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Chapter 17: A Trap

David Grimdark
Apr 5, 2024

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- Last words of Sven Yargl, fifth Jarl of Stoneshearth

The warehouse was a chaotic scene, with injured people scattered throughout. The floor was littered with straw and hay, making it difficult to navigate through the space. The air was thick with the smell of blood and sweat, and the sound of moaning could be heard throughout.

The injured lay on makeshift beds, their faces contorted in pain. Some were attended too by the little who had medical knowledge, they hurriedly bandaged wounds and administered herbal remedies. Others lay unattended, too gravely injured to be saved. I waltzed through it all leaning on my cane more than usual. These people had fought for me, some had died, more still would. I opened up my satchel and withdrew a bag of wake leaf, handing it to Gezel who was at my side. 

He was… different.

Covered in bandages and recovering from his wounds, he walked in a crooked way bent slightly forward and to the side in a way that suggested deeper injuries were still present, perhaps they always would be. He raised an eye at the package and shook his head, misunderstanding me, he assumed I meant it was for him but I already knew he wouldn’t take it. When I had found him hiding in the Vaar estate he had seemed wracked with pain. I had offered him some then but he had refused it, saying it would cloud his mind, hinder his duty.

“For them.” I said, gesturing to the mortally wounded, moaning in pain. He caught my understanding and took the package with some hesitance but bowed his head hobbling off to distribute it. There was an anger in his step, a frustration, perhaps even regret.

At what? I could only guess.

I hobbled on providing a pat on the shoulder or words of assurances where I could. I was no healer and even the Emperor himself would be hard pressed to save dying men without resources to call upon. I let out a sigh, all I could do was ease the pain. 

My trap had worked, just as I intended. Taking Castle Ironhold had caught the attention of the city and Brutus had kept it there for nearly three days. How he had managed that was still a mystery but apparently he had a knack for war, guess that should have been expected. Those days I hadn’t slept, spending every waking hour conniving and sneaking throughout the city plying my nails into the gaps of Reji’s rule. It was still fresh, pliable and weak in places. No Merchants had wanted to provide military support but I had gotten assurances they wouldn’t interfere and they had. For my fighting force I spoke to city folk and slaves, they were opposed to Reji’s rule, I had offered them freedom and Reji was against me so he was against them. Two thousand of them I had convinced and armed with Varga’s weapons, nearly two thirds died sieging Castle Ironhold to kill Reji and on that stupid attack on the Empire troops.

If only I had known! I let out an angry breath, there was no use crying over spilt blood. 

I continued through the warehouse, doing what little I could to help the injured. But as I made my way towards the back of the warehouse, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to see Gezel.

"The brute is back." he said, voice thick with disappointment. Without a doubt he had wanted Brutus to die, it was understandable, we were in this situation in part because of Brutus. I had explained that Brutus had no choice in it and that he was not with us but some things just wouldn’t die. Deep down I wondered if Brutus weren’t so useful, would I be able to put aside my anger, would I be able to put aside revenge?

Without question, I followed him through the maze of beds and wounded bodies, until we reached a small room in the back. The door was slightly ajar, and as we made our way outside I heard voices.

Gezel pushed the door open and we exited to the cool air of the desert night. The City was quiet, licking its wounds and unsure of its new foreign guests. Outside were a group of  Gezel’s men, some of whom I recognized and also Brutus, he looked… near death. He was putting down a few wounded men handing them over to Gezel’s men but I could tell from the way he moved he was tired, his armor was dented in various places including his helmet and blood caked over the squiggly texture of the armor like a coating of fleshy viscera.

He took off his helmet to reveal a large pudgy head with pale skin and a slight tint of purple, a thick sheen of sweat covered his forehead. Gezel approached Brutus with a glint of hostility in his eyes. "What took you so long? We've been retreated for nearly an hour already," he spat.

Brutus shot him a tired look, his red eyes still blazing with the intensity of battle. "As you saw, Empire troops ain't easy to deal with," he replied, his voice hoarse and strained. "Which I could've told you, if you had the sense to ask."

Gezel's expression hardened and it looked like I would have to intervene but instead he only scowled and made his way back inside. 

