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Excerpt: Fury of a Demon by Brian Naslund

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Brian Naslund’s Fury of a Demon is the final installment in a fast-paced adventure series perfect for comic book readers and fans of heroic fantasy.

War makes monsters of us all…

The war against Osyrus Ward goes poorly for Bershad and Ashlyn. They are pinned in the Dainwood by monstrous alchemical creations and a relentless army of mercenaries, and running out of both options and allies.

The Witch Queen struggles with her new powers, knowing that the secret of unlocking her dragon cord is key to stopping Ward’s army, she pushes forward with her experiments.

Meanwhile, with every wound Bershad suffers, he gets closer to losing his humanity forever, and as the war rages, the exile turned assassin turned hero isn’t even sure if being human is something he wants.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Fury of a Demon by Brian Naslund, on sale 08/31/2021.


1: Private Rigar

Dainwood Jungle, Sector Two

Wormwrot scouts found the mud totems an hour before dark. Lieutenant Droll called a halt.

The men crowded around to get a look. There were about fifty of the little bastards, pinched from the earth like miniature demons, twisted into positions of suffering, and adorned with all manner of unsettling decorations: Broken fingernails. Shattered bone fragments. Human eyeballs.

The grisly scene made Rigar’s skin crawl.

“Fucking animals,” mumbled their sergeant, Grotto. “Just got no decency at all.”

That meant something, coming from Grotto. Before the reformation of Wormwrot, he’d been muscle at one of Commander Vergun’s gambling dens. Apparently, his favorite punishment for catching men cheating at dice was grabbing their fingers and tearing them off with his bare hands.

“Wouldn’t say they’ve got zero decency,” said Lieutenant Droll, scratching at one of his wild mutton chops, which had streaks of silver amidst the dirty black mane. “They just don’t dole much out to foreign soldiers encroaching on their land.”

Grotto gave Droll a cold look. The men didn’t care for each other, that was known. If the enemy didn’t kill one of them soon, Rigar was fairly certain they’d kill each other.

In that event, Rigar privately hoped that Grotto turned out to be the murdered party. Droll was a strict commander with no tolerance for laziness, cowardice, or panicked behavior during a fight. But he was generally fair with his men, and he’d kept them alive this long. Grotto was plain evil—here for the blood and the violence as much as the money. He’d inflict pain on the enemy when they were available. When they weren’t, Grotto’s ire often shifted to his own men.

“Should we turn back to an extraction point?” asked a new recruit, whose name Rigar hadn’t bothered to learn. He’d only been with them a week. At this point, Rigar didn’t learn anyone’s name unless they proved they could survive for a month in the Dainwood.

Given how bad the last few months had been, half the men in the unit were anonymous to him. They’d most likely stay that way.

“You scared of some mud figurines, soldier?” Grotto asked him.

The recruit shrugged. “Don’t they got magical powers? Or command forest monsters or something?”

“Forest gods,” someone down the line corrected.

Grotto spat. Sighed. “These two idiots.”

Droll stepped in. “They don’t have magical powers. But the fact those eyes haven’t been stolen by crows means they’re recent. That means we stay on the ground ’till we root ’em out. We’ll head to Fallon’s Roost for the night. Hunker down with the skeleton crew posted there.”

“Fuck that,” said Grotto. “I say we—”

Grotto stopped talking when a long shadow fell over him and stayed there.

Their unit’s acolyte had come up the line, and now towered over them. Horns made from dragon bones jutted from his scalp. His eyes glowed an unnatural, orange color. Apparently, the earliest acolytes all wore masks that hid their disturbing faces, but the latest war models didn’t need them.

Strange as they looked, they all had simple, numeric identifiers. This one was 408.

“What is it?” Acolyte 408 hissed. His voice was raspy and stressed. Reminded Rigar of burnt meat crackling over a fire.

“More of their mud statues, sir,” said Droll.

