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Chapter 15: Interlude Reji

David Grimdark
Mar 22, 2024

69 Reads

"Some men... just are not trustworthy."

-Markus Frith, the traitor.

“Reji Varga? Lady Icuni would like to speak with you in her Manor about recent… events.” 

I glanced at the runner who was dressed in leathers. He carried a sealed parchment letter which no doubt had very candid words from Merchant Icuni. I sighed, taking the parchment from him, throwing it on a pile of similar letters on my desk. I waved him away but he didn’t move.

The runner coughed “Lady Icuni was very avid that you speak to her as soon as possible.”

My eyes narrowed and my hand came to rest on the scimitar at my waist, it felt comfortable, familiar. I stood up from my desk, my eyes still fixed on the runner. Lady Icuni was a middling Merchant, on so far in debt to the crown that she had nearly salivated when I offered to rid her of them. Now at the slightest hiccup she crumbled.

"You can tell Lady Icuni that I am indisposed at the moment besieging Castle Ironhold," I said, my tone clipped and business-like. "I am quite sure the success of this siege will solve her... worries." The runner seemed hesitant but something he saw in my face made him gulp then nod and run off out of the tent.

It had been a few hours since I had seen two ghosts, ones who should have both died in a hole in the desert and yet they were back, like a Goddamned nightmare. 

I let out a deep breath and rubbed my temples, trying to make sense of what I had witnessed. That crippled woman had somehow come back from the dead with Brutus at her side. I had to take a deep breath as my head began to throb at the thought of Brutus, all that might, wasted. We had some bad blood but he was throwing everything away, and for what? What could she have offered him that I wasn't? He knew, he knew the Empire was coming, the City wouldn't survive under her, anything she promised he would know she couldn't keep. But yet there he had been, a deathly still shadow standing behind that grinning mad woman.

He should’ve been dead from the fall or withdrawal and yet he still lived, worse yet that cunt Anna had disappeared and was nowhere to be found. It was almost too much to process. I had spent the last few days solidifying my control of the City, and now everything felt like it was unraveling.

I shook my head and walked out of the tent. Here in the streets emergency tents had been put up to shield troops from the desert sun, the common folk had been pushed back a few blocks, none of them wanted to die to a stray arrow. Sieges were nasty business.

I turned my gaze to Castle Ironhold. It was an odd appearance in the City, a signature of Lady Eliza's paranoia. I glanced at the limp dead body of the old hag high above the battlements and scoffed. Greedy hag should have stayed holed up in her keep. Luckily the ballista were all broken and that made it safe enough to be this close to the walls but the Ironholds were tough bastards.

It was late afternoon, and the sun’s rays were beginning to paint the sky a pale orange as I stood outside the walls of Castle Ironhold. The  road leading up to the castle was lined with soldiers, their faces determined and eyes fixed on the looming structure in front of us.

The castle was a massive stone structure, its walls reaching high into the sky. The raised drawbridge stood in front of us, a sign of defiance from those inside. It was flanked by tall towers, each one manned with archers ready to rain arrows down upon us at any moment.

My troops were un-disciplined but their expensive artifact armor made them courageous. They threw themselves up the ladders with courage knowing they could survive an arrow or two with what they were wearing. It should have been easy enough to overwhelm the battlements, get inside and lower the drawbridge but the Ironhold's were experts in defense, throwing rocks and boiling oil down at assailants.

It shouldn't have mattered, years of Mercenary work had taught me a thing or two about sieges. My tactics were tried and true, with troops equipped like mine it should have been easy.

And yet every time my troops gained a foothold he was there. A hulking mass of metal and bloodlust throwing friend and foe from the battlements without a worry in the world. He wasn’t invincible, especially against artifact blades but he was damn close. I watched in frustration as my troops were pushed back time and time again by the iron-clad giant. 

The one I had made.

I scowled as I saw the sun begin to set.

Near late evening I ordered my men to attack in small groups under the cover of night to keep the defenders awake while the rest of our men slept. Each assault group came back shaken stating the same large black figure had been there to stop their assault. 

My frustration grew as time dragged on and my troops continued to be pushed back by Brutus. I cursed myself for not anticipating this, for not being prepared for my own creation to turn against me.

That bastard. He knew what these scum did to us, we dirtied our hands when none of them would, we kept money flowing and the other Merchants looked away from us when we returned, as if we were covered in shit. And he would betray me?

Five years! Five years we spent in that hell hole mining away for nothing and then that cripple wanted me to pay for my workers, I was already in debt and that devil wanted more. That’s how they got my parents, up to their necks in interest payments and debt that they decided the noose was the better option.

