“He’ll live, but his back was crushed and left shoulder shattered. He’ll never fully recover and whatever state he can get to will take months.” the healer said.
We stood outside a room in the medical wing of the palace. The healer was a short old man with pristine white gloves, he had served the palace his entire life. He was the one who always tended to my injuries after my… sessions with Father. I remembered his kindness back then, he had spoken to Father after he ruined my leg describing in great detail how it would limit things I could do. “He should be awake now if you’d like to talk to him. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more Azeal.” he said.
I shook my head “I know you did your best Gilbert. Have you thought about my other request?”
“Ah, to teach in the schools? I can do a few lectures here and there.” he said. Unfortunate. To have such a skilled healer teach the youth would ensure easy access in the future. Sensing my disappointment he chuckled “But I can send a few of my previous apprentices to teach, they're more youthful so I’m sure you can get lots out of them.”
I smiled, “I’m sure anyone taught by yourself will have a wealth of knowledge, thank you.” he smiled back at the flattery and walked away arms behind his back, off to see more patients. Guards who had lost limbs from fighting the Monster Knight, who may not yet survive. My face went flat as I stared at the closed door.
I used them.
The trap, it had to be believable, the bait had to be fresh! So I sent them out there to protect that empty carriage to lure in the assailants. I hadn’t expected that to come out. The reports had said he was tall, he was giant. The reports had said he was a skilled fighter, he was a cold blooded killer. For God’s sake he threw a spear through two camels! My heart dropped when I saw him cutting down my men like a knife through butter. The first ballista bolt had meant to kill him but Gods, his armor was thick, a horrid black thing with lines that almost seemed to wriggle on it. It had bounced the first one like a rock thrown by a baby. The brute had moved so fast he almost dodged the second.
He didn’t even scream when it took him through the shoulder. These things were meant to besiege castles. The freak had thrown a halberd with a force that split the air and would’ve taken my head if I hadn’t gone down, I rubbed my leg which still ached. The palace guard had lost sixteen men alone and Lady Eliza was charging me through the nose for her broken ballista and lost men. Meeting and securing her aid had been… forceful, keeping it would be worse. This had been a complete and utter failure. I swallowed as I remembered meeting his eyes, horrid angry things peeking out from slits in his helmet. They screamed at me, told me what had to be done and they laughed, said I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t. When Gezel had ran him through the pit he barely paused, a wound that should have killed any man. When he went down like a beaten dog I felt the fight leave me, my monster cowed. He was a monster, the kind from nightmares, a real one through and through.
I took a deep breath composing myself before knocking on the door. A ragged voice came from inside “Come in.”
I opened the door gingerly, unsure of what I would find. I was met with a grim sight; Captain Gezel, pale and drawn in his bed, with a bandaged shoulder and thick dressing on his entire upper body.
Gezel's voice was raw “My Queen, It relieves me to see you are well.” he tried to sit up and his face contorted in pain. "Stay as you are Captain." I said quietly, coming to stand beside him. He looked frustrated but nodded letting himself fall back down. We were quiet for some time, I didn’t know what to say. It was him who eventually broke the silence.
“The palace guard has failed you… I have failed you. Forgive me my Queen.” He glanced up at me, his gaze heavy with fatigue and regret. I shook my head, forcing the torrent of emotions to subside “The fault was not your own Captain, no one could have expected such a monster. The Ironhides have sent word that they captured someone suspicious during our fight, I go now to see who it is, we will get them.” I said. I felt like I wanted to say more but there were no words to speak, I turned to leave and was surprised to feel a hand clenching my wrist. I turned to see Gezel looking at me with wide eyes.
“I can still fight my Queen, my duty… I can still see it through.” he said.
I still felt hate for him, I knew it, so why did my heart sink so? I gently unclenched his hand and put it back at his side.
“I already said Captain. I’ll make use of you till the day you die, I’ll take every last drop of blood and tears you have.” I told him.
He seemed relieved and nodded his eyes closed. Soon enough he was fast asleep.
Every last drop I had said. I was starting to realize what it would cost.
Lady Eliza was an old withered thing who cackled more than she talked.
I have come as your Queen with a deal, cackle.
Your troops are well trained and I want you at the core of the Cities army, cackle.
Lady Eliza where is the vile fiend who you apprehended? Cackle.
