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!!

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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

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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.

RELEASE THE SNIPPET! Countdown to Rerelease: Chapter 5: ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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…”

SFWA Bundle: CICI AND THE CURATOR Snippet!

It is my great honor to announce that the Science Fiction Writers of America have chosen ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS as part of their StoryBundle offering this year. Appropriately, the theme of this year’s bundle is FANTASTIC BEASTS.

For the next few days on my blog, I am going to be promoting a snippet from each of these authors. Today’s snippet is from S.J. Wynde‘s CICI AND THE CURATOR!

“Whoa! What the—” The delivery girl was wide-eyed and blinking. Cici flipped the lid of the container closed and spun it back around to face her, so that the girl couldn’t see inside the gap caused by the lid resting on the dogs’ heads. The delivery girl stared at her. “What are those things? Where did they come from? How did they—” 

“Loose exhibit,” Cici said glibly. “Sorry about that. Little escape artists, they are.”

“But… how did they… but…” The delivery girl looked as if she might start hyperventilating. Then she took a breath and lifted her chin higher and pulled the strap of her air-board tighter on her shoulder. “Exotic, right. You ain’t kidding.” 

“It’s a great show.” Cici kept a bright smile plastered on her face. “You should come back and see the whole thing.” 

“Didn’t know it was animals,” the girl said. “Thought it was Art.” Her emphasis on the last word was tinged with a hint of scorn. 

“We’ve got some of everything,” Cici said. A hysterical laugh was rising in the back of her throat but she forced it down with an effort. She was piling lies upon lies, digging a trap for herself that was getting deeper and deeper. “It’s mostly art, though. You don’t like art? You’d probably find it boring, then. Really dull, I’m sure.”

“I don’t know.” The delivery girl shook her head, staring speculatively at the back of the food container. She tucked her e-pad into a pouch on her waist and grabbed the thermal bag, then paused. “Can I see ‘em again?” Cici froze with indecision, mind racing. Her mother would… her brother would… she should… It felt like forever but was no more than two or three seconds before she said, “I probably shouldn’t. I should get them back in their stasis chamber. They’re not supposed to be out. But a quick look couldn’t hurt.” Secrets were suspicious. Making a big deal about not letting the girl see the dogs would make her more curious than treating her request as casual interest about something not very important. Very not important. Definitely not the only remaining evidence of murder. 

How much does it cost? That’s part of the awesomeness: Pay what you want! You choose how much you want to pay for these awesome books! You can even choose how big a share we authors get!

ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS is part of the LOWEST TIER! YOU GET IT AND FOUR OTHER BOOKS FOR JUST $5! They are: Moonshadow by Thea Harrison, Cici and the Curator by S. J. Wynde, Whalemoon by Dustin Porta, Bloodrush by Ben Galley. It’s like getting each book for only a dollar!

You decide how much of your purchase goes to the author and how much goes to help keep StoryBundle running. If your purchase price is $15 or more, you get TEN more books: including Eyrie by K. Vale Nagle, Sunset, She Fights by Tameri Etherton, Bursts of Fire by Susan Forest, The Cursing Stones by Sonya Bateman, Night’s Favor by Richard Parry, Song of Shadow by Natalya Capello, Heritage of Power – The Complete Series Books 1-5 by Lindsay Buroker, Prince of Foxes by H. L. Macfarlane, The Wolf at the End of the World by Douglas Smith and Windsworn by Derek Alan Siddoway

The bundle is available for purchase here. Or you can look at SFWA’s blog about the StoryBundle here.

SFWA Bundle: ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS Snippet!

It is my great honor to announce that the Science Fiction Writers of America have chosen ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS as part of their StoryBundle offering this year. Appropriately, the theme of this year’s bundle is FANTASTIC BEASTS.

For the next few days on my blog, I am going to be promoting a snippet from each of these authors. And because it’s my blog, I get to go first!

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.”

How much does it cost? That’s part of the awesomeness: Pay what you want! You choose how much you want to pay for these awesome books! You can even choose how big a share we authors get!

ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS is part of the LOWEST TIER! YOU GET IT AND FOUR OTHER BOOKS FOR JUST $5! They are: Moonshadow by Thea Harrison, Cici and the Curator by S. J. Wynde, Whalemoon by Dustin Porta, Bloodrush by Ben Galley. It’s like getting each book for only a dollar!

You decide how much of your purchase goes to the author and how much goes to help keep StoryBundle running. If your purchase price is $15 or more, you get TEN more books: including Eyrie by K. Vale Nagle, Sunset, She Fights by Tameri Etherton, Bursts of Fire by Susan Forest, The Cursing Stones by Sonya Bateman, Night’s Favor by Richard Parry, Song of Shadow by Natalya Capello, Heritage of Power – The Complete Series Books 1-5 by Lindsay Buroker, Prince of Foxes by H. L. Macfarlane, The Wolf at the End of the World by Douglas Smith and Windsworn by Derek Alan Siddoway

The bundle is available for purchase here. Or you can look at SFWA’s blog about the StoryBundle here.