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Chapter 13: Control

David Grimdark
Mar 8, 2024

69 Reads

"I wish to be like the wind, free and fierce."

-Jolgar, Eight Blade of the Empire

The man was ugly, undeniably ugly and frightening. He gripped the table edges with white knuckles and his eyes were bloodshot from some unknown effort. He was shirtless and covered in scars, like some frankenstein monster pieced together as a cruel joke. In the flickering lantern light his skin seemed to squirm and wriggle, hinting at something sinister underneath. He looked as if he had waded through blood for years and truth be told he had.

I sighed wiping steam from the mirror and picked up the razor blade bringing up to my skull.  I took a deep breath and began to shave, the sound of the blade scraping against my skull echoing in the small room. The few patches of hair that clung desperately began to fall away.

The thing in my arm squirmed and pain shot through my body causing my hand to twitch. Fresh blood dripped down my face. I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore the searing pain shooting through my body. 

As I continued to shave, I could feel the hunger and pain building inside me. 

What to eat, who to kill.

After a few minutes of breathing I was able to quash the feeling. I finished shaving my head and dropped the bloody razor. Without the numbing effects of Brute's Brew the hunger and pain due to the Creeper Vines was becoming unbearable.

I glared at the man in the mirror one more time, his bloodshot eyes matching his own. I thought of her and wondered if in her last moments she cursed me to this. I slammed my fist against the mirror, shattering the glass and sending shards flying. Picturing how Varga would swoon at the broken mirror made me feel slightly better. 

I donned a new shirt and set out to find something to eat.

Varga had provided us baths and rooms despite his reluctance, Azeal did a good job at reeling the bastard in. I remembered the look on her face in Vargas meeting room as she discussed an army of slaves and plans to stick up the finger to the fucking Empire. I grinned as I thought about it and a passing servant grew pale dropping a tray. She was a cold bastard that’s for sure but it still wasn’t clear if she could go all the way, she still cared after all, but the choice was made and there was no going back.

Fuck, I’m hungry.

It was sometime later that Azeal arrived at the dining hall.  Despite being a cripple, she carried herself with an air of regal grace and dignity, it helped that she had a new cane which clacked sharply as she walked over. The odd black uniform she wore had been cleaned and its sharp creases indicated a militaristic inspiration. Her black hair was less disheveled than usual and a shrewd eye peered at me underneath the bangs. Her lips curled into a thin smile as she scanned around the room. 

I didn’t bother waving, I wasn’t exactly hard to spot.

At a quarter past midnight the place was empty, I suspected half due to the time and the other half due to Varga telling most people to fuck off. Doubt he wanted word getting out that he was harboring the Queen who was supposed to be dead.

Before sitting she hobbled into the kitchen and was in there for a while before returning with a plate of food. Odd behavior for a Merchant, usually they had servants or slaves serve them, Varga definitely had some around.

I finished off the last piece of bread as she sat across from me and stretched out her bad leg massaging it. I placed the empty dish down atop the large stack. My hunger dimmed after eating enough for ten men, like Anna said it never fully went away and everyday without Brute’s Brew the baseline was growing.

She waved at the servant in the kitchen and he brought over a plate filled with hummus, chicken legs and flat bread. As Azeal began to eat, I wondered how she ended up the way she did, all scarred and broken. I wondered but didn’t ask, some things were better left unsaid. After a few moments of eating she took a deep gulp of water from a nearby glass letting out a satisfied sigh.

“Much better than dead sand-walker meat,” Azeal said with a satisfied smile.

I raised an eyebrow at her, “It wasn’t that bad. How’d things with Varga go?”

She shrugged, “Varga is a traitorous bastard, but he’s good at it. I got all the info I needed and he’s promised a shipment of arms when I need it. Though I’d say it's fifty fifty that he betrays us by the weeks end.”

I chuckled, “Aye, that’s true, but he won’t. At least while Reji doesn’t know. How do things look?”