Originally I suspected that perhaps she had truly gone senile as the rumors said but that disappeared when she began to speak of plot, tactics and most importantly coin. She had been the one to suggest I hide our alliance and how best to utilize her forces. As experts in defensive warfare they required specific application. She was also particularly vicious when it came to reprimands, fighting tooth and nail over each lost piece of equipment and life with equal vigor. Lady Eliza was a crone of a woman, with gray hair that hung limply around her shoulders. Her skin was sallow and wrinkled, her eyes sharp and beady, gazing out from behind sagging lids. She had a hawkish nose and thin lips that were usually curled in a sardonic smirk. She hardly ever got up and I had an inkling that maybe her chair also served as a toilet.
As her cackling died down I attempted to approach her in another way “Lady Eliza I have prepared the coin for the lost ballista and men, I can have it brought over as soon as I see this individual you have captured.”
That seemed to garner her attention. “Ah the coin, excellent. I must remind you it was never a part of the contract for me to lose anything. My forces are expensive, best not to waste them.” Her gnarled fingers never ceasing to gesture as she talked. “You even let the lumbering giant get away! Where was the hunger that brought you to sneak into my palace before uninvited?”
I took a deep breath collecting myself and the anger rising, I had gone through great lengths to secure an alliance with the Ironholds, it was proving to be very expensive both mentally and financially. “Don’t worry it’s still there. I have reason to believe the brute wears a full set of artifact plate, once captured and defeated it will be worth a fortune. It’s might was seen first hand by your Captain.” I gestured to a stout man who had accompanied me with a battalion during the trap, he nodded when the Lady looked at him.
Lady Eliza Ironhold was a shrewd ruthless mercenary and merchant who led her family to accrue a large amount of wealth from taking on contracts where she proved to lose little and gain much, often packing up and leaving the minute coin stopped flowing. She was a greedy woman in every sense, however as the current Queen and likewise wealthiest woman in the City I knew how to wet her appetite.
“So I’ve been told. The person you seek is in the cellars, my men have already attempted to make her talk to no avail, she is well trained.” she said with an inkling of respect. “I suspect you won’t get much out of her but do as you wish, and be snappy about the payments. Olgar, lead her.” She finished dismissing me.
Olgar was a quiet man and didn't say much. He led me through a maze of tunnels and winding passageways. We passed numerous doors and guards along the way, there were more patrols than the palace had. He opened the door and led us down a winding staircase into the depths of the palace. The staircase was damp and musty, illuminated by flickering candles that cast a dim light on the rough stone walls. At the bottom of the stairs was a heavy iron door, which Olgar opened with an old rusty key. Inside was a small room lined with cells, each one occupied by a prisoner or two. We made our way towards the back cell, where a female figure sat in the corner, in simple prisoner garb.
She was in a sorry state, her fingernails were missing and her face had a large bruise on one side. I winced as I saw the marks of seared flesh on her arms, reaching up instinctively to feel the scar on my own face. Despite her state the woman was calm, she sat cross legged on the only bench in her cell and leaned her head back against the damp wall humming. Her hair was a reddish brown and her skin lacked the common brown hue of the Cities folk. Sensing us approach she opened her eyes and looked me over, she grinned as she saw my crown.
"You don’t look like one at all." the woman said in a raspy voice. She slowly stood and stepped closer to the bars.
"Like what?" I asked, curious to know why she had such an amused expression on her face.
"A monster." she said, her grin widening in a way that said ‘and I would know’. I felt a shiver go down my spine. This woman, something was off about her.
The woman gave me a knowing look, as if she could sense my inner turmoil. She stepped closer to the bars and looked me directly in the eyes.
"You do look hideous though." she said mockingly.
Okay, fuck her.
"You are suspected of treason against the crown. Reports say you killed three men before being captured. Your skin and skills are foreign. Tell me what you know." I said.
“And in return?” she asked.
“You can avoid the headsman.” I responded.
She let out a beautiful laugh that rang with madness. “That is most definitely not the kind of offer a monster would make.” she said holding up her nailess hands wiggling them “Your peoples methods are primitive, you have nothing that can make me talk but I can tell you one thing.”
I raised an eyebrow waiting.
“Your days are numbered Queen Azeal, my master has set his eyes on your little desert playground and you're in the way. Take my advice, pack up what little fortune you have stored in that palace and disappear into the night.” she said her eyes crazed.
