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Part IV: The Number Of The Beastmaster

I walked into the examination room and was hit in the face by the overwhelming smell of urine and feces.

That wasn’t nearly as unusual as I’d have liked in the course of a day at the clinic, but we hadn’t even opened yet. I heard a voice mutter a curse.

“Harriet?” I said.

A pair of violet eyes rose over the edge of the examination table. “Well, shit,” muttered Harriet. She rose to her full height, which meant that I could see her neck and her right shoulder.

“Yes, I can smell it,” I agreed. “What’s happened here?”

A vile odor attached to Siegfried, our climic’s insanely happy dire-rat, raced around the desk. Siegfried’s tail twitched incidentally spattering the room with liquid feces.

“Training,” Harriet growled.

“Is that what you call this?” I said. “He doesn’t need to be trained to shit on the floor.” I fixed her with a raised eyebrow. “Or… you do mean you’re training him, right?”

“Ha. Ha.” Harriet lifted a coil of leather in her fist. I could see the runes burned into it. “The handle creates a psychic link with the collar.” I looked down.  There, about the rat’s… well, what was technically its neck, was an obscurely similar collar.

“You’re supposed to be able to send a psychic command that forces the animal to void.”

“Shouldn’t you have sent that outside?” I asked?

“Naturally, I tested it outside,” Harriet went on, as though I had not spoken, “But unfortunately, the spell seems to work a bit, um, too well, and induces diarrhea which lasts for… awhile,” she finished lamely.

“Awhile,” I said.

“Yes.”

“Good. Well,” I said, drawing in a deep breath and immediately regretting it, “Awhile is how long you’ll need to be cleaning up the floor then. I guess I’ll need to get you cleaned up.” I scratched Siegfried affectionately behind the ears. “Come on. Bath time.”

But we were not to have awhile, or even a short while. A booming knock sounded at the door.

“Is that…?” Harriet asked, grimacing.

“Yes,” I said, recognizing the sound of the mailed fist of the Courier Corps. “That’s our major client.”

I opened the door. The massive, small-headed orc repeated its message, which was the only way it could talk: “Beastmaster says you are to see him now,” it growled.

“I’ll be ready in five minutes.”

***

I hated the Beastmaster.

Okay, let’s be honest: I hated pretty much everyone I worked for, up to and including the Dark Lord himself, but hating His Darknessness was pretty much up there with hating the permanent overcast of the sky every day. Everyone did, but it faded into the background.

Hating Praxitela, his former Prime Minister? Now that had almost been a pleasure, except for the fact that you always knew she could have sucked you dry of blood inside a minute and rendered you helpless and in agony even quicker. That kind of fear sort of took the satisfying edge off the hatred, but it was a hatred you could savor, knowing that the bitch deserved every bit of it, and was strong enough to have earned the wrath of dead nations.

But Beastmaster Aurangazeb, I just despised.

Because you may have noticed, I didn’t bother asking what had happened to the animal Aurangazeb wanted me to treat.

Because it was almost always him.

Every time I set another broken bone, cleaned out another infected lash wound, or drained another hematoma, I fantasized about doing to him even a tenth of what he did to those animals. Not that I was dumb enough to think I would actually ever get to.

I knocked on the door.

After a few minutes, the sounds of needlessly-complicated locks (who really wanted to break into the Dark Lord’s Lairs, anyway?) tumbling open happened, and it creaked open.

“Dr. DeGrande,” a weak, but low voice said in monotone. “Do come in, heh-heh-heh.”

“Dilbur,” I said. “Where is he?”

Aurangazeb’s assistant looked up at us. “With the dire-wolves, heh-heh-heh.”  His laugh was flatter than a shadow. I wondered where it came from. I guessed from the endless supply of whatever he was permanently drunk on.

Dilbur stood there looking at us, looking a bit like an animated brick of pale clay. Then he twitched and led us on. His short chain dangled behind him like a tail, trailing on the floor with a permanent scring of metal.

“What is he?” Harriet whispered up to me.

“Quarterling.” Her eyes narrowed. “It’s what you get when a dwarf and a halfling have kids.”

“What does he do here?”

