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Chapter 11: Monsters

David Grimdark
Feb 23, 2024

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"They let what loose?"

-Last words of General Thorm during the Great Jungle conquest

It was difficult at first traversing through the dark side of the canyon. Too many times I had bumped into a rock or tripped only to hear the snickering of a Queen from behind me. Damn cripple. 

It beat being stuck under a rock at least. I rolled my shoulder feeling it out, it was sore but I had pushed it back into place shortly after getting free. After crushing the first couple the Sand Walkers began to keep their distance, the small ones at least.

“Perhaps they’ve mistaken your armor as a shell and think you're one of them, a big one.” Azeal said from behind me, I couldn’t see her face but I suspect she was smirking.

“Probably just avoiding you. You smell like rotten guts.” I replied.

There was a pause and a sniff. “They probably love rotten guts,” she said and I smiled. I still remembered the feeling of despair I had gotten when I felt her slip from my grasp falling down the Canyon and the feeling of relief seeing her hobble up to me. Now I just had to get her out of this place and soon. It had been a couple days but already I could feel Brute’s Brew beginning to wear off just a bit. A little weaker, the squirming things inside me a little more painful and the hunger a little harder to ignore.

I shook my head, ignoring the feeling. I knew what I was getting into when I chose to help. That’s the price of making your own choice. 

We made our way following the sound of the stream flowing downward, a source of direction and sustenance. I could sense the creatures that lurked in the shadows, their eyes watching us with an ominous hunger. I walked slowly, allowing Azeal to stick close to me. We walked for hours and as we went further and further along, walls began closing in turning into more of a large tunnel. It became darker and darker, and soon I could hardly see my hand if I held it out. I was just about to say we should go back when a light caught my eye.

A faint turquoise light, pulsing ever so slightly. We pressed on, following the small light that had appeared. As we got close the glow became stronger and stronger, eventually it was akin to the level of a small candle. Azeal stopped beside me observing the scene before her.

It was a tunnel covered in… fungus? Turquoise patches of bulbous fungus grew everyone along the walls and tunnel roof, all pulsing slowly letting off a light. The tunnel was large, damp and humid, it reminded me of a more temperate and wet mine tunnel.

The pulsing light gave the otherwise dull and dank environment a mysterious and alluring luminescence. The fungi had grown in thick and lush clusters, dotting the walls and ceiling in an eerily beautiful pattern. The air was tinged with a faint smell of musk. Sporadic streams of water trickled down the walls, creating a calming ambience that seemed to invite exploration. Throughout the tunnel there were even smaller crabs reaching out with tiny claws munching on the fungus. Luckily these were not much bigger than my hand. The tunnel was large, about twice as big as the large sand walker we had seen before.

“Guess we found what they eat.” I said.

Azeal nodded, quiet. I noticed that her face had beads of sweat and her brows were frowning, she gripped her crustacean staff tightly. I looked down at her crippled leg which seemed to spasm lightly.

“Let’s take a break.” I continued walking up and grabbing a few crabs too slow to get away slamming them against a sharp rock, ceasing their struggles. I cracked one open and handed it to Azeal who had sat down. I took off my own helmet and began eating my own, careful to control the flare up of hunger within. 

Azeal let out a sigh of relief as she took a bite of the crab. "Thank you," she said.

"It's no problem," I replied. "These tunnels are full of them, so it's probably not that hard to find food here."

Azeal nodded. "You don't seem like you've been affected by this place," she said. "I'm amazed."

I shrugged, chewing up raw crab meat. "This place is familiar, a lot like the mines, spent three years there."

Azeal finished eating her crab avoiding the organs which had a bitter taste “My Captain told me about you, about your feats. About how you took Fort Knox and how you tried to take over your company after.” I went still as she began to dig up uncomfortable memories, as she flashed in front of me.

“Is that why you chose to help me? Think you can get a better position, higher place of power?” she continued and I looked at her as she spoke of these things like they were the weather, to be expected and ever changing. “I don’t mind.” she waved her hands seeing my gaze “Everyone in the City does something for a reason, I can find you a good position, my Captain won’t be happy after you…” she paused her lips going thin.

“After I killed his men.” I finished.

She nodded, her eyes looking at me with veiled anger but it disappeared quickly as she laughed weakly. “Who am I kidding, he’s probably dead now that Reji has taken over, he'll be purging any opposition and Captain Gezel was bedridden after your battle with him.” I shook my head “No I’m sure he’ll live, he fought me unflinchingly and nearly killed me, a tough man you have there.”