“I’ve made monsters scarier than you.” she finished backing away from the bars and returning to sit cross legged on her bench humming. She said nothing more when I called out to her.
I watched her as she sat there, her words echoing in my head. The threat was clear; there were bigger fish at play than just a few disgruntled merchants. I asked Oleg to lead me out of the castle and as we walked through my brain wracked over the fountain of information. The girl was certainly foreign, from the way she talked and looked. Yet the Monster Knight had said he was a local mercenary, the records held no mention of the City having such a powerful force. Worse yet was the case of the missing wagon, someone in the City was helping her and I didn't know who.
I needed more information. It was time to see what Chunnly had found out.
I returned to the castle, my thoughts still struggling to connect the threads.
Reaching my chambers, I found Chunnly waiting for me. He had prepared a tray of my favorite treats. A bottle of Raki chilled to perfection, date cake still warm from the kitchen and baklava ooing with divine honey. He motioned for me to eat and I smiled sitting down letting out a relaxed sigh. Chunnly had been assigned to me at a young age.
I received this fellow to settle a debt, make use of him Azeal.
My Father had said. I was just a young child then and Chunnly a young-man, he had been a servant slave his whole life, taught how to read, write and manage. In truth he was my only friend growing up, my only friend still.
After sessions with Father when I whimpered in my room he would knock softly and bring me a tray of treats just like today. It calmed me, helped to soothe the pain a bit. He would tell me rumors from the City, his way of trying to distract me. It worked. I would get drawn in to the stories about cheating ladies and forlorn merchants. I would forget for a bit I wasn’t in hell.
It was almost like back then, except the treats included alcohol and the rumors of treasonous plots. He was smiling at me, but his eyes were full of concern.
"My Queen," he said, bowing. "Your request was certainly a difficult one."
I nodded, remembering that I had asked him to find out all he could.
"Chunnly, tell me what you have found out."
He began speaking, and as he spoke I felt myself calm down, more information was all I needed and Chunnly always supplied. He had spent money with the underground guilds to set up a pseudo information network and found that certain Merchants in the city were being killed here and there. Not unusual but according to the guilds no one had commissioned them to do it, that was odd.
“As for the monster knight there is no record of such artifact armor in the library, it hasn’t been seen in the City or the rest of the world as far as the histories go. However, in terms of size there is one man who might fit the build from the City. One Brutus of the Ourlous mercenary company. The Captain will know more."
“I’ll speak to him now.” I said, turning to leave excitedly.
Chunnly spoke, stopping me “I’ll be heading into the City tonight to investigate further, the weapons and supplies used in the attack on you came from within the City, this is an excellent opportunity to root out supporters.”
“I nodded, be careful.” I said.
“We own all the eyes my Queen, I’ll be in and out before anyone knows.” he said grinning.
Captain Gezel had been happy to be of some use.
He had described Brutus as a giant of a man, standing at an impressive seven feet tall. A ruthless orphan who had risen through the ranks to mercenary lieutenant. He had taken the walls of Fort Krunx when the company was in contract with one of the Empire's enemies.
“I saw him once at a palace ball, he had broken a merchant's hand for insulting him. He’s a ruthless fellow. If anyone could fit in the armor it would be him.” he said.
“And what became of him after the war?” I asked.
Captain Gezel squinted trying to remember something “I remember reading that he had attempted to stage a coup and take over the company, he had failed and was enslaved by Reji Ourlous who owned the company. After the mercenary wars Reji took all his slaves to the Tandoor Mines where he was assigned.” he said.
My mind raced as the threads started coming together. I clenched my eyes and sifted through all the reports and papers I had read through on my desk. I remembered Reji from my father's funeral, from the reports that he had kept one artifact for himself, armor.
“The missing carriages Captain, what became of them?” I asked.
The Captain looked disgruntled. “My men have been spread thin after the assault, we’ve only finished half the investigation.” I felt my throat catch, the men were spread thin because many had died in the most recent assault.
“No worries Captain, I will finish the rest. I’ll take your best men with me.” I said.
Reji Ourlous was on that list.