I watched him go, it wasn't the best interaction but it was progress, I turned my gaze back to Brutus.

"Could be worse," he said letting out a weak chuckle "we could be deaad."

I nodded, trying to ignore the weariness that was threatening to take over me as well. "We need to regroup and come up with a plan to take down Reji and the Empire troops," I said, my mind racing with ideas.

Brutus nodded in agreement, "Won't be easy."

My mind searched for a way to win, to make the loss of life worth it and an idea came to mind, a bad one, but one nonetheless. 

"It never is." I replied with a shrug.


The meeting room was comical to say the least.

The walls were cracked and peeling, revealing patches of rotten wood. The ceiling was sagging in the center, threatening to collapse at any moment. The floor was littered with debris and broken furniture, making it nearly impossible to walk without tripping. On top of it all we could still hear moans of pain from the warehouse on the other side of the door. 

What made it ridiculous was the people inside. One giant man who sat on two chairs eating what appeared to be slop and bread. His relaxed demeanor was opposite to Captain Gezel who sat to his left. He sat stiff and upright... well, as upright as he could with a bent spine. He was casting a look of utter disdain at Brutus and if he noticed or cared he didn't show it. To the right of Brutus sat a mousish man whos hands peddled over each other and who sweated profusely from his forehead, constantly patting it. I blew out smoke from my pipe and he coughed.

"Relax Varga," I said to him and he jumped slightly as if my voice was a dagger at his neck. He looked at me with panicked eyes.

“With all due respect your Majesty, there is little about this situation that is relaxing,” he replied, voice high pitched “Reji is alive, he knows you're alive, he knows you used weapons and he knows I deal them. And now the Empire is in town. The entire City is tightlipped from that massacre at the city entrance. Do you know how many men the Empire troops lost??? Seventeen.” he pointed a trembling finger at Brutus “Most of those were killed by him, you lost hundreds!” 

Like a deflated balloon Varge sank back into his chair as he finished his Rant running a hand through his thinning hair “So forgive me for being somewhat disturbed.”

For a moment the room was silent save for the sound of Brutus eating and the moans of pain coming from outside. I shook my head, pushing through the awkward silence "I have a plan, but first let's review what we know" I glanced around the room, taking in the disheveled state of our surroundings. "Reji has lost his own personal guard but it's been replaced by two hundred Empire forces. Sappers and Juggernauts equipped with artifact weaponry with orders to support Reji as outlined by Anna. Apparently they are fresh from the Academy so they are inexperienced."

Gezel snorted, "If they are inexperienced we might as well still be in the womb."

I took a long drag from my pipe, letting the silence stretch out before me. Finally, I exhaled a cloud of smoke and leaned forward, my gaze locking onto Gezel's.

"They faltered when Brutus broke their formation," I said firmly. "We can use that but we need a knife to drive into the opening. We need better weapons."

Varga let out something between a sigh and a squeak, “Don’t expect anything more from my end-” I raised my hand, cutting him off, massaging my twitching eyebrow. “There is a place where we can get artifact weapons, one that no one else knows about.” I said lowering my hand and taking a pull from my pipe.

All eyes turned to me, waiting for me to reveal this secret location, except for Brutus who kept eating, his face was focused, a ravenous look in his eye that made me shiver. I took another long drag from my pipe, letting the smoke swirl around my head before exhaling it out in a controlled stream.

"In the desert, there is a ruin filled with untouched artifacts," and giant killer crustaceans. "I'll lead you there, Varga, house the wounded for now and get us enough carriages to sneak out of the city. I doubt Reji or Empire troops will be out of the palace much while they lick their wounds but I’m not taking any chances."

Varga stared back with wide eyes still processing the information I had just provided, he nodded with a greedy smile after some time followed by Brutus who stood with a heavy thud.

"I'll get suited up," he said, wiping crumbs from his face.

As the two made their exit from the room Gezel walked up beside me and leaned in close. "Those two aren't trustworthy, one of them will betray you." he said in hushed tones.

I took in a deep pull of smoke feeling the tingle spread throughout my body, easing the pain in my leg and pushing back the headache and exhaustion. I let it out and grinned.