I took a deep breath letting it all out. Just a bit more and everything would be fixed, It was my mistake for not driving my blade into the woman myself.

I wouldn’t make it again.

On the morning of the second day I ordered a full assault, promising any man who was able to open the drawbridge a thousand gold pieces and a captain rank in the new palace guard. The greedy bastards threw themselves against the walls without abandon. 

But even with the promise of riches and power, my troops were no match for Brutus. His strength and skill in battle were unlike anything I had ever seen. And as more and more of my men fell at his feet, I began to see the error of my ways.

I had created a monster, a metal behemoth fueled by bloodlust and brutality. And now, it was turning against me.

As I watched from afar, my heart filled with regret. Regret that such a tool couldn't be mine.

I knew that I had to put an end to this madness. I couldn't let Brutus continue to wreak havoc on my plans. I checked my belt and various artifacts then pulled my blade from its scabbard. The hiss of the blade breaking free drew the attention of dozens around me.

"Come with me." was all I said to them and they fell in behind me with grim faces.

I had to put an end to this, and quickly. I shouted orders to my men, directing them to attack from all sides, distracting Brutus. Then I scurried up a ladder with the agility of a desert cat landing atop the battlements with a light touch. Ironhold troops turned their tired gazes towards me with mild surprise, but they were well trained and surprise was swiftly replaced with the intent to murder.

The one nearest to me let out a battle cry and swung his ax fast. 

I swung faster.

My blade found the seam between his gauntlets and bracer like a needle in a haystack and swam through flesh and bone. A hand gripping an ax fell to the ground and the Ironhold soldier let out a scream bringing up his shield arm seemingly to defend himself, but in actuality it was to distract me from his partner's spear which was already inches away from my chest.

I ducked and rolled, narrowly avoiding the sharp tip of the spear. I spun around, my blade flashing in the sun as I deflected another stab coming in, I sent the spearhead flying and cut the guard's head clean off, he had overextending himself aiming for my opening from the roll, just as I intended. 

The handless guard went down screaming as my troops finally made it up the ladder. The whole encounter had happened in moments but that was all it took to gain a foothold. I waved my bloody blade towards the gatehouse.

"Forward!" I yelled and they banged their weapons in response.

As we charged towards the gatehouse, Ironhold troops poured out to meet us. But my men were fierce and determined, their will fueled by dangling prospects. Their hides protected by artifact equipment.  I had fifty soldiers ready and waiting below, we only needed to lower the drawbridge. Together, my men and I fought our way through the Ironhold forces. Blood spilled freely as swords clashed and arrows flew. My blade never stopped moving, seeking out the weak points in their armor and cutting through them with ease.

I cleaved through a soldier's helmet, sending it and its owner tumbling over the edge. As we reached the drawbridge, I heard Brutus appear from behind. I turned to see a monstrous figure barreling across the battlements.

"Reji!" he screamed, his voice distorted by his iron helm, it sounded crude and deadly. "Brutus you-" I began but he cut me off by throwing a sword my way, my eyes went wide and it took everything I had to lean to the side and swing my blade to deflect the hurtling weapon. My blade met it with  clang sending it swirling into the courtyard, my hand was shaking from the impact and my shoulder ached. I scowled and ordered my men to hold him off, they looked at each other hesitantly. My blade flashed, taking one of their heads "Stop him or die to me." I spat and they obeyed.

I pushed past them into the gate house. A small, stone building that stood at the entrance to the fortress. Its walls were rough and worn, bearing the marks of countless battles. The floor was littered with bodies and blood, evidence of the fierce battle that had taken place. The stone walls were splattered with red, and the air was thick with the smell of death and smoke. Sunlight streamed through small windows, casting eerie shadows on the gruesome scene. The only light source was a flickering torch mounted on the wall, its flame casting dancing shadows on the dark corners of the room. In the center of the room a large spool of chain sat locked.

The drawbridge control.

I sheathed my blade gripping the locking lever pulling with all my might, straining and grunting the thing finally began to budge.

I barely caught a glimpse of the black fist before I ducked, I was able to avoid getting my skull smashed but it clipped my shoulder like a camel's kick sending me tumbling. I rolled to my feet feeling the necklace under my armor glow hot and crack, an artifact of protection and it blew out with only one strike. I let out an angry breath and drew my blade turning my attention to the hulking figure in the room. 