“Slave, just like me,” I said.

“How does he stay that drunk?” she asked.

“I have no idea. If you’re feeling sorry for him, though, don’t.”

“Why not?”

“You’ll see.”

Dilbur led us through the lairs, and I heard Harriet gag. “Just close your eyes and remember doing surgery on Baugrath,” I said. “The relief you feel when you realize you’re only here should perk you right up.” But it didn’t work for me, either. The shit-and-piss-and-rotting meat of the Lairs just built in the nose, and you just had to suffer until your olfactory nerves went comatose and curled up, fetal, in the corner of your nostrils waiting for the sweet release of death.

I’d told Aurangzeb he needed to clean out the Lairs. With fire. You can guess how well he listened. Dilbur stopped and pushed open a door that opened only halfway.

And there he was.

I looked up at the immense half-ogre that towered above me. Where Praxitela was a demon in human form, the Beastmaster had merely taken one’s name. In fact, he was nothing more than a huge mass of flesh animated by the soul of a jackal. He was covered in scars, and missing two fingers on his left hand. I’d heard that whatever ate them had died of it. He ruled the Lairs with sheer muscle: hard as rock, tough as ropes, rough as a rasp. The animals lived in fear of him, and he made them as vicious as he was himself.

“Took you long enough,” Aurangzeb snarled at us.

“I was just thinking the same thing,” I answered.

“What did you say?” the half-ogre took a step forward.

“I was just thinking,” I said evenly, not giving back an inch. “And you should try that sometime, it won’t hurt much – that it took you long enough to finally beat another one of the Dark Lord’s beasts into needing medical attention. What is it this time?”

He wanted to hit me. His hands clenched into fists and his face purpled with rage. But he wasn’t clever enough to figure how to make it look like an accident, and he knew better than to damage a piece of the Dark Lord’s property that could complain.

If only I could make him as afraid of hurting the animals.

“Dire-wolf,” he finally grunted. “Needs patched up.” He pointed to his side, and fat little Dilbur ran to it, holding out his length of chain before him. Aurangzeb clipped it to a spring hook on his belt and strode off, leaving Dilbur to run after him or be dragged.

I could smell the stink of infection before he even opened the door to the kennels. It cut through the rank odors of urine and shit like a fountain of rotting blood.

The dire-wolves growled as soon as they saw us, and who could blame them? Not really ever domesticated, Aurangazeb had taught them to fear and hate anything that went on two legs even more than nature had intended. These weren’t the riding worgs of the Bloodlords. I almost wished they were. The Bloodlords would have nailed Aurangazeb up by his intestines if he’d treated their mounts like this. No, these were for the arena, or for hunting down escaped slaves or guard duty.

“Where is the patient?” I choked out.

“In there,” Aurangazeb grunted, as though it were obvious.

“You haven’t even separated it from the pack?” I asked, looking at the snapping muzzles crowding to the door. Behind them I could vaguely see a couple of huddled mounds of fur, too hurt or sick to join in. “I’ve told you before, I can’t work and fight off healthy animals at the same time!”

“So work!” Aurangazeb spat. And he flung open the door.

I cursed and frantically drew my scalpel as the slavering dire-wolves charged. But faster than a man that big should have been able to move, the Beastmaster lashed out with an iron-shod foot. A crack of bone terminated in a howl of pain, and then he was blocking the door, lashing out with the chain at his waist. It was no longer attached to Dilbur. With each lash he struck a dire-wolf, and the animal fled, crying out. Standing there with my knuckles white on the hilt of my scalpel, I became aware of another sound that punctuated each smack of the chain: a high giggle.

Dilbur was staring into the cage, eyes wide, and giggling at the howling wolves. Just like he always did. A high, screeching laugh at animals in pain.

My knuckles ached on the handle of my scalpel, as I pictured just how much I’d like to drive it through the little quarterling bastard’s spine. The Beastmaster cast a disdainful stare at me. “Well?” he said. “Patients are over there.”