In general, Wormwrot wasn’t big on sirs and salutes. Long as you followed your orders when the steel was out and the blood was flying, Vergun allowed his grunts to keep things pretty informal. But Osyrus Ward was their employer on this contract, and his terrifying acolytes tended to illicit a stiffer response from the men.

“Figured we’d make for Fallon’s Roost to pass the night, then go searching in the morning,” Droll continued.

Acolyte 408 surveyed the totems on the road for a moment, then stomped through them, flattening a significant number with his swollen feet.

He headed toward Fallon’s Roost. They followed.

The acolytes were a mixed bag in Rigar’s opinion. Terrifying as all hell—and known to murder Wormwrot grunts for no discernible reason. If a man took a piss in a place that an acolyte didn’t like, he could get his head torn off for the infraction. But they were gods in combat. Rigar had personally seen Acolyte 408 send thirty-three wardens down the river—tore ’em apart like chaff with the razor-sharp spikes that popped from his fists during a fight.

The memory still gave Rigar nightmares.

They walked for an hour before Fallon’s Roost came into view. It was one of the largest holdfasts along the northern rim of the Dainwood.

When they got within a hundred strides of the fortress, that same new recruit stubbed his toe on something metallic.

“Ow, shit!” hissed that recruit, frowning at the offending object, which was a bunch of armor balled up around a skeleton. “What the fuck is that?”

“Dead Jaguar,” said Rigar.

The recruit frowned. “How’d he get all balled up like that?”

“You don’t know?”

The recruit shrugged. “Tell me.”

Rigar sighed. The prospect of a night in the jungle behind proper walls had relaxed him enough to tell the story. Which he could do, since he’d been there.

“This here’s the site of the biggest victory we’ve won against the Jaguars to date. Wormwrot took control of the holdfast early in the war and we’d been using it as our forward deploy. The Jaguars took offense to that, and attacked, which was an exceedingly foolish idea, seeing as we had twenty acolytes on the walls.”

“So, an acolyte did this?”

“Well, that’s actually a matter up for debate,” Rigar said, then glanced at Droll.

“There was a sorceress,” Droll said. “I fucking saw her.”

“Sorceress?” the recruit asked.

“Yes. The Jaguars had a woman with them when they attacked. She wasn’t wearing any armor and she wasn’t carrying weapons, but she went charging into the fray all the same. When the first acolyte dropped off the walls, she cast a spell that reduced any man wearing armor into a crumpled ball like the one you just stubbed your toe on. Look around.” He gestured across the field. “They’re everywhere.”

“Why would she cast a spell on her own soldiers?” the recruit asked.

“Well, she obviously fucked it up. But before Fallon’s Roost, I heard acolytes were getting their spines ripped out like fish at the morning market.” Droll spat. “Nobody’s seen her since them, so I’m thinking she killed herself.”

The recruit looked at Rigar. “But you didn’t see her?”

“I was taking a shit when the attack started. By the time I got up to the walls, all the fun was over. Just a smoking crater and a bunch of dead Jaguars. No sign of a sorceress, alive or otherwise.”

“Yeah, but she’d have been pulled straight down to hell by the demons she fucked to get her powers,” Droll said, as if this was common and incontrovertible knowledge. “Plus, there was a whole group of Jaguars who retreated into the woods. We went after ’em, but lost the trail at a river.”

“What happened to the acolyte?” the recruit asked.

“Huh?”

“That jumped off the wall.”

“He was just stunned,” said Droll. “The bitch’s magic didn’t take. A few of those soft-palmed engineers with the dragonskin jackets flew in the next day and brought it back to Floodhaven. We stayed in the Roost for another week, but the Jaguars moved on, so we did too.”

“And now we’re back,” said Rigar. “Whole war’s just a horrible circle.”

They finished picking through the balled-up wardens and sounded off to the sentries on the wall. Droll sidled up next to Rigar as they headed into the holdfast and spoke to him in a low tone.

“I’ll need you with me on double-watch tonight. I want my veterans awake and alert once the sun goes down.”