Azeal took a long drink and sighed again. "Things are...precarious, to say the least. Reji has a strong backing of support from some of the scummiest Merchants and has strong armed the rest into feigning support at least. Those who outright resisted... " she waved her hand "well we saw what happened to those."

I grunted, "What about your support? Don't think we'll get far just you and me."

She scoffed, "My support? Nonexistent at the moment. Supposedly some of the palace guards escaped, those who were in the infirmary from fighting you… Captain Gezel is out there somewhere.” An odd expression passed over Azeal’s face, something between relief and disappointment but it was gone as quickly as it came. “Beyond that there’s not much but I’ll think of something.” she finished.

I sat up straight, processing the information Azeal had just shared, the bench groaned under me. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, but it was better than nothing. She didn't seem like she was giving up at least.

“Well,” I said, rubbing my chin thoughtfully, “we’ll just have to make do with what we have.” I paused, then added, “Lies and violence?”

Azeal nodded in agreement, her one good eye gleaming with malice. “I’ll put out some feelers, see what I can find.”

We fell into silence as she continued to eat, after a few moments the insatiable hunger returned and my head started pounding at the feeling. I was about to get up when Azeal spoke.

“For my plan I need to know if you're with me.” she said calmly. 

I looked at Azeal and she stared back.

"Already beyond switching sides, I made my choice when I saved you from Reji's knife." I said firmly. "I'm in." 

Azeal shook her head. "That's not what I meant. You're... unwell."

Ah, that's what this was about, but to fix what was wrong with me it involved Anna. Images of her sadistic smile as she sawed into me flashed before my eyes sending a chill down my spine.

“I’m fine,” I said, trying to close the topic.

Azeal raised an eyebrow skeptically. “There have been moments where you act strange since we escaped Reji’s grasp. And it’s only gotten worse. The armor, can you use it anymore?”

Anger flared within me and I clenched my fists.

“I’ll be able to use it when it counts.” I spat, surprised at my own voice. That damned armor. It was the reason I felt this way, so itchy, so hungry. Damn that armor, I scratched at my arm and glowered at Azeal.

She started speaking again and the sound made my head throb, Gods if only she would shut up for good. “You’re strength is waning, I do not hold that against you but I need to know why and if it can be fixed-”

I cut her off slamming my fist into the table causing it to break into itself sending plates clattering. 

“I’m fine.” I growled daring her to continue.

Azeal’s expression was unreadable as she studied me. I stood up, my chest fuming. I pointed at her “Don’t look at me like I’m some monster, you-”

“You’ve killed the chef Brutus.” she said softly. 

My heart skipped a beat as Azeal's words registered in my mind. "What?" I asked, my voice barely above a whisper. “I found him in the kitchen when I came in, a crumpled mess of broken limbs.” Azeal continued, her voice still calm and even.

It was a lie, I had come here and got food to eat that was all. It must have been someone else! Had there been anyone else? "No.. I was just eating, I didn't..." I mumbled doubting my own words, my hand trembling as I reached for my water. "Look at your hands Brutus." Azeal said.

Confused, I glanced down and saw my hands stained in blood, it wasn’t just them it was all over my clothes staining them red. As if waking from a dream I looked around the room and saw it for what it was, not empty, deserted. Chairs were thrown back and meals left unfinished as if its inhabitants had all run, they had run, from me. My gaze turned to Azeal and I could finally tell what that look in her eye was, it was fear, fear mixed with anger.

“He was a slave, Brutus. And you killed him.” she said with a sigh.

I slumped back down onto the bench, feeling weak and defeated. Azeal's words swirled around in my mind, echoing with the realization that I was losing what little I had left, my self-control, the ability to choose. "I… I don’t remember..." I stammered, my voice shaking.

Azeal nodded “The others here ran, told Varga and Varga told me. Outside are a dozen heavily armed guards, I told them to let me try talking to you.” she ran a hand through her hair revealing her scarred face, her brow grew tight and her voice cold.