And I’d probably be called back next week for the one with the broken jaw, I thought, through the rage that fogged my head. Shoving Dilbur out of my way, I entered the cage and knelt on the filthy straw by the first of my patients. A young dire-wolf that probably had been in good health before the beating that had laid its skin open. Now greenish-yellow pus and red-black blood wept down the flanks of the young animal, which twitched with feverish pain in every indrawn breath. Dead tissue sloughed in dun sheets between the encrusted rents. Unwisely, I inhaled sharply.

If anyone ever tells you what rotting flesh smells like, they’re a liar. It’s completely indescribable, except to say that if a garbage dump caught fire after a week of summer heat, it would still smell cleaner than that. I gagged on the scent and forced myself to fasten on the muzzle. Probably not necessary, as far gone as this beast was, but you don’t take chances with dire-wolves. Not if you think ten fingers are a proper number to have. I cinched the muzzle tight, and one of those odd silences fell. Aurangazeb had cowed the pack momentarily, and they were regrouping.

Then I heard the noise.

It was a steady crackling, punctuated by snaps and pops. Coming from the patient.

The necrotic tissue had to go. I drew a smaller scalpel out of my bag and sliced a long sheet off. It came off like shrunken leather, sopping serum.

And revealed pale white maggots writhing in the wound. Despite being prepared, my hand jerked back, and I heard Harriet being violently ill behind me as the pack started in on their tormentor again.

Hard to blame her. I went about lancing the abscesses and draining them, cutting away the dead flesh as fast as I could.

“Aren’t you going to get rid of those things?” croaked Harriet.

“I was going to,” I said, raising my voice above the yelping howls and Dilbur’s mad giggles, “but now I think of it, old Arghash always said that maggots in a wound were a good thing. They don’t eat living flesh, only dead. And we have to get all the dead meat out.” I applied a clean bandage, at last covering the raw, pulsating flesh.

“Are you only halfway finished?” growled the Beastmaster, throwing a glance over his shoulder. “What about your other patient?”

“If you’d called me last week,” I said, rising along with my fury, “I wouldn’t have had to take so long. More to the point, I wouldn’t have even one patient if you’d stop beating them bloody.”

A dire-wolf leapt at him. Without even looking, he snatched the beast out of the air by the throat and whirled, tossing it at least thirty feet.

“No one bosses me in my lair,” he grated. “If they are strong, you heal them. If they are weak, they die. Dark Lord does not need weak dire-wolves. Now give me the medicine and heal other wolf.”

I looked down at my final patient.

The dire-wolf lay twitching, both left limbs bent where no joints should be. The skin was taut and green through the fur. She had been a beautiful animal, once. Probably could have produced several litters of pups. I looked back at the Beastmaster, and opened my mouth. Closed it.

In a fluid motion I drew my dragon scalpel and whipped it down through the mutilated beast’s neck.

The Beastmaster’s arrogant expression dissolved in fury and shock. Dilbur’s giggle choked off in a high screech.

“Okay, she’s treated,” I snapped. “Harriet, we’re going.”

“What the hells you doing?” bellowed the Beastmaster.

“Providing the only treatment I know for gas gangrene!” I roared back. “I guess she was too weak to survive! She’s been dead for two days, she just hadn’t stopped breathing, yet!” I fished in my pocket and whipped the packet of medicine at his face. It was the mold-paste the Dark Lord had invented during the war, surprisingly effective. The Beastmaster caught it, his piggy eyes glittering with rage. I turned my back on him. “Put that in her food, and see she gets a good diet when she’s hungry. The Dark Lord will have my full report,” I tossed over my shoulder.

RELEASE THE SNIPPET! Countdown to Rerelease: Chapter 3: ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS

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Part III: A Concern of Trolls

The rising voices from the waiting room rasped across my brain like a file, and the obsidian needle slipped in my forceps again. I muttered a curse on loud clients, difficult clients, and clients who used their fire-lizards to hunt garden gnomes. Sure, it works for keeping the gnomes down, but the gnomes always leave a couple of huge slashes before they die. So they need stitches. Profitable stitches, but obsidian needles break easily, slip easily, and are the only thing that will sew through dragon hide.

And then you have to set traps in the recovery room for the gnomish vengeance-squads.

From the waiting room, my assistant Harriet’s voice cut off, abruptly.

