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Chapter 12

David Grimdark
Mar 1, 2024

69 Reads

"No comment."

-Vice Principate Yan when asked about taking Empire bribes

I eyed the City and the lake warily as I sat beside Brutus, he was still unconscious. It had been a couple hours but no sand-walker had shown up, the ones in the City were afraid of the one in the Lake and the one in the Lake… Gods what was that?

When I closed my eyes I could still feel its beady eyestalk taking me in scanning me over. I shook my head checking on Brutus once more, leaning my head over his face, he was still breathing. I had managed to take off his helmet with great effort, the thing must have weighed as much as a fully grown pig, underneath that same grizzled face had met me, ugly, like a bad experiment. He had blood dripping from his ears and mouth and his breathing had been ragged earlier but it seemed better now. Already his crumpled chest-piece was slowly regaining its shape, I just hoped his body was too. It even seemed as if the purple veins I had seen before were fading but it might have been the lighting. 

Nonetheless, he wasn’t awake yet. So I sat back waiting, there was nothing I could do for now but wait, it made me feel powerless to be without the tools I had grown to use, people, soldiers, rumors… Chunnly. My face scrunched up as I remembered that bastard Reji and the Empire agent Anna. Had the Empire finally finished their westward expansion? Had they solidified their rule over conquered nations and were turning their every hungry gaze East? It was hard to know, the City didn’t have much in terms of foreign spies, all intrigue was used within the City to see what bastard Merchant was out to kill you and maybe which one you could get away with killing. And that sly dog Reji had decided the entire City was worth selling, if only he could be King for a moment, but in the end I couldn’t blame him. It was generation after generation of the City eating itself alive that had made this generation of Merchants, of Kings and Queens, the City was filled with rot.

I sighed, rubbing my face. We needed to get out of here.

I heard a shuffle and felt my heart begin to thump but let out a relieved breath when I saw it was only Brutus stirring. Brutus groaned, his eyes fluttering open, they were bloodshot. He tried to sit up, but immediately fell back against the ground, wincing in pain. I quickly reached down to help him, but he waved me away.

"No," he muttered, still trying to find the strength to sit up. "Just... just give me a second."

I stood back and watched as he slowly sat up, his body shaking with effort. When he finally made it upright, he let out a long sigh of relief. He turned to look at me, and I could see the confusion in his eyes.

"What happened?" he asked, his voice still hoarse from nearly being turned into Brutus jelly.

"The sand-walkers all ran away after that thing came out of the water, they haven't come back." I said. 

Brutus nodded slowly, his mind going through an influx of emotions as he began to remember the events prior, he reached down feeling the dented armor of his chest-piece wincing slightly at the action. 

“That armor you have, it’s fixing itself. It’s incredible.” I said and Brutus snorted, “It has its drawbacks.” He reached out, grabbing his helmet, slipping it on then struggling to his feet. “You don’t want to rest?” I asked.

“There’s no time,” he said while trying out walking. It seems he found it acceptable because he motioned for me to follow. I was preparing for a harsh march like Brutus had put me through getting here, but I found it was easy to keep up. Brutus was walking slower, each step heavy. "You sure you're alright?" I asked. He only grunted in reply.

We made our way into the other tunnel and I took one last look at the ruined City. How many artifacts were in there, how much wealth? How much strength. My father had allowed the City's merchants to give it all away, and for what?

Some gold?

My eyes narrowed as I took in the shapes of slumbering giant sand-walkers. I would be back, and this time the City would reap the rewards.

The tunnel path had been uneventful, filled with similar glowing fungus as the other one. A couple hours in it had shifted to a steeper climb heading up. We came across a few sand-walkers here and there but they were dog-sized ones or smaller. We ate what we could and walked on.

Eventually, the tunnel opened up to a cliff face inside the wall of the Great Crevice. I glanced over the edge beside Brutus looking down to see the area we had been on a few days ago. I turned my gaze upwards and saw we were about three quarters of the way up. The rest of the climb took place following an open faced tunnel where one side opened to the crevice and the other was just a sand-stone wall. It was getting hotter now and drier. We didn’t see any more sand-walkers. 

