One by one the men and women of the Company crested the final ridge and stopped to stare, jaws dropping.
“I’ll be damned,” Osra whispered softly.
“We’re all damned,” Gorev said. “This just makes it official.”
In the distance, perhaps two leagues away, was the city of Idon, perched on a rugged stretch of coast overlooking Ardanay Bay, low-hanging clouds obscuring much of it.
But it wasn’t the city that caused jaws to drop. It was what loomed over it.
High above the city was a rip in the sky. It was huge, large enough to swallow the city whole. Crimson light spilled from it, tinting the sky with blood. Inky-black shadows cavorted in its depths, demons in a ceaseless quest to break through.
The Rift. The doorway to Shologog, home to Go’ath, the Lord of Destruction and his demonic host. Just looking at it made Daros’ skin crawl. His very bones ached as something deep and instinctive wailed in fear.
The only thing standing between their world and annihilation was the very thing that had stopped Go’ath when first he opened the Rift.
At least a league long, Eremus’ Blade rose from the center of Idon and pierced the Rift, a gargantuan needle pinning a hellish butterfly.
“What’s it made out of, Sarge?” Squat asked. Squat was a half-ogre from the deep, primeval forests of Rajakahm. His name wasn’t really Squat, but that’s what they called him, his real name an incomprehensible string of guttural sounds. He was shaped a little like an eggplant with stubby legs and thick arms and had an insatiable curiosity about the world that belied the ogre half of his ancestry.
Squat squinted at him suspiciously, picking at something on one of his yellowed tusks. “Is that a thing?”
“I don’t know. No one does.”
“I can’t see any rust at all. You’d think it would be rusty after all this time.”
“Like I said, god metal.”
Squat pointed. “Did you see that? There’s another one.” It looked like lightning traveling up the length of the Blade. “But I thought lightning always went down.”
“It’s not lightning. The Captain says that it’s troops and equipment being transported to Shologog.”
Squat’s eyes went very wide. “We’re going to travel in lightning?”
“It’s not normal lightning. It’s sorcerous.”
Squat shook his big head in disbelief. “Wait until I tell Maw-maw about this.” He was speaking of his mother, who still lived back in Rajakahm. He brought her up regularly, and it was a source of endless teasing by the other Badgers. Not that he seemed to mind. His unrelenting cheerfulness was another un-ogre-like trait.
“It’s enough to make a woman convert,” Osra said. “Never had much use for gods. But the god who made that…” There was awe in her voice.
“Eremus did,” the Captain said. “The Aegis Knights call the Blade Go’ath’s Doom. When Go’ath opened the Rift, Eremus was waiting for him. He speared the demon and forced him to pull back.” That was the Captain. He seemed to know something about everything.
“What happened then?” Squat asked breathlessly.
“Eremus passed through the Rift, vowing not to return until he had defeated Go’ath once and for all.”
“Did he?” Squat wanted to know.
“What do you think?” Winter asked. She was a wiry woman with hair gone prematurely gray. “We’re here, aren’t we? If Eremus had done his job, we wouldn’t have to.”
“Maybe Eremus killed Go’ath and then died of his wounds before he could kill the rest of the demons,” Squat said.
The Lieutenant spoke up for the first time. “You’re wasting your time. That stuff is for the priests to argue about. We’re soldiers. Our job is to stab what they tell us to stab.”
“Is it too late to desert?” Citra asked. The glyphs tattooed into her skin seemed angry, inflamed this morning, as if triggered by proximity to the Rift. “Not me, of course. I’m asking for a friend.”
“You had your chance,” the Lieutenant said. “Standing here isn’t going to get us any closer. Badger Company, move out!”
Still stealing looks at the sight, the soldiers resumed their march. Looking around, Daros saw a lot of worried looks. Would they lose more soldiers tonight, now that they’d actually seen what they were up against?
Not that he didn’t want to run himself. He’d been feeling increasingly anxious over the last few days as they drew closer to Idon, but now that he was here, what he felt was a lot more like raw terror. Were they really going to do this? Were they actually going to pass through that maelstrom and enter the demon realm? This couldn’t be happening, could it?
Lieutenant Aksia moved up beside him. In a low voice, she said, “Knock it off. People are watching you.”
Daros blinked, looked at her. “What?”
“You look like a little kid going alone into the cellar at night.”
“No, I don’t.”
“If I can see it, others can. You want to scare off the rest of the Company? Get it together.”
She was right. He took a deep breath. “Okay.” He made an effort to stand straighter. Another effort not to look at the Blade or the Rift. It’s just another job, he told himself. Don’t get all hysterical about it.
“Better,” she told him. “Keep working on it.”
“What about you? Don’t you feel it at all?”
“What do you think? I’m this close to shitting myself. But I’ll be damned if I’ll show it.”
Daros glanced over at the Captain. The man was staring at the Blade as he walked. He didn’t look terrified. He looked…what? Interested? Thoughtful?
Gods, was the Captain actually looking forward to this?
That was an unsettling thought.
“I want a raise,” someone said behind him. Daros turned. It was Pim, the one they called the Kid, even though he was in his late thirties. He just had that kind of face. “I definitely need to be paid more to do this.”
“What was that?” Aksia said. “I didn’t hear you ask for a raise, did I? Because what I think I heard is a soldier asking to spend the rest of his life on latrine duty.”
Pim shook his head vigorously. “I didn’t say anything. I think it might have been Lead-Fist.”
Lead-Fist, an older man about as big around as he was tall, with gnarled muscles and scars distorting his face, casually elbowed Pim in the gut, bending the young man over. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”
“Get back in line,” Aksia told them.