"I'm counting on it."

The desert stretched out as far as the eye could see, the vast expanse of sand and rock was unforgiving and unyielding. The sun beat down relentlessly, creating shimmering waves of heat that distorted the distant landscape. The only break in the monotony of beige and brown was the occasional outcropping of jagged rock formations that provided much-needed shade from the blistering sun.

The air was dry and dusty, carrying with it the scent of hot sand and ancient ruins. The ground was littered with small rocks and scattered patches of parched, yellowed grass. The sky was a bright blue, dotted with fluffy white clouds that seemed to mock the parched earth below.

Around me were the dozens of carriages and camels Varga had gotten me and with us were around five hundred of our forces, the rest were left behind. I’m sure Reji would catch wind of our little expedition but he would assume I was running.

Gezel and his troops were barking orders getting the expedition underway, crates were being opened and bundles of ropes and troches being distributed. Some were tying ropes to the rocks and tossing them over the edge of the crevice, a paranoid precaution of mine. Having fallen into this hell hole once I didn’t want to be stuck without a way out. Some distance away near the edge of a great crevice in the ground where I had almost died stood a lone figure. 

I waddled up slowly, my cane struggling to find purchase in the sand.

“Try not to jump in this time.” I said with a grin and the big figure chuckled.

The figure turned to face me, his dark eyes meeting mine. "I won't," he said with a smirk, "I'll need to be at full strength for what's down there." 

I nodded my thanks and looked deep into the crevice, down where I should have died and beyond into the depths where large stalky eyes stared back hungrily. This was most likely the dumbest plan I'd ever come up with, many would die, many already had.

I looked up and at the other edge of the crevice I saw a pudgy man in robes with gold coins for eyes, smiling, with his hands behind his back. He said something I couldn't hear and was gone with a blow of sand.

I stared at the spot for a while, my gut wounding itself in a knot. The air was thick with an almost tangible sense of danger and I could feel the weight of my decision resting heavily on my shoulders. 

"We're ready, my Queen." Gezel's voice breaks my thoughts and I turn to look at him. "Let's be off then," I reply, determined. "We haven't got all day."Gezel lets out a long sigh, his shoulders slumping in defeat. "I know," he says, rubbing a hand over his face. "But we could lose so many..." I cut in, my patience dwindling. "We've lost many already Captain, begin the march." He nodded curtly and walked briskly back into the camp yelling out, the whole camp came alive and a certain buzz filled the air. The hulking mass beside me shifted, reminding me he wasn’t a statue carved of stone.

“I will take the lead.” he said, slipping his helmet on and grabbing a menacing looking grand-mace at his side. His expression was stoic as if the past events were nothing more than light obstacles. He continued on without waiting for a response, he was a difficult one, I seemed to have his allegiance but obedience seemed to be a disregarded concept to him. I wondered what he would do if I ever gave him an order he disagreed with and images of the raging beast he had become in Varga’s cell passed through my mind.

“You do that.” I replied but he was already gone. I checked the various knives covering my body, they wouldn’t help much against the bigger ones but I sure as hell wasn’t going into that hell hold unarmed.

We descended into the crevice, the walls closing in on us until there was barely enough room for two people to walk side by side. The darkness began to envelop us, and people began lighting torches. I was grateful for the light that pierced through the shadows. We walked in a long column and I was somewhere in the middle with Gezel at my side, his feet crunching on the loose rocks and sand beneath them. The ground was uneven and progress was slow, it felt like just yesterday I had crawled out of this hell hole and already I was back. 

As we made our way deeper into the crevice, the air became thick and heavy. There was a sound of loud banging ahead and the column stopped, despite my best efforts my heart raced in my chest but in another few moments the march began again. The column passed by the corpse of a dog sized Sand Walker with its shell crushed in, Brutus's work. Many citizens pointed out and gasps, eyes began checking the shadows and a feeling of unease flitered through the column.

"So this is a sand-walker, they seem manageable." Gezel said at my side, his face tactical.

I poked the thing with my cane and it gushed yellowish muck "The small ones yea." I replied moving on.

Gezel coughed at my side and mumbled under his breath "That's small?"

