A Tiny Slice Of History: Jim Baen Memorial Award.

Today, I am honored to confirm that my story, “Salvage Judgment,” has been selected as the winner of this year’s Jim Baen Memorial Award. I am rather aghast to realize that my story will be taking its place among so many excellent stories. One of my favorite short stories in the past decade is, in fact, Brad Torgersen’s “Gemini XVII,” and that story took second place in 2011.

And I won? Surely not.

For a long time, I described myself as “G. Scott Huggins, Very Nearly Award-Winning Author,” because I came in second a LOT. In fact, my professional career began with coming in second in the Writers of the Future contest in 1999. Then I came in second in the very first Baen Fantasy Adventure Award in 2014. Then I came in second in a Twitter Pitch contest called #ReviseAndResub.

And last year, after many submissions that never even made it to finalist status, I won the Baen Fantasy Adventure Award. And now, the Jim Baen Memorial Award.

I’m the first, and so far only person to win both Baen Books short story awards. And that’s… that’s a little tiny slice of SFF history. And I can be happy about that. That’s… more than i could have ever expected when I started writing, sometime in the last century.

I really think you’re going to like this story when it debuts in a month. I’d like to say that it was written in a burst of inspiration, but I have to tell you, it was a bear to write. I hacked it mercilessly out of the dead void of space, and then had to cut twenty percent of it. It was not a pretty process, and I sometimes can’t believe I finished it. But when I did, I really, really liked it.

Thank you to all my readers who have borne with me so long. I’m finally getting to the place where I want to be. The places I want to show you.

Keep following. I have such sights to show you.

NEW NOVEL ANNOUNCEMENT: ACROSS THE ENDLESS OCEAN

Image by Stephanie Law. Used with permission. Original illustration for “Abandoned Responsibility,” in Fantastical Visions IV

This is the announcement I have been waiting a lifetime to make: New Mythologies Press, an imprint of Chris Kennedy, Publishing has accepted my novel, Across The Endless Ocean. I am honored to be their new editor, Rob Howell’s, first accepted author since he took over the press. We both hope and intend that this will be but the first of a series of adventures featuring Responsibility, the halfdragon heroine of the series.

While we are still hard at work hammering out the edits, we intend to get the novel ready to publish as soon as possible, and I can hardly wait to present it to you all. If you are interested in a foretaste, though, the story that started it all, “Abandoned Responsibility,” (and which comprises the first two chapters of the book) can be reached on Podcastle through the link.

A further adventure, also included in the novel, can also be found on Podcastle as “Responsibility Descending.”

Why is this novel so special to me? There are several reasons. Mostly, it is because it is the first time I have ever sent out a whole novel to a publisher, cold, and had it accepted. And while I will always be grateful to Jason Rennie and Superversive Press for giving All Things Huge And Hideous the green light, it was something that took shape over several stories. In some ways, it still IS a collection of short stories. It was funny and delightful to write, but it is also farce.

Across The Endless Ocean is not farce. It’s about courage, and honor, and what it means to become an adult in a hostile world. It comes from somewhere deeper inside, if that makes any sense. I hope you will enjoy it.

BOOK TOUR: SATURN ANTHOLOGY!!

Hey, Loyal Readers!

I’d just like to welcome you to the blog tour for the SATURN Anthology, a group of stories featuring everyone’s favorite ringed planet! I’m super proud to have my story “The Lords Of Titan” featured in this book. It’s the story of an old man who learns to give love, and a young man who learns to trust himself: and they’re the same man. Please enjoy this, along with the wonderful stories of all the other great authors!

Saturn. The Ringed Planet. Harbinger of ideas and wonder. These are the stories of Saturn, the great Titan. Tales of time, age and endings. – Saturn (Planetary Anthology Series) 2/16Tweet

Saturn
Planetary Anthology Series Set 11
Genre: Mixed Fantasy, SciFi, Speculative

with stories byBokerah Brumley, Karl Gallagher, Carlton Herzog, G. Scott Huggins, C.S. Johnson,P.A. Piatt, J.F. Posthumus, James Pyles, Denton Salle, Ben Wheeler, Josh Young, Richard Paolinelli, Arlan Andrews Sr., J.M. Anjewierden, Dana Bell, Vonnie Winslow Crist,Karina L. Fabian, Rob Fabian, A.M. Freeman, Julie Frost

Saturn. The Ringed Planet. Harbinger of ideas and wonder. The planet that gave birth to the modern era of science envisioning the myriad of multi-colored rings circling the planet, one of the reasons for the invention of the telescope and the second largest in our solar system. These are the stories of Saturn, the great Titan. Tales of time, age and endings.

