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Part V: The Exanimation Room
Despite the fact that the Dark Lord likes to keep me working on his dragon, not to mention his stables of wyverns, giant bats, and his whole panoply of horrors, my bread and butter – not, I emphasize, my meat – comes from doctoring the animals of the Dark Empire’s subjects, and they don’t tend to have anything more esoteric then the occasional fire-lizard. And they love their pets and really feel it when they die. I was their doctor. Or I had been until last month, when Morrough showed up.
I heard him before I saw him, even over the noise of the docks. In the festering mass of the Dark Lord’s capital, the docks stand out like a carbuncle, and I don’t mean the jewel. When my old master, Arghash, was drunk and careless of his tongue, he used to say he thought the Dark Lord was afraid of the sea because He couldn’t forget that the elves fled that way, the treacherous bastards.
Well, if He was afraid, he’d built the massive Seawall to compensate for it. Its towers reared hundreds of feet high, garrisoned with orcish cannon-fodder that overlooked the even worse-off halfbreeds that crewed his fleets. I wasn’t terribly surprised to follow Morrough’s patter to practically the base of one of them. He stood outside what looked like a converted warehouse – more like a tall wareshack, really – calling to one and all. Above the door was a crudely painted sign: DR. MORROUGH’S COMPLETELY PAINLESS ANIMAL SURGERY. And under that: Exanimation Room. He couldn’t even spell it properly.
“…want to watch out there, my fine warrior, that worg looks a bit lethargic. Might be a case of kidnyffic stagnation, that. Easily treated for ten silver. Or, I have flameglow.” He held up a bottle of yellow-orange liquid. “Just a few drops of this, and your aging fire-lizard will be flaming again like new. And that rat’s got scarpers, missus. Five silver for the cure.”
He was a smart little bastard, that was for sure, for all that he was talking more shit than a stable full of nightstallions. Seriously, if you thought that nightmares were bad, the males were worse. Flameglow? Scarpers? Kydniffic stagnation? I’d be willing to bet the salary the Dark Lord should have been paying me that “flameglow” was firespider pheromones suspended in alcohol. As far as the other two, they were as mythical as human kings. But Morrough looked sharp, dressed in a bright purple silk shirt under a brown leather vest, a neatly trimmed beard, and a dagger at each hip. Yes, it seemed stupid to work the docks, but there he was surrounded by people passing by with pets, steeds, livestock, and within easy shout of half an army just in case some thug decided that the weedy little human was making too much money. Not that the infantry cared a damn for justice, of course, but they were bored and pounding troublemakers’ heads was good practice.
“And we have a special today,” he was saying, as the orc-woman carrying the giant rat had paused: “Geld your houserats. I’ll geld two houserats for the price of one. Less likely to take a finger off the kiddies, and makes the meat taste better at butchering time.”
I headed toward him at this. After all, it was a houserat gelding that had been my first referral from Morrough, a nasty job that he’d half-butchered looking for an undescended testicle he’d promised to remove at half my cost. It had taken me an hour to run the little organ down, and another to correct his damage. It was also the only patient of his that had survived my attention.
But before I could mention this, he was looking at me. “Ah, my good colleague, Dr. DeGrande. How are those patients I’ve been sending you, doctor? There’s no gastritic specialist like the highly-esteemed Dr. DeGrande, I’ve said so a dozen times this month, have I not?” he said to the air. “How are they doing, doc?”
“They’re all dead, I’m afraid,” I said, abandoning my intention to talk with the man privately. He clearly wasn’t interested, and any man who would claim to heal animals and use the word “gastritic” in public deserved no mercy.
“Dead? Oh, that’s terrible to hear. Just terrible. But don’t you worry, doc. Anyone can have a bad run in this business, eh? I’ll keep sending those gut cases on to you, I will. Always admired a man who’s skilled at getting his hands dirty.”
Yes, I wanted to have a word with you about that,” I bored in. “All four of them are dead. All four survived about a week before you sent them to see me. Not eating. Listless. Irritable. And then, funny thing, all four dropped dead on my table. Just as I was cutting in to see what was wrong.”