“We're both killers, Brutus. I know that, accept it. It’s what the City made us into. But I need to know if you’re a killer I can trust. If not…” she cast a glance back to the doorway she had come from, I could see the shadows of guards around the corner. She was either brave or crazy to threaten me so close to my reach and yet I found nothing but respect for the woman in front of me, a weaker man would have had me killed.

Or enslaved. I thought.

I feared Anna. She had made me a monster and held the leash, she was cruel in the vilest sense, but I feared losing myself more.

I took a deep breath and told Azeal of how I became a monster.

As I entered the warehouse, my skin tingled at the sudden change in temperature. The air was thick and musty, a sign that the building had been unused for some time. Rows and rows of crates filled with old cheap weapons filled the space. Varga's merchandise that had gone un-needed in recent years, until now. My hand brushed against rough, uneven walls as I made my way through the dimly lit space. The floor was uneven, with loose floorboards creaking under my weight.

I reached out to steady myself on a nearby crate, feeling the splintered wood under my fingertips. The edges were sharp and jagged, evidence of rough handling and careless storage. I could sense the end of the Mercenary Wars in this place.

The air was cool against my skin, a welcome relief from the constant itch and pain. 

In the dim light of the moon filtering through the cracks in the warehouse's roof, I could make out a figure sitting atop one of the crates. Her feet dangled off the edge as she sat with her back against a tall stack of crates. Resting against the crate was a dark metal cane. Her casual posture almost mocking the stiff black uniform she wore.

Her head was tilted up, her eyes closed, and the shadows cast an intricate pattern on her skin. Strands of hair fell around her face in a wild and untamed manner. In one hand she casually held an intricate pipe from which white smoke drifted up from. Noticing my approach she looked at me and ushered me forward. As I grew closer she took a deep pull from the pipe letting out a satisfied plume of white smoke. 

“Try this, it should help with the pain,” said the Monster Queen, offering me the pipe.

I reached out and took it from her. I sniffed it and the herbal scent stung my nose. It was strong stuff. I cast her a curious glance.

Azeal grinned "It's Desert Sage, apparently Reji gifted my pipe and stash to Varga."

I took a deep breath, unsure of what to expect. As the smoke filled my lungs, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. The pain and itch that had been a constant companion for so long numbed slightly, not nearly as much as  Brute's Brew but some. My mind also felt as if I had just completed a good training session, sharper, clearer.

"Thought it was banned." I said handing the pipe back to her, feeling an odd urge to keep the pipe for myself.

“It is. Highly addictive, and expensive. Many Merchants died or went broke because of it. I expect Reji gave it to Varga hoping the same would happen to him eventually, the sly bastard.” she said taking another pull.

I raised an eyebrow at her and she snorted “I can handle it.”  I shrugged and leaned against a crate taking in my surroundings. 

"Think she'll come?" I asked.

Azeal took another deep pull from her pipe, letting out a thick cloud of smoke before responding. "I can't say for sure, but based on what you told me odds are she will."

We sat in silence for a while, both lost in our own thoughts. The smoke from Azeal's pipe drifted lazily in the air, casting a hazy glow around us.

I couldn't help but think about the past few years and all that had happened. The Mercanary Wars, the Mines, the experiments. Losing my self-control seemed like just a drop in the bucket but it scarred me. Azeal had smoothed things over with Varga but the random killings couldn't continue. It would only be a matter of time until I killed someone important and only a little longer until my dependency on Brute's Brew finally killed me. Like Anna said the side effects had cleared up but I could feel myself growing weaker, collapsing in on myself.

But now, here I was planning to meet my maker. Azeal had heard me tell my tale and said nothing more, told me to get some rest. Then the next thing I knew she said Anna was coming and we would get what I needed. How she managed to set this up in her position baffled me but I still doubted Anna would play along nicely.

Just as I was about to voice my doubts, we heard footsteps approaching. 

