“Can you feel that?”
Anna smiled at me like some common doctor as she sliced slowly into my thigh. My eyes went wide in pain.
The fuck you think?
Is what I tried to say, but all that came out were some grunts, I still couldn’t move a single limb and it seemed if I lost focus I might lose the ability to breath. She nodded pleased and took a step back, leaving the scalpel embedded in my thigh.
“Good, that means we can begin the operation.” she turned to rummage on a nearby table, filled with odd metallic bars and some god awful looking plants. I forced my eyes away from the tools that glinted ominously.
The mine's medical room didn’t see much use, not because they weren’t injured but because Reji refused to pay for a doctor or supplies. A dull, brown chamber illuminated by many lanterns and candles. The walls were lined with aged wooden shelves with thick coats of dust, each crammed full of new strange concoctions and elixirs Anna had brought in. I was in the center of the room, stripped naked atop a chunky oak table.
I wasn’t a boy anymore, already past my thirtieth year, so I wasn’t shy of my own manhood being out. It being out with a scalpel wielding mad woman around was a different story.
Anna's hands started to twitch as she paced nearby, muttering something inaudible to herself. I thought I caught the words experiment and first try but I tried very hard to ignore that. I started to reminisce about how I'd gotten myself into this situation. It seemed it all began when I accepted that first god damn contract to join up as a mercenary, from there on it was one cursed deal after another.
And here I was, on a table, naked with a woman but nothing fun going on.
I was too lost in my thoughts to notice Anna walking closer to me with a strange item in her hands. It looked like a thick metallic bar. Her eyes glowed with a glee and interest that made me shudder.
“You know Brutus, you truly are a one of a kind experiment. Did you know both your legs are broken, I bet not. Brute’s Brew did its job in both drawing out your full potential and reducing the effects of pain.” she said as she placed the short bar beside my thigh. "Do you know what this is?" she said holding it up to me.
A toy you use to replace the touch of a man? You are a sick woman after all I doubt you've gotten much love.
“I thought not.” she said ignoring my silent insult.
“It’s called a Structural Runic Rod, they are inscribed with various fortifying runes that make them able to support thousands of pounds without breaking or bending, in addition they have runes warding off erosion and degradation due to elements, often they are used in siege equipment. They will be the perfect replacement for your bones. And this…”
Anna turned to the table donning long thick leather gloves and grabbing a long purplish vine that had spikes all over, and the worse yet the thing squirmed in her hand.
“Will enhance your muscles and tendons. It’s a rare plant from the swampy east Empire called Lurker Vine. It’s a parasitic plant that burrows into frogs and snakes sapping nutrients, it causes the animals to go quite erratic and eat nearly anything they can. Animals with this vine show strength and endurance two to three times greater than their un-afflicted kind, the Academy suspected this was due to the plant injecting some kind of serum in the muscles but the line of research was banned.”
The vine Anna was holding squirmed quickly reaching for her unprotected face but she only leaned back grinning “As you can see they are quite vicious and hard to find in this form, they pair with their host for life and die if removed, so does the host. You're lucky though, this comes from my personal collection, I should have just enough for your major muscles.”
Anna took a step back to reveal jars and jars of the squirming vine amongst other oddities stacked in shelves. The last straw came when she pulled up a saw in her other hand.
Fuck the contract, fuck Reji, fuck you and fuck this!
I screamed as much as I could disgusted at what I was seeing, I strained against the paralysis with all my might, in the end all that moved was the slight tip of my finger. Anna’s eyes went wide.
“Incredible, I gave you enough sand viper venom it would have killed a normal man, your strength is extraordinary, the multiplicative effects of the vine with the Runic Rod implants will be never seen before… should I write a paper on it? Ah, but those bastards at the Academy would never…” she shook herself out of that trail of thought looking at me without concern.
“Ah but I should mention, even if you escaped here it wouldn’t matter because you would come back.”
I paused my struggle looking at her like she was crazy, well she was.
“Before I said once you stopped taking Brute’s Brew you would see the effects disappear, that is true, but a few weeks later you would drop dead.”
I let out a pained breath and she shrugged.
“You can't get that kind of gain without a catch.”
I felt a wave of hopelessness wash over me as I slumped against the table I was strapped to. Anna nodded in understanding as she stepped forward. "So don't bother running away." She paused for a moment, her gaze wistful. "And besides, this experiment will go down in history, you'll go down in history."
