The days flew by in a blur.
Wake up, eat slop, head into the mines, get whipped, come back, eat slop, sleep, repeat. Time was an odd concept in the sunless mines, months had passed and yet it only felt like one endless day.
“Did you ‘ear, Queen Azeal was crowned last week and she's begun new works already.”
I ate my slop methodically, my ears perked up as I eavesdropped on two slaves who were talking at another table.
The other slave scoffed “Another monument? Or some grand bath house for merchants to relieve themselves from a hard day's work?”. A round of amused chuckles arose from nearby slaves, I smirked too.
The first slave shook his head “She’s building craftsman schools, for teaching. An’ I heard that she ain’t using slaves, free men getting paid wages.” The other slave raised his eyebrow “That so, well wish I had such a fine woman for my master instead, I wouldn’t mind getting whipped by a Queen” another round of laughter, what a comedian.
“Maybe not, rumor has it she’s a cripple scarred and burned, came out of the womb all wretched. She’s known to be a right crazy” the other slave commented but the discussion had already turned degenerate.
I finished my slop and went to my bunk. Queen Azeal Ulgar huh, guess the fat bastard King Ulgar really was dead, I winced remembering my lunge at Reji. A school… for merchant's and maybe even what little free citizens remained but not slaves like us down here in the mines. She'd probably be dead within the month if she tried that. I still remember the few times Reji had taken me to the palace back during the mercenary wars, when Reji was still welcomed to such events and when I was still a free man.
It was a horrid place full of snakes and they feasted upon the weak. I had snapped the wrist of the first merchant I met when he insulted me, something about smelling like a Wandersnach. Don’t know what that is but it didn't sound good. Wasn’t welcomed back after that. As I came up to the wreckage at the end of the tunnel where cats once played I sat cross legged in front of their tiny grave.
There was still hope, there were still artifacts left, that night had proved that, if I just-
“Where did the cats go?” A female voice sounded out beside me and I turned my head to see Annas staring back, full smile on display, eyes amused in a malicious way. I hadn’t heard her get so close and that sent a chill down my spine but soon it was replaced with burning fury as I remembered who rested inside the graves in front of me.
Letting out a roar I swatted at her but she only giggled dancing back out of my reach. I jumped up “You killed them.” she feigned a look of innocence “Me? Why would I do such a thing?” I screamed sending out a punch but she was fast, my fist hit the wooden pillar behind her instead causing it to collapse inward shaking loose sand and dust from the tunnel ceiling. I turned to her breathing heavily and I caught her widened eyes as she stared at the damage.
She nodded slowly “Yes, I think you will do perfectly.” Ignoring her words I lunged forward with all my strength and she went to dodge again but I grinned pinning her foot with my foot causing her to stumble. Lining up a deadly punch I smiled coldly at her “Predictable.” and I swung, the wind singing death.
But before my punch could land a piercing headache assaulted me as I caught glowing red from the tunnel entrance. I crumpled to the floor, my head pounding as if it would explode.
"I told you to find him, not get yourself killed." Reji blandly told Anna.
Another giggle “I just wanted to make sure he was everything we needed.” Reji sighed “I fought with him for years, I know no man stronger or larger, he is the best and only option.” The pain faded when the light on Reji’s hand did, he looked down on me and nodded “Apologies Brutus, I didn’t know you two had a history.”
I scowled at Anna who stood behind Reji, eventually turning my frown to him as I got up stretching my neck “What do you want.” Reji flashed me his most charming merchant smile, the kind he had put on so many times when accepting the most monstrous contracts.
“What if I told you there was another way to absolve your slave debt, and it could be done within a month.”
I paused for a moment remembering all the times I had stood beside him as he accepted those contracts, grinning too. For once I flashed him a rare smile.
It was the most intense training I had ever done.
It was nothing like the long drills I had led before, the armor then weighed much but not so much that you couldn’t even stand. This was insanity.