Goodreads * Amazon


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Follow the tour HERE for special content and a giveaway!

Swag pack, editor-signed signed paperback, and $25 Amazon gift card!
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Feb 12
kickoff at Silver Dagger Book Tours
J. F. Posthumus
A Wonderful World of Words
FabianSpace
I Read What You Write
I Smell Sheep
Inside the Insanity
Craving Lovely Books
Musings From An Addicted Reader

Feb 13
The Logoccentric Orbit
Whimsical Words
The Sexy Nerd ‘Revue’
IndiePowerd by No Sweat Graphics
Writing Dreams
Drako’s Den
Girl with Pen
Stormy Nights Reviewing & Bloggin’
Scrupulous Dreams
Why I Can’t Stop Reading

Feb 14
Lady Hawkeye
#BRVL Book Review Virginia Lee Blog
Letters from Annie Douglass Lima – REVIEW
4covert2overt ☼ A Place In The Spotlight ☼
Always Love Me Some Books Blog
Books all things paranormal and romance
Sylv.net
Bedazzled By Books
The Book Dragon

Feb 15
Books A-Brewin’
nanasbookreviews
lyndi alexander’s worlds of fancy – REVIEW
Romance that’s ‘Out Of This World’
Anna del C. Dye official page
❧Defining Ways❧
A Pinch of Bookdust
Midnight Book Reader
The Bookshelf Fairy
Eclectic Unicorn’s Book Reviews

Feb 16
The Faerie Review – REVIEW
ⒾⓃⓉⓇⓄⓈⓅⒺⒸⓉⒾⓋⒺ ⓅⓇⒺⓈⓈ
Literary Gold
Kayden McLeod, Author
Westveil Publishing
Books, Authors, Blogs
Teatime and Books
Insane Books
Twisted Book Ramblings

Convention Appearance: Life, The Universe, And Everything!

LTUE 37 is next week! - Joe Monson

Hey, Loyal Readers!

I just wanted to drop you a blog note to let you know that I’m appearing at Life, The Universe, And Everything this afternoon on three panels. LTUE is on DISCORD this year! It’s also hosted out of Utah, so all times are in Mountain Standard Time! Please join LTUE HERE!

They are:
Creating Religions (4 pm) Gary Gygax Room
Religion is important to many real-life cultures and regions in the world and can greatly increase the believability of a world. When creating a religion for your game world, it is often easier to base your religion on real-world examples. But if done poorly, this can create many difficulties, including offensive stereotypes. How do you create a religion while avoiding these possible pitfalls?

Disability Literacy (6 pm) C.S. Lewis Room
Daily life for the physically disabled and neurodivergent is different. They have to be aware of things that some people take for granted or ignore completely.
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Humor in the Fantastic (7 pm) Ursula K. LeGuin Room
Fantasy sometimes has unexpected magic and consequences that can lead to humor. Many books have used this to great advantage. Let’s discuss how authors have found humor in the fantastic.

That’s Not Your “CHARACTER,” You’re Just A Dick.

Image may contain: text that says 'theMAZC @theMAZC2009 Replying to @StrahdVonZ It doesn't matter if your character is fun to play as, if it isn't fun to play *with*. Play someone you'd like to be around for 4 hours every week, because everyone else will have to. 7:15 PM 25 Dec 18 Twitter for Android'

Been thinking about this rather excellent observation for a bit. And it’s been awhile since I did a good, old-fashioned listicle here on the blog. Okay, it’s been awhile since I really did much of ANYTHING here on the blog, but I’m a high-school teacher at the end of the Second Semester Of COVIDS and a Dad planning Christmas with 3 school-age kids, so give me a break).

