Daros turned up the collar of his woolen surcoat and scowled at the day. It was cold, the sky the dirty gray of an unwashed blanket. Flurries of snow fell intermittently, whipped by a cutting wind. Here and there in the folds of the land the snow gathered in sullen drifts.
It’s going to be another long night, he said to himself, already dreading the long hours of lying on the iron-hard ground, waiting for the grim promise of daybreak. Insomnia was a bitch in the best of times. Knowing he was marching to almost certain death made it a hundred times worse.
His gaze fell on the Captain, a hundred paces ahead, marching at the head of the scraggly column of mercenaries, the once-proud men and women of Badger Company, now reduced to a shadow of their former selves. Are you sure there’s no other way? He wanted to tackle the man, force him to see reason. Marching to Idon to fight in the Demon Wars? Had the man lost his mind?
But Daros knew it wasn’t the Captain’s fault. After the disaster at Fell’s Keep, Badger Company had precious few choices left and all of them bad. No one would sign a mercenary company carrying the kind of stain they did.
No one, that is, except the men and women prosecuting the Demon Wars. The Demon Wars had been going on for centuries. They always were in need of fresh bodies to throw into the fray, and they didn’t care much what those bodies had been up to before they arrived in Idon. Convicted murderer or the third son of a nobleman, all that mattered was the ability to wield a weapon and fight.
And if there was one thing Badger Company knew how to do, it was fight.
Years ago, he’d told the Captain he’d follow him to Barad’s Pit if that was where he led. Now it looked like that vow was being tested.
In front of Daros, Zoro, Gorev’s swayback yellow donkey, lifted his tail and deposited a steaming offering on the road. Daros stepped sourly over it, thinking that nothing could be more appropriate on this day.
As he so often did, Gorev was arguing with Zoro.
“No! I’m not going through this again with you. I said no, and no it is.”
Gorev was Inkali. Everyone knew the Inkali were crazy, but Gorev took crazy and raised it to a whole new level. In a mercenary company filled with lunatics, Gorev managed to stand out, no small feat.
He was also their only cook, since the other two, sisters by the name of An and Kan, deserted along with most of the Badgers once the Captain announced what their next job would be. Daros never liked An and Kan’s cooking—they could make a man think seriously about eating his belt rather than dinner—but compared to Gorev they were master chefs. Eating Gorev’s food took a brave spirit and a cast-iron stomach. Daros had seen soldiers offer to take night patrol rather than face the latest fare he’d cooked up.
“I know, I know, Zoro,” Gorev whined. “You don’t have to keep reminding me. I’m no dummy. I know they’re all jealous of me. Can I help it? My natural abilities combined with my rare masculine beauty. How could they not be jealous? I try to hide it, but it does no good.”
Daros shook his head. Gorev was a bent, withered little man with a cadaverous face and teeth far too large for his weirdly small mouth. A peculiar odor hung about him constantly, an odor Daros thought of as sour cheese left to rot in an old shoe. Though everyone described it differently. Many late-night arguments had turned to blows over the best way to describe it.
Suddenly Gorev gave a cry of delight. Dropping the donkey’s lead rope, he darted out into the countryside, heading for a haggard shrub growing out of a small rock pile. He waved his arms as he ran and yelled.
Clustered about the base of the shrub were a half dozen gorse ravens. They turned malevolent red eyes on the approaching figure, and for a long moment it looked like they wouldn’t give up without a fight.
But then, with angry squawks they trundled heavily into the air and flapped away.
Gorev picked up whatever it was they’d been clustered about and came skipping back to the road. His eyes fell on Daros and a huge grin split his ugly face. He held up his prize.
Daros put up his hand. “No. We’re not eating that.”
The little man’s face twisted in confusion. He held out his hand out so Daros could see what he was carrying: a rat-like thing with a curiously hairless face. Daros had never seen anything like it. But then, he’d seen plenty of things while traveling across the Dengali—as the lands around Idon were known—that he’d never seen before. The Dengali was known for its bizarre flora and fauna, a byproduct of its proximity to the Rift, which was the opening to Shologog, the demon world.