She seemed thankful for my words even if she didn’t believe them. “But for your reasons of helping me…” she looked at me like a Merchant, one trying to sound out my bottom line to find out how to give me what I want and get what they want too. You could take a girl out of the City but not the City out of the girl.

I threw an empty crab shell aside, cracking open another one, the brutality causing Azeal to flinch. “The siege of Fort XYZ was a lost cause.” I said as the memories came back to me. “Walls so thick catapults hardly left a scratch and so tall ladders barely reached the top, a gate of iron, then wood, then iron again. I could tell after the first day that we’d never take it through force.” I took a bite of the crabs innards organs and all, satiating my hunger if only for a moment. “So we surrounded it with ten thousand troops cutting off its supply of food, or so we thought.”

“They had a way to resupply?” Azeal asked.

“Aye. Runners they called them.” I said. “People who would sneak out through the sewers or a thousand other hidden routes past our lines to reach other Empire cities ready to give them supplies to take back.”

“A dangerous job.” Azeal said with some respect.

“Fort Knox was made to withstand a siege through hunger and force. We didn’t catch wind of it until about a couple months in when no letters of surrender came and the guards atop the walls kept snickering at us.”

Gods I hated their faces, Empire troops fitted in expensive armor, behind expensive walls shooting expensive arrows. “We couldn’t do anything about it, they were like ghosts. I told Reji we had to abandon the contract but he refused.” I chuckled examining a crab walking nearby picking at the scattered remains of its brethren. “So he told us to take the walls.”

I remembered running to the walls, charging with thousands of men seeing them drop like flies to a sky filled with arrows, the smell of burning flesh from oil pots being thrown down and the many crumpled bodies that piled up high at the base of the walls.

“Seven thousand dead in one day, can you imagine the smell?” I asked and she shook her head.

“I made it to the top of the walls only to be captured and was set to be executed by horse. But a woman-” I paused as an image of her flashed in my mind “-helped me escape.”

“Why?” Azeal asked.

I let out a deep breath. “She wanted the killing to stop, wanted the war over, wanted me to convince our remaining forces to leave.” I still remembered her sad eyes as she stared over the mountain of corpses beyond the walls, the corpses of enemies and yet she wept. “I agreed, there was no chance for Reji to take the City with the remaining forces, he had no choice but to leave. So she helped me escape out of an exit their runners used.” 

“But you ended up taking Fort Knox.” she stated.

“Aye. We did.” I replied. “When I came back and told Reji we should leave he only kept asking me how I had escaped, what route I had used. I didn’t tell him.” I started gripping the crab I was eating hard, crushing it. “Then that night I awoke to guards and was put into shackles, thugs under his pay, they took me to him where they branded me and Reji forced the answer out of me.” I shuddered at the remembrance of such a lack of will, of control, of all the artifacts left behind slave brands were the worst. 

“Troops were sent into the tunnel and they opened the gate from inside. Our men streamed in and their fury from the previous bloody assault left them… unmerciful. Reji kept me a slave because he knew I would kill him, but didn't kill me because I was too useful.” I spat.

Azeal nodded, not surprised and not happy either, as Queen of the City i'm sure she understood how Merchants worked “And what happened to the woman who helped you escape?” she asked.

“When we left the city and it was retaken the Empire Inquisitors started looking for why their un-siegable city was taken, they found out soon enough. ‘Knox’s whore.’ they called her. What’s the punishment for traitors in the City Azeal?” I asked.

She paused her eyes flicking through her head “Beheading and seizure of assets.” she replied as if she was reading it from somewhere. Seizure of assets? I chuckled, leave it to Merchants to be more afraid of losing wealth than actually dying.

“In the Empire it’s death by hopelessness.” I said.

“Hopelessness?” she questioned.

“Aye. They chain you to some great heavy weight in a large clear container with an open roof. Then they let it fill up with sewage.” A Lot of people in the Empire, a lot of shit too. “Suppose to represent traitors being filth I expect.”

Azeal nodded, I met her eyes “You don’t think it was unjust do you.” she shook her head “She was a traitor.”

I nodded after some time, a Queen would see it that way “Aye she was a traitor and she didn’t do it for money or gain, guess I’m following in her footsteps, a traitor to save a life.” I stood up looking down at her “Do you plan to save lives Azeal?” I asked.