There are always players — and, I think, writers — who confuse characters that are fun to play and write with characters that are fun to play WITH and fun to read. I’ll also admit that I haven’t always been innocent of these. So with that in mind, I’m going to dive right in to Characters That Are Dickishness In Disguise.

The Character That Can’t Be Told What To Do aka Contrarius: Most of these characters are power fantasies (which there’s nothing wrong with as such: that’s kind of what RPGs are for.), and this one is no exception. You kind of get the impression that the player is someone who is never allowed to say “no” to anyone in real life and he’s by all the gods gonna make up for it now. Often comes right out and says, “My character doesn’t like being told what to do,” and every experienced player cringes. It doesn’t matter how good a suggestion that your character makes, or some other character makes, or the NPC giving advice to your party makes, or how good an idea is. If it wasn’t Contrarius’s suggestion, that’s reason enough to fight it tooth and nail. Often, Contrarius gets his way because of Don’t Split The Party.

The Character Who Deliberately Annoys NPCs aka Impertinens: Impertinens doesn’t like it when the party has friends. To Impertinens, the rest of the world consists solely of people who aren’t good enough for the party. Gods help the king or duke or wizard who has the temerity to summon the party, pay the party, or warn the party. They are in for a heaping helping of mockery and abuse simply because Impertinens’s player finally gets a chance to say what’s on his mind. Impertinens can’t really be shut out, because he’s at his most annoying at the safest parts of the game, i.e. when the DM is desperately trying to actually establish a plot, and doesn’t really want to, for example, have Denethor tell the Guards of the Tower to throw Pippin off the Citadel for being an ass.

The Character Who Is Deliberately The Opposite Alignment Of Everyone Else In The Party aka Spoilerus: Spoilerus loves being the party pooper. Everyone else is a champion of law and good? Spoilerus is going to be the chaotic evil sorceror that’s hanging back to eviscerate and torture the fallen. Everyone wants to do a thieving dungeon run? Spoilerus will be the worst example of the stick-up-the-ass paladin, looking for ways to give away the party gold. Spoilerus is basically Gollum, except that he’s not trying desperately to keep the rest of the party safe so he won’t lose his shot at the Precious.

The Character Who Can’t Be Told The Odds aka Kamikaze:
DM: “Okay, you’re squatting outside the Black Gate of Mordor, honeycombed with caves full of thousands of orcs, bolstered by flying Nazgul. The Orc patrol gets closer and closer to your hiding place…”
Kamikaze: “I CAST FIREBALL!!!”
Kamikaze doesn’t believe that anything worthwhile happens in D&D that doesn’t involve attack and damage rolls, and believes that combat is the first, last and only option for dealing with anything. And Kamikaze always has an excuse for fighting literally everyone. They’re too strong? Well, they need to be taken down a peg. Too weak? Easy kill. You’d think that Kamikaze would get his throat cut in short order, but the problem is that he’ll take the rest of the party down with him.

The Character Surrounded By Theme Music aka Energizer Bunny: The Energizer Bunny NEVER STOPS. Is he a rogue? Well, he will steal things all the time. From other party members if nothing else is around. Is he a necromancer? He will animate everything that is dead, up to and including dead squirrels the party runs across. Is he a warrior? He will challenge shopkeepers to duels for haggling with him. The dead giveaway for this character is that he asks the same question in every room in the dungeon: “Is there a <object my character is obsessed with>?” Then he pouts when people get tired of him.

The Character That Hates Another Member Of The Party aka Nemecyst: Nemecyst is as much fun as a huge boil you can’t get rid of. He hates orcs. Or paladins. Or just YOU, because you know more about D&D, or you had an idea the party liked better than his idea, or because Fuck You, that’s why. Nemecyst my plot your death, but is more likely to simply argue with you at every turn and/or degrade your character gratuitously. Essentially, the character is a bully, and often a racist bully at that. Not that there aren’t sometimes moments where being a “racist” in D&D can’t be realistic (being racist against, say, vampires, can be a survival trait), but it sure as hell isn’t a fun thing to hang around.

Of course, confronting the players with these things tends to get a defensive response featuring the chorus, “I’m just roleplaying,” or, “Well, that’s what my character would do!”
If you’re having to say these things more than once a campaign? Yeah, you might want to examine why that is, and whether one of these “characters” applies to your play style.