She drew out the scalpel and as I felt the first slices all I could do was scream out my anger as the pain intensified, knowing deep down it would all be for nothing.
I let deep ragged breaths through clenched teeth as the cutting stopped.
“Okay now according to this book I have to pry open the cut wide enough to fit the saw in.” Anna said as she pulled out clamps and dug them into the open wound on my leg. She then picked up a thin saw, she locked eyes with me and through great difficulty I shook my head pleading.
She only grinned mad and as the vibrations began I felt pain like no other
A sharp pain in my face woke me up.
“Hey Brute! Don’t pass out on me here, someone needs to bear witness to my genius!”
I opened my eyes groggily to see a sweating Anna whipping her head with a cloth. “You really are a meaty fellow aren’t you, it took me a whole hour to saw through that log of a bone.” Unsure of what she meant I looked down at my leg and saw the gaping cavity with a bone chopped out where my leg should have been.
I instantly felt bile rise up in my mouth and threw up to the side, I leaned forward weakly “Oh Gods, what have you done to me, what have you…” I felt the blood rush out of my head and I swooned backwards but Anna caught my head caressing it.
“Hey, hey, you passed out before from the pain and blood loss, don’t worry I’ve rubbed clotweed into the wound so it should slow enough for us to finish the surgery but as for that grogginess…” I felt a sting in my arm and glanced down to see Anna squeezing in a syringe of reddish liquid. I felt a rush of nervous energy through my body and I jolted awake.
“Wakevine extract, this should keep you awake. Surprised you can move so well now thought, must be the fact that a lot of your blood has drained, an interesting phenomenon.”
“You fucking bitch, you’ve butchered me like some pig…”
Anna feigned looking hurt and picked up the runic rod fitting it into the cavity in my thigh sending waves of pain.
“That is such an untrue thing to say, you are more akin to a cow or camel in terms of size.”
My fury mounted and I reached out to grab her but her words stopped me.
“Oh you don’t want to do that, kill me and I won’t be able to finish the surgery, you’ll die for sure.”
I laughed weakly knowing she was right and leaned back grabbing the table edges with my hands. I had no choice but to lay still and bear the pain.
When she pulled out a hammer and nails I closed my eyes tight.
“Hello? Hellooooooooo, anyone in there? Are you still with me Brute?”
“Uh Huh, well we finished your legs and arms, I can’t touch much in your chest or near your spine, it’s too intricate work for my mediocre skill, I bet you're happy about that.”
Anna looked at me with a raised eyebrow and scratched one ear with a bloody finger. She reached out and knocked on my head.
“You’re not really all here anymore are you.”
“Huh, could you lift up your arm for me?”
I nodded, attempting to drag up my arm which was flayed open, it flopped down due to the open wounds, I tried again but Anna said to stop.
Anna pursed her lips and turned to a parchment on a nearby desk whipping off as much blood from her fingers as possible, she jotted something down while mumbling.
“Participants' minds suffered damage from prolonged exposure to extreme pain, showcasing agreeable nature, a possible method for forced obedience not reliant on drugs.” she turned back to me beaming “Brutus you are just a bundle of new findings, truly I could ask for no better an assistant.”
“I have secured all the runic rods in place, all that is left is to complete the binding and enhance your muscle.”
She donned long and thick leather gloves once more grabbing a writhing lurker vine from a nearby jar, she placed it near my open wounds and it tried to lash out at the smell of blood. Anna looked at me.
She grinned and let go.
When I awoke again the first thing I felt was the pain.
The pain felt like a thousand splinters stuck and writhing inside me, each one sending jolts of searing agony throughout my body. It spread from my legs and arms and slightly into my chest as well.
As I looked down at my body I saw that the wounds had been sewn shut. Peering closely at my arm I could see a slight writhing under the flesh, I could feel it, something alive and foreign.
Combined with the purple veins it looked horrific. I felt bile rise in my throat and I threw up to the side and that's when it hit me.
I had only felt hunger this severe when I was a boy, orphaned and on the streets, when I hadn’t eaten for days and my stomach growled, threatening to eat itself. God it felt like I was starving. Shakily I got up from the table, no one was in sight, I grabbed my trousers which had been thrown into a pile nearby stumbling as my legs flared up with sharp stings, as if the lifeform inside was responding.
But the hunger consumed my mind and I scrambled for the door, I pulled and fell back as the entire door came out of its hinges, it had been locked. I stared at it dumbfoundedly in my hand for a moment before throwing it aside heading to the mess hall.