Brutus stood their clad in black armor that squiggle with a messy texture, his head was bent forward as he was too tall for the room, he took in great breaths and I could see dents in his armor where artifact maces had hit him, in a clink of his shoulder pauldron an artifact sword stuck out. His rush here had cost him, but he was still deadly.

I eyed him and his gaze smoldered, I chuckled “Don’t know why you switched sides Brutus but it won’t end well for you. That cripple will die, just like Knox’s whore-” Brutus let out a scream and swung his massive fist at me, the stagnant air pulsed at the force. It was coming fast, but he was angry. I could use that. I dodged under the fist my artifact boots pulsing to give me extra speed, my blade swung out going for the weak point in the armpit. The tip sunk in but only a few inches before the chainmail stopped it. I drew it out viscously drawing sickly purple blood. 

I danced away in the nick of time as Brutus's other massive fist came down smashing where I had been, cracking the stone floor. He let out a grunt and pulled in his arm protectively, his burning gaze never leaving me.

I twirled my blade cleaning the blood off it and circled him like a hunter eying a wounded beast. “I could have given you everything.” I spat. “Nothing that matters.” he responded, putting his fists up in a grappler's stance, my gaze sharpened and I saw how only a select few weak points opened up, ones that would put me within his reach. I also knew that if either of those hands found me I’d be dead within moments.

My heart pounded in my chest as I took in Brutus's stance and calculated my next move. I needed to keep my distance, but also find a way to disable him without getting too close. 

I lunged forward, feigning an attack at his left side, and then quickly shifted to his right as he tried to anticipate my move. My blade struck at his exposed joints but the distance was off and a slight shift of his chest sent my blade clanging off his chest piece. I came in fast again over and over, dodging and weaving deadly punches and grasping hands but the traitor was getting use to my speed. Each slash and stab was met by cold black metal and turned away with barely a scratch. I disengaged, taking a deep breath and feeling the sweat beginning to drip from my brow. I glanced down at my blade and saw chips in its edge. I winced, artifact blade's were expensive and near impossible to repair.  

Frustration boiled within me as I realized I needed a new plan. I couldn't keep up this dance forever, my energy was draining and Brutus seemed to have an endless supply. I could hear the sound of fighting outside, my men were holding off Ironhold reinforcements, for how long was a mystery.

I had to end this now.

I stepped back and pulled out a pure artifact crystal, I gripped it in my palm crushing it's exterior then tossed it at Brutus. 

"So long Brutus." I said and he grunted in surprise bringing his fist up to block the incoming crystal which was often used to power artifact siege weaponry. The same crystal which was now spilling light from it's cracks and hissing in a very dangerous way. I dodged behind a few boxes and covered my ears just as it exploded, shaking the gatehouse in a way that made me worry it would fall from under my feet. After a few moments I looked out to see a room filled with dust and the smell of smoke.

As the dust began to settle, I cautiously made my way towards the center of the room. My heart pounded with anticipation as I waved away the smoke looking for the drawbridge controls. I found it and reached out for the lever but was stopped by a giant gauntlet that came rushing out of the smoke gripping my neck.

It began to squeeze lifting me up as Brutus stepped out of the smoke, his armor was a mess, dented and shredded near his upper right shoulder, the same hand that gripped my neck. The bastard was hurt... but still alive. He didn't say anything just kept squeezing and my eyes bulged. I gasped for breath and saw a gap in his armor where the blast went off, with my last bit of strength I drove my blade through and it sunk hungrily into his shoulder. Instantly I dropped with a cry bringing my blade out with me. I rolled and got back up just in time to catch the roundhouse kick square on. 

It sent me flying back out the door I came into the backs of a few of my guards and I let out a wet sound somewhere between a cough and cry, I rubbed my chin and my hand shook as blood came back. I looked up to see Brutus ducking his head stepping onto the battlements and I felt fear. Already I felt another artifact on me fizzle out, fighting Brutus was not only deadly, but expensive.

"Retreat." I said flatly and my men didn't dally. As we made our way back to the ladder and down it Brutus didn't follow, seemingly clutching his shoulder.

Somehow I could tell the bastard was grinning under his helmet.

On the morning of the third day I sent word to the Guilds, a traditional assault wasn't getting anywhere. It would be easy to starve them out but the near constant stream of Merchant servant’s requesting talks was giving me a pounding headache.

Being broke for so long I kept trying to do things with force but now that I had the palace’s own vault I could just pay for things. Easier, more efficient. I made a mental note, I’d have to get better at that, especially once the Empire bribes kept coming my way. The thought made me chuckle which turned into a cough as pain flooded through my ribs. I had survived a close encounter with that brute but I learned not to do it again.

