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Chapter 21: Epilogue Anna

David Grimdark
Apr 15, 2024

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“There is great wealth in the desert for those vile enough to sieze it.”

-Excerpt from Merchant King Ulgar's Memoires 

All is lost, I have betrayed him.

I sit here in this cold, dark cell, surrounded by strangers. The air is damp and musty, the only light coming from a flickering torch down the hallway. The sound of rattling chains and quiet sobs fills the air, reminding me of the dire situation, all is lost, I have betrayed him. 

I can feel the cold stone floor beneath me, sending shivers up my spine. It's been days since I've seen daylight and I figure it's likely I may never see it again. This dungeon is a prison, a place where hope goes to die. There will be no one coming to save me, all is lost, I have betrayed him.

I look around at my fellow prisoners, new additions all of them. Leaders of the City guilds, it appeared she was cleaning house. Each one was broken, resigned to their fate of being trapped in this hellish place, if not by the situation then by the torturer. I too have given up. No torturer came for me, she knew that wouldn’t work and so I expected either I would rot down here for eternity making Brute’s Brew or she would come to kill me soon. The thought of my experiment made my gut clench, it was all I had left, it was strong, stronger than anything that existed but it was incomplete. Riddled with flaws and half measures. The cripple had won, that much was obvious by the lack of Reji coming to see me, the fool probably fell into one of her traps without me, but Empire troops were nothing to scoff at, no matter how green.

Any victory would have been hard fought and steep in cost. What if Brutus had died? The vines would die with the host and they had taken me years to find and collect. The foundation itself was a rarity as well, a mass of muscle and health honed by years of conflict. Such conditions wouldn’t align easily anytime soon.

The thought made my head hurt. If only I had access to my lab at the Academy, tools a thousand times more precise and compounds these sand folks could only dream of accessing. I was spearheading research that would create literal gods and they expelled me? A group of soggy old bastards had the audacity to say my work was unethical? Radical? Dangerous? 

SO WHAT?

I was getting results, results no one had ever seen before, who cared if a beggar or two went missing? With my results we could destroy anyone, we could be better! I had to take a deep breath and unclench my fist, my nails had dug into my skin leaving deep painful indentations that I only now felt through my fury. 

At least he had seen use in my work but now all is lost, I have betrayed him. I sighed as I rubbed my hands, now I was stuck in a cell, in some backwater country with my holy grail playing good dog with the local leadership. All I could do was wait, wait for my inevitable fate to come crashing down upon me. My mind raced with thoughts and regrets. I should have just let Brutus die, she couldn't have won without him. The fact that she had seen through my bluff before it even began made me chuckle. This was a corpse of a country but she at least had some skill, the ugly bitch.

My mind was still racing with thoughts and regrets when I heard the sound of heavy footsteps echoing down the dungeon hallway. My heart began to race, thinking that it was finally time for my execution. As the footsteps came closer, a figure came into view, crippled and slightly hunched but imposing.

Queen Azeal arrived in a black uniform with a black iron crown adorning her head. She wore her  usual sadistic grin and despite the walking stick that supported her every step she gave off the illusion of strength. As she approached my cell she pulled out a pipe and lit it in a careful motion. To my trained eye I could easily pick out that she was recovering from a wound, most likely in her abdomen. She hid it well but I knew the human body better than the ten laws. She didn't speak, only taking a deep pull from her pipe, eyes locked on me. A simple interrogation tactic, to bait the prisoner into giving something for free. 

"I've come to gloat," she finally said with a hint of sarcasm that made my eyebrow twitch. “Your puppet, Reji Ourlous is dead, your four hundred Empire forces are dead or in these very cells, my reign is solidified, you have lost. I have foiled all your plans-”

You foiled nothing,” I spat, annoyed at myself for falling for her taunt. Her grin widened, satisfied with my reaction. "Is that so?" she taunted, blowing out a puff of smoke from her pipe. I clenched and unclenched my fist, wishing I had my scalpel so I could cut that smug face clean off “Without my experiment, without Brutus, you’d be dead in some ditch. The strength I gave him is monstrous. So don’t insult me by implying you had anything to do with your victory.”