It was late afternoon when they reached the city. Or rather, reached the sprawling shanty town known as the Pits that had grown up around it. The Pits was a tangled sprawl of makeshift shelters, tents, dens, burrows, ratholes and whatever else its denizens could take shelter in, dotted here and there with open pits reeking of garbage and death.
Thousands of people lived in the Pits, a mix of those too poor to afford space inside the city and those deemed unfit for dwelling there by its rulers. Some were soldiers who were too injured to fight anymore but too poor to leave for greener pastures after losing their pensions to alcohol, drugs, gambling or the scores of swindlers who specialized in relieving traumatized soldiers of their gold.
Some were camp followers who’d followed companies of soldiers here and then had nowhere to go. Mixed in with them were an astonishing number and variety of criminals specializing in every decadent art from pickpocketing to extortion, kidnapping and murder-for-hire.
They were human driftwood, washed up on the shore by the storms of life and left to rot in the shadow of the Rift.
Running through the middle of the Pits like an arrow pointed at the heart of the city was the road. It was curiously clear of garbage, both the animate and inanimate kinds. The powers that ran the city tolerated the rabble, but only so long as they stayed off the road and didn’t interfere with the steady line of wagons and wains on their way to supply the city.
“There’s an open area to the south I think will work,” Aksia said to the Captain, pointing. “We could camp there.”
“Are you sure we don’t have enough coin left to rent a place inside the city?” the Captain asked. “It seems poor treatment to come this far and then tell them to sleep in the dirt.”
“There might be enough,” she conceded. “But only for one night. And then what?”
“I thought there was more.”
She shook her head firmly. “There isn’t.” That was Aksia, unofficial treasurer to Badger Company. She hung onto their cash like a miser on his death bed. Not one copper was spent without her watching over it with her eagle eye. Even the Captain couldn’t dip in and come away unscathed.
“It won’t be for long,” the Captain said, sounding like he was talking to himself. “We’ll find a contract tomorrow and move into barracks in the city.”
Daros and Osra shouted orders and the Company peeled off the road and headed for the open area. Not without a great deal of grumbling and longing looks at the city, though.
“The Captain will give us leave to go into town, won’t he, Sarge?” Pim asked. “It’d be cruel to come this far and make us stay out here.”
“That’s for the Captain to decide.”
“You could ask him, couldn’t you?”
“Since when did I become your message boy?”
Pim’s expression grew alarmed. “I never said that, Sarge. I swear, I didn’t even think it.”
Daros waved him off. Pim was a good man, steady in even the thickest fight. It wasn’t his fault he couldn’t seem to stop himself from blurting out whatever popped into his head.
Daros moved along the line, shouting at a couple of stragglers who’d stopped to gawk at an elderly woman who had her eyes rolled back in her head and was shouting about portents and doom and the fools who would heed neither.
“You think she was talking about us?” Shirk asked. Shirk was a mongrel, an unidentifiable mix of species from ogre to human, with a yellow cast to his skin that spoke of some goblin in his ancestry as well, though he took particular offense when others suggested as much. He was also the laziest person Daros had ever met.
“Don’t worry about it,” Daros said. “You were doomed when you signed up. Didn’t you know that?”
There was a horse carcass in the open area, sporting a thick coat of crows and swarms of flies, which helped explain its relative emptiness. Osra put four privates on its removal, which turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. The horse was in an advanced state of decomposition and the ropes they tied to it showed a marked tendency to slide off, taking a quantity of rotting flesh and skin with them each time.
When they finally dragged it away—losing pieces the whole way—they were startled to discover the corpse of a man underneath it.
“What do we do with him, Sarge?” Pim asked Osra. “Should we tell the someone?”
“No one’s telling anyone anything. If he was someone important, they would’ve found him already. Drag him off with the horse.” That was Osra. Sentimentality wasn’t one of her obvious traits.
“Should we say a few words over him, or what?”
“Why are we still talking about this? I don’t care what you do. Sing him a love song if you want. Only get his carcass out of here.”
Daros detailed soldiers to dig a latrine and set others to maintain a perimeter, then went off to find the Captain.
The soldiers setting up the Captain’s tent were just finishing when he got there, Aksia standing nearby, watching with a critical eye. Woe to the soldier who failed to set the guy lines in perfect symmetry or who didn’t pull the coarse oiled canvas tight enough to remove all the folds where rainwater could gather and leak through.
The Captain was standing in front of the tent, staring intently at the city.
“Some of the soldiers were asking if they would be allowed leave to go into the city tonight.”
The Captain didn’t respond right away. He was stroking his beard, a pensive look on his face. Daros waited. He tried never to disturb the Captain when he was thinking.
“I don’t see why not,” the Captain said finally.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Aksia said, walking up. “They’ll get into trouble. Mark my words.”
The Captain was still staring at the city. “I don’t doubt that, Lieutenant. But I also know they need a chance to blow off a little steam. I say we let half have leave tonight and the other half tomorrow night.”
From her expression, it was clear Aksia didn’t like the answer, but she didn’t argue with it either. She turned to Daros.
“You go with them. Stay together. Keep them out of trouble.”
“Request permission to go with Sergeant Daros. I believe he will need my help,” Sergeant Osra said. She’d taken her helmet off and had it under her arm. Her short, curly hair was plastered to her scalp.
Aksia gave her a gimlet eye. “If there’s trouble, it’s on the two of you. Understood?”
The two sergeants walked away. “Don’t forget. You owe me a drink from the cockroach races,” Osra said.
“I haven’t forgotten,” he replied. He’d been hoping she had. His coin purse was awfully thin.
“Back by twelve bells!” Aksia yelled after them.