it heavily at a chunk of sandstone, it wasn’t even something that appeared to be a ruin, just a massive block of sandstone. As I let out a shrill scream with each swing, the sound reverberated off the walls of the mine. The pickaxe had made huge cracks in the sandstone, I began to feel my strength waning. Even so, I kept swinging, I wouldn’t feel better until I was thoroughly exhausted, so with one last roar I swung with all my might.
Suddenly, a loud clanging sound filled the air as my swing riverbed harshly up my arm causing it to rebound wildly sending it swinging back onto the ground. I stared at my shaking hands wide eyed and turned my head back to what was now a deep hole in the sandstone block. Sticking in my hand I felt the cold touch of metal on my fingertips and instantly all my fatigue was washed away.
I picked up the fallen pickaxe grinning in an earnest hopeful way I hadn’t in years.
It took me hours but eventually the last piece had been revealed, a pair of huge gauntlets fell away from the rock face landing on the tunnel floor with a heavy thump sending dust flying.
It was a full plate suit!
Good gods it was a full suit of artifact plate, in my six years of campaign there had been an artifact shield here and there, some bracers and helms and even rarer chain mail but never had I seen a full suit of artifact plate. A suit of plate itself was worth good money, not often used in the City due to the shifting sands and constant blazing sun and abroad only a few companies of prestigious knights ever had full suits.
I grabbed a nearby pail of water I had retrieved and dunked it over the pieces laying on the ground washing away bits of persistent sandstone. I eyed each piece with glee.
A flat top cylinder great helm with two small slits for the eyes and some smaller holes around the mouth. The metal itself was nearly as thick as my hand which partially explained the heaviness of all the pieces. The metal was a rough dull black the eye slits lines with a goldish-brown metal of slightly shinier material. Swirls and lines were randomly engraved in the helmet and all other pieces like the veins that sometimes appear on the back of one's hands and arms on heavy lifts.
A culet and fauld that protected the front, waist, hips and lower back. Pauldrons, spaulders and guard brace to protect the shoulder, upper arm and armpit. Counters, rerebrace, vambrace and gauntlets to protect the lower arm, forearm and hands. It had similar pieces required for the legs as well, all of the same black rough dull metal outlined with the goldish-brown metal and all with an odd veiny design. It even had a thick suit of chainmail called a hauberk to go under it all to provide a final layer of protection, in this case the chainmail was entirely made of the goldish-brown metal.
There were many odd things about the armor, for one I could not place the material used and it was huge, big enough for someone of my size to wear so for the average man I couldn’t see how they could use it.
Perhaps it had a resizing rune.
But the odd material, size and thickness of the plate made it mind numbingly heavy. I found a nearby mine cart rolling it along old tracks stopping when I returned to the plate laying about. After loading some of the smaller bits I could already feel my arms burn. The chest-pieces were left, they were the biggest. I crouched down grabbing the pieces with my hands and lifted with my legs. I let out a grunt as the chest-piece slowly began to rise from the floor. I could feel my face turning red with exertion as I tipped it over into the minecart which groaned loudly in protest. Whipping the sweat off my forehead I shook my head at the armor pieces in the minecart.
I know plate is heavy but this is too heavy!
How could anyone even begin to move in it let alone do battle? I shrugged, trying my best not to think about it. Artifacts sell like lemon-jack juice on a hot desert day, some merchant in the City would buy it for vanity if not use.
I got behind the mine cart leaning over pushing heavily with my legs getting the cart moving.
The inspector was still here and I could almost taste freedom.
Reji eyed the armor as the inspector studied the pieces laid out on the floor, the table broke when we had tried to put more than a few pieces on it. It was late in the night already so most of the slaves had gone to sleep after their chicken meals. The less crowd the better when it came to valuables in my opinion.
Every few minutes Reji would clap me on the back mesmerized “Good man Brutus! This’ll show those rats in the palace, sending me here to wither away.” I ignored his comments as I impatiently waited for the inspector to finish his analysis.
“It’s already been two hours, the necklace from before only took a few minutes. What’s taking so long?”
The inspector turned his goggled gaze to me scowling “That necklace had magnitudes less surface area then these dozen or so huge pieces you’ve brought me.” the scowl on his face lessened as he looked at a piece of parchment he had been writing on.
“And besides, this piece is… different from what I am used to. A majority of the runes are defensive and fortifying in nature but there are also various utility runes for cooling and ventilation. In fact there are too many runes, there are even some that are so overlapped and fine that I can’t tell exactly what runes they are. On top of that this material is unknown to me so I can’t predict the energy storage, besides being able to take a hit it's unclear what else this armor is capable of.”
Reji patted me on the shoulder and I tried hard to stop the urge to snap his wrist, the slave brand flaring in my mind at the violent thoughts. Noticing his slave ring glowing red Reji took his hand away gesturing at the inspector.
“Well perhaps you can give us an estimate of its value for now.”
The inspector sighed, jotting down some notes on a piece of parchment calculating for a moment before nodding “The City can offer you a hundred gold pieces for it.”
My face went pale as I heard the estimate.
A hefty sum but it wasn’t enough.