That’s what Rigar liked about Droll. He’d pull you for a crap duty as needed, but he was always right there with you, shoveling the shit.

“You smell trouble?”

“They use those totems to mess with us, that’s known. Most of the time, when you get an obvious signal like that in the road, whatever savage made them are already two valleys over with no plans to return. But this time . . .” Droll trailed off. Scanned the hills. “Yeah, guess I do smell some trouble.”

Rigar made a show of taking a big breath in. “All I smell is this mud and shit and rot.”

“They tend to be pretty close traveling partners.”

* * *

Despite Droll’s premonition, Rigar relaxed once they were inside Fallon’s Roost.

The Dainwood was swollen with danger at all times, but after a week of patrols in the wild jungle, a decent wall and a big acolyte guarding their crew felt like spending the night in the palace of Burz-al-dun. The men who weren’t on duty set up their bedrolls in little groups and started dicing, complaining about the bugs or the dragons or both, and sneaking sips of booze from secret canteens.

There were a few hours before nightfall and Rigar’s watch, so he removed his boots and armor, then used a rag to wipe the red face paint from his face. Some Wormwrot men wore that shit day and night, which Rigar would never understand. Not only was it uncomfortable as all hell in the jungle damp, but it brought pimples all over his chin and cheeks.

When that was done, Rigar ran a quick inventory of his rashes. There were three distinct varieties: a black, bumpy one on his left foot, a flaky situation along his neck, and an angry, red flare up on his upper thigh. The upper thigh area itched like a bastard, and given the location, its potential spread made him nervous.

He dug into his pack and found the ointment a surgeon had given him before shipping out from Floodhaven. Applied it liberally to all three areas. It seemed to be working for the black bumps, but the others two were more stubborn. When they rotated back to Floodhaven, he was going to have words with that surgeon.

As he was finishing up, Private Wister came over.

“Any luck?” he asked with a hopeful look on his face.

“Huh?” Rigar asked, distracted by his dissatisfaction with the ointment. “Oh, right. The boots.”

He reached into his pack again and came out with Wister’s second set of boots, which had taken a rough beating during their last patrol. The men were responsible for keeping their own footwear in order during deployments, and the jungle’s dampness had a way of deteriorating them in a hurry. But Rigar had figured out a clever method for waterproofing a few months ago that involved mixing the useless rash ointment with boiled urine. He’d kept the recipe secret and started taking on contract work from fellow soldiers with ruined boots.

“Good as new,” he said, tossing them over.

Wister held them like they were decorated with diamonds. “They’ll hold up, like Cinder’s have?”

“Yep. You have the guarantee of Rigar’s Wartime Cobblery.”

Wister smiled, then tossed him a canteen. Rigar sniffed it and approved.

“Decent stuff, smells like.”

“That’s top-shelf juniper liquor outta Burz-al-dun,” said Wister. “Enjoy it.”

Rigar nodded. He might. Or, he might sell it off in a few more days when the rest of the men had emptied their canteens.

Wormwrot paid well, but price-gouging liquor in the gloom of the jungle paid better.

Rigar ate a quick dinner of half-rotten rice and a scrap of salted pork. The skyships had spent the last year making a concerted effort to deprive the enemy of food and forage, but a side effect was limited rations on their end, too. There were rumors of some major resupply coming in from Dunfar, which between the wars and the famines was the last country in Terra with viable farmland. Rigar liked Dunfarian cuisine. Lots of spices. But he wasn’t getting his hopes up until the food was in front of him.

He took a nap after dinner. Droll came through near dark and tapped him for the watch. Rigar grabbed his gear and made his way to the wall where he relieved the current sentry. He scanned the field ahead, keeping an eye out for the enemy as best he could in all the darkness. Moonlight glinted off the balls of dead wardens.

The night passed without incident. By the time the gray-light of early morning arrived, Rigar had succumbed to his baser instincts and been itching at his thigh rash with a purpose.

“Stop jerking off on watch, Rigar.”