Your party and DM will be glad you did.

Thank You Readers And Fans!!

So, the launch of ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS is truly well begun. Over 100 copies were purchased this week. 11 reviews. Exactly how many, I don’t know, because the print books haven’t shipped yet. I know that’s pretty small potatoes for some authors, but it’s a big helping for me.

I truly want to thank some people by name. Please know that if I did not name you, I still very much appreciate your purchase and your word-of-mouth spread of the book’s title. If I tried to mention everyone, I would inevitably leave people out.

Thanks to fellow authors Larry Correia and Jim Hines for using their HUGE platforms to spread the word. Thanks to fellow authors Chris Ruocchio and Dave Butler for blurbing the book. Thanks to superfans Ralph Seibel and Kat Adams for giving copies of the book to people. Thanks to my good friend Jon Miles and most of all my wife, Katie for encouragement, and in the case of Katie, a LOT of veterinary information so I wasn’t TOO much of an idiot.

ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS HAS RELAUNCHED TODAY!!

Paul Maitland Cover Art!

For Labor Day Weekend , pick up my new Fantasy novel about the guy who doctors the Evil Dark Lord’s Dragons! Only $4.99 on Kindle and FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

The launch is going extremely well, thanks to awesome fellow authors like Larry Correia, Jim C. Hines, Brad Torgersen, D. J. Butler and Chris Ruocchio, who have graciously blurbed and/or spread the word about the relaunch, sales are beyond my expectations! And thanks are EVEN MORE due to my awesome fans who have also shared the news about my book! Thank you all!

RELEASE THE SNIPPET! Countdown to Rerelease: Chapter 7: ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS

RELEASES TOMORROW! If you have read or are reading this novel of mine, I’m so happy you stopped by. Please remember to share these blog posts and let people know that they can Preorder ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS here. Also available IN PAPERBACK!!

RELEASES SEPTEMBER 5TH!

Part VII: Blood Test

I have three rules for my clients:

Pay at the time of service.

Control your animal.

Do not abuse the staff.

If you’re going to violate these rules, you’d better know another doctor, and you’d better be able to get there faster than I can run while carrying my No. 75 dragon scalpel, because one of the tenets of my philosophy of care is that rudeness is a malignant tumor that can be effectively treated by immediate excision.

So when I heard a snarl, followed by Harriet’s scream from the front of my practice, I was out of the back and fully prepared for surgery in about three heartbeats.

Harriet was clutching the desk, trying not to move. Perched on the hump of her back was a large, vampire bat, its wings outstretched and its fangs poised to strike the back of her neck. I whirled on its owner, raising my scalpel.

And then carefully laid it down at my feet.

“The Dark Lord will see you, now,” said the tall shape in the thick black robes.

There is one other way to violate the rules I mentioned and avoid having your guts resectioned. I don’t like to talk about it. But you can also be the Prime Minister of the Dark Lord of the World.

“Minister Praxitela,” I bowed. “What an honor that you came to tell me yourself.”

“Yes, it is,” the vampire said, her voice thick with disdain and fury. “And immortal though I am, I can feel my time being wasted every second you delay. Move, human.”

I straightened. Immortality didn’t stop me from killing you last time, would have been both true and extremely unwise to say. I looked over at Harriet, who was still flinching beneath the fangs of Praxitela’s huge bat. Harriet had never really explained how she had managed to resurrect Praxitela at the Dark Lord’s command. But it looked as though the vampire lord was anything but grateful for it.

“To best serve our Lord,” I said smoothly, “I should know what animal needs to be treated.”

“If you delay me another instant,” she said. “It will be you.”

“Very well,” I said. “Harriet, we are attending upon the Dark Lord. Close up.”

“Ah, James..?” she said, through gritted teeth.

“Of course,” I said. “Without my assistant, I shall be much less use to His Great Darkness,” I said, gathering up my scalpel and carefully sheathing it.

Praxitela fixed me with a glare, and raised her finger. “Very well,” she said. The great bat flew back to her shoulder, raking Harriet’s shoulder, casually. Harriet swallowed a whimper and walked as steadily as she could to the back room to gather our things.