Sure enough, Anna appeared before us, she was alone. As she approached, I couldn't help but feel the things inside me squirm and my gut clench. Letting such discomfort show would have been foolish, instead I crossed my arm and scowled at her. As much as I wanted this meeting to go well, I couldn't help but want to snap her neck.

Anna greeted us with a vipers smile and tilted her head at the sight of Azeal, the smile never leaving her face, Azeal grinned back. Anna’s eyes flitted over to me where the scoured me head to toe a look of awe growing on her face, she pulled out a notebook from her satchel and scribbled in it with urgency. 

She began mumbling to herself ignoring us “Specimen survived catastrophic fall with little to no injury, survived by-” she paused putting the pen to her lip “How did you survive?”

“Slowed my fall by grabbing the side of the cliff.” I replied.

Her eyebrows rose “A feat of instinct but any normal human’s arm would have been ripped off from the force.” I rolled my shoulder “Still got it.” Anna nodded scribbling more notes down her grin growing wider and wider. 

"Remarkable," she mused, her eyes glinting with excitement. "Your physical resilience is truly something to behold. I cannot wait to run some tests and see what other abilities you possess."

I clenched my jaw, feeling a surge of anger at her nonchalant attitude. She spoke as if she owned me.

Azeal must have sensed my growing frustration because she tapped her pipe against the crate loudly a few times drawing attention back to her. I took a deep breath and forced myself to relax.

"We are not here for testing, Anna," Azeal spoke up, her tone firm. "We are here for-"

"Brute's Brew." Anna's grin grew as she cut off Azeal. 

"It's easy to see, the side effects have disappeared. I suspect the pain is intense, the hunger worse." Anna's eyes narrowed playfully, leaning in closer to us. I could practically feel her glee radiating off her as she looked back and forth between Azeal and me.

I ground my teeth together, trying my best to ignore her taunting words and the truth in them. I stepped forward fists clenched at my side. "Could still end you right now." I spat. She stopped approaching and help up her hands in mock surrender. "I must say, I'm quite impressed that you managed to make it this long. But you'll be dead within the week. Your body is already dependent. Soon you won't be strong enough to control the Creeper Vines and they'll take over. Maybe they already have."

"You know what we want-” Azeal said, taking a deep pull from her pipe and letting the smoke out, it swirled around her face. "-What do you want?" Her voice was sharp, a warning. 

"Nothing."  her tone dripping with contempt.

“Money?” Azeal inquired.

“You have none.” Anna said and Azeal shrugged.

“A good position when this is all over, chief researcher?” she tried.

Anna laughed “Any position in this rat's ass would be pennies compared to my work for the Sponsor.”

“The Empire.” Azeal said.

Anna raised an eyebrow and the glint in her eye grew dark “Someone’s been digging.”

“It’s what I do best.” Azeal smiled and then continued “What does the Empire want from the City?”

“The Empire will have everything. It is his decree.” Anna said, eyes religious.

Azeal nodded as if she had gotten anything from that “I could hold the City for the Empire, I’d be better than that dog Reji. I already know you practically had to do everything for him.”

It was Anna’s turn to shrug “Reji is exactly what is needed, a good dog who will bend the knee. You… you're too much like your Father.”

I was surprised to see Azeal’s face grow contorted “I’m nothing like my father.” she spat. Anna didn’t miss the weakness “Oh that’s right, daddy beat his little girl, you must think your soo different from him, but you’ve got that same damn spine. The kind that makes you prolong the inevitable and beat little girls.” I glanced at Azeal and couldn’t read her face.

The silence spread for a long time until Azeal spoke again, her voice cold. “I could have you tortured.”

“You’ll get nothing. I care only for my mission and my experiment, I only came to collect Brutus. Whatever you planned from this meeting won’t work, you can offer me nothing.” Anna spat holding her arms wide.

“And yet you came.” Azeal said, snapping her fingers. Moments later a few of Varga’s men popped out from the shadows holding chains and bludgeons.