“It’s disgusting,” Daros said. “That’s why.”
“Come on, Sarge. It’s only a little bloated.” Gorev gave it a little squeeze as he spoke, causing the release of built up gas, foul enough that Daros felt bile rise in the back of his throat. “Put a little salt on it and you won’t even notice.”
“You’re going to make us all sick again if you try to serve that. Remember what happened after you cooked up that skunk you found?”
“That wasn’t my fault! I thought I removed the glands. It slipped my mind is all. Could have happened to anyone.”
Daros was unmoved. “Throw it out. Right now.”
“Now.” He crossed his arms and gave Gorev his best sergeant scowl.
Grumbling, Gorev tossed the dead thing. The gorse ravens squawked and descended happily on it almost as soon as it hit the ground.
“Another perfectly good meal ruined,” Gorev said to Zoro. “I’m surrounded by the small minded and unimaginative. It’s my curse.”
He picked up the lead rope and continued on. “I thought mercs were supposed to be tough, but all I ever hear is, ‘My tummy hurts’ and ‘I have diarrhea again.’” He made a dismissive sound. “Like a little diarrhea ever hurt anybody. Cleans a body out, that’s what it does.”
Daros moved up to walk beside the Lieutenant. Aksia was a good officer, hard driving, ruthless, yet protective of the men and women who served under her. She’d been in Badger Company as long as Daros had. They were the first two, in fact. When the Captain formed the company—after he was driven from the Cardonan army, exiled from the kingdom for backing the wrong contender for the throne—he’d offered to make them both officers, but only Aksia accepted.
“I’m not officer material,” Daros told the Captain that day. They were standing in the Captain’s tent. It was bare, everything that had marked the man’s status already stripped by his enemies.
“The hell you’re not. You’ve got a better head in battle than any man I ever met,” the Captain said.
“I’m a dock rat from the Bilges, born and bred. People like me don’t become officers. It’s not natural.”
“Dammit, Daros. This is a mercenary company I’m talking about, not some royal army overstuffed with prancing noble brats. Rank in my company will be earned, not handed down to fools whose only credit is what womb they sprang from.” Though a nobleman himself—the head of House Rodus—the Captain had nothing but disdain for most of his class.
“I know that. Still don’t want it. Too much weight to carry around.”
The Captain ground his teeth. “You’re a hardheaded bastard. I should have left you in the Snaptisha’s dungeon.”
“You’re too softhearted. I’ve always said that.”
“Sergeant, at least? Will you take that?”
“Sarge, eh? I don’t mind the sound of that. Someone’s got to keep the knuckle draggers in line. Better if it’s one of their own.”
But that wasn’t all he’d extracted from the Captain that day. “One condition, General.”
“I’m not a general anymore, you know that.”
“Sorry, sir. Captain. That’s going to take some getting used to. You sure you won’t stick with General? You earned it.”
“General Maksim Rodus is dead and buried. Leave him there. It’s Captain Maksim Rodus now.”
“What about her?”
“She should be an officer.”
The Captain fixed him with one of his penetrating stares, the one that could make even hard-bitten veterans shift uneasily in their boots. Then he shook his head. “She’s reckless.”
“Only when she needs to be. Make her an officer. You won’t regret it. Also, I’ll resign if you don’t.”
Maksim gestured at the empty tent. Outside were the sounds of the Cardonan army rousing itself to move. Without them. “What’s there to resign from?”
“Do we have a deal?”
The Captain agreed, like Daros had known he would. He’d fetched Aksia and the three of them sat in the former general’s tent drinking stolen Jirim brandy while the Cardonan army trudged away, taking about everything they’d ever known with it.
“It’s just us now. Here’s to it,” the Captain said, holding up his cup.
Except that it wasn’t just them. Over the following days men and women turned up, deserters from the Cardonan army, come to swear allegiance to the man many of them thought of as a father. Thus was Badger Company born.