I’m sorry if my behavior doesn’t strike you as badass enough for your taste, but there are times to stand up for your dignity, and they are not when facing the barely-leashed ire of a vampire lord you have already killed once. They hold grudges about such things. Besides, we both knew who was ahead in the game.

“The practice is closed for the day,” I said to the crowd, most of whom were on their knees before the vampire already. Even Baron Klathraee merely rose, bowed from the neck, and left. When the dark elf lord shuts up, it’s wise to do the same.

“And perhaps longer,” Praxitela murmured.

At these words, a chill ran down my spine. Praxitela knew something that I did not. What? I had no idea. But it was important enough to get her out during daylight hours, and it wasn’t that she’d been given permission to kill me outright. If it was that, she’d have just done it, and the more witnesses, the better she’d have liked it.

Still, I knew something she didn’t, too. Trying to look casual, I reached through my office door and, using all of my strength, took the cloak of Aurmor off its reinforced hook. Harriet reappeared at my side and I saw her eyes widen as she recognized it. I felt myself lose half an inch of height as it settled on my shoulders. I hoped it would be enough to buy our freedom. And the look on Praxitela’s undead face would make it just that much sweeter.

We passed through the gates of the Dark Tower faster than I was used to. For one thing, I wasn’t allowed to use the great gates. For another, the orcs on guard usually liked to make humans wait.

Before Praxitela’s cowled shape, they dropped on their faces.

Other humans always ask me what the Dark Tower is like, and answering that question always throws me. What’s it like? You know what it’s like. A half-mile tall, sticking up out of the earth like a needle from a wound the size of a continent. Some say that’s what it is. That it’s how the Dark Lord came here. That he and his Dark Tower stabbed into our world from somewhere else. For all that it’s made of black stone, the surface glistens like an oil slick. Volcanic glass, I think, though I’ve heard people swear it’s black diamond, carved into razor-sharp edges and crenellations like claws. Each tower reaches higher than the last until the pinnacle of it disappears in the clouds beyond.

You want to know what it’s like inside, though, don’t you?

Trust me, you really don’t.

Oh, on the most basic level, it’s perfectly straightforward: the interior walls are just like the exterior. The Dark Lord likes bare stone and dark metal. Or he doesn’t care enough to cover them. But there’s too much inside the Tower that no one ought to see.

I could tell you about the hallways that curve off in directions that shouldn’t be there. I could tell you about some of the windows – just some of them – that do not open onto the city that we think of as below the Dark Tower. But there’s a lot more than how it looks to worry about. There are the echoes that you hope you never see the source of. There’s the way the air hangs perfectly still until a chill breeze hits you and cuts right through anything you happen to be wearing. It passed through the Aurmor cloak like it was gauze. And there are the smells they carry. I would tell you not to eat before you go into the Dark Tower, but it’s not as though you’re likely to have a choice of when you go if you’re summoned to dinner. And you’re not likely to be the diner, either.

All that, and I haven’t even touched upon what you’ll meet in the halls.

Even if I’d been afraid of what Praxitela would do to me, I wouldn’t have run away from her in the Dark Tower. My chances of ever coming out again would be nil.

Harriet stumbled against me and I remembered with a thrill of dread that it was her first time. I closed my hand on what was supposed to be her shoulder, and ended up being the curve of her spine. “Do not vomit in here,” Guilt and fear made my voice harsher than I’d intended, and she pulled away, glaring at me. But she swallowed hard and her pace steadied.

We were taken directly to the Room. With any other ruler, it would be a throne room. But the Dark Lord doesn’t sit. He just is.

He looked the way he always looks. Taller than any man, cloaked and hooded in shadow and crowned with black iron. Tendrils of night flowed from him, hiding the floor. Is it really made of bones? I couldn’t tell you, but it’s not smooth.

DR. JAMES DEGRANDE.

I dropped to my knees before him and bowed my head. Harriet did the same. I waited to hear my assignment.

YOU ARE TO BE ELEVATED TO THE OUTER COUNCIL, TO TAKE UP THE POSITION OF BEASTMASTER.