Morrough spread his hands, “Ah, that’s the cruel way of our profession, isn’t it, doctor? They get sick, they get better, and then they die.”
“What were you treating them for?”
“Well, hardly matters now, does it? Poor things. Don’t worry, it’s no reflection on you. Just bad luck, I’m sure.” He said it casually, but for the first time, there was something in his voice that wasn’t flowing with absolute confidence.
“I asked what you were treating them for, doctor. You are a doctor, aren’t you, Morrough? I don’t remember hearing who you apprenticed under.”
“Well, I operate an informal business, me,” said Morrough, grinning. “Not a lucrative one, but I don’t have to tell you, eh? No law against it, is there?”
Of course there wasn’t: the only law in the Dread Empire was don’t piss off anyone powerful enough to have you killed with impunity. Occasionally – as now – I regretted the lack of a Veterinary Guild that would threaten to remove selected parts of amateur practitioners. I continued.
“Well, you can run your business any way you like. I just want to know what you treated those patients for. And why you keep sending them to me. You obviously don’t have a problem treating a lot of patients at a time.”
“Well, there are limits, even for me!” His sparkle was back. “I don’t really recall what it was all about originally. Probably just fixing ‘em, you know. Makes ‘em more docile, and keeps ‘em out of heat!” He flashed me a smile. “Besides, I’ve never liked them gut cases. Awful smells, hard to work with. I’ll just keep sending those to you, you’re so good at them. Couldn’t be hard to figure out what I’ve done, not for a master veterinary professional like yourself.”
I decided to wipe the smug grin off his face. “A master veterinary professional who eats his patients? Seems a strange recommendation. Why would you send me those cases if you believed that? That was what you said, wasn’t it?”
His eyes widened just a little at that, but he laughed. “Oh, you don’t mean to say anyone took that serious? Why, that was just a bit o’ banter to keep the customers entertained. Didn’t mean no harm by it, honest. Although,” he smiled slyly, “really, who could blame you, eh? After all there’s good eating on a rat.”
The arrogant little bastard. Did he really think he could jolly me into going along with his joke at my expense? “I wouldn’t know,” I said, with a gentle emphasis.
Morrough’s look said he didn’t like his barbs turned back on him. “Well, everyone knows you work directly for His Darkness after all. Probably wasn’t thinking how they might take it, when I was kidding around. You know what happens to Humans who work too closely with Him. Strange appetites, they do say…”
My hand dropped to the hilt of my scalpel. “I think you’ve said quite enough.”
“Oh, doesn’t He affect you?” He smirked and took a step forward. “Can’t imagine where anyone might have got the idea. Of course, if you want some advice, the help you do keep in that office isn’t exactly quieting those who’d talk. That girl with the twisted back has got to be something between the sheets to make you keep her so close, though you must have to bend like a pretzel yourself to get anything worthwhile done. Besides, I hear He don’t pay much, and what with so much of your business coming to me nowadays, I figure you might be relieved to be eating at all.”
I whipped my scalpel out of its scabbard and pointed it at his throat without a thought.
Equally without thought, I gagged as stony fingers clamped down on the back of my neck. The troll turned my neck, carefully enough to avoid doing real damage, for which I was later grateful, considering how many of his kind wouldn’t have bothered.
“Mr. Morrough hires me to keep him safe,” said the troll. “This is a good job. I do not risk it. Neither will you.”
I nodded as much as I could, given the circumstances. He turned me back toward Morrough before releasing me with the slightest of shoves, which nearly put me on my face. I lowered the blade. “You know, if you’d like to prove that the shit coming out of your mouth is even worth its weight in fertilizer, you’ll stop hiding behind this poor troll and I’ll meet you with anything you dare. But I challenge you.”
Morrough cocked his head and his grin widened. “Yes, I heard about that Death Knight you made into dragon fodder. I don’t really fancy my chances against a dragon, thanks. And I don’t reckon Sir Orc realized you wore that collar around your neck.” He hooked a finger under his collar and yanked it down, revealing his bare neck. “But I’m a free man, me. And I see no reason to cross swords with property. Not even His property. Run along home, slave,” he said. “And leave the better doctoring, well…” he gave me a smug grin he must have been saving up, “to your betters.”