She got up grabbing her crustacean staff, Queen cripple. “I plan to save the City.” she said giving me everything and nothing.

I nodded “then that’s all I need.”

After walking another couple hours we came upon our next obstacle, another large sand-walker. This one was about as tall as Azeal and was taking up most of the tunnel as it scraped the tunnel walls with its great claws picking away large chunks of fungus. Azeal pointed out its eyestalks and I noticed that they were cut off from some fight long ago, the thing was feeling around blind. I crouched back behind the rock me and Azeal were hiding behind and gestured that we should sneak around the thing, Azeal sighed, rubbing her leg but nodded.

We crept slowly, making sure our movements did not alert the sand-walker to our presence. We stuck close to the wall and as we were right behind it we saw the tunnel behind it was mostly empty. It was at that moment that the sand walker decided that the fungus on the other side of the tunnel might taste better.

It turned directly to face us and stuck out its fat claw forcing me and Azeal to duck. It took back some fungus and began munching on it. We were too close, if it turned its body any more it would spot us. And its legs and claws were blocking the way.

Azeal grabbed the sword I had given her and threw it back to the other wall causing the Sand Walker to turn around letting us make our slow and quiet escape.

 It was only once we were some distance away that we were able to let out a deep breath “Seriously, you threw away our only sword?” I questioned.

She shrugged, “Didn’t seem to help its last owner much.” I shook my head, continuing forward. “Queens.” I scoffed and she grumbled something about me being akin to a Wandersnach. After another couple hours of walking we finally came out of the tunnel into a humongous underground cavern. I took off my helmet letting the scent of stale salty air wash over me, staring wide eyed at the scene before me.

Azeal limped up beside me and her mouth went wide.

What stood before us was a great cavern that could have fit the entire City of Sand and Stone, it went out as far as the eye could see. Great pillars of brownish stone flung up sporadically throughout the cavern holding up the very dessert above. The cavern ceiling was covered in the same fungus but this one grew huge and let off massive amounts of light revealing an underground lake that stretched before us, still as death without the slightest breeze. Its surface was glassy reflecting the same luminous turquoise light that the fungus let off above.

In front of the vast lake was the ruins of a city. Azeal began walking through the streets, crustacean-staff clacking along as her eyes filled with life. “Holy shit!” she exclaimed, peering at crumbling ruin after crumbling ruin. 

The ruined buildings had been large and ancient, made from a weathered sandstone that was oh so familiar to me. It belonged to a people that I had spent years of my life to dig up their artifacts.

Azeal entered one of the ruined houses through an entrance way whose wood had long since rotted away. I followed her inside where gaps in the roof let in some light. Azeal scrounged through the building. Her eyes flashed as she knocked aside some rubble revealing a simple looking hammer with a wooden handle, she picked it up mumbling words of amazement both thanking the Gods and cursing them in the same sentence.

"This is an Artifact." she said pushing past me back into the street looking wide eyed at the ruin that spread out for miles along the lakefront. She gestured to all of it "This is an Artifact City!" she screamed, shaking, she turned to me “Brutus the City was dying! All because the last one ran dry.”

I glanced around at the ruins I had seen so much of the past few years, I shrugged “Is it really that big of a deal?” Azeal stuttered looking at me like I was a pile of dung someone had left on her bed “The City, the slaves, the Mercenary wars, my Father…” she shook her head, “none of this would have happened if only we’d found this sooner.” she sighed.

“Aye, perhaps not.” I agreed.

She nodded looking over the City with a complex expression.

“But we didn’t find it before.” I said.

“No. We didn’t.” she agreed.

She shook her head “Nonetheless this will make things much easier going forward if we-” I cut her off mid sentence pushing her behind me as the largest claw I had ever seen smashed down into the spot she had just been a moment before. I slipped on my helmet as I looked up to see a sand-walker taller and larger than a house staring down at us with thick eye-stalks that spoke of mindless hunger. It drew back its claw revealing huge cracks and dent in the ground where it had snapped.

“Fuck.” Azeal said beside me, I picked her up holding her like one might carry a sack of grain.

“Yep.” I said and took off in a run as another claw smashed into where I had been a moment. As I ran through the streets in the skyline I saw other huge crabs begin to stand up shaking themselves awake from slumber, some awoke shaking off rubble of ruins indicating they had been there for many years. All their stalky eyes turned to us hungry and I tried to pick up my pace. I was breathing hard as I pushed my legs to their limits, the weight of the armor burning and the things inside squirming, my strength wasn’t at its max.