What?

AURANGAZEB HAS BEEN EATEN. WE BELIEVE HE HAS BEEN CARELESS. WE TRUST YOU WILL BE MORE CAREFUL.

I blinked. But I was still in the Room, and night still swirled around my fingers. I was not having a nightmare.

“James…” Harriet’s voice was a rising whimper.

“Yes, Lord,” I babbled. “You do me too much honor.” Far, far too much.

INDEED. PRAXITELA WILL EXAMINE YOU. MINISTER, YOU MAY EXAMINE THE DOCTOR IN ANY WAY THAT TESTS HIS SUITABILITY TO PERFORM THE DUTIES OF HIS NEW POSITION AND TO FACE ITS RISKS, USING THE RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO HIM. NO MORE. SERVE WELL, AND LIVE.

I was dead. Praxitela, as my examiner? She rose. So did I. I caught my breath, clutching my last chance for life and more.

“Great Lord of Darkness, I beg you to hear your slave’s plea.”

Praxitela hissed. There was an endless moment of silence. I didn’t dare raise my eyes.

SPEAK, DR. DEGRANDE.

“With your permission, Great Lord, I wish to buy my freedom.”

Only my heart beat in that moment.

AND WHAT HAVE YOU TO OFFER FOR THAT WHICH HUMANS FOOLISHLY PRIZE ABOVE ALL ELSE?

Slowly, I undid the clasps that held the cloak on my shoulders. It fell as if sucked down to the floor. I heaved it up and ripped it open, showing the golden scales. “This cloak of Aurmor, Lord. Given me for services rendered.”

For once, I had the pleasure of seeing Praxitela truly shocked. Her face was frozen, but her red eyes darted from me, to the cloak, and back again.

FOR SERVICES RENDERED. AND WHAT SERVICE DID YOU RENDER, DR. DEGRANDE, THAT WAS WORTH THE RANSOM OF A HIGH NOBLE?

I had expected this question, but had nothing to fear from it. “I killed an enemy of yours, Great Lord, when he attempted to bribe me into conspiring with him to bring about your downfall. Afterward, he no longer needed it.” And every word of that was the truth.

RESOURCEFUL, DR. DEGRANDE, the Dark Lord said at last. TOO RESOURCEFUL TO LOSE AS AN ASSET. I DO NOT ACCEPT YOUR PRICE. I HAVE ALL THE MAGICAL ARMORS I COULD WANT. I NEED NO MORE.

The Aurmor hung in my grasp, weightless in comparison to my disappointment.

NOW GO, AND BE INDUCTED INTO YOUR NEW POSITION.

RELEASE THE SNIPPET! Countdown to Rerelease: Chapter 6: ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS

JUST FOUR DAYS TO GO! If you have read or are reading this novel of mine, I’m so happy you stopped by. Please remember to share these blog posts and let people know that they can Preorder ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS here. Also available IN PAPERBACK!!

RELEASES SEPTEMBER 5TH!

Part VI: And In The Duodenum Bind Them

As I have previously noted, I am a big believer in the power of drinking to solve problems.

No, not my drinking. That’s just stupid: even my mentor Arghash had known that. It’s other people’s drinking that solves my problems. For example: Two days ago, Djug the goblin got drunk enough to think he could get away with burgling an orc-lord’s summer house. The orc-lord’s dire-wolf ate Djug and broke off two of its teeth. Pulling the teeth for the orc-lord solved my problem of paying the rent for my veterinary practice.

Well, I didn’t say it brought in repeat business.

But sometimes I join people in drinking, because we have the same problems.

In this case, I was drinking with Ulghash, Arghash’s son. Ulg and I grew up together. Only he became a doctor and a self-made man. Well, orc. And I inherited Arghash’s veterinary practice.

Hard feelings? Why? Ulghash and Arghash both got what they wanted: namely for Ulghash to rise to a higher level than fixing up animals. I, on the other hand, as a human chattel slave, wasn’t going to build my own business in the Dread Empire. So we all got what we wanted: I grew up as a higher class of slave, and Arghash got someone to keep the practice going.

Even so, Ulghash was saying, “Days like this I want to take Dad’s practice back from you.” He drained half his beer. “At least your patients don’t decide they know better than you.”