Anna tilted her head in confusion. “Are you stupid cripple? I already said torture will get you nothing, kill me and Brutus will die. Even if I die, someone will take my place. You gain nothing.”

“Oh you stupid bitch, I’ve already won and you can’t tell.” Azeal said, putting out her pipe and standing up. She stretched before grabbing her cane and walking off. Anna’s eye twitched and her face grew furious “Brutus, kill these men and come with me if you want to live. Enough of this nonsense.” she was already reaching into her satchel eying the approaching men.

Before she could make a move, I appeared at her side throwing a meaty fist into her stomach that made her spit blood and fall to her knees, she looked at me as if I was insane.

“We all die someday.” I said grinning at her.

It was temporary, but for a brief moment the pain and itch went away.

Varga's manor dungeon was a dark and damp place, the walls made of cold stone that seemed to seep with moisture. The only light came from flickering torches, casting dim shadows on the damp floor. The air was thick with the stench of rot and decay, a reminder that this was a place of death.

Rows of prison cells lined the walls, each one containing a single occupant. Varga might be scum, but he was proactive scrum. He hadn't let the power vacuum slip. Grim and gaunt faces peered out from behind the bars, their eyes hollow and their spirits broken. The only sound in the dungeon was the occasional groan or whimper from the prisoners, a reminder of their suffering.

At the end of the dungeon, there was a large wooden door guarded by two heavily armed soldiers. In one cell nearest to the door sat Anna, her hands and feet were bound together, her face bruised and bloodied. Her clothes were a fresh pair of prisoner slacks, a stark contrast from her usual appearance. Despite her predicament, Anna's expression remained surprisingly calm as she sat there on the floor, more annoyed than stressed.

Opposite from her I felt sweat glisten as I completed my workout from within my own cell. “One-hundred ninety-nine, two hundred.” I exhaled and finished my squats by sitting on the floor.

Anna raised an eyebrow at me from across the bars “Did your new master hit her head falling down the crevice? Why are we both in a cell?” she asked in a mix of annoyance and confusion. I only whipped the sweat from my brow and grinned at her. She scoffed looking at the ceiling “Maybe you hit your head too.” She turned her attention to the guard “Can you tell the cripple to stop wasting my time and either send down the torturer or come talk to me.”

The guards said nothing, not even looking at her. Under their metal masks it was hard to tell if they were even awake. Guard duty was dull. I rubbed my neck, at least until a prisoner escapes and shanks you in the neck with a makeshift dagger.

Anna continued speaking but I turned her out leaning my head against the prison wall. I rested my eyes and felt the burning itch all over the surface of my skin. I felt the things squirm inside me and felt the pain run through every fiber of my body.

I wondered if this plan of hers would work. If it didn’t I’d be dead in a few days. I wondered if that mattered for a while and eventually shrugged. Like I had said, we all die someday.

The next day I was in too much pain to do any exercising. The small portions of prison food and my increasingly deteriorating strength left me spending everything I had fighting the hungry fiends inside me.

"While I find this fascinating I wonder at what she hopes to achieve." Anna’s voice echoed. I managed to turn around and saw Anna looking at me. 

“She’s smarter than you.” I said weakly.

She laughed her manic laugh “If that were the case, she’d still be on the throne.” her face grew pensive “One thing I don’t understand is why you helped her. You could have had anything if you stayed with Reji and you must’ve known it would turn out like this. She’s not even pretty.” her face grew more contorted “Nine hells you would’ve been a star in the Empire because of my work. You could have been one of the twelve blades! Why throw it all away?”

I let out a chuckle “Imagine if you couldn’t do your wicked research anymore. If you couldn’t enjoy the pleasures of flesh or taste of food. Imagine if others would grow sick at your company. Imagine if all you could do was fight, kill and die.” I locked eyes with her. “Would you rather do it for Reji or the Emperor?”

She opened her mouth to refute me but slowly closed it, a flicker of understanding passing through her eyes. I closed my eyes, returning my focus inward.