I crept through the halls of the mine, my hunger driving me forward. My legs trembled with each step, a reminder of the pain I endured. As I reached the mess hall I felt my eyes widen and my mouth water at the sight of food laid out before me. It was feeding time and the pots were full.
"Gods save us, look at him!" cried one miner and all the miners turned to me, and the looks on their faces were one of horror and apprehension. They slowly began to back away, some of them even starting to run. I ignored them walking up to the large cooking pots filled with gruel, the nearby chef was frozen gripping his wooden spoon with white knuckles.
I reached out grabbing the rim of the pot, it sizzled as the hot metal seared my skin but I couldn't feel it.
I could only feel my hunger.
Looking at the gray slop I dunked my face in taking in mouthfuls of delicious gruel. I got up for air and grinned at the chef “You must be the best god-damn cook in the City” then dunked my head again when I got back up, chewing on some bone the chef was gone and it was only a handful of guards in his place, they gripped their clubs tightly, one missing a tooth spoke up.
“I don’t know what shit yer on Brutus but that there food ain’t all for you, yer gonna have to stop that now.”
I heard the guard's words, but the hunger inside me wouldn't relent. I just wanted to eat. I grabbed handfuls of gruel, stuffing it into my mouth as fast as I could. I didn't even taste it; I just wanted to fill the void inside of me.
The guards looked at me disgusted but I only eyed them back as I ate.
Were they here to take my food away?
Toothless stood there glancing at me up and down before eventually swallowing and raising his club “Don’ say I didn’t warn you.” He swung down on my arm and it hit with a meaty thunk. It felt like a tap at first but the lifeform inside immediately started squirming indicating its displeasure, sending sharp pain up my forearm.
The guard moved his disbelieving eyes from the club on my arm up to my face, I met his eyes.
“Now wait one minute-” he couldn't finish his sentence as my foot made contact with his chest. Toothless was sent flying crashing through many cafeteria tables before splatting against the sandstone wall.
His chest was caved in and limbs were broken and torn from the impact, somewhere inside me I realized that no human would be able to do such a thing with a kick.
But soon enough my stomach grumbled and I grew annoyed at the flies pestering me. Turning my gaze to the other guards they all looked between me and the broken body of Toothless, one attempted to pull out his whistle and blow but I was before him within moments.
A punch caved in his face and he collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.
The other three ran after that, I returned back to the bowl sitting down cross legged by it. I scooped out handful after handful, slop mixed with blood.
The gruel filled my mouth, yet It felt like something was missing; something was terribly wrong. With every mouthful of gruel, a small voice inside me screamed. It screamed that I was no longer the same person. I had become something else; something unrecognizable and unfamiliar even to myself.
But I had bigger worries, like what I would eat after the slop was finished. There must be more in the kitchen, yes of course.
Potatoes perhaps maybe some meat scraps, bones most likely but they were fine too.
But what of the other miners, what would they eat? All herded and penned inside this god-forsaken mine like cattle.
Yes… they were like cattle, I wonder… I wonder how they would taste. I licked my lips and the thick flavor of gruel filled my mouth. Surely they couldn’t be worse than the slop. They were easy to catch too, slow, very slow.
I glanced over at the crumpled body of toothless, perhaps I should try some now-
My head rang as she flashed in my mind, she was looking at me with that same god-damn look, how could one look so judging and concerned at the same time. I blinked feeling pain in my stomach, a moment later I retched out a huge amount of slop. I looked at my hands shakingly.
Gods, how long had I been sitting here eating.
Looking up I saw I was surrounded, twenty or so guards all with more deadly arsenals now, scimitars and axes, faces grim. At the back a few guards checked up on two bodies, one a crumpled mess against a far wall and the other with a smashed in face. Some swore, some cursed and some made signs for divine protection.
“Brutus, you are simply extraordinary.”
I flinched at the familiar mocking voice. Turning my eyes to the innocent looking devil she stepped up poking at my arm with an interested expression, I pulled away uncontrollable.
“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”
She beamed at me and my face twitched. She continued inspecting all of my limbs while I stood there shirtless, slop dripping from my face and hands while guards stared at me like I was some vicious circus animal.
“I hadn’t expected you to wake so soon after the surgery and I definitely hadn’t expected you to rip the door from its hinges.”
I tried to mumble some kind of insult, but my mouth just wouldn't form the words, just looking at her made me ache. I could only stare blankly at her. She seemed to notice my confusion and gave me a sympathetic smile before continuing.