I chuckled but there was no mirth in it “Yep.”

We trudged on through the dimly lit crevice, our torches barely providing enough light to see the jagged rocks and twisted roots that seemed to reach out and grab at us. Eventually we reached the bottom of the crevice and the path opened up allowing us to walk more spread out instead of a long column. The pausing of the column and loud banging became more common now, usually not lasting more than a few moments.

As we continued deeper into the crevice, the banging grew louder and more persistent. We finally entered the fungus tunnels lit by a natural glow, small crabs scurried over the walls running from the hot open flames that would dry them out. We could hear muffled sounds of what sounded like screams and cries for help. It wasn't long until the first casualties passed us on makeshift stretchers making their long haul back to the surface. Limbs crushed like twigs and some even crushed off completely. It wasn't even hard to notice the fear that fell over my troops, citizens, not fighters.

It wasn’t much longer until the mumbling started, a slight shift from fear to frustration. I had been moving them fast and working them hard but eventually they would stop to think and wonder if dying for some girl who gave them nothing but promises was worth it. I felt stares pierce into my back and felt the hesitation in those surrounding me, they wanted to leave but Gezel’s men kept them moving forward.

Winning them over had been easy when they had nothing to lose, now they had everything to lose. I couldn’t fault them for their doubts. 

What did my promises mean if they never lived to see them?

The underground ruins and lake were as eerie as ever, everything was still and the only sound was the rumbling of the torches. We stood just outside the entrance and everyone was silent, as they had been instructed too.

“It’s ready.” Gezel said softly beside me and I turned to see a large crate filled with cylindrical containers wrapped around each other. They were fireworks commonly used during festivals and celebrations in the city and they were what would keep us alive. 

I nodded giving the go ahead and Gezel turned briskly and waved a command at Brutus who nodded back. He began pushing the large cart, walking slowly; a few of Gezel’s men accompanied him. Brutus and I knew this ruin best despite our short time in it, he would know a way through and the dangers to avoid. His destination was the opposite side of the ruin past the alternate entrance at the furthest point. There they would light the long fuse and make their way back.

It was dangerous work but it needed to be done.

“I can’t see them.” Gezel said from beside me, his eyes following the cart as it made its way into the city.

“They're out there, lots of them. Big, mean and hungry.” I replied, shuddering at the memory of a dozen lumbering monsters chasing me through the ruins.

Gezel was quiet for a moment “Do you think they killed them?” he finally asked, it took me a moment to realize he was talking about the original inhabitants of the City, the artifact creators. I shook my head. “No, whatever killed them wasn’t a force of nature, it was something more.”

The people who made the weapons, equipment and materials that made the world go round wouldn’t die out to simple beasts. Gezel nodded beside me “Makes you wonder what did kill them.”

“Let’s hope they died too.” I said lightly, although it had some truth to it. For the next thirty minutes our expedition of five hundred watched and waited holding our breaths.

Every second felt like an eternity, and the anticipation grew with each passing moment. I was well aware of the danger that lay beyond the walls of this ruin – the dozens of colossal monsters that slumbered in the city streets.

That thing in the lake.

But we had no choice. This was our only hope for survival.

Finally, after what felt like hours, we saw a small flicker of light in the distance. It was Brutus making his way back to the group.

"It's lit. Should go off in a few moments." he said.

We held our breaths, waiting for the signal. Suddenly, a loud explosion cracked through the silence and continued pattering, throwing up colorful light at the far end of the cavern.. The monsters in the city streets began to stir and we could see their massive silhouettes moving in the distance.

Despite the danger, I couldn't help but feel a sense of awe seeing their huge figures move. If only they could be used.

Recovering from his shock Gezel put on a strong face and shouted for everyone to move it. The fireworks would keep going for about fifteen minutes so we had that much time to scour the city.

“Go! Go! Go! Grab any weapon or armor you can find and put it in your pack! If you can’t carry it, give it to Brutus.” Brutus himself was equipped with a large basket backpack now. “Meet at the far entrance,” the citizens looked confused at that but Gezel pushed past it with threats “Anyone too slow will be left behind, GO!” he shouted and they began scurrying into the City as if death himself was chasing them, perhaps he was.