...We slowly made our way to the top of the cliff, pushing aside stones that had tumbled down from its face. Brutus laboring heavily as he pushed away the final large boulder and sand began to trickle into the tunnel. With one great heave, he pushed it forward and the blinding sun pierced down, revealing the sandy dunes of the Desert. He took off his helmet as I came beside him and I noticed the purple veins were much paler now, his skin looking healthier although his eyes told a different tale.

“What did you say to that monster crustacean?” Brutus asked me, out of the blue.

I tried to think back on what I had said to the monster crustacean. It had been so sudden that my mind was blank now. I had nothing to use, no strength to rely upon. Only feeble words. I looked over at Brutus who was staring off into the distance and shrugged my shoulders. 

“I said if it ate us you would give it indigestion.” I said with a chuckle. Brutus blinked, then let out a hearty laugh that surprised me. It was full and joyful. I’d never heard of him like that. “You're damn right I would,” he replied, walking forward. I smiled and followed after him. We came up to the area where my troops fought and died only a few days ago and I saw the wreck of my carriage but was surprised to see nothing else besides some bits of debris. Chunnly’s body was missing too.

“Where are the bodies?” I asked.

“Armor is valuable and the dead don’t need it. Reji would have hired somebody to come and take all the bodies so they could recover the armor and weapons. Anything left would have gone to scavengers or the vultures.” he replied. 

“What do they do with the bodies after?” I asked.

“Mass grave if they’re feeling nice, burn em if they’re feeling lazy.” he replied and I felt my knuckles go white as I thought of Chunnly being tossed amongst the rest in some unmarked plot of sand.

I sighed heavily, feeling a moment of sorrow for the loss of my men. They had given their lives to protect me and I could do nothing but continue on. No, that was the thing I had to do. I kept walking as Brutus did the same, not speaking, but still offering one another a silent understanding. 

The hours passed, and the sun began to set. We had been traveling for hours and at first it had been hot and harsh but now it was chill, the desert as volatile as any. I was about to voice my thoughts when I saw something in the distance. A faint light amongst the shadows. 

We moved closer, cautiously, until we were close enough to see clearly what it was; small huts of sandstone and the City skyline in the distance. 

We had made it back.

I grinned wide. Never before had I thought that returning to my place of torment would bring me such happiness. “We did it, Brutus.” There was no reply, and I looked over just in time to see him sway, put his hand up to steady himself against a wall and fall back anyways.

I hobbled as fast as I could to his side. Pulling off his helmet with great strain. His breathing was ragged, and his face was pale. "Brutus!" I called out but he didn't reply so I slapped him "Brutus!". His eyes fluttered open filled with pain. 

"The armor, help me take the armor off." he said weakly. I nodded reaching under plate and mail feeling around for clasps and buckles undoing whatever I found. I helped remove his gauntlets with great effort but failed to move any of the other pieces, my eyes going wide as I realized how heavy the armor was.

With his hands free Brutus began removing the rest piece by piece, stopping to take labored breaths many times. After half an hour or so he had it all removed and in a pile, he took a relieved breath but it was still laced with exhaustion. He got up after a bit only clothed in what appeared to be very dirty miner clothes, long sleeve and long pants, his neck and hands only had the faintest trace of purple veins now, his patchy head still hideous.

“Let’s go.” he said.

“No, you have to rest, we can take a moment-”

“We can't.” he cut me off “we need to find out what’s happened in the City.” his voice was rough and brooked no argument. I swallowed my concern. “What about your armor?” I asked and Brutus looked back picking up some nearby wooden garbage tossing it over.

“Where are we going?” I asked him, feeling embarrassed to not have a plan, without information I felt useless. 

“We're going to meet Varga.” he replied in a way that made me believe Varga wouldn’t enjoy it.