"The appetite is to be expected, my lovelies inside you must be so excited to be inside a host. I was in fact preparing you a fine meal." she said, taking a look at the half empty pot of slop. "But I must commend you for taking the initiative to satisfy yourself. I expected your wounds..."
Her eyes went wide as she peered closer at the stitches all over my limbs “Incredible… your wounds have already sealed and begun scarring, this is completely undocumented! The lurker vine serum must aid in wound recovery, this is simply incredible… I must document this at once-”
“That can wait.”
A gruff voice from the cafeteria entrance sounded out. Reji walked in dressed in his usual attire, turban, chainmail and scimitar, if not a merchant he would have been a warrior a general, it was the reason he had led the best mercenary company from the City afterall.
Reji marched inside, his face full of determination and his eyes blazing with ambition. He surveyed the scene with a quick glance, taking in the mess and the guards, he spoke to Anna.
"Yesterday my contacts in the Red Light district told me concerning news."
He held my eye and I looked at him darkly. I had been with him for a hundred campaigns and in the end he had betrayed me, I never spoke to her again after that night. So I couldn't help but wonder, did he know, did he know that Brutes Brew would kill me, did he know about the surgery, about the torture it entailed, the monster it would make me?
He continued on "That wretch Azeal is garnering support at an unprecedented rate using every threat, bribe and blackmail under the sun. We can no longer wait till the weeks end, we must act now."
Anna frowned “We knew this already, we must stick to the plan and ensure all machinations are in place, there are still obstacles in place-”
“Today when I went to meet my contacts I was greeted only by two headless bodies, somehow Azeal has used her devilish charm to make a deal with Lady Relly of the red light district, we must assume the information network is now hers, we risk being exposed!”
“This… is concerning, but Brutus has just finished his surgery, we must give him some time to reach full-”
“Did you know?” I growled out through clenched teeth. Reji raised his eyebrow. “Know what?”
“About Brute's Brew, that after I started I wouldn’t be able to stop, that the surgery would make my body not fully my own, that it would put these things-” I gasped for breath clenching my arm “-these horrible things inside me. That it would make me a monster till the day I die?”
Reji did not look away, there was no surprise or confusion in his face.
“Nothing changed Brutus, we’ve always been monsters, always will be. Let us at least be Kings too.”
I screamed in frustration at him moving quickly, faster than he expected and he moved back wide eyed, his sword was already drawn and his ring beginning to flash but I was quicker now, so quick, I could do it, slap aside his sword, snap his neck-
I stuttered in my tracks at Anna’s voice, the images of being stuck on the operating table flashing in my mind, freezing me in place. Soon enough after the piercing headache began and I fell to my knees groaning.
Reji was still holding his sword with an astonished expression. I looked at him spitting on the ground “I followed you to hell and back.”
His eyes flashed with what might have been regret but he spoke no apology, sheathing his sword and turning to Anna.
“He seems fit enough, we do the test now.”
The armor was laid out before me on the ground, a thick black plate covered with a squiggling texture akin to what was only my own skin, at least the one on the armor didn’t move, and hurt. I had felt hope again when I had found it, but now I was only a dead man walking.
I picked up the pieces, they were still heavy but my muscles bulged and something inside them squirmed giving me forbidden might. I donned each piece slowly, I still needed help to complete the smaller pieces but no longer was a pulley system needed.
My stomach grumbled, hunger and pain danced at the edge of my mind. I turned to Anna who stood at the edge of the chamber. “I’m still hungry.”
Anna shrugged “It’s a known side effect, I expect it will never really go away no matter how much you eat, I don’t suggest letting the plants go hungry though, they wouldn't take well to a diet.”
I didn’t respond, there were no words that could change it anymore.
“Enough chat.” Reji said standing much farther back than before twiddling with his red ring, he motioned to a nearby slave “tell the guards to come in.”
The guards marched into the room, their dirty armor gleaming in the torchlight. Ten of them, one-arm at their head.
Reji stepped forward, "Captain, if you can kill Brutus this time I'll give you and your men a thousand gold pieces." I raised my arm slowly, twisting it and stretching. One-arm smirked at me "I'd do it for free Sir." he motioned to his guards and they spread out around me, my eyes never left him though.
"Heard you went whole hog in the cafeteria you pig, killed another two lads when they tried to tell you to go on a diet. Just like the boy from last time."One-armed pulled out a hammer and so did all his men, various blunt weapons, it seemed they learned.