This meant trouble. Harriet was an ex-tavern-wench, who was an ex-witch. No one got the last word from her. My hand strayed to the scalpel at my waist. Then I heard it: “Halloo! Halloo, Dr. DeGrande. Come out at once: I wish to have a word with you!”

Cursing in earnest this time, I leapt across the room, grabbed the mirrored goggles and fastened them around my head, fingers trembling on the locking catch. They snapped into place: I now had two mirrors and a pane of glass between each eye and the outside world, but I couldn’t just rush out there. With vision just a bit more binocular than I was used to, I checked my patient.

The cocktail of blended bloods and plant extracts hadn’t clotted yet, so it was still dripping into the fire-lizard’s throat. I twisted the valve that would increase the non-virginal blood that was so important for keeping draconics under. All together, it would take down anything smaller than a minotaur, of course, but fire-lizards were tricky. I slammed out the door, already knowing what I would see.

The waiting room was full of statues.

The statue of Mrs. Glabrug the orc stood looking curiously at the door. Her two pet tarantulas looked like ornaments in her hair. Baronet Klathraee, the dark elf, was looking at a spot some six feet farther in, his expression of annoyance just turning to one of alarm, his bloodhawk frozen in the act of taking flight from his shoulder, and thank the Gods below it hadn’t actually launched itself into the air or I’d have been sweeping up gravel all over the place. The statue of Harriet was pushing herself away from the desk. She’d obviously tried to throw her hands over her eyes, but it was too late.

And there, keeping meticulously out of the sun that streamed through the waiting-room skylights, the Countess Elspeth Bathetique stood with a sour expression on her face, and a pair of mirrored goggles over her eyes. She was much the same color as the statues surrounding her, but unfortunately, still quite un-petrified. Wriggling in her grasp, gazing at me with bulbous, outsized yellow eyes, was Gnasher. Her pet basilisk.

“Dammit, milady, I have told you before that you cannot come into my office with that basilisk unless it is properly restrained!”

Her nose turned up. “Don’t take that tone with me, slave! I shall have my husband take your tongue out for such insolence. Gnasher obeys my every command. And so will you.”

One hand went to my ruby-studded slave collar. “Fortunately, milady, I am not your slave. The Count may report my insolence to the Dark Lord, but I recently cured his pet dragon, Baugrath, of a knight stuck in his gut. You are my client. And I told you to keep that basilisk in his box! Now what do you propose to do about all my other clients?” I gestured to the statues. “Not to mention my staff?”

She arched her brows. “They are hardly my problem. Gnasher is not at all dangerous to people who behave properly around him.”

“People who wear mirrored goggles all the time?” I snapped.

“Well, if they will patronize you without considering whose pets they might encounter, that’s their fault. I should think your staff would know that, but I suppose you don’t exactly get the best and brightest here. I mean, look at that twisted freak,” she gestured at Harriet.

I felt my blood boil. Harriet Templin had almost become a witch. With a college degree, no less. But the fashions for witches had changed just as she entered the College: dark, tall and statuesque had become a requirement (for humans, anyway) and the severe hunchback that witches for generations had admired had become a liability, so she’d disguised herself as a dark elf until she was found out, but that was another story. Well, Harriet was certainly statuesque now. I winced, making a mental note not to crack that joke when I revived her. “Milady Bathetique,” I fumed, “I value Harriet. More than I value you.”

“Well,” she sneered. “The Dark Lord doesn’t pay his slaves, so I think a little more courtesy to your higher-class clients is in order. After all, who knows if these will still be yours after today? Don’t you educate your clients in proper precautions? I don’t know the Baronet socially of course, but I have heard he is not a forgiving man.”

Neither am I. But the hell of it is, she was right. I didn’t have many clients. I would almost certainly lose the Baronet and the Glabrugs. And eat the cost of the unguent that would restore them. And the hazard pay for Harriet. But I couldn’t get rid of the Countess. The Dark Lord wouldn’t punish me for “insolence,” but he would make me keep serving her. You can’t have a Dark Empire where slaves can refuse service to nobles. There had to be a way….

“So what’s the trouble this time?” As if I didn’t know.