“Steer clear of the water!” I yelled last minute, eying the still lake with due suspicion.

I looked at Gezel and nodded, he nodded back before turning to speak to his men, they had another large cart with them, the second part of the plan, just as important. I turned away making my way into the city testing out the ground and watching for loose stones.

“I spent years searching for artifacts in the mines,” a deep voice sounded out ahead of me. Looking up I saw Brutus duck out of a ruined house, he was inspecting a dust covered blade and chuckled before tossing it into his pack which already contained a few other items “Here they are just lying on the floor by the dozens.” I grinned at Brutus's comment and continued on my own scavenging. The city was in ruins but there were still plenty of items that could be salvaged. I carefully picked through the debris, finding daggers and maces, the exact effect of each was unknown but they were almost certainly leagues better than any normal weapon. Anything that could be used as a weapon was taken.

As I made my way through the streets, I couldn't help but feel a sense of doom. Was this the same fate in store for my City? This civilization had been great and yet they didn't last, hardly anyone from their time was known or remembered. A hundred years from now would they know my name?

I shook off the feeling and refocused on the task at hand but was distracted again by a commotion taking place deeper in the ruins. As I hobbled over I found three men gathered inside a large building with the remnants of a humongous chimney that reached high into the sky. Inside the building above the chimney opening sat a long and hefty weapon. It's shaft was of a dull brown wood laced with metallic strips and its head broke into three types of blade. At the tip a spear head, to the left an axe blade and to the right the head of a hammer. Two men were watching while one younger one was struggling and straining his arms to lift it, he was able to get it over the edge and then dropped it with a heavy thump letting out ragged breaths.

Brutus walked up beside me and spoke with martial wisdom “Ah,” he said, reaching down and picking up the weapon with a grunt of surprise, he held it in two hands twirling the large weapon as if it weighed no more than a feather. It was long, reaching slightly above the height of one man, the metal was gray and shaft a dull black. “It’s a poleaxe, good for stabbing, cutting or crushing, unwieldy though.” he said finally, nodding in a way that suggested the weapon fit his standards “I’ll keep this for myself.”

The young man’s face who found it instantly soured and Brutus noticed too, the rules had been set in this expedition, whatever you found you could keep or sell back to the crown, obviously this lad wanted to keep it. I expected something violent to take place but instead Brutus shifted off his pack and placed it on the ground motioning with his hand, he spoke tenderly as if he was touching an open wound “You may keep it if you wish but you will not be able to use it, instead please take as many weapons from what I have found as you feel is fair.” The boy’s expression softened as he took in the vast amount of weapons in Brutus’s pack, in the end he chose out seven different swords and axes and left with a curt nod.

“Really? You let him take that much?” I said chuckling at the exorbitant cost, Brutus said nothing for a while admiring his new weapon, when he spoke again his voice was calm “To common folk these artifacts are the difference between living like a king and living like dirt, I have little need for wealth anymore.”

“You could have at least-” I began to respond but was cut off by yelling and screaming, Brutus and I rushed out to see what was happening and there we found people running through the streets. Brutus caught one by his back and lifted him up “What’s going on.” the man had a look of panic on his face “It’s the- the sandwalkers, sir!” he squeaked, Brutus drew him close “What about them?” and the man's face went pale “They’re coming back!” 

Brutus dropped the man and my stomach dropped, it hadn’t been more than ten minutes, this was too soon! There were enough fireworks to last for fifteen minutes and it should’ve taken them a few more to get back here. That’s when I noticed it, or the lack of it, where was the sound of fireworks?

“They must’ve eaten it.” said Brutus from my side confirming my worst fear, the distraction was gone and now the monsters were rushing back to feast.

“It’s time to leave.” I spat and Brutus nodded beside me “Go, organize the citizens at the escape tunnel, I will find those still searching and send them.” I nodded and hobbled off as fast as my injured leg could take me shouting and slapping my cane at panicked citizens ordering them to get to the other tunnel, it would be safe there. As I searched for the remaining members of our group, I could hear the blood-curdling guttural chittering and the ground shake under the impact of lumbering chiterous limbs. 