Rigar turned around to find Droll approaching. “Hey, Lieutenant. I wasn’t jerking off, it’s these damn rashes.”

“Ointment not working?”

“Not really.” He forced himself to stop itching. “By Aeternita. Why would anyone ever live in this wretched, rash-inducing place on purpose?”

Droll shrugged. “Probably because the locals aren’t afflicted. Their forest gods protect them.”

Rigar grunted. “Very funny.”

Droll motioned to the field.

“Anything out there?” he asked.

“Just fog and a few Blackjacks in the distance.”

When they’d first arrived in Almira, the lizards hadn’t returned from the Great Migration yet. Gods, but those were good times, which was saying something because even without dragons, the Dainwood was still a horrific place, full of a thousand different slithering and crawling critters that could kill you with a single bite or sting. Their second day under the canopy, one newbie grunt accidentally set up his bedroll over a nest of giant jungle scorpions who’d stung him dozens of times.

The pain was so bad his nerves went all toxic. He turned delirious and shot himself in the face with a crossbow.

Now, Rigar longed for a time when the scorpions and ants invading your sleeping situation were the primary concern. The dragons of the Dainwood were more common than rats outside a butcher’s alley. In the last week alone, the great lizards had eaten five soldiers he knew personally. Three got scooped up while scouting ahead for fresh warrens, which is known to be dangerous work. But the other two got plucked straight out of camp on their way to breakfast.

How are you supposed to protect against that? A man needs breakfast.

“Hmm,” Droll said, still looking out in the fog. “I don’t like it. The Jaguars could be anywhere.”

“Think it’s true that the Flawless Bershad is fighting with ’em? You heard about the head thing, right?”

Three patrols in Sector Four went missing without a trace two weeks ago. Five days later, their heads turned up in a pile way down in Sector Twelve. A few days after that, the lone survivor turned up at a random extraction point in Sector Five, face swollen to hell with mosquito bites. He said the Flawless Bershad had massacred the patrols, along with some crazy man in white armor.

“I heard,” Droll said. “It’s dragonshit. That soldier was delirious.”

“But—”

“Vallen Vergun killed the Flawless Bershad back in Taggarstan,” Droll interrupted. “I saw that shit myself.”

“What, then his ghost killed the emperor of Balaria afterward?”

“Fuck no. But if you were the Horellian guard who let the emperor take the long swim during your shift, wouldn’t you make up a dragonshit story about how a legend like the Flawless Bershad was responsible?”

That notion had some merit, but before Rigar had a chance to say so, Acolyte 408 approached and sent a cold, silencing shiver down Rigar’s spine. Droll stiffened as well. They both turned around and saluted the hulking, gray-skinned man behind them.

“Report.”

“All clear, sir. Just fog and lizards out there.”

The acolyte’s void-like gaze shifted out over the tangled wilderness.

“Might be those totems were just a diversion,” Rigar said, trying to get the scary bastard to leave.

The acolyte turned to him. “Stay, vigilante. Stop fraternizing.”

“I’m patrolling the perimeter and assessing the morale of my men,” Droll said. “Not fraternizing.”

As far as standing up for your troops, that comment wasn’t much. But seeing as the bastard was two heads taller than a normal man and could pop sharpened bones out of his thick arms, Rigar thought that Droll had summoned some real stones to push back a mite.

The lieutenant scratched at his mutton chops with one hand, but he didn’t break eye contact or back down.

“Assess morale faster,” Acolyte 408 said. The he hopped off the rampart, landing in the muddy yard below. A jump like that would have sent a normal man’s kneecaps on long and independent journeys, but 408 marched back toward the holdfast without a hitch in his step.

“That asshole makes my cock shrink,” Rigar muttered.

“That help or hurt the rash situation?” Droll said, smiling.

Rigar scratched at his crotch again. “Nothing helps anything out here.”

“Shit, Rigar. That rash has turned you into a dour bastard. Look on the sunny side of this deal. Osyrus Ward’s conquered the whole fucking world and we’re on his side.”