As Brutus and I made our way through the outer city we met no citizens, it was dark out but the outer-city was darker, doors shut tight hardly a light from inside. No fires outside and no conversation, no hopeful chit-chat. Only that darkness that I had seen creeping, that I had fought tooth and nail against. Behind one wall I froze as I saw the figure of my father standing half out from the wall. He looked at me with a coin covered eye grinningI shook my head catching up to Brutus.

As we went further and further into the City the darkness didn’t fade, the streets were littered with debris and the smell of death hung in the air. Shops had their windows shut in and bodies littered the alley ways. We came upon the merchant square and there I saw gallows had been set up, a dozen men and women hung there. It was none other than Angela whom controlled the gem trade, her body still adorned with the finest jewels. She didn’t survive the succession it seemed. And there standing amongst the corpses in the moonlight my Father appeared once again gazing upon the corpses, he turned his gaze towards me and spoke.

‘Foolish girl, I taught you about the City didn’t I?’


“Everything okay?” Brutus asked from beside me, he followed my gaze looking at the bodies “Somebody you knew?”

I closed my mouth blinking, my Father was gone “Nobody important.” I replied and we continued on.

Through the alley ways we found more bodies, of different houses and troops, sometimes a group of scavengers would be picking at the bodies but they shooed easily one they saw Brutus. As we got into the deeper City there were more lights, no, there were fires. Entire buildings of Merchants were being razed to the ground by troops standing in front holding torches. I looked on from the dark alley as I saw a hefty looking fellow force a slave brand onto a young woman, her mother and father’s body still warm in front of her. “What’s going on here?” I said my voice hardly a whisper.

Brutus watched from beside me his eyes scanning the streets “Reji didn’t have much to trade for supporters, he was broke as far as merchants went.” he said shrugging “So he traded in promises instead, and the only ones to accept promises… well you can see what kind they are.” 

I looked upon the burning building, the wooden supports and frames going up leaving seared sandstone walls behind. Amongst the flames I saw my father looking out from the window, he was so far but I could hear well.

‘Did I not teach you about the nature of man, of the thing we all have inside.’

‘Did I not burn it into your very skin?’

The last words came close, as if he was whispering beside me and it sent a burning tingle throughout my body where skin had been marred by painful flame. I looked back up to see him grinning madly, that same horrible grin he had when he seared me. I flinched and he was gone.

“Come on.” Brutus finally said finding a path amongst the shadows.

I nodded limping behind him, I glanced at his lumbering shape and thought back to that day, when I could have killed him. He might-have taken down many of my men, no, he would have taken down many of my men, but he could have been killed. A tipping point of power into my favor and I wasn’t willing to pay the price, to give the command. It would have saved thousands from this night of knives, I felt my chest go tight, it would have saved Chunnly. I looked down feeling the burns along my skin, along my face, touching my sightless eye. I looked out upon the burning City and I felt something deep inside me scream, screaming to be freed.

I limped along letting the pain distract me.

We kept walking for what felt like hours until finally came upon a more calm part of the City. There were lights and many guards about but no mayhem. There were far too many guards for the size of the house, it seemed the Varga had come upon some recent wealth. 

"How will we get inside?" I asked.

“Lies and violence.” he said walking out of the shadows dragging me along with him. I felt my heart begin to thump as the guards noticed us walking towards us, hands on their swords. 

“Halt!” one of them yelled “This is private property of Varga, go back now.”

Brutus ignored him and continued walking forward “I’m here to speak to Varga on the orders of Reji Ourlous.'' As Reji was mentioned the guard froze and he took another glance over us, his face grew doubtful as he scanned over Brutus’s flimsy apparel and even more so after he glanced over my grime and gut covered uniform. My heart did beat faster as I met the guards eyes and he took note that I was one short, the faintest flash of recognition flowing through his face.

“Aren’t you-” he began but was cut off by Brutus picking him up with one arm raising him to eye level off his feet, the other guards yelled pulling their weapons.