“Time!?” I questioned through clenched teeth.
Flames flickered from the torches in the training room, illuminating the black chestpiece and pauldrons on me. It's veiny texture making it look almost alive. The chestpiece alone weighed more than me, at first getting it on had been a challenge involving a mule and pulley system.
"25 minutes, 30 seconds." Anna sat on a stool nearby idly jotting down notes onto a piece of parchment. She seemed to be more concerned with a mortar and pestle in which she mashed odd herbs and plants. Unfortunately, Reji had made it clear she wasn't to be harmed and insisted she be the one to observe my progress.
Sweat ran down my face in rivers as I stood firmly walking a few paces back and forth over and over. I labored and gasped, convinced the chest piece was immovable.
After another few minutes I gasped out "Gods I can't take anymore, help me get this off."
Still panting, I looked around, expecting Anna to start helping me out of the chestpiece. But she was still occupied with her mortar and pestle and I expected purposefully ignoring my pleas. Realizing there was no one else to help me, I resigned myself to the task of removing the chestpiece, this would have been impossible the first few times but after twenty or so times and a malicious assistant I had trained myself to be able to do it, barely. My head pounded as I slowly and agonizingly worked the straps off my shoulders and fumbled with the buckles that secured the armor in place.
Finally, after what felt like hours, I was able to unclasp the last buckle, and I released a cry of relief as I let the chestpiece fall thunking loudly into the ground. Anna looked up from her work, smirking at me "33 minutes, a new record.” she clapped lazily and I vividly pictured accidentally dropping a pauldron on her.
I eyed the chestpiece on the floor with doubt. They wanted me to wear the entire plate suit and fight? Even if there was more time It just didn’t feel possible but no matter, the contract had been signed, no matter the outcome within the month I would be a free man, I need only do their odd experiments.
Anna slid off the chair tucking the parchment roll between her arm. “I’ll report today's progress to Reji. Rejoice brute, it’s time to eat!”
I winced at the reminder. If the training was brutal the diet was hellish. I trudged towards the dining hall, my stomach still full from the meals before. I knew whatever lay in store would not be anything close to palatable. As I pushed open the door, the familiar smell of slop and chicken filled the room and I almost gagged in disgust.
Grabbing the ready tray from the kitchen I stared at the seven bowls of slop and half chicken with veiled fear; this had become my norm for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for over a week now. I hadn't eaten a meal that wasn't fit for a family since training had begun. The thought of freedom was enough to push me onwards. I calmly took my seat, my stomach rumbling in discontent.
That's when I spotted Reji coming to sit down across from me. “You’re making good progress, Anna tells me you are ready to move onto the next stages of the experiment” he said. Beginning the meal I eyed him down "What more is there to do, my strength has limits." Reji nodded glancing to the side where Anna grinned and waved, he motioned for her to approach. She sat down beside him and placed a small clear vial on the table, inside was a dark purple liquid, she stroked it with pride.
"This concoction is of my own creation, tailored to someone of your... stature." I snorted "I’ve seen the whore houses peddle this one, I last long enough in bed as is, don't need it." In a rare moment of victory I saw her face darken and smirked at her. She scowled back “This- Ugh truly a Brute. This concoction is what I’ve called Gia-” she paused as a malicious grin crossed her face “No, let's call it something more fitting, let’s call it Brute’s Brew.”
She held up the bottle shaking around the contents, she looked at it and spoke with an odd amount of passion “This brew will unlock the strength in your body, with this you should be able to wear the entire suit of armor, you need only take it with every meal, starting today.” She put it down and slid it over to me. I eyed it then looked to Reji who nodded “this is part of the experiments, you must do this if you wish to be free by the months end.”
I scowled, grabbing the vial, popping the cork and downing it all in one go. It tasted foul and smelt worse but it was gone in one swallow. I felt nothing besides a bitter aftertaste. Anna nodded “Good, the effects will take some time to appear, for now I will be providing you with one vial of Brute’s Brew at every meal.”