The entrance to the Mine of Tandoor was a solitary sight, located in the middle of a barren desert landscape. The surrounding perimeter lay abandoned and silent, no guards were about. It was quiet save for the whistling winds of the desert. I watched my men secure the perimeter and set up torches to drive away the night. Investigation revealed no heavy carriage in sight and considering this was Reji’s only estate it was damning.
I needed to know more.
“We enter the mines.” I commanded.
My men nodded with grim faces lighting up torches.
The mines were dark and foreboding, a dense fog of dust and sand was in the air, and the torches did little to break the gloom. We entered the mines, my men fanning out in search of clues. I soon found myself beginning to sweat as the air became heavy and hot. This place should have been bustling with miners and yet I heard nothing. Hundreds of artifacts had been pulled from these mines and were once the largest source of wealth in the desert. A buried ancient civilization, the one that made artifacts. There were sites like these elsewhere around the world but new artifacts were never made, only found. Sometime long ago this place had been abandoned and covered by the dunes.
We inched closer and found ourselves in a cafeteria, great pots stood around and I covered my nose at the smell of rotting food. There was a shuffle behind us and my guards all drew their weapons. Standing in the tunnel entrance was a band of miners looking ragged and tired, they covered their eyes at the light.
The miners stared at us with fear, on their hands I saw slave brands and told my guards to put their weapons away. One of them stepped forward, a man in his late thirties. “You the new mine overseer?” he asked.
I looked at him confused. “No. What happened to Reji Ourlous?” I asked.
The miners looked at each other in confusion. “Reji left weeks ago, his guards were mostly dead and the rest left after he didn't come back. Most of the miners left too.” I turned to my guards “Put up wanted posters for Reji Ourlous for treason against the crown, let every assassins guild know I want his head and will pay well for it.” the guard saluted and ran out.
I looked at the miners “Reji Ourlous is a fugitive, slavery is abolished you are free men now. Once we capture him his slave ring as well as all others in the city will be destroyed.” I said. They blinked at me and stood there not saying much, the man from before spoke up.
“What should we do now?” he asked.
I studied them. Five men had stayed in these mines after their captures and master left. There was nothing keeping them here and yet they stayed. A people without hope or dreams, a dying people.
“I can employ you for now, a silver a week for your service. For now you can start by telling me what happened here.” I said.
The miners gathered around me, their eyes searching for some hope that had been lost. The man from before began to tell his tale, the miners’ lives had been filled with toil and suffering for so long. They told me of the slave Anna who had showed up one day but never mined, instead she stuck close to Reji, her description matched the woman in the dungeons. Finally they told me of Brutus, of the armor he had found and how he began to change. The description was monstrous and my blood ran cold, was such a beast truly inside that cold black armor? They took me to a medical room and along the way we passed by the corpses of many guards, crushed and broken.
The door to the room had been ripped off its hinges from the inside. The medical room itself was filled with tools and contraptions, a large table in the middle of the room. There was dried blood all over the ground and trays of sharp scalpels and bloody saws were laid around. I swallowed when I noticed huge pieces of sawed out bone on one tray.
My curiosity got the better of me and I approached the shelves where jars covered with dust stood. Wiping off dust from one of the jars and peering inside I saw a purple vine. I tapped the glass and it lashed out causing me to shout in alarm taking a few limping steps back.
Gods, what had they done here?
“My Queen, are you alright?” one of my guards asked.
I nodded “Pack up-” I waved my hand at the horrors around me “-whatever this is and bring it back to the palace.” I urged the miners to lead me to Reji’s chambers next.
Reji's underground chambers were surprisingly simple, dominated by a large table and cot. The floor was covered in a thin layer of dust that had accumulated over the past week. Across the wall were dozens of scrolls pinned. I walked up to them reading them.
‘Loan for Iron Ore Mining - 1402’
‘Payment Plan for Dept Interest - 1404’
‘Notice of Seizure for Ourlous Assets - 1405’
‘Death Certificate Kirk Ourlous - 1406’
‘Death Certificate Emelia Ourlous - 1406’
‘Ownership Certificate Ourlous Mercenary Company - 1408’
They were all official documents, notices or contracts related to the Ourlous family and they dated back to just before the Mercenary wars. To keep such things was good record keeping but to have them pinned on the walls… it was concerning. The next few papers seemed to detail early contracts the Ourlous mercenary company received.