Azeal nodded smoking from her pipe, her eyes met mine, one milky and one sharp brown. They were no longer filled with amusement, only a dangerous intensity that sent shivers down my spine. The milky eye seemed lifeless and almost inhuman, while the sharp brown eye held a fierce intelligence that seemed to see through me. Her eyes were the window to her mad mind, showing a mixture of cruelty and intelligence that I had only witnessed once before. As she stared at me, taking a drag from her pipe, her eyes seemed to bore into mine, revealing nothing but the darkness that lay within her. They were the eyes of a tyrant, cold and unfeeling, yet terrifying in their greed. Internally I realized that perhaps she was crazy enough to kill me even if I was useful and despite my reluctance I almost flinched when she opened her mouth to speak.

“You’re right.” she said and I doubted my own ears.

."What did you say?" I asked, my eyes narrowing in suspicion.

Azeal took another puff from her pipe, a smug smile still playing on her lips. "I said, you're right. Without your experiment, without Brutus, I would have been dead in some ditch." She paused, taking a moment to relish in my shocked expression. "He single handedly took Castle Ironhold and held it for three days. In the palace assault he killed ninety three Empire soldiers alone. He cut the head off Reji Ourlous who despite my hate was the best swordsman in the City. Without him I would have lost. Does the Empire have such soldiers as well?"

My mind raced as I tried to find a hidden jest. "No."

She took a step closer to the cell bars, her voice dropping to a low whisper. "Why not?” she asked and to my surprise I found myself answering in earnest “It’s an experimental treatment, fatality is high and can only be tested on humans, the Empire laws wouldn’t allow it’s development. The Academy burned my research, it’s my recipe alone and even if they knew it, they wouldn't use it.” A sense of pride and annoyance at filled my chest at the same time. Pride in the fact that my experiment was truly one of a kind, but also annoyance that the fools hadn't let me continue it.

Azeal's smile deepend and was replaced with a look of curiosity. "That so?" she said, taking another puff from her pipe. "Can you make more?"

"How much more?" I replied, my curiosity peaked by her interest. 

"Enough for an army." she replied and I wanted to laugh but then I realized she was serious.

I hesitated, knowing that my answer would determine my fate. "Not for Brute's Brew," I admitted. "Its ingredients are far too rare, but perhaps with enough resources and experimentation, I could find an alternative recipe."

Azeal's eyes lit up with excitement. "Resources are not an issue," she declared. "And as for experimentation..." she gestured her hand to the rows of cells filled with damned souls. I felt a tingle in my chest at the thought of being able to conduct live experimentation as much as I wanted.

I shook my head, not wanting to get too hopeful. "It's not that easy. You would need a brewery and bottling facility of great magnitude to produce such quantities. Additionally I cannot guarantee a concoction without dependency, if your troops stop taking these brews they will suffer consequences and maybe even die."

Azeal's smile faded slightly, but she remained determined. "I have the facilities lined up and ready to go, the people of the City are hungry and I need only provide them with the strength they need. I can make this happen, as long as you can guarantee results."

I stared at the woman in front of me and she stared back smoking her pipe, invaded by the Empire and she was planning war.

“You cannot beat the Empire.” I said with full belief. 

She chuckled darkly, “I’m sure they think that too.”

I looked down at my chained ankles and at the dingy dungeon floor. I could deny her, rot in here forever and not aid her any further. I could abandon my research and stay true to my country, as true as I could be anymore. I could do that or I could fuel legions that would surpass human limits, power soldiers that the world had never seen before. Create monsters that could kill the Empire.

I have betrayed him, but perhaps not all is lost. I looked back up at my captor and grinned.

“I’ll need a lab.”

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