Soon enough they both left and I continued eating my meal, just three more weeks and I would be free.
The effects started the next day.
I was lifting more weight in my training sessions, and each strike seemed to have more power behind it, the air screeching with each punch, the punching bag was obliterated by the end of the session. By the end of the week, I was able to lift and wear the upper-body part of the suit of armor with ease. I could walk around for a couple hours in it and even jog for a few minutes at a time. I could feel strength coursing through my body that I had never felt before.
Anna was excited as she saw the results of her project, while Reji seemed impressed as well. He suggested that I should be ready for combat in just a few weeks' time. My heart leapt at the thought of freedom finally within reach. Each day I trained harder and harder, pushing myself.
It was on the third day of consumption that my hair started falling out.
I looked at the clumps of short brown hair in my hands and felt a growing sense of dread. I was getting old but I wasn’t that old. I questioned Anna during that evening's meal when she came to give me another vial. She only reassured me that this was a normal side effect of the formula, but I couldn't help but feel concerned at the way she giddily jotted notes down as she left. I swallowed my fears, hair loss I could live with. After all, what slave wouldn't go bald to be free, I gulped the newly provided vial without second thought.
Over the next couple days I felt my strength grow a bit more each day, but so did the side effects. I could now feel a strange sensation coursing through my veins. It felt tingly, I struggled to sleep that night due to the odd sensation.
When I awoke the next day and began my trek to the dining hall the other slaves avoided me, some sticking to walls staring at me with wide eyes. That was odd, I hadn't had to steal any of their food in some time.
The tingling sensation had turned into an irritating itch all over. Not atop the skin but within it, deep in my veins and as I scratched it did nothing to quell it. I scratched harder on my forearm but paused as I realized something.
I could hardly feel the scratching. Slowly looking at my arm with a cold sweat I saw a mangled mess. scored with scratch marks that gouged deep into the skin bleeding freely. A gnarly wound that my own other bloody hand had caused.
Good gods, I hadn’t even realized I was scratching so hard, I didn’t even feel it! I touched the wound lightly and only felt it distantly, as I pressed harder and harder into the wound only at immense pressure did I feel the slightest pang of pain. I nearly gagged, not because of the wound, I had seen worse, but because of a new sickly purple tone that my blood had, just like the vials I drank. Scanning my body I realized all my veins had the same tint under the skin.
Rushing to the dinning hall I ran up to the water serving station pushing another slave serving himself with a ladle to the side. He got up off the ground angry but his face paled when he saw me turning to run off. I looked into the water and saw something monstrous staring back.
The affliction revealed itself as a terrifying sight. Anna's strange concoction had changed my blood from its usual shades to an eerie and sickly purple that seemed to spread across my body in stark contrast to the pale tone of my skin. My face too was marked with the same coloring, darkening and tracing the outlines of my facial features in strange contrast to its natural tones. I grew furious at the terrifying sight punching the water's reflection.
I turned to scan the room just in time to see Anna walking in, another vial in her hand. I rushed up to her grabbing her by the neck pinning her to the wall, she had tried to dodge but I was quicker now. Her eyes bulged. I tightened my grip around her neck as her eyes slowly began to close. I could feel my newfound strength course through me, coursing through my veins and giving me power that only intensified my rage. I wanted answers and I wanted them now.
"What have you done to me?" I said through clenched teeth, my voice harsh and cold. "What is this poison you keep giving me? And why does it tarnish my body so?"
Anna let out a gasp and tried to speak, but I didn't give her the chance.
"Answer me!" I growled.
"Full saturation," she croaked, her voice barely a whisper. "You've reached full saturation, Brute's Brew will now grant you more strength than before but it has… tradeoffs" her voice trailed off as she looked away.
I released my grip, but stood ready to pounce if needed. "The hair I could tolerate but this-" I pointed to the gushing wound and purple veins "-this makes me a monster, I itch constantly and I can hardly feel sensations of touch, get rid of this now."
