Daros groaned when Gorev rang the bell that night to let the mercenaries know dinner was ready. He wasn’t the only one. They’d been marching for weeks on tight rations, but eating Gorev’s food was like playing traps with loaded dice. There was always the chance—lately a much better chance—of spending most of the night squatting over the latrine pit. At least with starvation you knew what you were getting.
They’d stopped shortly before dark, setting up camp on a low knoll with steep sides. A good, defensible position. Though there weren’t supposed to be any enemies in this area, it never hurt to be careful. Careful kept people alive.
A few of the soldiers had already built fires with wood they’d scavenged during the day. There was precious little wood in the Dengali. No trees at all, only thorny scrub and harsh grasses. The only thing that grew well in that blasted, cold wasteland was a thick, fibrous vine that produced rock-hard, yellow gourds. They’d learned the first night not to burn the vines. Breathing the smoke meant a couple of days of coughing, some of it bloody.
Osra Bronzehead, Badger Company’s other sergeant, was crouched around a tiny fire along with Citra Mulyadi and Dionas Litullian, their two remaining company mages. Osra had something on a stick she was holding in the flames. It looked like some kind of lizard, but with a wicked fringe of sharp points around its neck and running down its back.
“You really going to eat that?” Daros said, stopping to look.
“Damn sure going to try.”
The lizard’s skin split in the heat and blood that was almost black sprayed onto the fire, causing it to spark.
“You know it’s poisonous, right?” Daros said.
“So is Gorev’s cooking. I spent all last night spraying shit everywhere. I’m not eating that Inkali bastard’s food ever again.” Osra was a big woman with a bellow that could cut through the din of battle better than a horn, a flat face that looked like it had been mashed with a spade too many times, and no discernible neck at all. In other words, a perfect sergeant.
Daros looked at the two mages. “Are you going to eat some too?”
“Not sure yet,” Citra said. “But I’ll tell you this. It doesn’t smell nearly as bad as Gorev’s slop.”
Citra was a Nassari Blademage. Arcane glyphs were tattooed all over her hands and arms. They ran up the sides of her neck and spilled onto her upper chest. There were even a few on her face. As Daros understood it, those tattoos were the foundation of her power. Somehow she used them to store and focus sorcerous energies. That was all he knew about it, and all he wanted to know. Like most soldiers he distrusted mages, even while he understood how vital they were to a company.
Litullien patted his pack, lying on the ground beside him. “I’ve still got some pressleaf left. Pressleaf will fix most any natural poison.” Litullien—who most called Little—wasn’t really a mage in the normal sense. Technically, he was a Lusaid Plantkin. The Plantkin derived their power from the Eltainn, which was a giant mushroom or fungus that was supposed to grow underneath their entire nation. Which sounded really weird to Daros.
The Lusaid weren’t even completely human, but a hybrid of human and the Eltainn. According to what the Captain had told Daros, thousands of years ago the Eltainn, in a fit of godlike whimsy or loneliness, took human form and mated with the savage people living on the land above it.
From that union sprang the Lusaid, a small people that grew no larger than a human ten-year-old. They looked mostly human except for what looked like mossy patches growing under their eyes and down their cheeks.
Daros didn’t know Little very well. He’d only been with the Company for a few months. But the Captain said the size of his mossy patches indicated he was of high rank. Why he would leave the Eltainn to join their mercenary company was anyone’s guess. Lots of Badgers had joined the Company to flee something in their past. It was the Captain’s policy to never ask. He believed every soldier should be judged based on what they did once they joined, not what they did in their past.
“Natural poisons, sure. But how many days has it been since we saw anything natural?” Daros asked.
“Nothing natural about any of this,” Osra said. “It’s time to get used to it. It’s the new normal now.”
There wasn’t much Daros could say to that. Not that Osra would have listened to him anyway. He had seniority on her, but that didn’t carry much weight with her unless he felt like backing it up and doing that was always painful. Her punches hit like falling rocks.
“Try not to kill yourselves, okay? We’re down too much as it is.”
Further on, hunkered down in a nest of rocks, were Drrod and Zerat. They were Drazatchi, a reptilian race from far to the east, huge, hulking creatures a head taller than Daros and twice as wide.
They’d been with the Company for almost a year and still Daros wasn’t certain who was who. He wasn’t even sure if they were male or female. They were hairless, and the only clothing either wore was a battle harness. Their skin was so tough they didn’t need armor.
As Daros approached, one of them spun on him, hissing. He saw the reason for the hissing a moment later. The one who hadn’t hissed—he thought of her as female because she was slightly shorter than the other—was holding the egg. They were damned protective of that egg. Anyone who got too close to it was liable to come away missing body parts. Literally. Pim, the one everyone called Kid, had a finger bitten off the first day after it was laid.
The egg appeared out of nowhere about two months ago, a leathery, oblong thing twice the size of a man’s head. Speculation as to which one of them had laid it was fierce. As was the betting. But then, the men and women of Badger Company bet on everything. It was their favorite pastime after drinking.
Daros stopped, put up his hands. “Easy. It’s Sergeant Daros.”
“Sergeant,” the bigger one said. Daros thought of him as Drrod. “I did not hear you approach.” Drrod had an odd way of pronouncing words, drawing out certain syllables, while compressing others, and his inflection was alien, the emphasis in all the wrong places.
“I’m a sneaky one.”
“Yes. Sneaky.” The other one, the one he thought of as Zerat, spoke this time. For some reason, the way she said it gave him a chill.
“How’s the egg? Still okay?”
“The egg is good,” Zerat said, setting it down gently amongst the rocks. “Soon. Very soon.”
That was alarming. Even though the thing was bound to hatch sometime, Daros preferred to think of that as an event far in the future.