It was a few hours later when the Guild assassins arrived with dozens of people in tow, women, men, children, people of all ages. All of them looked fearful and angry at being ripped from their homes.

They should be.

A man garbed in tightly wrapped clothing covering his entire body except a slit for his eyes walked up to me. “We found all members of the Ironhold guard’s families still in the city, as you requested.” he said like a viper and held out his hand. I nodded and placed a heavy pouch of gold on it, he nodded back then disappeared with his fellows into the shadows.

I approached the group of prisoners and studied their faces. Many of them were weeping, some were shaking with anger, but all of them held a fierce determination in their eyes. They were the families of the Ironhold guards, and they would do anything to protect their loved ones. 

I expected that went both ways.

I addressed them in a calm voice, “I have brought you all here to kill you..." Cries of alarm sounded out, faces went pale and voices went cold. One older gentleman well past his prime grumbled an insult and started to leave, I snapped my finger at some of my guards and their blades pierced his back. He went down with a cry and silence filled the crowd, voices pale. I pointed at castle Ironhold "Your loved ones are currently protecting Brutus, a traitor attempting to hold the Queen hostage. I urge you to plead to the guards, without a doubt they are doing this against their will. Convince them to lower the drawbridge and I give you my word they will not be harmed.”

There was a moment of silence before a woman stepped forward from the group. She was older, and clutched a weeping toddler to her side. She cried out some name begging him. She was the first of many.

"You have fifteen minutes before I kill the next one." I said loudly to the fort, no one answered but I knew they heard me. 

It was exactly fifteen minutes later that the drawbridge lowered.

I grinned and ordered my men in, the castle was mine. 

The IronHold guards were the easy part of taking the castle. They were tired, confused and not entirely unwilling, they returned to their loved ones with their weapons surrendered and were now under guard by a dozen of my men in the open courtyard, all on their knees with their families.

I rubbed my chin wondering how I could get away with killing them. A mass execution of a Merchant family wasn’t uncommon but it was frowned upon but the castle was a valuable asset. I shook my head, that was an issue for later.

I had bigger problems.

I turned to a nearby guard “You say he’s holed up in the Gatehouse?” I asked eyeing the wooden structure sitting above the drawbridge, the same one where I had nearly died. The guard nodded “Yes milord, the Ironhold men say he lowered the drawbridge himself, they didn’t even have to ask.” I scoffed, Brutus was going soft, he could’ve held that gatehouse himself for days more.

“What’s he doing?” I questioned, the guard padded his sweaty forehead “Nothing, just sitting, we sent in a few boys and he beat them dead sir, threw them out and said to send more.” 

Well, not that soft. 

I rubbed my brow, I couldn’t afford to lose anymore men, the hundred I had were scum but they were all I had for now “Send a request to the Guild, I need them to make me a sleeping smoke bomb,” I remembered Brutus’s frame “actually, tell them to make ten.” the man nodded and went to it. I sighed, if Anna hadn’t disappeared off the face of the Earth she probably could’ve dealt with this in minutes.

Anyways, with guards posted and I suspected some sustained injuries Brutus wasn’t going anywhere, and if he was he wouldn’t get far. I had something more pressing, that damn cripple. My men had locked down the perimeter since day one, the rat was caught, no way out.

It was time.

I snapped my fingers and a handful of men with grim faces fell beside me. By all accounts the Queen had been in the Castle study for the past few days doing God knows what. Perhaps something akin to the trick she used to survive a two hundred foot fall. I’d have to pry that from her before I killed her.

We made our ways through the empty halls twisting and turning before coming up to a large door. I straightened my clothing then nodded to my men and they took artifact axes to the door making short work of it. 

However, when the debris settled, we found the room to be empty. No sign of the Queen or any other living creature. I scowled in frustration, clenching my fists. She must have fled, knowing her fate was sealed.

But how?

I walked over to the desk and began flipping through the papers, hoping to find some clue as to where the Queen could have gone. My eyes fell upon a a crown of black iron and cane, she had been here. Under it sat a neatly folded parchment, it read 'Reji Ourlous'. I picked it up opening it and in disgustingly pretty handwriting were two words.

'Fuck You.'

I crumpled the letter in an angry fist  "Search the room!" I barked to my men.

My men searched every corner of the room, upturning furniture and pulling back curtains in hopes of finding a hidden passage or secret exit. The found it under the rug, a trap door locked from the inside. 