“Not sure I’d call working for Osyrus Ward a sunny situation. I’ve heard he brings every corpse that comes back from the jungle to the top of that big tower he built. Fucks ’em before filling them with machinery and the like.”

“Osyrus is a twisted bastard, all right. But our commander is a known cannibal, so . . .”

“Thought those stories about Vergun were just rumors?”

“Naw. Castor all but confirmed it after he got shit-hammered during a dice game. And Castor would know. He’s been Vergun’s second-in-command for more than a year.”

“But isn’t Castor always the one who’s saying there’s gotta be a line somewhere, too? Eating a few people and fucking corpses are two different things.”

Droll shrugged. “There’s creepy shit all over this world. Longer you soldier, the longer you realize that trying to gauge the degrees of who’s worse is a waste of time. Just follow orders, kill what needs killing, and collect your coin if you survive.”

Rigar considered pointing out that Droll’s restrained view on soldiering was a minority outlook in Wormwrot. Most of the men had a murder-and-pillage-first, wait-for-orders-second kind of mentality. But he decided against prolonging the debate. It had been a long night and his bedroll was calling.

“I do like collecting coin,” Rigar muttered.

“And between normal wages and the cat bounties, we are making an awful lot of coin on this war.”

That was a fact. Wormwrot paid well for a mercenary outfit, but Commander Vergun had also issued special bounties on Dainwood Wardens: any man who came back to Floodhaven with one of their Jaguar Masks—and a witness confirming they came by it with violence—was given onehundred gold on the spot. Rigar had personally been paid six bounties, which was middle-of-theroad compared to others, but the men who pushed hard on the bounties often wound up with their eyeballs decorating mud statues.

“Just hope I get the chance to spend mine,” Rigar added.

He had made private plans with himself to use the coin he earned from the war to start up his own cobblery. Given his success with the waterproofing method, he figured that he could have even more success with proper tools and chemicals. And making shoes was a much better longterm vocation than hunting vicious warriors through the jungle.

“If you’re scared of dying, you can always bribe some official to give you a better posting,” Droll said with a smile. “Buy yourself a nice cushy posting on a cargo skyship.”

Rigar sighed. “Those things crash all the time, too.”

“Dammit, Rigar, I told you to look on the sunny side of things. That’s an order. Read me?”

Rigar sighed. “I read you, Lieutenant.”

“Good. Now, I best get back to patrolling before our gray-skinned overlord comes back and—”

Droll’s head exploded.

Wet chunks of skull and brain sprayed across Rigar’s face. The spatter forced one eye shut.

With the other eye, Rigar saw Droll’s body drop to the ground, neck stump pumping a remarkable amount of blood across the stones.

Rigar turned to the forest to find the source of such awesome destruction.

There was a big man in scaled armor the color of fresh snow charging across the field. He had a full helm covering his face and was cradling one of the balled-up warden corpses under one arm.

“Contact!” Rigar shouted, raising his crossbow.

Rigar pressed down on the loading mechanism as he aimed, which created a metal rumble inside the weapon and arranged a bolt with full tension in the chamber. In the precious seconds that took, the charging man had crossed half the field.

By Aeternita, he’s fast, Rigar thought, adjusting his aim for the speed.

When he was a boy, he’d hunted jackals with his father in the badlands of Balaria. This asshole was moving about that pace, despite the armor.

Rigar fired. Plugged him directly in the solar plexus. Kill shot. At least, it should have been.

The bolt shattered across his breastplate as if it was made of Pargossian glass.

Rigar squeezed down on the trigger and held it there, showering the man with bolts.

None of them had a visible impact.

By that time, Wister and Grotto had climbed up to the little stone wall, leveled their own repeating crossbows, and started releasing. They exploded around the charging man in a cloud of chaff. He reared back and threw the balled-up warden. Caught Wister in the chest and whipped him backward. He landed somewhere behind Rigar with a wet smack.