"The side effects are temporary and will go away once you stop using the brew." she admitted reluctantly. She began brushing off dust from herself picking up her dropped parchment and vial. She handed it to me flashing a devil's smile. "Eat fast and get patched up. Today you should try the full suit, your strength will be at its maximum."
I hesitated but only scowled, grabbing the vial and downing it.
I could be a monster for a week if it meant freedom.
Putting on the full suit took three hours and the help of four slaves.
The sensation was overwhelming, as if I was encased within a mountain, domineering and unmovable. It was heavy.
Anna held up a mirror in front of me grinning "the artifact plate weighs as much as five men and yet you can wear it and stand! The effects of Brutes Brew are beyond my wildest expectations, if only those fools in the Academy could see me now.”
Staring back in the mirror was a giant, wide and solid with goldish brown trim and black veins all throughout the thick plate. The weight made me stand eerily still and after the slaves had finished adorning all the pieces on to me they quickly left with fearful eyes.
My body, enhanced by the Brute's Brew, was beyond strong, but my veins itched and urged me to move, still as a mountain but constantly irritated. Anna said nothing as she stared at me with her devilish smile still plastered on her face. Reji soon walked in, a pleased smile on his face, he walked around me inspecting me like fresh goods.
Reji gave a sharp nod, "Excellent. Now, let us test the plate against weapons." He walked to a nearby weapons rack and picked up a spear. He pointed it towards me and thrust it forward, aiming at my chest. I held my breath expecting pain but instead, felt nothing. The spear had hit the plate armor but was not able to pierce through it. Reji then examined the chipped weapon before turning to me with a satisfied smirk, he grabbed weapon after weapon, scimitar, mace, morningstar, hammer, but none left even a scratch and hardly even moved my weight. My instincts as a soldier screamed for me to dodge but as the plate protected me I slowly began to trust it more and more.
Reji put down the weapons and clapped his hands appreciatively. "To think they only offered us pennies for this artifact, Brutus." he said, shaking his head. I gave him a slight nod, the effort straining my neck from the weight of the great helm.
"However," Reji continued, "the true test is combat." He whistled and a dozen guards walked in, Anna took a few steps back. Reji spoke calmly, "Whoever can kill Brutus gets fifty gold pieces."
The guards nodded eagerly, already salivating for the reward. They circled around me and drew scimitars. I glanced at Reji who shifted to stand beside Anna, the bastard hadn’t even given me a weapon. “You’ve gotten a bigger Ogre, but do ya think you can get away in that fat suit?” a familiar voice grabbed my attention and I stared at a guard I had seen before, although he had one less hand, he now had a hook on his stump. Before he had eyed me with disdain but now there was genuine hate, the fool, it wasn’t even me who had cut it off “Who said anything about running?”
I meant to lunge out at him but my eyes widened in the helm as the weight of the full-suit fell upon me. My lunge turned into a large step where my foot came down heavily. The thump resounded loudly causing a few guards to take a step back, one-armed almost dropped his sword but seeing me stop his face split into a shit eating grin. “Having some trouble Ogre?” one-armed’s sword hand flicked out sloppily the blade heading for my face, it hit ringing loudly against the great helm knocking my head an inch to the side, it set my head ringing faintly. I looked at one-armed through the slits “That the best you got?”
He scowled and motioned to his men.
The guards all started shouting taunts and jeers as they took turns lunging at me, each swing met with a dull clink as my armor was unaffected by their weapons. I felt my body becoming sluggish, my arms too heavy to lift and my feet too slow to dodge. Soon I was surrounded with blades raining down on me. The armor was doing its job but I was too slow to counter attack, I got a counter slap on one guard which had sent him sprawling with a wet thunk but the others quickly learned how to avoid that.
I wasn't getting hurt but staying standing and moving was taking a toll, my muscles burning. At the side I saw Reji’s face darkening through the great helm slits and Anna only smiling while taking notes.
