Crossing the camp, and suddenly Hagen was there, like he popped up out of the ground itself. And maybe he did. No one knew for sure how Hagen did what he did. Half the company was sure he was a shapeshifter. The other half thought he was a shadow walker. There were even a few who thought he could teleport, but the mages all said that was foolish, that if he was throwing around that kind of magic, they’d know about it.
The one thing all agreed on was that no one could scout like Hagen. The man was a ghost. He came and went as he pleased, like smoke.
Daros remembered a night a few years ago, when Hagen had been with the Company for only a short time. Hagen returned from scouting the tunnels underneath the stronghold of the self-styled Necromancer King and in his eyes was a disturbing haunted look. His report was bleak—the experiments the Necromancer King was conducting down there were the kind to give even hardened veterans nightmares—and Daros thought that was why he looked so gray.
After reporting to the Captain, Hagen sat down by a dying fire and got drunk, very drunk. Then, he started talking.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like in there.”
“Are you talking about the tunnels?” Daros asked.
“The tunnels! Ha!” Hagen’s voice was hoarse, cracked. “They’re a child’s playroom compared to Oblivion.”
Hagen slumped lower. It looked like he was about to topple into the fire. “I trained with the Shadow Monks.”
Daros gaped at him. “You were a Shadow Monk?” The Shadow Monks were basically a legend. Many people didn’t even believe they existed. They were very secretive, their monastery hidden somewhere in the blasted volcanic peaks of the Godfist Mountains. They were supposed to possess near-mythical abilities.
Hagen’s laugh was tortured. “No. There’s no leaving the Shadow Monks. Even death doesn’t break that oath. They only trained me.”
“I didn’t know the Shadow Monks trained outsiders.”
“They don’t. But they made an exception for me. Don’t ask why. I don’t know.”
“Is that where you learned tracking?”
“I already knew how to track. I went there to learn something more. I begged them to teach me. I was a damned fool. I didn’t know what I was asking.” He ran a shaking hand through his thinning hair. At that moment Daros realized Hagen was a lot younger than he’d thought, closer to thirty than fifty.
“They showed me how to enter Oblivion.”
Hagen took another long drink from the bottle in his fist. “It’s the place where everything connects.”
Daros waited, and when Hagen didn’t add to that, said, “I have no idea what that means.”
Hagen sighed. “I don’t either. It’s a shadow place and the monks say it borders every world, every reality.” He swallowed hard. “People aren’t meant to go there. The place…it changes you.”
“You went there tonight.”
“I did. I couldn’t get in otherwise. Too many traps, too many wards.” Another long drink. “There are…things living in there. Wardens. To them, suffering is a delicacy. They almost caught me tonight.”
But Hagen would say no more after that. He drank until he was unconscious, and when he woke up the next day, he drank a lot more. It was several days until he was himself again.
The look in Hagen’s eyes tonight reminded Daros of that night.
“You’ve been scouting,” Daros said.
“I wanted to see the Rift.”
“But to do that, you didn’t go…there, did you?” Other than the Captain and the Lieutenant, Daros had never told anyone what Hagen had said about Oblivion. He didn’t like even saying the name.
Hagen shook his head. “No need. Now, if I wanted to see into the Rift…”
“Don’t do that. It sounds like a terrible idea.”
“Going to Idon is a terrible idea. Passing over to Shologog is even worse.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“It’s going to be bad, Sarge.”
“‘Bad is what we do.’” It was the unofficial slogan of Badger Company. They took the jobs no one else wanted.
“There’s bad and then there’s bad. This is the second kind.” Hagen sniffed the air, turned toward the cook fire. “Is there still chow left?”
“If you can call it that.”
Hagen wandered off, patting dust out of the faded leathers he always wore, and was replaced by the man they called Crawler. Daros couldn’t even remember Crawler’s real name. He wasn’t much to look at, all of five foot nothing, with oddly mottled skin that looked gray in certain light. To Daros he looked like a scrawny, mummified squirrel, everything shrunken and dried out. His eyes bulged like someone had squeezed his neck too tight.
“Sounds like Shologog is quite the vacation spot,” Crawler said.
He didn’t sound troubled by it, but then, nothing much ever troubled Crawler. He had the emotional range of a rock. Daros had watched him calmly eat an apple in the middle of the battle at Karn’s Reach, with dragons and wyverns circling all around as thick as flies on a corpse, belching fire, snatching soldiers in their claws and dashing them on the rocks.
“Not the way I’d describe it,” Daros replied.
Crawler shrugged. “Every man sees it differently.”
“You do know there’s a good chance you’ll die there, right?”
“Don’t care.” Crawler took a bite out of something he was holding in his hand.
“Is that tonight’s chow?” Daros asked. “How bad is it?”
Crawler shrugged again and took another bite. “Won’t know till I see if it comes back up. Or out.”
“Talking to you is pointless, you know that?” Another shrug and Crawler wandered off.