The white-armored man leapt over the wall and grabbed Grotto by the head.

“Morning,” he growled.

Then squeezed.

More blood splashed into Rigar’s eyes, blinding him and putting him on his ass. There were shouts from below. Then sounds of tearing flesh and joints. When Rigar managed to blink his eyes back into a semblance of vision, the white-armored man was looming over a fallen Wormwrot, beating him to death with his own arms.

Rigar stepped forward, planning to try a close-range crossbow bolt to the base of his neck, which looked like a potential weak spot. But the armored man saw him just as he was raising his crossbow. He swatted Rigar away with one of the arms.

Rigar was airborne for a few seconds, then he crashed through a wooden wall. Scraped the shit out of his face on something rough and sharp.

He tried to breathe. Couldn’t. Tried to stand up. Couldn’t. For the third time in as many minutes, he was blinded. All kinds of sharp, scratchy shit in his eyes. His boots were gone, and it took Rigar a second to realize that the white-armored man had hit him so hard that he’d been separated from his footwear.

He blinked until he could make out the blurry outlines of his surroundings. He’d been thrown into an old gardening shed. A bunch of rusted hoes were in one corner.

Still gasping for air, Rigar crawled through the hay, reaching the door and poking his head through.

The whole unit was rushing across the yard, blades drawn. Shouting.

The man in white armor jumped into the muddy fray. He’d dropped the arms and was swinging his fists left and right. He took no discernible damage from the swords and spears clattering against him, but dealt out killing blows each time his fist connected with a man, often jamming his whole arm straight through their armored bodies, then scooping out a bunch of organs as he pulled it back through.

He fought like an acolyte, which made Rigar wonder where Acolyte 408 was.

Less than a minute later, the man in white armor had slaughtered the whole platoon except for Westley, who had the new kind of dragon bone shield Osyrus Ward had designed. The man in white armor beat him back against the wall of the holdfast with a series of brutal punches and shoves and charges that dented the shields, but didn’t break them.

Before he could finish Westley off, Acolyte 408 came around the corner at a full run. Dragonbone barbs popped out of his arm as he ran, turning the limb into the equivalent of a morning star. He slammed his arm into the man in white armor, which sent him flying into the outer wall about thirty strides away, where he shattered two granite blocks and settled into a heap. Alive, but not in a rush to get up.

The acolyte crossed the yard. Stopped a few strides away.

“Master Ward said that we might encounter one of his older models in the field,” he hissed. “Such a primitive application.”

“Did its job, though.”

“Please. A relic like you could never defeat me.”

“Wasn’t trying to. Just wanted to clear the field and soak up the balance of your attention. Wouldn’t want none of it wandering to the top o’ that holdfast.”

The acolyte cocked his head. Looked to the holdfast.

Rigar looked up, too. Squinted. There was another man up there. He wasn’t wearing armor or a shirt or boots, but he was holding a long, queer-looking spear. His dark hair was whipping around in the strong wind.

The man jumped off the holdfast. Collided with Acolyte 408 and jammed the spear straight into his right eye, pinning him to the ground. Acolyte 408 tried to grab the spear shaft, but the man gave his weapon a hard twist.

Acolyte 408 went still.

The spearman was tall. Lean. His black hair was shorter than most Almirans kept it, but unruly and wild all the same. He also had a blue bar on each cheek and about sixty dragon tattoos running down his left arm.

The Flawless Bershad. Had to be.

For unclear reasons, Westley decided this was a good time to charge forward with a war howl and raised sword and braced shield.

Bershad whipped his spear around, shearing the shield apart and sliced Westley’s throat open— his larynx flew into the mud like a chucked stone. Westley fell over, clutching his throat.

Bershad turned back to acolyte 408. Peered into the wound in his eye like a man studying an animal burrow.

The armored man removed his helmet, revealing a long shock of greasy red hair.

“Clean?” he asked.

“Clean enough,” Bershad said. He looked around at the yard of corpses. “Whole thing went pretty smooth, all things considered.”