“Brutus!” Azeal screamed on my shoulder.

I glanced back to see a smaller, more agile but still hulking large crab shack itself from a ruin not twenty feet away and lunch towards us with its camel-sized claw. I cursed and so did Azeal but at the last minute I jumped through the tunnel entrance launching us inside and came rolling up to see the tip of its huge claw snap inches away from my face. The less-huge sand-walker had laughed itself into the tunnel opening and had one claw scrounging around inside trying to reach me. Azeal sat up beside me and we both stared in horror as a few moments later the less-huge sand walker let out a chittering as it was dragged from the opening by a more-huge sand-walker gripping it in a gargantuan claw.

There was a tense moment as I saw the claw begging to close and the stalk-like eyes on the less-huge sand walker bulged and its shell creaked and groaned until finally it crushed apart letting yellow innards gush out. The larger more-huge sand-walker began happily munching on the house-sized corpse until other more-huge sand-walkers came and began fighting over the remains snapping at each other, each snap so loud and sharp it almost made my ears ring. They didn’t do much to each other just snapping at each others shell and keeping their eyes safe, each trying to get a little, house sized, morsel. They all let out deep lumbering chitters, like giants communicating with each other slowly.

A few minutes later the corpse was scavenged clean and most of the more-huge sand walkers began lumbering away with heavy steps, some resting down in the distance.

“Well that was-” Azeal began saying but was interrupted by a more-huge claw slamming down into the tunnel entrance, too big to fit but sending chunks of stone flying as it tried to wedge in, after a moment the claw retreated and we heard the crustacean give up and chittered away.

“Utterly terrifying.” Azeal finished gulping. I took off my own helmet letting out a relieved breath my face drenched with sweat. We sat there in silence, both of us still in shock. I was exhausted and my armor felt like lead on my body.

“I’m starting to understand why nobody ever made it back.” I said. Azeal nodded, giving a light chuckle.  I slowly stood up, my legs trembling from the sudden burst of running. Azeal followed, luckily she had maintained a grip on her makeshift staff and was using it now. "Thank you." she said, I looked at her and she nodded her chin towards the street "For saving me." I nodded while putting on my helmet. "Don't thank me yet, we've still got to get out of here."

After spending some time investigating the large cavern from the tunnel entrance we noticed a few important things.

First of all there was only one other tunnel entrance and it was on the opposite side of the cavern, it would force us to go through the City along the lake edge to reach it. The second most important thing was that the humongous sand-walkers had all settled down entering some sort of hibernation, I expect before it was the noise of us rummaging through the city that had awoken one. 

“So here’s the plan, we'll go in quiet.” I said and Azeal nodded.

“We get through quick avoiding the sand-walkers we can see from here.” Azeal nodded but stopped. “I can do avoiding but not so much quick.” I sighed “Alright as quick as we can.”

She nodded and that was pretty much it.

Our descent and walk through the city was careful, like walking over eggshells we checked each step carefully and avoided making as much noise as possible. We made good progress sneaking through the city and as we walked through I began to make out the shapes of different buildings, large two story buildings that were perhaps inns and many buildings had a chimney too large to be just for heating or cooking, more likely for smithing. It looked like nearly every other house was a smiths. Scholars had speculated for decades as to what happened to such an advanced civilization, why did they disappear? Most said it was likely it was a plague, but as I looked around seeing the lumbering shapes of huge crustaceans in the City skyline I couldn’t help but wonder if it might have been Sand Walkers. I threw that idea away after some time, the other ruin in the Mines had no trace of them and others from around the world never reported large, deadly crustaceans.

As we made our way out of the ruin we came upon the lakefront. It was riddled with rubble and rocks and there were massive docks reaching out from the ruin into the still water. The lake truly was massive, stretching out beyond the eye. As we were walking Azeal stumbled on the uneven ground letting out a squeak but I caught her by the arm and she settled herself with her makeshift cane as it landed on a solid rock.

We looked at each other's eyes tense for a few minutes waiting to hear the sound of deep lumbering chittering but it never came, we let out a relieved breath but soon breathed it back in as we heard the sound of quieter quick chittering instead. We looked down to see that the rock Azeal had her staff on had sprung legs, claws and two small eye stalks, it was currently snapping at the air trying to remove the weight upon it. Azeal absentmindedly picked up her staff and the creature began walking off towards the lake bumping into other rocks.