“If you don’t want to be strung up for disobeyed orders from fucking Reji Ourlous your going to tell Varga Brutus is here to see him now!” Brutus screamed in the man's face shaking him furiously, I felt a tad bit of pity since Brutus had shook me the same before, it was like being stuck in a sandstorm.

Brutus dropped the man and he fell to his ass shaking his head, his buddies seemed about ready to shank us but the man held up his hand struggling to his feet. “Brutus you said? As in Brutus the Brute?” he asked.

Brutus scowled at the man “No, Brutus the Saint. The fuck you think?”

Somehow that seemed to convince the guard and he nodded “Varga always had us clean up after you and Reji’s messes during the campaign, messy fields usually.” he nodded to his other guards “Keep em here while I tell Varga.” 

I watched the violent exchange between Brutus and the guard, bewildered by the minds of men. Their talk was all grunts and pointy sticks and somehow that passed as effective communication. Not that pointy sticks weren't effective, I was just baffled by the delivery.

As we waited for the guard to return, I studied Brutus.

Brutus was a towering figure, easily standing near seven feet tall. His physique was rugged and imposing, barrel chested with thick limbs and a thicker neck. His sharp, angular features were set in a perpetual scowl, giving him an intimidating appearance with his arms crossed. His ugly patchy hair and dangerous aura attracted most of the guards attention and I was thankful for that. While I was dirtied and dusted as far as people went I wasn't lacking distinguishing features. Crippled, one-eyed, scarred.

I sighed internally. Not exactly the kind of distinguishing features I aspired for.

Years and years of working for my Father had left me with a peculiar kind of insight into people. Reading the subtle cues of their body and behaviors was key to figuring out how they truly felt. One guard fidgeted nervously, his hand twitching towards his weapon as he glanced nervously at Brutus. Fear. Another was standing rigidly, his jaw clenched tightly as he stared straight ahead. Also fear, just better hidden. Another guard near the back scratched his beard. Boredom. Or his beard was actually just itchy. That was a hard one to tell.

But what caught my attention the most was not any of the guards but Brutus himself. He was impossible to read when he had his armor on but without it I could glimpse a bit more. He seemed annoyed outwardly by his scowl and stance but there were other signs. 

His scowl was intimidating, but there was something about the way he carried himself that suggested a deeper inner turmoil.

The way his hands gripped his arms tightly were they were crossed. How every muscle in his body seemed to be tense and how the muscles connecting his neck and shoulder seemed to twitch slightly. It was hard to tell with his dirty face but he seemed pale and to be sweating. The City got cool at night and I myself felt a bit chill.

His eyes seemed unfocused in the moment but still angry, as if he was somewhere else fighting something. No, it looked like he was holding something back, like every tense muscle was straining to hold some great door shut. There was no denying it, something was wrong with Brutus despite his complexion clearing up. He looked to be sick, in pain. 

I cursed under my breath and a nearby guard tilted his head. Something was wrong with Brutus, something serious and that didn’t bode well with my chances of staying alive. While I wasn’t convinced of his loyalty and didn’t understand his motivations for helping me he was all I had at the moment. I couldn’t have him die on me now.

“Brutus-” I began but stopped when the guard returned with the news that Varga would see us. 

Varga’s meeting chamber was tacky and tried very hard to look important. It consisted of two sofas, a coffee table and a dozen guards lining the edges. Varga himself was sitting on one of the sofas and stood as we entered. He was a tubby rat like man in a tailcoat, his hands rolled over each other as he greeted us.

“Brutus! I wasn’t expecting to see you.” Varga squeaked, meeting the big man's gaze.

Brutus only grunted and we sat on the opposite sofa, it groaned slightly at the weight but held. Curiously Varga eyed the sofa we sat on with poorly concealed satisfaction before sitting himself.

Before anything was said Varga snapped his fingers and a servant appeared laying down a silver tray with a bottle of ice-wine and a few glasses. My mouth began to salivate at the sight of something that wasnt river water.

“Refreshments?” Varga asked, his voice dripping with false cheerfulness.