The price of my freedom was ten times that at least, but I didn’t understand, artifacts went for thousands of gold pieces, even the small one from before went for two thousand!
Even Reji seemed taken aback by the price “Only a hundred gold pieces, certainly there’s been some sort of mistake.”
The inspector shook his head “The artifact is effectively useless.”
I felt my stomach drop as the inspector gestured to the destroyed table from before “the pieces are extraordinarily heavy and large, not many would be able to wear them, even if a rare beast like our large impatient friend here were to don them they would be able to move about for a few minutes before dropping from exhaustion.” He looked at me and down at my chains, a look of pity coming over his face. “I offer the hundred gold because it is an interesting piece to analyze and document, beyond that it is just a large paperweight.”
This couldn’t be, surely this couldn’t be junk, an ancient fucking civilization had made it, I could feel my ears begin to ring. Distantly I heard Reji try to argue “Perhaps some of the runes you could not identify are for weight or size reduction?” the inspector firmly shook his head “The City has recorded thousands of runes and neither weight or size reduction runes exist. Even if they did exist once upon a time it is likely they would use too much power constantly and any material wouldn’t stand up to time.”
Reji sighed before waving his hand “I will keep this artifact for myself and pay a hundred gold sum to slave Brutus and the City to keep it or does the city claim ownership over this artifact?”
Shaking his head the inspector began to pack up “No you may keep it, at least the other artifact was sold well.” Reji nodded slowly as the inspector, turning to me.
I tried reaching for one last thing “Reji you know lots of merchants, surely some of them, one of them would be willing to buy this for a larger sum. Enough for me to be free or even at least my slave term reduced to temporary and not life-long.”
He opened his mouth and closed it, opening it again “Merchant King Ulgar is dead.”.
I tilted my head “and what of it?”
“The merchants, they all prepare for an ascension war buying mercenaries and secret knives, paying favors and taking debts, they have no money left to spend on vanity items.” He scowled but it wasn’t at me “Even if they did they would not buy from me, I’ve been outcasted, cut off, they won’t even be seen associating with me.”
Fury and frustration welled up inside me and I lunged at him “LIAR, you know, you know what I would do to you if I got free, I bet you paid off that inspector, I’ll kill you, you bastard!” Reji took a panicked step back, the ring on his finger flashing bright red and I felt a crushing headache start bringing me to my knees. As I began to twitch and foam at my mouth I still reached out towards him through excruciating pain, Reji only took a step back looking at me with a complicated expression.
As my vision began to blur into darkness I heard him speak softly.
“If it means anything, It really is the truth Brutus.”
Sweet darkness took me soon after.
When I woke up sometime later the mess hall was empty despite a few slave cooks and guards. My head still pounded. I slowly got to my feet and made my way to the main door. I knew, deep down, that Reji was telling me the truth. I had seen it in his eyes when he spoke – he was not lying. I shook my head, clearing away the cobwebs of pain and confusion, and looked around, the full suit of plate was gone, in Reji’s possession no doubt.
My stomach rumbled giving me a good distraction. I walked away from the table and started scanning the hall for food. All the trays were empty and there was only a large pot sitting over smoldering embers; the rest were being cleaned by the cooks. I stumbled up to one of them questioning.
The cook eyed me nervously, he took a look in the remaining pot using a ladle to scrape the bottom into a bowl.
It was slop.
Seeing the look I have at him he shrugged “It’s all that's left, the chicken and bread was finished fast, there really is no more.” I took the bowl of slop from the cook with a curt nod. It wouldn’t be enough for me but there were others who could enjoy this meal.
Heading to see the cats I was still filled with anger and disbelief, but I pushed them all deep inside, ignoring what had happened would be best, at least I knew there were artifacts still to be found that was good, but deep inside I also worried.
What if those were the last artifacts to be found?
Shaking my head I pushed the thought away as I reached the corridor with the cats. My ears perked up as I heard it.
A quiet constant meow, going on over and over again, one filled with pain and grief.
I dropped the slop rushing over to the collapsed wreckage at the end of the corridor putting my ear close, it was louder now and I could hear it, my heart panicked at the sound filled with pain. Grabbing the rotten wood and stones I lifted them aside as fast as I could until finally I revealed them.
The cats were laid our surrounding what appeared to be a half chewed piece of meat but the problem was they were all laying down still their veins turned a sickly dark purple, eyes dilated. I could only hold my breath as I checked each of the kittens confirming the unthinkable.
They were dead.
I looked at the mother cat who was also afflicted by the purple veins, unable to move and breathing shallowly. Her eyes looking over her kittens urgently as she meowed out to them over and over urging them to respond.
They never would.
I kneeled in closer smelling the piece of meat an acrid stench assaulting my nose, poison. I thought back to the fake slave Anna who had seen me with them. I didn’t ponder why but only went cold at what had to come next. Oftentimes in the mercenary wars wounds wouldn’t kill you on the battlefield, they would kill you when the field doctors came by and dealt out the best medicine for wounds that couldn’t be healed.
Gently I stroked the mother cat as I grabbed a nearby sandstone chunk, I felt her begin to purr ever so weakly, pleading for me to help.
“You can be with them now, little one.”
And as the chunk came down something inside me broke all over again.