“I still don’t like it,” Lieutenant Aksia said, jolting Daros out of his memories. “We should have gone to Tarcer. They’re always fighting the hill tribes on their border.”
“We’ve been through this,” Daros said, shaking his head. Every day of this march Aksia went back to the same argument. And every time he had the same reply for her. “You know General Pretor is there, commanding the Tarcerian forces. You know how much he hates the Captain from the old days.” Long before, when Maksim was still a favored son in the Cardonan army, rising fast, his future wide open, he and Pretor were rivals for the same woman, a sloe-eyed beauty from the wealthy island kingdom of Karjanaa. Maksim won. The beauty died six months later from a fever. And Pretor never forgot.
“Pretor would make things hot for us,” Daros added.
“Not with a knife in his ribs, he wouldn’t,” Aksia said, scowling.
That was Aksia. She liked to cut straight to the heart of things. Preferably with a sharp blade.
“What’s done is done. The Captain has decided to go to Idon. That’s where we’re going.”
The Lieutenant stared at the sharp, rocky mountain range shadowing them on the south. “We could still turn back. We haven’t signed anything yet.”
“Have you ever known the Captain to change his mind once it’s made up?”
Aksia sagged a bit then. She scratched at a fleck of rust that marred her chain mail and bit her lip. “I got a bad feeling about this.”
“We’re going to Idon and that’s all you have? A bad feeling? Every night I have nightmares that we’re all going to die horribly, screaming as the demons tear us apart. Bad feelings would be a step up.”
“I’m worried about the Captain. He’s drinking too much.”
“I’ve known him for over twenty years, Ax, and you almost as long. When has he ever not drank too much?”
“I heard him yelling in his sleep last night.” Aksia always pitched her tent right beside the Captain’s.
Daros gave her a rough smile. “You sure that wasn’t me?” Gods, but he’d had some bad dreams lately.
“It didn’t sound like a little girl, so it wasn’t you,” she shot back, but the grim look in her eyes never lessened. “There’s a blackness around him.”
“There’s a blackness around all of us. Probably has something to do with marching to the Demon Wars.”
She gave him a dour look. “I ought to slug you right now.” It was no idle threat. She’d laid into him with her fists more than once over the years. It wouldn’t be so bad if she didn’t wear steel gauntlets all the time. Cracked his cheekbone once. It hurt sometimes when the weather was threatening. Like now.
“We’ll get through this. Just like we always do. And after, we’ll have gold and our good name back.”
It was what the Captain said every time the Lieutenant tried to talk him out of this course. The priests of the four main holy orders of Eremus, Verasa, Ro’kesh, and Stolvas ruled Idon. They made the same offer to everybody: Come fight the Holy War against the demons. Afterwards, you’ll be pure, all past sins forgotten and forgiven, along with your worldly crimes. Guaranteed salvation in the afterlife and enough gold to enjoy the material world while waiting.
“Sure. Except most likely we’ll be dead,” she said. “Or insane. Cursed. Mutilated.” Everything she said was true. Even those lucky and smart enough to survive came away marked. The Demon Wars left no one unscarred.
“You know what I like about you? It’s your sunny disposition. The way you can light up the darkest night and make it seem like day.” She gave him a gimlet eye. “There’s nothing I like about you. Always trying to put lipstick on the pig. I’m telling you, this time it can’t be done. Not when it’s a demon pig out to eat you.”
Daros left Aksia behind and moved up beside the Captain, who nodded in greeting. Maksim’s eyes were bloodshot and there was a tremor in his hand when he swept his hair back out of his face, but he still looked largely the same as he had all those years ago when Daros first met him.
An angular, patrician face that looked carved by a master sculptor. The kind of face you saw on statues of long-dead heroes, strong jaw, commanding forehead. Piercing, watery blue eyes. There was more silver in Maksim’s hair now, but it only served to make him look more distinguished.
