RELEASE THE SNIPPET! Countdown to Rerelease: Chapter 1: ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS

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When I was an apprentice, my master told me that drinking wouldn’t solve my problems. Of course, when he said it he’d just finished sleeping off a two-day binge. While a good enough mentor, old Arghash just wasn’t imaginative enough to see why he was wrong about that.
So I sat at a corner table of the Endless Gullet, waiting for drinking to solve my problem. But tonight, of all nights, the drinkers just weren’t cooperating. Annoyed, I took a sip of my bad rum and let most of it run down my shirt.

What Arghash, like most people, never grasped about drinking solving his problems was that it’s other people’s drinking that solves them. Why is that so hard to grasp? It works for bartenders all over the world.

But tonight, the mean drunks were too sober, and the quiet drunks were too drunk. The well-juiced Death Knights at the center table seemed the best bet, but tonight they were all huddled together, growling away about whatever pisses off Death Knights – which is everything. Then the tavern wench limped up to them, bent awkwardly beneath the cracked platter holding ten quarts of ale. She’d relieved herself of almost half of them before it all went to hell.

“You DARE!” The bellow cut through even the liquid crash of a half-dozen tankards slamming against the wall. The girl was down, and a Death Knight was up. He was bald, toothy, drunk, and had a nasty cut on his ear, but it was old, so I knew she hadn’t done it.

“Get up, cripple tavern-whore, and clean up this mess! Then get your pimp-master out here to serve Zorag Bloodlord better drink. With his own hands, so that Zorag’s eyes will not be fouled by your ugliness!”

The girl picked herself up, violet eyes burning. For a second, I thought she was cowering, but then I saw how her back was twisted in a sharp left S-curve. I hadn’t noticed when she was carrying her tray because she’d placed it on her right shoulder and arm. The hunchbacked girl glared silently up at Zorag’s big, ugly face, her head practically on her left shoulder, arms dangling like a goblin’s, and no taller than my chest. He raised his hand for another blow.

Why did I intervene? I don’t know. I’m not big on that “All Humans are family in the Empire of Dread” bit. People make their own way, here. Maybe I didn’t want the owner to try to get me to doctor my own species. Zorag fit in with my plans nicely enough, okay? I splashed the rest of the rum down my front and stood up, pulling my collar up high and angling my blade away from the orc.

“Oh, well done!” I cried, into the silence. “But do you think it’s enough?” All eyes swiveled toward me. One pair of violet in the sea of yellow, glaring, Death Knight eyes.

“I mean, for a warrior of your rank, is a better drink enough?” I continued, sounding as drunk as I possibly could. “You’re obviously a terribly dangerous fellow, seeing as you’re ready to prove yourself in combat against a human woman. No, I’ve got it!” I crowed. “The last human
woman you fought wasn’t crippled, gave you that ding on the ear, but you know you can take this one, is that it?”

“WHAT?!”

For a moment, I thought I’d gone too far, and he would just charge me then and there, jaws agape. Without losing a moment, I cleared my throat, looked him dead in his gray, pug-nosed face and put my hand pointedly on the ruby pommel of my blade. “I challenge you, Bloodlord.” I drawled.

That brought him up short. There aren’t many humans of noble rank in the Empire, of course, but those of us that are? They tend to be well-connected, nasty sons-of-bitches. And not an orc in the Empire can refuse to duel one without permanent loss of face. Of course, I was counting on him not looking at my neck or my blade too closely, but it had worked before.

And it did now. Zorag began to laugh. “I will eat your liver while you yet live, human filth,” he growled. The rest of the Death Knights joined in.

“I’ll take that as a yes, then,” I said. Now the wench… it was possible I’d kill two birds with one stone, here. In fact, it seemed I was rather counting on it. Her gaze was riveted on me as though I was some angel or demon. I snapped my fingers at her, and she limped hurriedly to my side. A bruise was already forming on the side of her face. “Who will be your second?”

An immense orc stood and rumbled, “Commander Gruthorz will serve as second.”

“And the lady… what’s your name, dear?” I asked.

“Harriet,” she husked.

“Harriet will serve as mine.” Her eyes popped. “Now, we’ll need something to quench our thirst while we settle on the Ordeal.” I pressed nine copper coins and a copper-foil packet into her palm. “The best in the house,” I said, “for my worthy enemy Zorag.”

She nodded and scrambled out.

I turned back and stared Zorag in the face. “Name the Ordeal,” I said. As the one challenged, he had the right. Zorag’s face split into an ugly grin. “Teeth and claws,” he grinned. His comrades laughed, too. He knew he had me, and probably thought he was being awfully clever, too. Under the accepted Imperial dueling code, both principals “bid” the most dangerous duel
they thought they could survive. You either agreed to your opponent’s bid, or named something even more dangerous… to yourself. Of course, any weapon I named would be less dangerous to me than having to fight an orc barehanded, so if I suggested it, I’d be immediately branded a coward. This would allow the Death Knights the pleasure of beating me to death on the spot.

“Oh, too easy,” I snorted. “Dragonslaying.” The laughter chopped off as though cut by an ax.

Commander Gruthorz spoke. “What did you say?”

“Dragonslaying,” I repeated. The silence was absolute. There was no possible higher bid. Nothing was more dangerous than dragons. The code did not specify that the principals fight each other, just that they encountered the same deadly risk. Usually, that meant fighting each
other to the death. But not today.

“Oh, come now,” I said, “It’s not a very dangerous dragon; I’ve just the one in mind. Poor thing is half-dead anyway.” Harriet arrived with the drinks. A tall black goblet for Zorag and a glass tumbler for me. Pewter tankards for the rest. I nodded to the wench. Sharp girl. I held up the tumbler. “Unless it’s too much for you?”

Zorag snatched up the goblet and drained it. “Nothing you can name is too much for Zorag!” He exhaled, and I saw his eyes catch orange fire. “Where is this dragon, human? I shall carve my name in its head!” The other Death Knights, impressed by his bravado, cheered. “And when it is dead, I shall take yours as well!”

“Of course, Bloodlord,” I bowed. “It would be your right. Please come with us,” I said,

I felt a tug at my elbow and looked down. It was Harriet. “What the hell are you doing?” she hissed. “I never asked you to kill yourself for me.”

“Good. I wasn’t planning to, though I was considering offering you a job.”

“I… I have a job!”

“One you like?” I gestured to the inn.

She gestured awkwardly to her front, still soaking of spilled ale and orc-spit. “Well, it would be tough leaving the glamour behind,” she snorted.

“One that pays well? Salary advance, by the way.” I flipped her a gold piece.

That shook her.

“Look, I may be a slave,” she said, looking from it to me. “But it includes food and a bed and some protection, and all those will be there tomorrow. Somehow, I don’t think you will.”

“That very much depends on how your interview goes,” I replied.

She rolled her eyes “When do you plan on conducting one?”

“I am conducting one. Seems to be going well, but we haven’t got to the dragon yet.”

“And you know where a dragon is?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re just going to kill it?”

“Rather the opposite. Look, if you like the job, I’ll buy you from your owner. If you don’t you can always go back to him and plead that you were providing excellent customer service.”

She stopped in the threshold of the inn. Well, tried to. The Death Knights around us surged, and we were forced outside. “You’re absolutely insane. What job?”

I gave her my best smile and rested my hand on the pommel of my scalpel.

“Veterinary assistant.”

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