I already had the bottle in my hand before he finished offering and poured myself a tall glass, downed it fully and then poured myself another. I let out a satisfied sight and relaxed into the tacky, but soft, sofa. Brutus didn’t take any.

Varga raised an eyebrow at me studying, I stared back sipping my drink. Without a shred of doubt he knew who I was, he was a Merchant afterall, he had to have some intelligence and information. I grinned at him and he flinched, turning his gaze back to Brutus.

“You said Reji sent you? What word does he bring that he needed someone of your… caliber to deliver?” Varga asked. 

He doesn’t know Brutus is supposed to be dead, I realized. Varga was surprised at seeing me, but much less at seeing Brutus. I suppose it made sense. Perceived strength was almost as good as the real thing, Reji would want those around him to think he still had his monster knight. He would hold off the news of his death and betrayal as long as possible.

“I lied.” Brutus said and the atmosphere in the room grew chilly.

Varga’s fake smile slipped from his face and I sensed the guards around the room stiffening up. Varga leaned forward, his small hands gripping the armrests of his sofa tightly. He looked like a cornered rat, his eyes darting between Brutus and me. “What do you mean, you lied?” he asked, his voice shaking with anger and fear.

“I mean exactly what I said,” Brutus replied with a hint of amusement in his voice. “I never had any word from Reji. I came here to speak to you.”

Varga’s face turned red with rage. “You dare to deceive me, Brutus? Do you not know who I am?” Brutus stood up, his massive figure towering over Varga. “I know exactly who you are. I’ve come with a simple offer, all you have to do is betray Reji.” Varga’s eye’s bulged and he spoke in hushed tones as if Reji Ourlous was in the room with them.

Varga stuttered, his voice trembling with fear. "B-betray Reji? Are you mad? Have you seen the City!? He owns nearly all the knives in the dark and the ones he doesn't-" Varga gestured out the window where distant fires and smoke dwindled in the city “-he’s made sure won't be a problem!”

"Reji may have control over the City, but that doesn't mean he's invincible," Brutus said, his dark voice filled with malice. "I have a way to take him out and you’ll get something out of it." Varga’s beady eyes glanced at me, analyzing, I could see the fear and outrage turning into consideration. 

Brutus sat down a bit too fast and the legs on his side of the couch broke sending me up a bit, I cast him an annoyed glance which he ignored. For Varga that seemed to be the last straw and he sat back down slowly staring at the destroyed sofa with dismay.

“Let me hear your offer.” he said weakly.

I took another sip of my drink, enjoying the look on Varga's face. Seeing the man squeal was oddly amusing. Brutus nodded and crossed his arms beside me.

“Good. Queen Azeal will tell you.” he said and I nearly spit out my drink. I shot Brutus a furious glance and his gaze met mine, it seemed to say: enough freeloading cripple.


Varga turned his depressed gaze to me “With all due respect Azeal, you’re supposed to be dead.”

I chuckled, ignoring the slight of being called by my name only. "And yet here I am, alive and breathing." I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees analyzing Varga like a bird of prey. “What did Varga offer you?” I asked.

Varga shifted uncomfortably in his seat, clearly debating whether to trust me or not. I could see the greed and fear warring behind his eyes as he hesitated to reveal his secrets. Finally, with a forced smile, he replied, "He offered me a position in his inner circle. A council that will rule the City. Power, protection...you know how it goes."

I nodded understandingly, even though I couldn't truly empathize with someone so easily tempted by promises of power and wealth. "And what do you think of this offer?"

Varga sighed and ran a hand through his thinning hair. "I have no reason to complain. Reji has delivered me many orders for weapons and my influence and wealth will only continue to expand in my position. He has delivered on all of his promises." Varga paused slightly at the end as if he realized something while staring at me, a shred of doubt flashed in his eyes.

Finally, a chink in the armor.

“Except for me. I still live.” I said.

Varga's eyes narrowed at my words and he glanced at Brutus, who was as still as stone, his expression unreadable. "And why is that, I wonder?" he asked suspiciously.