The rocks its bumped into also sprouted legs, eyes and claws begin to chitter away. We watched in frozen horror as one became two then four then eight and within moments there were thousands of small chittering crabs making their way to the waterloo. All that rubble hadn’t been ruins, it had been sand walkers. They all were walking and entering the water creating ripples and it was loud.

Behind us we began to hear deeper rumbling chittering and felt the earth shake from huge steps. We glanced back to the city to see a dozen pairs of huge eye-stalks all looking towards us.

“It’s time for quickly.” I said picking up Azeal once again.

“No shit.” she agreed from my grasp.

I took off running along the lake running straight for the other tunnel. My heart raced as we ran, not daring to look back. Maybe if I was at my peak I could have made it but as I was my legs were already tired and burning and the things inside were squiggling hungrily. I groaned after sometime my run turned into a trot. "Brutus!" Azeal screamed. "I know! Fuck give me a -" I screamed trying to catch my breath but Azeal cut me off "Brutus watch out!" I looked back in time to see the giant claw coming for me and I threw Azeal out of my grip bracing myself for the impact.

The claw clamped and my arms nearly crumpled from the impact and they shook at the force. I looked up to see a huge sand-walker that had somehow caught me when I slowed down its eye stalks looking down on me, its black beady vertical iris somehow looking gleeful. That was until a rock came tumbling and hit it right in its eye stalk causing that stalk to flinch back. It turned its gaze to behind me where Azeal had gotten up and was currently gesturing and insulting the thing “Hey you fat bastard! Get your obese claw off my personal carriage!” she screamed and I nearly let go from being called a personal carriage

The creature's other claw was sent out after Azeal and she managed to dodge aside at the last moment but I saw her struggle to get to her feet again. I looked around and could see the shape of other huge sand-walkers approaching. Fuck! It couldn’t end like this, I made this choice I had to see it through.

I screamed pushing with all my might as the edges of my vision ran red and I grinned laughing madly as the claw slowly began to open. The sand-walker cast me a look of disdain with it’s eyestalks and all of a sudden the force of its claws doubled and my arms gave out the claw calming down loudly on my chest piece. The anger and strength left me as the air rushed from my body and the armor groaned and bent, somewhere distantly I heard Azeal screaming but I couldn’t do anything. I struggled feebly with my hands at the clamped grip but I couldn’t get it, my vision was going dark.

Just as my armor sounded like it was about to go out the pressure released and I was dropped to the ground letting out a ragged gasp. Looking around on the ground I saw Azeal crawling towards me, her eyes full of concern and mouth moving but soundless. I glanced up as I saw the reason I had been dropped. 

It was… a monster.

A monster sand walker had emerged from the lake water flowing off its craggily shell causing waves to disrupt the surface. It was a grisly thing, missing one claw and one eye, it’s mouth carapice broken and lopsided but Gods it was huge. Its massive claw held the other house-sized sand-walker to its one eye, the beady stalk staring down the thing like a fisherman deciding if the catch was worth taking. Guess it decided so because it squeezed and the house-sized sand-walker crumpled, the monster sand-walker then let the entire carcass fall into its mouth chewing and crunching shell and all. Its beady eye stalk turned to scan the surroundings and all other sand-walkers froze, starting to take hurried steps back away from the shore.

The monster-sand walker let out a deep guttural sound that I felt in my bones. Its beady stalk turned away from the retreating sand-walkers and turned to me. My breath froze as I saw the intelligence in that eye, an ancient wisdom and coldness that was taking me all in. It was only broken when a small woman stood before me. Struggling to her feet she took a moment before she straightened her back and her entire aura changed, from a poor mouthed cripple to a cold-hearted Queen.

She spoke some words I couldn’t hear and I swear I saw amusement flash in that crustaceans eye, it chittered something back that reverberated throughout the entire cavern before slowly lowering itself back into the water sending waves. It’s eye never leaving us, no never leaving Azeal all the way down until it was finally out of sight. She turned back to me, her face plastered with a sadistic smirk, one eye lifeless the other sparkling. I looked at her as the darkness crept in, at her sullied uniform, at her burned skin and face and I couldn’t help but see a crown.

As darkness took me I thought that maybe this was the right choice after all.


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