Another few minutes and finally the flurry of swords became too much for me, and I felt my knees buckle beneath me. The last blow had sent me toppling to the ground, a heavy thunk that sent sand and dust spewing up. Through the dust I could make out the jeering of the guards as One-armed stepped forward with a deadly smirk on his face.
"So this is the famous Brutus now," he sneered, walking around me and gesturing to the guards. "They used to tell stories about you in the taverns. The strongest lieutenant in the mercenary wars who took the walls of Fort Krunx, never once before taken. Heard you starved em out for weeks, besieging the walls day and night." He circled me staying just outside my grasp "Heard it was a bloodbath but you still couldn't get in. Heard you tricked some sorry maiden to let you in."
She flashed in my head and I roared trying to sit up to grasp him but he dodged away cackling.
He smirked "Heard about what happened to her after too, Krunx’s Whore is what they call her now, a grim story. You're a cold-hearted bastard I'll give you that. Mines are a good place for lot like you."
My mine ran red and the itching in my veins burned fiercely, I roared straining my muscles as I pushed them beyond their limits. One-armed back peddled shocked and as I reached for him he threw a young looking guard in my way. Somewhere in the back of my mind I noticed how it was the young-guard who had apologized for whipping me, his eyes filled with fear.
My black gauntlet grabbed his face, squishing causing a sickening crunch as his nose broke and he let out a scream. My other gauntlet grabbed his flailing scimitar by the blade and I stuck it through his neck resulting in a wet gurgle of dark blood dripping from my gauntlet. I threw him to the side pulling the scimitar out. One-armed and the other guards stared at the mangled body in horror and I let out furious breaths, I took another step forward, or at least I tried too.
I felt muscles in my legs tear as the strenuous speedy movements under such weight caught up to me. I clenched my teeth in pain as I fell to my knees and onto my face. I turned my head to the side seeing the lifeless mushed up face of the young guard staring back at me.
I dully heard One-armed shouting at the other guards to pin me to the ground but her voice overpowered them.
A legacy of death and hate, is this truly what you want?
My struggling limbs went limp as I felt a coolness chill the burning in my veins, I stared at the young-guard as I felt clinks of scimitars on my back and neck, what might he have accomplished if alive-
My eyes winced closed as heavy vibrations ran through the great helm. I heard One-armed laugh “Ha! He rang like a bell, hit him with that again!” I felt another painful vibration as a heavy hit rang through my helm.
It seems they had abandoned their scimitars for nearby blunt weapons. The blows began to fly down in a flurry. I weathered the blows, feeling my vision blurring with each pang, I clenched them shut. My mind swam and I felt time slipping away from me as I clung to consciousness. The ringing grew louder and I felt blood begin to drip from my ears. I screamed loudly, although it sounded dull and distant, a mocking laugh responded. Even through the haze I could feel a sliver of resistance revving up within me, an unbending determination that refused to let me break and give into the pain, but my limbs wouldn't respond against the heavy burden of my armor.
Eventually I realized the blows had stopped and I looked up through slits in the helm viewing a heavy-breathing group of guards, some sitting and others leaning on their weapons. One-armed was talking with Reji through gasping breaths "Well get him yet Sir- bastard's armor is impenetrable but we can peel it off." Reji shook his head, pulling out a coin purse and handing it to One-armed. "This will be enough Captain, take the reward and drink with your men."
One-armed looked like he wanted to say more but he glanced at his missing hand and thought better of it, nodding swiftly and giving a salute “Yes Sir, Thank you.” he walked towards me patting the backs of men holding up the coin purse “Drinks on me tonight boys!” they all cheered except one. One-armed knelt by the young-guard whistling at the damage.
“Poor lad, he had joined up to bring in some coin for his family, his father a slave somewhere or dead, only man left in his family. I warned him off the work but he insisted. Who knows what’ll happen to his ma and sis now, maybe maids if they're lucky, whore houses if they ain't.”