The Countess frowned in the way that only rich bored women with spoiled pets can and said, “He’s lame in his right front leg. Still!” I sighed.

“Bring him into the back.” I knew what the problem was. I could tell by the statues.

In the examining room, I added a lens to my goggles. “He’s got a fracture. Again, not still.”

“Well, doctor, I must say I’m disappointed. I thought your medicine would work.”

“It did. And I’m disappointed. I thought you were listening when I told you to change his diet. Have you?”

The Countess drew herself up. “As I have explained to you, doctor, in our house, Gnasher is like family. He feeds as we do.”

“Is that still chalices of blood?”

“Of course. We have transcended the need for flesh.”

“Gnasher hasn’t. His body is absorbing his own bones because you’re not feeding him any bone meal. He’s got metabolic bone disease, so his legs are snapping like twigs! He’s so far gone that his gaze is turning his victims to limestone just so he can eat them for the calcium.”

“Eating stones and bones is beneath our house’s dignity. We will not live like trolls.”

“You could at least give him a couple of hocks of meat,” I growled.

“We will live as the higher orders,” she intoned.

Oh, gods below, humans in the Dread Empire were the worst! I ought to know; I was one. The ones in the nobility, though, were enough to make your flesh creep. Some of them had flesh that did creep. A pack of unholier-than-thou suck-downs, the lot of them. “Dammit, woman, you’re not even a vampire!”

“I beg your pardon?” she gasped.

“Dammit, my lady, you’re not even a vampire!”

“How… how dare you? I identify as a vampire, you filth! You cannot dream of the tragic destiny which is ours!”

“What? Suffering from vitamin deficiency, malnutrition, keeping out of the sun for no damn reason, and torturing your poor pet basilisk? If I dreamed of that, I’d seek clerical help.”

“When I want a medical opinion on my health, you upjumped butcher, I will consult my personal shaman. Give me the potion I came for and cease your effrontery!”

Fuming, I mixed the potion. “You’ll be back in a week if you don’t change his diet,” I said through my teeth. “So you’ll also want these.” I handed her a small, deep muzzle with two eye pieces high up on it.”

What is this?” asked the Countess, as though I’d just handed her a stool sample.

“It’s for Gnasher, next time you come in. It will block the effects of his gaze.” I placed it on the wriggling lizard, and put it, snapping its head side-to-side, in the Countess’s silver-and-lead box. Then I charged her triple. She paid it without a thought, and then swept out.

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My fifty-centimeter dragon scalpel shone dully in the clouded light of day. The dragon did look dead except for the traces of smoke above his nose. One at a time, we climbed the ladder up Baugrath’s side until we could stand on the gentle curve of his enormous belly.

“I have the lanterns and the spikes, James,” said Harriet.

I looked down at my young, 3’9” hunchbacked assistant. “Boiled them all?” I asked. It was Harriet’s first surgery, so I was double-checking everything. She nodded and I used the smallest of the spikes to wedge up the dragon’s plate-sized scales, which was necessary, as I was Commanded not to remove them. Fortunately, once that was done, the thinner skin parted easily beneath my scalpel. Black blood flowed. “Clamp it,” I said. Folding it back was rather like making a huge bed. I then took the mallet and stakes of polished wood to stake the huge skin flap to the outer hide. There was my entry point. With one smooth stroke, I sliced open the connective tissue between the huge abdominal muscles.

“Jacks.” Harriet passed them up to me. I slammed the wooden bars with their iron screws between the abdominal muscles and we began cranking. “This procedure is called retraction,” I said. “We do it on all major surgeries. Keeps the wound open so we can work. Or in this case, breathe while we work. Even so, every now and then, you’ll need to pump these.” I attached my great bellows to its clamps on a smaller ladder, so that its tube was left dangling into the clean, outside air. Then, I slid it carefully inside until I was sure it wasn’t resting on the liver or anything else it might damage. “Now, come on,” I said.

Harriet hesitated. “You want me in there? With you?”

“Well, you won’t do much good out there. Don’t forget the lamps. And the small scalpel. And don’t try to hold your breath; you’ll faint.”