The sandwalkers were getting closer.

As I was nearly out of the ruins I noticed a group of young citizens still digging through the rubble, their packs were clearly full but they were still searching for more. I walked up and poked one with my staff, he yelped in surprise and turned to me with a furious expression “Whadya want! Can’t you see-” his anger quickly turned to pale faced stuttering as he took in who I was “Q-Queen Azeal.” he said with a gulp.

I raised an eyebrow at him “Glad to know your eyes work at least but are you deaf? The sandwalkers are almost upon us, if you don’t want to die-” but was cut off by a claw that came out of nowhere snatching up the young man who screamed. I looked up mouth agap to see a sandwalker somewhere between medium and large, its stalky eyes looked at the screaming poor lad in it’s grasp with glee before crushing him with a boney crunch. Gore spewed everywhere and the thing began feasting on his corpse head first.

It took me a moment to snap back to reality and I clacked my staff alerting the two remaining stunned lads “Run. Now!” they didn’t need any more convincing and they dashed away and I followed but being a cripple had it’s disadvantages.

Painful spasms flared up my leg causing me to gasp. Not now! By the time it stopped a dark shadow had fell over me, I turned to see the sandwalker staring down at me, one bloody claw reaching out towards me.

I threw a dagger which embedded itself in its eye, it let out an annoyed screech but hardly paused. I laughed madly and threw every dagger I had. I was no marksman but it’s eye was big and ugly. Many hit’s later it’s eye had gone limp but it still pressed on, its chittering sounded angry now.

“Fuck you.” I snarled, adrenaline was numbing the pain in my leg and I was preparing to dodge at the last minute.

“DUCK!” a voice screamed and like a preacher's child I obeyed, I fell to one knee and moments later felt the rush of a blade over me and heavy steps beside me. Then I heard a sound like splintering wood and a pleasant screech of pain.

Looking up I saw Brutus in front of me holding his now gored poleaxe covered in yellow mush and white flesh. In front of him the sandwalker’s claw arm lay twitching against the ground it’s shell crushed in just above the joint, it futilely tried to lift it.

Brutus held out a hand to me “Come. Before it realizes it has another claw to use.” I gripped it and he pulled me up, as we made our escape there were two important things to note.

First, the sound of Empire drums, which would have sent a chill down my spine if I hadn’t wanted them to be here in the first place. Gezel had been right, Varga had betrayed us, selling information about us and this place to get back into Reji’s favor, and Reji had sent some Empire troops after us to secure the place. Just as I wanted him too.

Second, the sound of a loud explosion that shook the cavern, not firecrackers this time, dynamite. Gezel had done what I needed him to and rigged the tunnel entrance to collapse, leaving one of his loyal troops to trigger the collapse once Empire troops were far enough in. A sacrifice, yes, but one worth its weight in gold. The Empire troops were trapped and we could still use the ropes we left behind previously.

Finally Brutus and I made our way to the other entrance where the survivors of the expedition were waiting, we had suffered losses from the sandwalkers but most had survived. There I found Gezel who came up to me with a look of relief, he cast a look at Brutus that was somewhere between annoyed and thankful before speaking to me.

“It’s just as you planned my Queen,” he said with a slight grin “Nearly three hundred Empire troops followed us into the cavern and my man exploded the entrance behind them.”

I nodded and turned my gaze out to the ruins, it was now crawling with large sandwalkers who had been feasting on any poor bastard who had been too slow. Now they were now turning their attention to the latest sound, the explosion and the fresh meat that was there.

Empire meat.

The expedition watched for the next few minutes as the Empire troops began to organize themselves into formation, they were either too disciplined or too stupid to run. Their sappers' grenades had some effect on the sandwalkers but it seemed the powder merely stung their eyes. Within moments the sandwalkers were upon them tearing up their formation and feasting.

I observed the expedition feeling the emotion spreading throughout the crowd, Gezel was pleased to be useful again, Brutus seemed… disappointed at missing a fight? I shook my head and expanded my observation outward, the expedition, the few hundred of citizens and slaves who chose to follow me were feeling… hope. 

I had just shown them we could win.


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