“Speak for yourself.” The red-haired man got up with a groan. Gave his body a gentle once-over. “Bastard broke a few o’ my scales. Cracked a rib, maybe. And I don’t repair the bastards all quick like you.”

Bershad shrugged. “You’re the one who wanted to go in strong.”

“Yeah.” The redhead smiled. Looked around. “Last time you had all the fun by yourself.”

“I wouldn’t call this fun, Simeon.”

“That’s ’cause you’re a morose bastard. You gotta see the joy in this. The beauty.”

Simeon went over to Westley and tore his head off.

“Again with that shit?” Bershad asked.

“Simple but effective war tactic.” Simeon moved to the next corpse. Pulled his head off, too. “The next Balarian patrol that comes through is gonna find all the bodies but no heads, and they’re gonna be wondering where they went. And when they don’t find ’em, they’re gonna keep wondering. ‘What happened to all those fucking heads?’ they’ll ask. Are the Jaguars eating them? Casting spells? Making bone fences? Who’s to say.”

He tore another man’s head off.

“And when the next battle comes, we’ll have the edge. ’Cause we know what happened to the heads, and they don’t.”

“Do you know how insane that sounds?”

“You lowlanders just don’t understand this type of war. Outnumbered like this—with limited territory and resources—killing the enemy ain’t enough.” He tapped his temple, leaving a bloody mark. “You gotta make war on their minds, too. On their dreams.”

“And tearing the heads off dead men will accomplish that?”

“Exactly. Doubt’s what kills a man, Silas! Doubt, and poor physical conditioning.”

“No. Sharp objects kill people. Doubt just bothers them when they’re trying to sleep at night.”

“Easier to kill a man who’s sleep deprived, too.”

Bershad shrugged. Then he shoved acolyte 408 onto his stomach, drew a meat cleaver from his belt, and started hacking into his spine. Not too hard—more like a butcher making careful quarters of a quality carcass he could sell for a premium.

“You give me shit for taking heads, but you’re the one mutilating all the grayskin creatures.”

“This serves a purpose. Those heads are just extra weight, and I’m not helping you carry them back.”

“Fine. I can always use the exercise. Because poor—”

“Physical conditioning kills men. Yeah. Got it.”

Simeon tore another man’s head off. Then stood up and took a long, deep breath.

“Smell that? Ghalamarian blood. I can always tell the difference. Smells kinda musty. Like bad wheat.”

Bershad sniffed the air.

“I smell it.” Another sniff. “Some of it hasn’t gone cold quite yet.”

Simeon smiled. “Interesting.”

Bershad turned and looked directly at Rigar—wild, green eyes narrowing. “I’ll get him.”

Before Rigar could even think about running away, Bershad had crossed the yard and yanked him out of the shed by his wrists, pulling so hard it felt like they’d come out of the sockets. He hauled him through the mud and left him in a heap. Glared down at him.

“Name.”

“R-Rigar. Private Rigar.”

“Where are you from?” Simeon asked.

“Pargos,” he said quickly.

Rigar was really from Cornish—one of the Ghalamarian cities that bordered the Skojit territory of the Razorback Mountains. But that seemed like an unwise origin to share.

“That right?” Simeon asked. “’Cause Rigar doesn’t sound particularly Pargossian. Their names always have a shitload of Ls in them. Calluckstan. Ackllemel. Mollevan. Like that.”

“Uh, I guess I’m an exception?”

Simeon gave him a long look, then crouched down. Up close, Rigar could see that his white armor was made from dragon scales that were battered with nicks and scars and dents. Beneath the scales, there were scores of small moving parts that fit to his muscular body like a snake’s skin.

“What do you think, Silas?”

“Pargossians all smell like those jasmine spices they trade,” Bershad said. “He smells like wheat and fear.”

“Wheat. Ghalamarians and their fucking wheat.” Simeon stood up. “Whelp, it’s settled. Gonna use Rigar’s skull as my new piss pot.”