***

Harriet did well for her first time inside a dragon. Better than I had. But the green cast to her face was alarming. “Do NOT throw up in here,” I snapped. “You’ll cause post-operative infection. We do not want to have to irrigate the abdomen of a dragon.” The belly of the dragon shone with a green, unearthly light, a great glistening cavern over our heads shot through with the blackish cables of blood vessels enmeshed in curtains of omentum: the connective tissue that fills up the gut space in all animals. The roof gently pulsed with the dragon’s great breaths.

Harriet just wrinkled her nose. “Oh, please, James. It’s just the light. If you think this smells worse than cleaning up after drunken orcs every night, you’ve even less experience as a serving wench than I have as your assistant.” I had to grant her the point. Taking the lamps from her, I hooked them into strands of fascia.

“What are these things?” Harriet asked of the knee-high ropes of greenish-black littering the cavernous floor.

“Dragon guts,” I said. “We’re looking for where they’re blocked.”

“And how, I hesitate to ask, do we do that?”

I passed her a lamp. “This procedure is called ‘running the gut.’ We might as well start here. You go that way. I’ll go this.”

“Looking for?”

“When you see a lump that looks unpleasantly like an armored man, yell.”

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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.”

Re-Release: ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS!!

I am pleased to announce that ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS, the adventures of Chief Veterinarian (enslaved) of the Evil Dark Lord, Dr. James DeGrande and his valiant Veterinary Assistant (also enslaved), Witch Harriet Templin, is about to go back in print! It is now on preorder on Amazon as an e-book, and paperback will shortly follow! This is my first foray into the wonderful world of SELF PUBLISHING!!

You can preorder here!

“Hilarious! Veterinary horror like Terry Pratchett would write!”
— D.J. Butler, author of WITCHY EYE

“A rollicking adventure that hits all the right notes.”
–Christopher Ruocchio, Award-Winning Author of The Sun Eater Series

Everyone says it was better in the Good Old Days. Before the Dark Lord subjugated us. Before he gave all the good land to his ogres, orcs and trolls, reducing the civilized races to serfdom and the dirty work: pig farming, sewer cleaning, veterinary medicine.

But even before that happened, things weren’t that much different for the veterinarians. Everyone cheered the heroes who rode their unicorn chargers into combat against the Dark Lord’s dragons, but no one ever remembered who treated the unicorns’ phosphine burns afterward. The only real difference is that now I’m treating the dragons. Today I have to save one’s life. Know what fewmets are? No? Then make a sacrifice of thanks right now to whatever gods you worship, because I have only a few hours to figure a way to get them flowing back out of the Dark Lord’s favorite dragon. Yeah, from the other end. And that’s just my most illustrious client.

I’ve got orcs and trolls who might eat me and dark elf barons who might sue
me if their bloodhawks and chimeras don’t pull through. And that doesn’t even consider the
possibility that the old hag with the basilisk might show up.

The only thing that’s gone right this evening is finding Harriet to be my veterinary assistant.
She’s almost a witch, which just might save us both. If we don’t kill each other first.

Baen Fantasy Adventure Award WINNER!

So.

That Baen Fantasy Adventure Award I’ve been banging on about for this pat month?

I won.

My story, “Humanslayer,” will be published on the Baen Books Website later this month. They also sent me a bunch of books.

Also, because the award was crystal, I couldn’t resist…

See the source image

Thank you all for your support and readership. I hope you like the story!

Taglines Not To Emulate

Cruising around book descriptions, you see a lot of taglines supposedly designed to make you want to read books. Here are some that well… didn’t. 

Can one man save an immortal race on the brink of extinction?

Um, you know what ‘immortal’ means, right?

Humans are unwelcome but tolerated as none of the galaxy’s other intelligent species has the power to stop them.

Yeah, I tend to “tolerate” people who can kill me with impunity, too. And a run-on sentence isn’t a great way to convince me to buy what you’re selling.

He wouldn’t have stolen the latest cybernetic implant if he knew it was infected with a virus.

Well, I’d really hope not. I wouldn’t want to read the story of an idiot. Actually, I think I’ll pass on reading the story of someone who thinks “not being an idiot” is compelling.