I smirked, taking another sip of my drink. "Because Reji's reign is fragile." I said, enjoying the growing tension in the room. "Everything he is doing here is temporary, he's used up every shred of influence, wealth and blackmail he had left. The Merchants are satisfied picking at the corpses left in his wake for now but once the dust settles they will look for more. Reji won't be able to protect himself let alone you. Any position he's offered you will put a target on your back."

Varga's face paled slightly, his grip on the sofa tightening. "What are you suggesting?" he asked warily.

I took another long drink, savoring the taste of the sweet wine. My chest was beginning to feel warm. "I'm suggesting you see me sitting here for what it really is, a sign Reji's promises mean little. Join the surviving side."

Varga's face twisted in realization, fear and finally fury. 

Ahhh, I pushed too hard too fast.

"This is ridiculous! Reji has delivered on everything except you and to be frank Queen Azeal you look about five steps away from death so he got pretty close! You sit in front of me with no support, no plan and without even the infamous armor for this brute here!” he gestured aggressively to Brutus. “All you’ve got is a few slaves hoping you survive and little else. I’ve had enough of this farce, guards dispose of these two. " he said, his voice full of contempt and bravado.

Three things happened after that. The guards shifted into action, Brutus began to stand and time slowed to a stand still.

My mind wracked through every bit of information I had collected recently and through all the books and studies I had been put through as a child, trying desperately to connect the threads. Somewhere in it all was a way to win, a way to claw back my place of power and save the fucking City! I couldn’t let it die like this, whored out one last time to the Empire, they would treat its people even worse.

Then like lightning it struck me and I knew we could win.

I cleared my throat, placing a hand on Brutus’s shoulder stopping him from rising.

“Reji is working for the Empire.” I said flatly, Varga’s eyebrows went up and he raised his hand stopping his guards. Glancing down I saw the glint of a blade inches away from my throat, I took another sip of wine to hide my fear. 

"What of it?" Varga asked, confused by both the news and implications.

I leaned back in my seat, trying to appear calm and unfazed. "Do you know what the Empire's foreign policy is?" he shook his head. "The Empire's foreign policy is simple," I said, my voice steady. "Conquer and control. Conquer is straight forward, soldiers, troops, castles. Control is more difficult, this means owning the positions of power and controlling the wealth."

There was no space for most Merchants in an Empire ruled city, most definitely not Varga.

Varga's eyes went wide as he processed the information and the implications sunk in. "And you think you can stop him? Gods, you think you can stop the Empire?"

I took another sip of wine and leveled an intense, unwavering gaze at Varga. "I know I can stop them. It will not be easy, but I have a plan." I got up and walked over to a nearby window, the guards parted before me and I stared out across the burning City, my City.

“You said I have nothing, you are wrong. Out there are a hundred thousand slaves recently freed and in the process of being imprisoned again under Reji’s rule. They will fight for me tooth and nail, I need only organize and equip them.” I said, my voice growing cold and flat.

I wondered how many would die if I did this, in a distant alley I saw my Father with gold covered eyes smile at me and I turned away feeling something deep inside me shift. Varga opened his mouth to speak but I cut him off.

“I have supporters, forged in deals promising wealth and new land to claim. They stand to gain more under me than either Reji or the Empire. I need only show them I am alive and they will begin to plot and send their aid.” I clenched my fist in front of me fully feeling the fury at seeing my great City as it was. “Reji will die and the Empire’s plans will fail. The City will prosper.” I spat with a tone that made a deep part of me afraid.

I sat down on the sofa, crossed my legs and leaned back. Already I could feel a headache onsetting at the monumental tasks required.

God I needed a smoke, wish I still had my pipe.

“All I need from you is information and weapons. In return I can give you a position that will actually matter. Head of Equipment. There will be many wars in the future and such a position will be crucial… and lucrative.” 

Varga stared at me for a long moment before speaking. "This is a big risk. I’ll need more than just that."

And like music to my ears, the negotiations began.


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