"Dammit!" I yelled, hand gripping my blade. My men looked at me nervously while I took a few breaths to calm myself.

This was fine.

A lone cripple wandering the streets, she had no support or money, Brutus was trapped here. She had nothing left, all I needed to do was get Bart Relly to find her... I paused realizing he was probably dead with Anna gone.

No matter, I could pay the Guild to find her, it would be easy.

“Captain,” I snapped and a burly man nodded “Send word to the Guild’s, the Queen is out in the City and I need-” my voice was cut off by the sound of a horn. The sound of a horn echoed through the halls, causing all of us to freeze in our tracks. I could feel a sense of dread creeping over me as I quickly ordered my men to gather their weapons and we rushed back to the courtyard.

I ran up the battlements where many of my men were looking out over the edge with grim faces.

"Milord!" one of my men shouted, pointing to the streets. "Look!"

I followed his gaze and saw a… mob?

The armed mob was a chaotic mess of common folk. They were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, all united under the banner of Queen Azeal. They carried weapons, from pitchforks and shovels to actual blades and axes, some even had shields. Their faces were twisted with rage and determination as they marched forward, their cries of "For the Queen!" echoing off the walls of the city.

At the head of the mob was Queen Azeal herself, dressed in her stiff black uniform somehow wearing a new back crown. Beside her was a bent man wrapped in bandages but wearing the obvious brown garb of palace guard, the old palace guard.

It was the worst fighting force I’d ever seen, half the men there didn’t even know how to hold a sword and the other half were too old to hold one. There were slaves, hideous malnourished things that could hardly do menial labor let alone fight. It was ludicrous, a laughing stalk, pathetic and yet I couldn’t bring myself to laugh.

There were thousands of them. Thousands of bodies all lumbering towards Castle Ironhold with a lumbering crippled Queen at their head and murder in their eyes. This was a dagger, crude for sure, but heading straight for me and my men.The enemy forces were getting closer and closer, their battle cries growing louder by the second. I turned to my men, panic rushing through me as I saw the fear in their eyes. But I couldn't let them see my fear, they'd abandon me without second thought. We cold hold the Castle against an unprepared mob. Empire reinforcements were due very soon, it could be done. "Raise the drawbridge!" I commanded, trying to keep my voice steady. The men looked to each other then my Captain spoke up "We can't Sir, Brutus is in there."

A cold sweat rand down my back as everything clicked into place. Azeal taking the Castle in public, holding up instead of running, Brutus staying behind holding open the drawbridge. This was a trap, and I had fucking walked into it. I masked my dread and snapped at the Captain "I'll deal with Brutus, have your men hold the gate."

My Captain's eyes flickered to the dust being kicked up by the approaching mob "Sir..." he began but I cut him off with a scowl. "They are fucking slave's and farmers man, I've given you all priceless artifact weapons," I grabbed him but the cuff of his breastplate getting close enough to smell him "Take your men. Hold the gate. I'll deal with Brutus." I let him go scrunching my nose up "Besides, they are untrained, they will falter the minute they see themselves die upon your blades, go!" That whipped him into shape and he started barking orders at his men to hold the opening, already the mob was reaching the middle of the street, I had to do this fast. I looked away running quickly to the gatehouse, I drew my blade and motioned for the posted guards to follow me in but just then Brutus came slamming out with a yell. The guards were caught by surprise and Brutus easily deflected their blades, grabbed them each by the leg and threw them into the streets below where they were quickly overwhelmed by the mob and cut to pieces letting out screams. 

I scowled at Brutus, already the damage to his armor was mostly healed, but I doubted the same was entirely true for his own injuries, I had to do this, now. However instead of rushing for me he turned his head and jumped down into the courtyard, he landed sending vibrations up the battlements and shooting dust into the air. He lumbered on slowly knocking any stray guards who were not already at the gatehouse, I hesitated unsure of the weather to rush after him but slid my blade back into its scabbard and ran into the gatehouse. I needed that drawbridge up!

Once I got in there I found despair, the drawbridge control lay broken and crushed. “BRUTUS!” I screamed with fury running out of the gatehouse in time to see the mob rush into the opening across the drawbridge and slam into my men like a vicious wave, they held, for now. I turned to see Brutus untie a few Ironhold men who thanked him and began untying more Ironhold men. Brutus himself found a spot in front of the main entrance to the castle and sat down with a thump. The bastard sat there and I saw his large helmet swivel to look at me.

He was blocking the castle entrance. 

Where the hidden escape route was, the one I was about to try and use.

His eyes were bursting with glee.


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