"I paid a visit to his family while you were getting cut up. Oh how they wept for their boy. They weren’t bad looking either, real nice, girls almost at the right age, I gave em a few coins and they looked at me light I was a God."
One-armed gave a disgusting grin lost in thought “Think I’ll visit them again, offer them some coin in return for some favors, God knows they need it after you slaughtered their boy.”
“I’m gonna crush your other arm.” I said matter of factly.
One-armed laughed “How are you gonna do that when you can hardly move! Remember how he crawled last time boys?” the other guards gave a round of laughter.
I continued on ignoring them “Then, I’m gonna crush your legs so you can’t run.” One-armed grew agitated at my talk “Shut your mouth you overgrown pig.” and motioned for his guards to attack.
The guards approached me, their weapons raised and their faces full of threats. I did not resist, I merely allowed them to encircle me and begin the onslaught. My armor took the brunt of the attack and the hammers found no purchase on my plate. I stood taking on the blows staring at one-arm through the melee, unmoving. The things in my limbs squirmed at every impact sending pain up my body, it only made me hungrier, madder. Finally I grabbed one attacker by the face mid swing and crushed his skull sending bits of gore flying, everyone froze and I spoke.
One arm's smirk dropped from his face, he began to realize that I had changed. I was no longer the slow, lumbering giant he had fought before. Fear, glorious fear began to fill his face and that's when I spoke my final promise.
"Then, I'm gonna crush your balls and leave you there for the rats." The guards looked around nervously, unsure of what to do. One-armed ushered them forward.
Gods I was getting hungry again, got to speed this up.
It wasn't graceful, I grabbed one fellow by the arm tossing him into another they struck with a wet crunch and didn't get back up. It wasn't honorable, one guard decided to give up and dropped his warhammer. I picked it up and smashed him down, his eyes seemed outraged in his last moments, what an idiot.
It was a down-right one sided slaughter, they circled and got in hits but they did no damage, left no dents, the things inside me only got more annoyed. As I crushed them one by one they realized it was hopeless, but unlike before they couldn't run. One tried to bolt but I threw the warhammer I had picked up and it hit him in the back, he went down with a cry. Another thought that was his opportunity seeing me weaponless and dashed, I was behind him in moments a punch to the side sent him crashing into a nearby pillar.
It was the kind of fight every mercenary loved, as long as you were on the right side.
One-Armed was now on his knees, the last of his men either unconscious or dead. He had gone from smugly confident to pleading for his life in a matter of minutes.
"N-now Brutus I was just doing what the Master ordered" he said, tears welling in his eyes.
I just stood there watching him, only my eyes pierced through the slits in the great helm and they gave him nothing. One-armed looked frantically to Reji who stood on the side with a huge grin on his face.
"Reji, Sir... this 'as got to be enough, call him off now, please sir. Someone's gotta watch the mine" Reji only laughed, eyes seeing something else "No, I don't think I will." He snapped into focus looking at Anna "This will do perfectly for what needs to be done, well done. I have matters to prepare but meet me at the mine entrance with Brutus shortly, we act now." Anna smiled and nodded as Reji walked off swiftly.
She turned her gaze to me looking at me like a mother to a child, it turned my stomach.
“Finish this up, you’ve got work to do and I’ve got findings to document.”
My foot came down onto one-armed’s left leg with a sickening crunch and he screamed for minutes, until finally looking at me gasping, his eyes desperately seeking mercy.
Damned and dying, what use did I have for mercy?
At least revenge felt good.
“I still can’t believe you shattered my personal carriage.” Reji said, face agitated.
I grunted. My helm was off and the cool desert night air felt nice against the constant itch.
Anna smiled, “At least you had a more heavy-duty transport carriage ready.”
The rattling carriage continued on under the cover of dark, thick sturdy planks combined with metal groaned under me as we rolled along slowly, my head pushed up slightly into the pale canvas above. The wood and canvas above had a smell of sweat, stale beer, and rust. It was an odor that Reji had tried his best to avoid during our campaign days. Out front a couple slaves controlled the caravan.
My stomach grumbled loudly and both Reji and Anna looked at me.
“Will there be good food where we're going?” I asked unabashedly.
Reji chuckled “The best food most certainly, we are going to see some Merchants afterall, no more slop.”
I took note of the vicious undertone and predicted we had less than honorable intentions up ahead but my mind stopped caring after confirming there was going to be food, and good eats at that.
If I was to be a monster, let me be a full one at least.