As always, Yazir’s tent was off by itself. No one with half a brain would pitch theirs within fifty paces of his. Daros paused and called out when he was a dozen or so paces away. It was best not to surprise Yazir. There was no telling what the man would do.
“Yazir, it’s Daros! I’m coming in!” He waited.
Mutterings from inside the tent. What sounded like a child’s giggle, quickly cut off. That was from Yazir. When he was excited, his voice rose a few notches.
More mutterings. It sounded like he was arguing with himself. There was a sudden screech, followed by a flash of brilliant orange light.
Then whump! and the sides of the tent blew outward.
Remarkably, the tent remained standing, though it did have a noticeable tilt. The fabric was left smoldering in several places.
Cautiously, Daros approached, tin plate gripped firmly in his hand. “I’m coming in, Yazir! Don’t blow me up, damn your eyes.”
He pulled aside the tent flap, stooped, and entered. Yazir was just coming to his feet, coughing and swatting at the flames on his coat. His eyes looked oddly white against the scorched backdrop of his face. The hair on the front of his scalp was burned away to a stubble, along with his eyebrows and chin beard.
“You okay?” Daros asked.
“Never better,” he replied breezily. He spit out something that might have been a tooth. “Looks like my luck still holds.”
It was debatable whether luck was the right word, but the simple fact that he was still alive argued powerfully for it.
“Do I want to know what you’re working on?”
“I’m glad you asked.” Yazir turned to the room’s lone table, a battle-scarred veteran of many experiments, and began pawing through the charred debris scattered across it. “I discovered that one of the local species of scorpion—you know the red ones that make your face turn purple if they sting you?—its venom has some interesting properties when you distill it down.”
Yazir found what he was looking for, a clay jar with a wooden stopper, and turned toward Daros. “Look.”
Daros quickly took a step back. “I can see fine from here.”
“Probably for the best. I’m not sure what it would do to human skin, but I’m thinking it wouldn’t be pretty.” He picked a stick off the ground and set it on the table. “Watch this.”
Uncorking the clay jar, he carefully poured a drop of a viscous, yellow liquid onto the stick, which began to sizzle. A wisp of smoke rose from the stick. When he picked it up, it broke in half.
“That will come in handy if we’re ever attacked by sticks.”
Yazir’s smile disappeared abruptly. “Was that a joke?”
Daros held up his free hand. “Just trying to lighten the mood.” Yazir was mercurial. There was no telling how he’d respond to anything.
“Don’t you see what this means?”
“This stuff will eat through flesh. I’m sure of it.”
“I got that.”
“If I put it into a cracker, think of the possibilities.”
“I am. That’s what worries me.” Daros was envisioning getting sprayed by the stuff, his skin peeling off, his flesh sizzling.
“You have to learn to see the big picture.”
“Imagine setting this off in the middle of a battle.”
Daros definitely could. “Maybe you ought to run this one by the Captain first. See what he thinks of it.”
“It’s too soon. Every time I mix it with boom powder, it blows up. I’m going to have to fix that.”
Daros secretly hoped he never did. It was hard enough not getting killed by the enemy. He didn’t want to have to worry about having their sapper kill him. He knew better than to try and order Yazir to stop his experiments. Once he got his teeth into something, he was like the lockjaw lizard. You’d have to kill him to get him to let it go.
Daros held out the tin plate. “Captain’s worried you’re not eating.”
Yazir waved him off. “No time for it. Too much to do.”
Daros sighed. He’d known it would go this way. Why didn’t the Captain pick someone else to do this?
“It’s an order. Straight from the big man himself.”
Yazir spun on him. “An order?” There was an unhealthy glint in his eye.
“A friendly order. He just doesn’t want you wasting away to nothing.” Which wasn’t that far off. Yazir weighed about as much as a mangy street dog. Smelled about the same too. Eating wasn’t the only thing he forgot to do when he was experimenting.
The tension that had gripped the man released and he smiled again. “Well, then I refuse. In a friendly fashion. Genius does not wait for food nor drink, you know.”
“Why not try at least a bite? You never know…”
Yazir came over and peered at the plate. On it was a grayish scrap of meat that was mostly gristle, soaking in some kind of turgid sauce that was already clumping badly. He sniffed, then turned up his nose. “Not in the mood. Sorry.”
“You’re putting me in a bad spot.”
“Why don’t you eat it? The Captain won’t know.”
“I already ate,” Daros lied. He rubbed his stomach. “It was surprisingly good. You can taste the exotic spices Gorev gathered today.”
Yazir didn’t look convinced. He prodded the scrap of meat with a yellowed fingernail. “Might be able to use it in an experiment, though.” He scratched the back of his head vigorously. “These fleas are really getting to me. I might be able to make a repellent.”
You’re sure enough going to repel something, Daros thought, but didn’t say. Well, he’d tried. He walked over and set the plate on the table. “Maybe you’ll get hungry later.”
Yazir didn’t reply. He appeared to have already forgotten Daros and was arguing with himself, something about using another dram of the boom powder next time but heating it first. Daros beat a hasty retreat.