‘Agreement on Military Service - Ourlous Mercenary Company- 1409’
‘Contract for the Handling of Ransoms- Ourlous Mercenary Company - 1410’
‘Escorting of Precious Cargo - Ourlous Mercenary Company - 1411’
‘Siege of Middling Castle - Ourlous Mercenary Company - 1412’
The contracts went on and on and I remembered many of them from the history books, a lucrative and relatively safe time for mercenary companies. Although everything changed in 1415 when the Empire changed its eye to focus on expansion, their vicious internal civil war had finished and a new Emperor reigned, Gristle the Mad.
‘Armed Reconnaissance of Enemy Territory - Ourlous Mercenary Company - 1416’
‘Assasination of Enemy Officers - Ourlous Mercenary Company - 1416’
‘Asset Seizure of enemy citizens- Ourlous Mercenary Company - 1417’
‘Inciting Rebellion- Ourlous Mercenary Company - 1418’
‘Fermenting Instability- Ourlous Mercenary Company - 1419’
‘The battle of Two Fields- Ourlous Mercenary Company - 1422’
‘The battle of Marsh Grog - Ourlous Mercenary Company - 1423’
‘The battle of Mountain Tops - Ourlous Mercenary Company - 1423’
‘The siege of Fort Krunx - Ourlous Mercenary Company - 1424’
The last three battles listed there had been bloody and whipped out many mercenary companies, the troops just weren’t well suited for the artifact warfare that took place. The siege of Fort Krunx had lasted 2 years alone. Around that time most mercenary companies realized the risk of fighting, there were few men in the City to replace those lost and we had sold most of our artifact weapons and armor, the Mercenary wars came to an end.
‘Certificate of Overseer Status - Mines of Tandoor - 1426’
‘Relocation Request Denied - 1426’
‘Resource Request Denied - 1427’
‘Relocation Request Denied - 1428’
Finally at the end of the wall there was one more piece of paper.
‘Transferment of Dept - 1428’
“Uh.. Queen Azeal? Think I found something.” the middle aged man from before said as he crouched down by Rejis desk. He had pulled out some of the drawers and removed the documents inside. He carefully pressed down in some of the corners and the false bottom lifted up revealing a space filled with letters and other papers.
I looked at the man and he scratched his head. “I’m good at finding things I shouldn’t, it’s how I ended up a slave.” he said. I chuckled and thanked him looking through the letters. The first letter was of exquisite paper quality. I peeked at the back of the sheet and found a red seal that made my blood run cold.
To the skilled Mercenary Captain Reji Ourlous,
Your siege and capturement of Fort Krunx was an impressive and unexpected feat. The Empire was quite frustrated to have to expend effort to retake it. We even sent out a few assassins after your head but the guilds within the City of Sand and Stone prove formidable.
Times are changing however and we now see opportunity in one such as yourself. The Empire has plans and the City of Sand and Stone are essential to them. Merchant King Ulgar is not fit for management of a new Empire ruled desert.
My glorious master is sending me to the desert to get things sorted for him and I believe you and I can work together.
So, Reji Ourlous, would you like to rule the desert?
Anna, 1099th Academy Graduate
I took a step back, reeling from the implications of what I had just read. The Empire, the fucking Empire. They bordered us to the East but had never shown desire for our sandy patch of land, they'd always been expanding East.
No, the better question was why like this? The Empire was known for their brutal armies and wealth of artifact weapons and skilled soldiers. The City had some troops, more than most of its size, but if the Empire sent even a fraction of its armies this way it could take us with ease. That meant that they couldn’t. I ripped off the letter, folded it and put it into my uniform pocket. I had to talk more with Chunnly about this.
I grabbed the next letter and began to read, this wasn't as exquisite and there was no seal.
Dear Merchant Ourlous,
I have been doing well thanks for asking. I still remember our time spent drinking while out on campaign enjoyably. A shame they put you in the mines, has it been alright?
We can meet for sure, it's always nice to catch up with a friend, perhaps we can do it somewhere private though?
Wasn’t he the distant relative of Lady Relly who took over the family while the younglings came of age. The one who said the Relly network would be out of order for sometime. If he was working with Reji Ourlous all along and had lied to us that meant Reji had access to the Relly network.
It meant that I didn’t own all the eyes in the city. My eyes widened, that meant Chunnly was walking into a fucking spiders den.