He raised his bloody fist. Rigar dug around in his pockets for his shell, but his fingers were jelly.

“Wait.” Bershad stopped him. “Might be he does smell like jasmine after all. Yeah. I’m getting some whiffs of it—just traces on his breath, though. Could be my imagination.”

“Quite the conundrum,” Simeon said. “What’ll sway the balance, you think?”

“Oh, I’d say the value of the words his breath can form will have a direct impact.”

“I can be valuable!” Rigar said quickly, trying to think. “We’re under contract with Osyrus Ward. Wormwrot is supposed to find and map every dragon warren in the Dainwood. There’s something inside of them that the Madman wants. We find the warrens, and the acolytes come take it out.”

“I already know that,” Bershad said. “Gonna have to do better.”

Rigar tried to think of something else, but his mind was blank with fear.

“How long have you been soldiering for Wormwrot?” Bershad pressed.

“A month,” Rigar lied, figuring they’d have less sympathy for a veteran.

“Before that?”

“I was a hired blade for merchant galleys in and out of Taggarstan.”

“Why the change of vocation?”

Rigar shrugged. “Commander Vergun was hiring up pretty much any man who knew his way around a sword. And he pays better than anyone. Ten gold pieces a week.” Rigar swallowed. “We get an extra hundred for each Jaguar we kill.”

“Bounties, is it?”

Rigar nodded.

Bershad’s face darkened. “Where is Vallen Vergun?”

Rigar hesitated. “He moves around. Same as you. I . . . I don’t know where he is.”

“Ghalamarians are known for their lack of specific knowledge.” Simeon growled. He raised his blood-soaked fist again.

“Wait! Just wait!”

Simeon’s fist stayed where it was, poised over Rigar’s face and dripping blood onto his forehead. Rigar tried to think of something useful they wouldn’t already know.

“We use a secret code to rank the warrens. There’s a rating system based on the amount of vines and overgrowth coming out the entrance.” Rigar drew a series of symbols in the dirt beside him. “This is for a small one. This is medium. And these are for the largest. My crew’s never found a big one, but I heard from another private that Commander Vergun joins the escort crew personally to harvest them. Doesn’t want anything going wrong.”

Bershad squatted. Studied the symbols.

Simeon scratched his head, which led to a streak of brain and blood through his hair. “So, this one a Ghalamarian or not?”

Bershad looked back at Rigar. Scanned his wounds. “You’re bleeding pretty bad, and you got a lot of jungle between here and home. If you brave the wilds, chances are you’ll wind up taking an ugly and painful trip down the river. You want it done clean, instead?”

He lifted his spear a little. Not in a threatening way, just to make it clear what was on offer.

Rigar looked at the spear point, then the clean hole in Acolyte 408’s head. Then he looked at the torn and shredded corpses that Simeon had created. Between the two, a clean death seemed preferable, but their next skyship extraction point was only ten leagues away. He could make it.

“I’ll take my chances with the jungle, if you’re offering the option.”

Bershad nodded. “I think this one’s Pargossian after all. They’re known for being stubborn bastards.”

Simeon sighed. “Your merciful nature is the most irritating thing about you, Silas.”

“Nobody’s ever told me that before,” said Bershad. “You sure you aren’t just a murderous bastard?”

“Might be a factor as well.” Simeon spat. Gave Rigar a long, hard look. Then he pointed east. “Go.”

Rigar crab-walked backward—hoping to get some space in case it was a trick—then got to his feet and started a stumbling walk. His ribs were screaming and his face was bleeding and he didn’t have any boots, but he didn’t care. He could make it.

“And Rigar?” Bershad called.

He turned around, sinking his shoulders and preparing for a spear to be hucked through his heart. But Bershad was still squatting on the ground—his blue tattoos a stark contrast against his skin in the morning light. He pointed up with one finger.

“Keep an eye on the skies. The dragons rule this jungle.”

Copyright © Brian Naslund 2021

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