“Then it’s probably good we’re almost to Idon.” He didn’t know what else to say. Were congratulations in order? Very little was known about the Drazatchi.
“Why is this?” Drrod asked.
“Um…because we’ll be in a barracks, not out in the field?”
“I still do not understand.”
“You know, a baby, in this environment. Could be rough is all.”
An odd sound came from the two of them. It took Daros a few moments to realize it was what passed for laughter with their race. He’d only heard the sound twice before, the last time during the slaughter at Fell’s Keep, both of them making it as they hewed down Maranti militia like wheat.
“Did I say something funny?” Daros asked.
Daros waited. When no explanation was forthcoming, he said, “What?”
“Drazatchi hatchlings are not like human young. They do not come out soft and tasty—excuse, I mean defenseless, it is the same word in our tongue—like human young do. They need no protection.”
That was a chilling thought. “How many are we talking about?”
“Eight to ten. But not to worry. They will not need to be fed. They will feed themselves.”
Daros swallowed. He wanted to ask what they ate, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. “Okay, then. Well, let me know if you need anything.”
They cocked their heads, studying him. He wondered how much they could see in the dark. “We never do,” one said at last. He couldn’t tell which one.
He walked away, wondering for the hundredth time whether they’d made a mistake signing those two on. They were heavies—heavy infantry—the anchors that held the center of the line in battle. None of the other heavies could match their ferocity in battle. They’d never broken, even during the mess at Fell’s Keep when most of the other heavies were wiped out. Stood on that little hillock and piled up the bodies like they could keep it up until the end of the world.
“Better to have them fighting for us than against us,” the Captain had said shortly after they’d signed with the company.
“But why are they here? I’ve never heard of Drazatchi signing on with mercs. Hell, I’ve never even heard of them leaving their homeland.” Drazatch was a land of swamps and bogs. The Drazatchi kept to themselves. They didn’t trade. They didn’t invade. They didn’t travel. And yet here were two of them.
“Maybe they just wanted to get out and see the world,” Aksia said. “You know, get some culture.”
A year later and still none of them had any idea what the Drazatchi were doing with them. The Captain might not worry about the why of it, but Daros did. They had no interest in loot. They took their pay without comment but never spent it on anything. None of it made any sense. He missed the days when things made sense, though if he was being honest with himself, he knew there never was such a day. Life was a series of bewildering disasters connected by a story line dreamed up by the gods for their entertainment.
Fylkhad had his own fire and he was sitting very close to it, hunched over, working on an arrow by the meager light. Everyone called him Fletcher. He was the company’s best archer, an absolute dead shot. Daros had seen him take out an enemy sentry at a hundred paces in a driving rain.
Daros sat down. He and Fletcher went way back.
“What’s the word, Sarge?” Fletcher asked without looking up. He was attaching fletching to the arrow, wrapping fine string around and around to hold it in place. He spent a great deal of time making sure the fletching was just right, the arrows perfectly straight.
“Trying to put off something the Captain ordered me to do.”
“And that is…?”
“The Captain is worried that Yazir isn’t eating.”
Fletcher finished winding, tied if off and bit the string. He rolled the arrow in his hands and looked at Daros for the first time. “He wants you to take him his chow.”
“After what happened to Harper?” Harper was a young man who joined the Company last year. The Captain sent him to Yazir’s tent one night to tell the sapper he wanted to see him. Yazir got spooked and Harper ended up with a disabled payment and went home missing a foot.
“That’s why he wants me to do it.”
“You should take Citra with you. A sorcerous shield is what you need.”
“Thought about it. But I still owe Citra from the cockroach races. I can’t run up any more debt with her. You know how she gets.”
Fletcher grunted in agreement. “That one’s got a mean streak. You really think she could turn a person into a toad?”
“Battlemages can’t turn people into toads.”
“You sure about that?”
“What’s Yazir working on?”
“It’s Yazir we’re talking about. Who knows? Something to make things blow higher or burn faster I guess.”
Yazir was always experimenting, the endless quest for the perfect explosive, the ultimate incendiary. The thing was, he was good at it. Genius-level good. But he was also quite clearly insane. He’d saved the company’s asses more than once, but he’d also almost killed them twice.
Fletcher looked him over. “I’d wear a helmet, was I you.”
Daros’ hand went to his head. “You think that would help?”
“Make it easier to identify the body anyway. And at least we wouldn’t have to look at that damned thing anymore.”
Everyone gave Daros a hard time about his helmet, even the Captain. He’d had the helmet for better than ten years now. It was an ugly thing, one side kind of mashed in, covered in rusty patches, even though he scoured it with sand every chance he got. Something about the metal it was made of seemed to attract rust for some reason. It even rusted when they were fighting for the Sand Lords of Al-shazar on their blasted sand dunes.
But it wasn’t the rust that made the others ridicule him. It was the metal crest on top. Daros thought it looked like a dragon, but everyone else insisted it was a chicken. And not a noble chicken either, but a bedraggled, wretched thing.
As Aksia put it “It looks like someone wrung that damned chicken’s neck.”
Daros didn’t care what they said about it. It was his lucky helmet. He took it off a dead Karjaanan soldier in the middle of a battle when his was lost. There were still two dents in the helmet from hits he took to the head that day. Either one would have killed him. Since then it had saved his life twice more. He didn’t care if that thing on top was a chicken. He was going to keep wearing it.
“Still plenty left, you dogs!” Gorev bellowed suddenly from the cook fire. “Come get it before it hardens.” Daros stood up. “Guess I better get to it.” He’d been stalling, hoping Gorev would run out of food and he wouldn’t have to do this. “Wish me luck.”