“That’s right,” I agreed. “Their owners do it. I told you about the human vampire-wannabe Countess who kept her basilisk on a diet of blood, right?”

“Yeah, but at least you can feel sorry for the basilisk.” Ulghash held his head in his hands. “I’m treating a clan chief for impotence. ‘Use the herbs,’ I said. ‘The herbs work. And stop trying every day, for the Dark Ones’ sakes. Relax a bit.’ Did he listen?”

“What did he do?” I asked.

“Got someone else to look at it.”

“Who?”

“A medusa.”

I stopped in mid-pull from my beer. “You don’t mean he got her to… look… at… it?

“Yep. He wanted it stiff. Well, it is now. I may have to cut it off before it gets infected. At least he can still piss, or he’d be dead already. He just has to watch the, uh. The range.”

I groaned. Then I told Ulghash about the de-petrification unguent (because you really don’t want to treat basilisks and cockatrices without a supply on hand) and sold him a jar at cost.

He shook his head. “It may be too late already. Blood doesn’t pump well through stone vessels. But he can damn well apply it himself.” He thanked me and we went home.

I hadn’t been back in the office long enough to do more than check on the recovering patients – business was looking up for a change – when Harriet knocked on the door.

“I thought we didn’t have any more appointments for at least an hour?” I asked.

“I think you want to see this one.” Then she giggled. Not a “something’s funny” giggle, but the “too weird” kind. Harriet found something weird?

This was a woman who had impersonated a dark elf for three years, tended bar for orcs, and crawled around in dragon guts beside me. Harriet didn’t weird easily. I peered into the waiting room.

There was a wizard and a dwarf standing there. Either of those would have been fairly unusual. What was almost unheard of was that they were the same person. His beard was long and yellow. His staff was carved with runes. Tellingly, the staff appeared to have started life as a pickaxe handle. And he wore long mystic robes rather than armor or mining gear. Beside him was a small wooden cage with an iron-grated door. I couldn’t see what he’d brought in.

“And how can I help you, sir?” I asked.

“I need you to take a look at this,” he said, imperiously. The merest suggestion of uncertainty tinged his voice. “So to speak.” He raised the carrier. I looked inside. The interior was dark. I waited for my eyes to adjust.

The interior was dim. And empty.

I opened my mouth to ask what sort of joke this was, and that’s when I heard the snoring.

Very carefully, using my left hand, I reached into the cage. I touched a warm, furry surface for an instant before it jerked away. I felt the wind of snapping teeth on my hastily-withdrawn hand.

“Okay,” I said. “So, you have an invisible what in there?”

“A, uh… weasel,” the dwarf said, looking away.

“A weasel,” I said. “And what did you do to it? Invisibility spell gone wrong?” The dwarf looked uncomfortable.

“What did you do to it?” I repeated.

“It ate… an item,” he said at last.

I rolled my eyes. “An item?” I asked. “If you tried, could you possibly be less specific?”

The dwarf looked puzzled. “No.”

I sighed. Dwarves. Too literal for anyone’s good.

I started over. “So the weasel ate a magic… item. And it turned the weasel invisible?”

“Yes.”

“Was this something edible, like a potion or a powder? Or was this something that was not supposed to be eaten?”

“It was not supposed to be eaten.”

“Well, you’re going to have to tell me what it was, or I don’t have a prayer of getting it out for you.”

The dwarf finally said, “A ring. A plain, brass-and-silver ring.”

“Brass, eh?” Sure. Dwarves didn’t think anyone else could recognize gold. “Okay. I can give you a laxative, and in a few days…”

“No,” said the dwarf.

“And why not?”

“I need it as soon as possible, and I can’t take the risk of missing it.”

I sighed. “Well, we can try an emetic.”

Despite my gentle hints that what followed was likely to be disgusting, the dwarf insisted on watching me induce vomiting.

“You haven’t told me your name, sir dwarf,” I said while we waited.

“That’s right,” he said.

“Well, you have me at a disadvantage,” I said. “And I don’t work at a disadvantage.”

“I could pay you to,” he said.