Ahem!! Who says the star messiah can’t be a chick?

No one I suppose, but if you’re trying for some sort of gender-equality, here, I think your tone’s, um, off.

It’s not too late to click now!!

Oh, thank heavens, I thought you might not allow me to give you money for your writing if I waited another minute.

He never thought of arming himself to defend the ones he loves…

Um, really? Never thought of it? Is that because he’s a complete coward, or simply lacks any vestige of imagination?

Stranded on an alien planet, luckily, Major XXX XXX is the most powerful human in the universe!

Thing is, powerful people don’t usually end up stranded on alien planets. That’s one of the indications they’re powerful.

Turns out there’s a whole lotta’ strange going on that most of the world knows nothing about.

Turns out there’s a whole lotta’ bad writin’ going on that most of the world knows nothing about, and for good reason.

Submarine Explorer’s sentient. Dr. Smith knows. Admiral Donovan doesn’t believe. Giant sharks, octopus, a cyberswarm, and enemy submarines. It’s fun.

Tagline consists of fragments. Sounds bad. Reads bad. Stuff happens. Do not want.

Abandoned as a child, Kelly is later forced into a situation where her parents’ betrayal will only be pardoned after her execution. 

That seems needlessly complicated: can’t we just execute Mom and Dad?

The Awful Secret About Our Village, Son

With sort of, but not very sincere apologies to a well-known horror writer whose name may or may not rhyme with Even Thing, but who certainly isn’t the ONLY writer to fall back on this trope…

“Okay, Dad, you said you’d explain it when I was older, and now I am. And in fact, last night it happened AGAIN. They’re dead, aren’t they?”

“Who?”

“Dad, come off it. You know exactly who. That nice couple that showed up last night. You let them stay in the old Hockstetter place, and get eaten by the carnivorous frogs.”

“It’s the Rain, son. You probably don’t remember the last one, but…”

“Don’t remember it? Are you kidding? I was seven years old. It was the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to me! The clouds came, the carnivorous frogs fell everywhere, we spent the night sealed up in the basement, and then in the morning that couple had been eaten. And the frogs all evaporated. the next morning. Why didn’t we warn them if it happens every ten years?”

(Sigh) “We did warn them. We always warn them.” <Deep, Pensive Breath> “It’s time to tell you the Awful Secret About Our Village, Son.”

“I think I just said it. We let this happen to people every ten years? Why?”

“Well, if we didn’t, the frogs might not evaporate. They might stick around and eat all of us.”

“Seriously? What makes you think that would happen? Has it ever happened before?”

“Well, of course not! Because we always let the frogs eat the visitors.”

“Really? How did we survive the first rain of frogs?”

“Eh? I told you: we let the visitors get eaten.”

“So, what, someone showed up and said, hey, here’s how this will work? Innocent visitors will arrive, you have to warn them off, but they won’t go, so let them stay in a rickety house and let them die, or carnivorous frogs will rain from the sky and kill you all? And did all the people in the town hurt themselves laughing?”

“Well, I never heard about anything like that. My grandfather, he just told me…”

“Really? Okay, let’s think about this: One day a young couple came to town, and wanted to stay. And somehow, that night, everyone except them didn’t get eaten by the frogs. I mean, did we warn them that night?”

“Well, obviously we…”

“Said what? ‘You might not want to stay here in case carnivorous frogs rain from the sky?’ Even though that had never happened before?”

“Well, I don’t know exactly how…”

“And then, when it happened the first time, did everyone just say, ‘Hey, that was weird, I guess we’re lucky that only the strangers got eaten; I sure hope that doesn’t happen again in exactly ten years, but if it does, I hope that another two innocent strangers show up and get eaten AGAIN so that the horrible carnivorous frogs melt away AGAIN before they eat all of us?”

“Son, the important thing to remember is…”

“Can I get in on this? If I invite my stalkerish ex-girlfriend, or my psycho Econ prof down for a weekend, can I charge out of the house screaming and shoot them in the face and then have you tell the whole village that it only happens every five years, and that if they don’t help you bury them really quietly in the ravine without telling anyone, then I might have killed the entire town?”

“Um…”