He turned his gaze to me flashing a disgusting smile “Maybe I’ll check up on em, let em know about the cold-hearted monster that mangled their son. Who knows, if they’re pretty I wouldn’t mind taking care of em.”
“I court martialed dozens of scum like you out in the field.” I spat at him.
He got up then shrugged “Well, we ain't in the field anymore Brutus, and your not a lieutenant, just a slave.” One-armed looked back at Reji who was chatting with Anna, a tight expression on his face “And it don’t look like your masters too happy.”
He tossed the coin purse back and forth and motioned for his guards to follow him, a couple dragging the young-guard's body away, my eyes following the trail of blood out. “Catch you later Brute.” One-armed called as they left.
I stared at the tunnel he left from for a long time, thinking about the words he had left me with, the boy hadn’t been fit to be a guard it was true, but there wasn’t much other labor left for free men in the city, the rest could be done cheaper by guards and skilled labor was locked out by merchant families. It was probably his only choice. Eventually my thoughts were disturbed as a pair of high-quality leather boots filled my vision, I heard the calm voice of Reji.
“Can you get up?”
I tried to but winced as pain wracked my limbs, after a few minutes of trying I grunted “No.”
A sigh responded “It seems like your Brute’s Brew wasn’t enough Anna, even with how expensive they are.” Anna responded from outside my vision “There is still that one other thing to try.”
“That method would take every last drop of wealth I have left, failure would bankrupt me…”
“You’ll go bankrupt anyways, you cannot compete in the fueds to come without this.”
“You’re sure what was done before will not work anymore? What about your sponsor?”
“All the merchants are on their toes now, only the fools wouldn’t take precautions against poison. Events will happen too quickly and support or funds would take at least months to arrive, there is no time.”
There was a long pause and finally a frustrated sigh “Very well, you have access to the remaining funds, get it done quick. As you said there isn’t much time left before she solidifies her reign.” Reji turned to walk away and I called out to him “Reji- remember the contract you must free me by the end of this week.” he paused in his tracks “I never went back on a single contract during the mercenary wars Brutus, I won’t start now.” and he walked off.
Reji's words seemed to linger in the air, a reminder of what I was fighting for. There was still hope that I could be freed, and I would do whatever it took. Anna leaned down in front of me with an excited grin.
"Brute's Brew was a success."
I scoffed “Reji doesn’t seem to agree”
Anna shook her head “There are physical limits to the human body, given your stature they are much higher than the average man but they still exist, as you have experienced first hand.” She patted my head like a girl might pat their pet dog. “No, Brutes Brew allowed you to use one hundred percent of what you have but what you have simply isn’t enough, more is needed.”
She pulled out a yellow powder from her sachet placing it in her palm then blowing it into the eye slits. I flinched within the helm blinking and coughing as I breathed in the acrid powder.
“Gauh- what is this!”
Anna placed her hands around her knees waiting patiently “It’s dried sand viper venom, I’ve been milking their venom for quite some time to build up that much, but someone your size needs a large dose.”
I began to feel a numbing sensation spreading throughout my body, painful spasms spreading slowly. Anna continued speaking calmly.
“It’s one of the few venomous snakes whose venom works better when breathed in rather than injected, generally its bite causes painful spasms warding off predators and stunning prey. However, it was discovered in the Academy that when breathed in it causes similar symptoms but also long-durations of paralysis after.”
As I began to feel my muscles go stiff and taut I tried to speak but only grunted breathing and gurgles came out.
“The dose I gave you should last around 12-hours according to my calculations, that should be enough time, you’ll need to be still for what’s to come.”
She got up brushing off her pants and clapped calling out for slave servants. “I could also give you some herbs to ease pain or even put you to sleep.”
She grinned darkly down at me “But you're a strong brute, I’m sure you can take it.”
I grunted curses at her.