I thought about this, and then named a sum. The dwarf winced, but handed over a carefully-counted out purse without a word. And that’s when I began to get really worried. I’d been expecting a name.

But just then, hacking sounds began to emanate from the cage. Sodden, half-digested food appeared from nothing and splattered on its floor. Eventually, wet, gleaming stomach fluids coated the bottom of the cage. But no ring.

“It’s left the stomach,” I said.

The dwarf cursed, which sounded like he might join his pet in vomiting. “You must operate, doctor.”

“On what?” I said. “I can’t operate on something I can’t see. Especially when I have no idea where it is. I’d kill it.”

“No!” The dwarf opened and closed his fists. Finally, he said, “Is there nothing you can do? I was told you were a good animal doctor.”

“This isn’t doctoring,” I said. “This is like performing surgery on a ghost, O Dwarf-Who-Will-Not-Be-Named. I’m afraid I can’t help you with this. You’ll just…”

“I can pay you,” he interrupted me.

“It’s not really going to matter how much you can pay me if I can’t do anything,” I said.

“Ten thousand gold,” he said.

I felt the floor sway under me. “Bullshit,” I said through the roaring in my ears.

“Ten thousand. In gold,” he repeated. This time he was looking me in the eyes.

“And how do I know,” I said, forcing myself to remain calm, “that you even have ten thousand in gold to your lack of a name?”

The dwarf unbuttoned his traveling cloak. It took awhile, because of the hidden buttons that had made the cloak look as if it had been casually draped over his shoulders. The cloak fell to the floor as if sucked down, with the distinctive sound of falling chain-mail. I picked it up. It took most of my strength. Through a frayed seam I caught a glimpse of gold chain, and sucked in a breath. My hands sprang open, and I leapt back, just in time to stop the weight from crushing my toes.

“One moment, Sir Dwarf,” I said. He nodded, and I steered Harriet back into the operating room.

“James, you have gone white as a dark elf’s hair. What’s wrong? You need me to get rid of him?”

“I don’t think you can,” I said, staring at the door. “I’m not sure we can.”

“What the hells was that cloak?”

I took a breath. “What was the most valuable metal the dwarves ever made?”

“Mythril, if you believe in that sort of thing,” Harriet said. “The legendary, incredibly light silver-steel they made for the elves. Supposed to turn swords and yet be light as a feather-down coat.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s what everyone remembers. Except the orcs, who fought the dwarves directly. Incidentally, why is ‘mythril’ spelled with a ‘y’?”

“It’s just that legendary,” Harriet said.

“Really?”

“Well, maybe. But according to the lore, spelling it with a ‘y’ was somehow necessary to allow it to exist in this world at all. And it is one of the basic laws of magic that the ‘y’ rune is one of the most powerful magical symbols.”

“Really?”

“Of course,” Harriet half-shrugged. “Why do you think the Dark Lord’s enemies before the War referred to themselves as the Council Of The Ys?”

“The Council Of The… That’s really how it was spelled?”

“Yes. But what is it the orcs know?”

“That the dwarves kept their best craft for themselves, as always. Arghash sometimes talked about it when he was drunk. It was a secret alloy of gold, and they simply called it ‘Aurmor.’ Completely impervious to magic and steel. Extremely heavy. Only their elite Axeknights could bear it.”

“How’d the Dark Lord beat them, then?” asked Harriet.

“Oh, at the Last Battle He conjured a cloudburst that stayed right above the Axeknights for hours. They all sank into the mud without striking a blow. That cloak is covering a sheet of Aurmor. And it’s worth more than 10,000 gold, if I’m any judge.”

With that money, I could pay off the clinic and stock it for most of a year besides. Or, if the Dark Lord was in the right mood…

Freedom. Harriet’s and mine. I fingered the jeweled slave-collar around my neck. That gold could mean a future without slavery.

“We’re going to do this.” My brain snapped into action. “Harriet, get me some paint.”

“Paint?”

“Just do it.”

Muttering, Harriet left. I returned to the back room. “Sir Dwarf, I am engaged on your behalf,” I began assembling my surgical tools. I really hoped that my very simple scheme was going to work, because if it did, then I was about to get that Aurmor for practically nothing.

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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.”