The Captain was past sixty now, but you couldn’t tell by looking at him. Age had not bent him at all. He was taller than most, broad of shoulder and deep of chest. He lacked the extra padding in the gut that most men his age acquired.
There was something about the man that inspired loyalty. Sure, they’d lost over half their people once he’d announced they were marching to Idon, but any normal commander would have lost everybody.
“She’s still unhappy,” Daros said.
The Captain knew instantly who he was talking about. “She wouldn’t be Aksia if she wasn’t.”
“You think we’ll get there tomorrow?”
“If we get a good start in the morning.”
“You sure about this, Cap?”
The Captain sighed. “You too? I thought sergeants were supposed to follow orders without question.”
“You must be thinking of some other sergeant.”
The Captain rubbed the back of his neck. “Hell no, I’m not sure. But I don’t see any other way out. Do you?”
And there was the crux of it. They really had no other choices. After Fell’s Keep they’d be lucky to get hired on as caravan guards.
“What if we went into farming? I hear there’s lots of good land being offered in Lower Cledonia, now that they cleaned the Lisenc savages out of the peninsula.”
The Captain chuckled, a deep, resonant sound. It was disgusting, really, how everything the man did was regal. Even blind drunk and throwing up he came off better than Daros did on his best day.
“Could you see us as farmers? You wouldn’t know which end of the plow to put in the ground.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s the pointy end. Just like soldiering.”
“Two hitches in Torashad,” the Captain said, referring to the massive fortress built on the demon side of the Rift. “That’s all we have to survive. Then the past is wiped away, the future laid with gold.”
“Won’t do us any good if we’re all dead.”
The Captain nodded. “Not much does.”
Daros gave off then. They’d had this same conversation too many times already and it always led to the same place.
“I talked to Gorev. There’s no rations left after tonight’s meal.”
“We’ve marched on empty stomachs before.”
“None of the hunters I sent out have returned with game. One of them brought down a deer, but he said it was crawling with some kind of burrowing slug, so he left it there.” The closer they got to Idon, the worse the countryside got. There was something leaking from the place, poisoning the air and the water. Plants and beasts were few and far between. The only thing there was a lot of were crows.
A half-smile crooked the Captain’s lips. “Thank the Bloody God for that. Gorev would have cooked it up for sure.”
“That’s the only good thing about all this. We won’t have to eat his cooking anymore. It was bound to kill us sooner or later.”
“Any more desertions last night?”
“Only one. I expect that’s the last.” There’d been a steady trickle of desertions all along their march. Normally, the Captain dealt harshly with deserters. They were only a merc company, but once you put your mark on the parchment, you were in the Company until you died or finished your term.
But the Captain had made it clear when he told them where they were going that they were free to leave. He wouldn’t force anyone to Idon against their will.
“I’m concerned about Yazir. He’s not eating,” the Captain said.
Yazir was their sapper and explosives specialist. He was best sapper in the business. He had an uncanny knack for knowing just where to dig and just how much bang to put in the hole to get the job done.
He was also utterly unpredictable. And in his case, unpredictable meant dangerous.
“That’s because he’s working on a new formula,” Daros said.
When Yazir was working on a new formula to improve the potency of his explosives, he tended to forget everything else. Like eating. Basic hygiene. Speech.
“He’s not much but skin and bones anymore. We can’t have him dying on us.”
Daros groaned. He’d known all along where the Captain was heading. “Understood. I’ll make sure he eats his rations tonight. Maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll kill me this time.”
Several months ago, before the incident at Fell’s Keep, Daros had gone to Yazir’s tent to find out how many crackers they had left. He surprised the man and Yazir tossed a snapper at him. A snapper was a much smaller explosive than a cracker, but still powerful enough to take off a hand. Fortunately for Daros, it misfired and all it did was light his breeches on fire.
The Captain gave him a weary smile. “We’ve been over this. You’re not getting out of this company that easily, Sarge.” The worst part was that he was right. Daros was a lifer. Being a soldier was all he knew.