JUST ELEVEN 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 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.
“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.”
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.