“You’d choose the Emperor too if you knew him.” she said quietly.

Well, tough luck.

I groaned as I opened my eyes, the pain in my arm radiating throughout my entire body. I tried to sit up but was met with a sharp pain in my side. Looking down, I saw that my left arm was covered in deep purple bruises. Glancing around my room I saw the various scraps of food and blood.

"Back in control Brute?" Anna asked from her cell.

I looked over confused by her estatic expression. "What happened?"

"You grabbed the guards arm as he was carrying a tray of food, you just held and kept eating while they beat your arm black and blue." she said matter of factly.

I looked over and indeed there was a new guard from yesterday, both of them seemed more on edge.

"It's incredible, your muscles are clearly failing and yet in moments of extreme hunger you exhibit strength beyond your means." Anna said as if the fact that I was losing myself was nothing more than an unpleasant side effect. "I wonder what would happen if you combined the boost of hunger with brutes brew..." she mumbled on.

I sighed laying back down but she continued pestering me.

"Brutus what are we doing here, tell Azeal to free us and come with me. I'll let her leave."

I chuckled despite the pain.

"What?" she asked.

 "I'm a simple man, Anna. I like the fight. It's my nature, can't be changed."

She nodded, understanding the sentiment. "Humans tend to have some natural preposition that comes with us," she said after a moment of silence.

I grunted. "That's why I thought it was funny hearing you would let her go."

Only silence answered me.

As time passed things became a blur of coming in and out of consciousness. Almost like waking from a fever. Each time things grew bleaker.

I would wake up to the sound of screams and the sight of blood splattered across the walls. I couldn’t tell if it was mine.

I would wake up to the sound of Anna's voice grating against my ears. Asking me to call for Azeal once again.

One time I awoke to dents in the bards and instead of two guards there were five, all armed with spears. I could feel myself bleeding from wounds I didn't remember receiving.

And through it all I could feel the pain and hunger. It drove me mad. So I chose not to feel it at all.

Retreating inward.

I stood on the open battlements of the castle with my eyes fixed on the horizon. As I gazed outwards, I  scanned the landscape, taking in every detail of the approaching army. The sun was setting behind them, casting a crimson glow over the horizon, making it seem as if the very sky was on fire.

The first thing that caught my attention were the banners. Billowing in the wind, they displayed the colors and sigils of each individual army, proclaiming their might and determination to conquer. I watched as their numbers seemed to swell with each passing moment, a never-ending stream of soldiers marching towards me.

Even from a distance, I could see the glint of weapons and armor reflecting in the fading light of the setting sun. My heart felt stilled as I realized this would be my end.

I turned away from the battlements retreating further.

I sat by the fire cupping a flagon of ale in my hands as the sounds of battle rang through the very stone.

They were coming, there was nothing to be done. The door to the room began to shake and pound and so I sat back in the chair, closing my eyes for the last time as I heard it burst open.

“Will this be your legacy?” her voice came and my body went cold. I opened my eyes and there she was.

I placed the ale down “We all die.” I stated. She looked around the room and at my blood stained hands.

“Will this be your legacy?” she asked again.

At that moment I thought of a woman, a cripple with one eye and a future filled with blood and war, of plans that should fail against all odds.

“Yes.” I said as dozens of armed men flooded into the room, swords and arrows already heading my way. I let out a cry and rushed towards them.

But so will she.

When I opened my eyes I found myself in a soft bed with a pounding headache. Glancing at my arms I saw that they were wrapped thickly in bandages. I glanced to my right and saw a few vials of purple liquid sitting on an end table.

Brute’s Brew.

Taking a deep breath I relaxed back into the bed taking a moment to enjoy the numbness that spread throughout my body. I couldn’t feel the smoothness of the sheets or warmth of the bed but I couldn’t feel the pain or hunger as bad either. 

Her plan had worked. As if she was reading my thoughts I heard a voice from my left.

“Are you going to get up or just lie there like a dead log?”

I looked left and saw my Queen.


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