Darus 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 hunger 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 land around Idon. No trees at all, only thorny scrub and harsh grasses. The only thing that grew well in that blasted, cold wasteland was some kind of fibrous vine that produced rock-hard, yellow gourds. They’d learned right off not to burn the vines. Just touching them produced a wicked rash. Breathing the smoke meant a couple of days of coughing, some of it bloody.
Osra Bronzehead, the 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?” Darus 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?” Darus said.
“So is Gorev’s cooking. I spent all last night spraying shit everywhere. I’m not eating that Uskovian 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.
Darus 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 symbols had been tattooed onto every inch of her olive skin. As Darus understood it, those tattoos were the foundation of her power. Somehow she used them to 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.
Dionas patted the satchel that hung over his shoulder. “I’ve still got some pressleaf left if it’s too bad. Pressleaf will fix most any natural poison.” Dionas was their healer since Kraw left a dozen days ago. Which was worrisome not only because Dionas didn’t know much about healing, but also because what the wiry, bald man was best at was poisons.
“Natural poisons, sure. But how many days has it been since you saw anything natural?” Darus 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 Darus 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 Darus and twice as wide.
They’d been with the Company for almost a year and still Darus 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 Darus 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. Davin, the one everyone called Kid, even though he was probably thirty, had a finger bitten off the first day.
The egg appeared out of nowhere about two months ago, a leathery, oblong thing twice the size of a man’s head. One of them must have laid it, and speculation as to which one was fierce. Along with betting. But then, the men and women of the Company bet on everything. It was their favorite pastime after drinking.
He stopped, put up his hands. “Easy. It’s Darus.”
“Sergeant,” the bigger one said. Darus thought of him as Drrod. “I did not hear you approach.” He 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, Darus 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?
“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 Darus 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?” he asked.
Darus 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.”
Darus 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.
“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 far to the east, as much as Darus knew. A land of swamps and bogs. The Drazatchi kept to themselves. They didn’t trade. They didn’t invade. 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 Darus 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.
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. Darus had seen him take out an enemy sentry at a hundred paces in a driving rain.
Darus 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 arrow 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 Darus 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 someone 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.”
Darus’ 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 Darus 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 rust 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. Darus 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.”
Darus didn’t care what they said about it. It was his lucky helmet. He took it off a dead Karjaananian 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. “Come get it before it hardens.”
Darus 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.”
He turned to go 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.
He’d been with them for five years and still Darus knew almost nothing about him. He wasn’t much to look at, all of five foot nothing, with oddly mottled skin that looked gray in certain light. To Darus he looked like a scrawny, mummified squirrel, everything shrunken and dried out. His eyes bulged like someone had squeezed his neck too tight.
“Sergeant,” Hagen said.
“You find anything?” Darus said. He hadn’t actually dispatched Hagen on any particular mission. The man mostly went were he pleased. But it had been a long time since any enemies snuck up on them and they never went into unfamiliar territory blind.
“Lots of bitey things. Plenty of stingey things too.” Which wasn’t news. This whole blasted area was filled with crawling, wriggling, flying things that they’d never seen anywhere else, and every one of them seemed determined to bite or sting everyone they came across. Some did both.
“But none of it compares to what’s up ahead.”
“You’ve been to Idon?”
“Not that far. Close enough to see the Rift.” Hagen shivered.
When he did that, Darus suddenly felt a whole lot worse. Hagen had the emotional range of a rock. Darus 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.
Nothing upset Hagen. For him to shiver…
“Quite the vacation spot, then,” Fletcher said.
“It swallows everything,” Hagen said.
“What do you mean by that?” Darus snapped. When he was afraid, he got irritable. “Be clear, soldier.”
As a scout, Hagen was unparalleled. When it came to giving reports, he was worse than Gorev’s donkey.
“What goes in, don’t come out. Hardly.”
“Great,” Darus said. “Like I needed to be told that.” The Rift was the opening that led to Shologog, the Realm of Demons. A lot of the soldiers who went through never came back.
Hagen shrugged. He didn’t care what others thought of his intel. He took a bite out of something he was holding in his hand.
“Is that tonight’s chow?” Darus asked. “How bad is it?”
Hagen shrugged again and took another bite. “Won’t know till I see if it comes back up. Or out.”
“It’s good you’re back,” Darus said. “Aksia wants to see you, pronto.” Hagen nodded and sat down. Darus let him be. He’d get over there in time, and it wasn’t urgent anyway.