Hard Kill and Zombie 6 – Free Stories

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Wanted to inform anyone interested one of my Military Sci-Fi shorts “Hard Kill” will be available free at Amazon August 8 – 12. Here’s the Link. 

Also, I’ve been serializing another story, Zombie Six: Planetfall over at my author’s blog. It’s up to chapter 10. Click HERE for the start.

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And hey, if any of you have read one of my books, could you do me a solid and fire off a quick review at Amazon or Goodreads? Doesn’t have to be a book report, a few honest lines will do fine. Every one helps and I’d greatly appreciate it.

Thanks much. Have a great day.

 

Zombie 6: a new mil-sf serial.

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Some of you know I write spec-fiction as a sideline. Here’s some info on a mistress project I’m working on while I hammer through my next full-length novel. First three chapters up now. I’ll update it bi-weekly. Thanks and enjoy.

https://pattodoroff.com/eshu-international-illustrated-excerpts/zombie-six/

Storytime once again

No pictures this time –  Sorry. Here’s the title piece from the second installment of “The Clar1ty Wars – Under Strange Stars”

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***

 

UNDER STRANGE STARS
“Versace,” the suave man nodded. A pair of impossibly beautiful women writhed on either side.
He could see pores on their tanned skin, artful stubble, rippling silk, the swell of breasts… The entire side of the building was a hi-def screen.
He tore his gaze away.
Cross the plaza, then up the stairs…
The man in the ad leaned forward. Winked. “There’s no pleasure quite like being envied.”
***
“I envy you, brother.” The young man embraced him, kissed both cheeks.
“Call me ‘Tenuk’.”
The young man bowed his head in apology. “Please stand still then, Tenuk.” He undid the top button so the jacket hung open casually. Patterned wool, the colors of slate and mint, showed through. The vest was tight. Smooth.
The young man frowned then looked back at the elderly man perched on the edge of the couch. “Relaxed is better, don’t you think?” he offered.
The older man had arrived by car after breakfast. Brown and gnarled, faded kufi on his grizzled hair, he was mukhtar – one of the chosen who had stood beside the Prophet during his years in exile. Such was the honor, the gravity of the occasion.
The elder scrutinized Tenuk’s suit with his good eye. After a minute, he grunted. Satisfied.
“You must not hurry,” he rasped. “Their machines look for faces, yes. But behavior too. Anything suspicious.”
He lifted his clawed hand with its three fingers. “A man in your position does not run.”
“Right. There’s no rush,” the younger one chimed in. “Just get inside. Through the first set of doors into the building. Once you’re past the outer perimeter, it will be easy.”
“God willing,” Tenuk had breathed automatically.
“He is,” the mukhtar declared.
Tenuk wished he had a reply, something inspired – devout. But no.
The Prophet taught there were times faith had no words. It must be so now; his mind was empty as the space between stars.
Arriving at the safe house the previous evening, he’d been shocked at its size, the art, furniture, the technology in every room. In a gated neighborhood with perfect lawns and private security, it was —
The younger man had met him at the door, read his face. “It is necessary,” he explained. “Our struggle takes many forms, wears many masks. We must blend in.”
He merely nodded. It was late and he felt submerged. Carried along.
The younger man seemed to understand, had picked up his suitcase and showed him to his room in silence. They padded down long halls with deep carpet and moonlight silvering framed art. At the end of one wing, a door opened on a huge chamber. Empty, save a bed in the center and a small dresser. A wall of glass overlooked the ocean.
He stepped in, heard the door click shut behind him. The proportions made him abruptly small. Off-balance. It was as large as the Executive Lounge.
He’d gone to the glass wall and stared for a long time – an hour, maybe more – watching the ocean shimmer and breathe. At some point, he fell into the bed, deep and dreamless, until they woke him that morning.
In the living room, the younger man handed him the briefcase. “Walk around. Get used to the weight.”
He had hefted the case, felt the strain in his shoulder. He paced back and forth.
“Straighten your back,” the older one coached.”Swing your arms slightly, as if it were full of papers. Good.”
After several circuits, both had made approving noises. He stopped in front of them. The younger one handed him his Movado Charm, then pinned a laminated ID on his lapel. A veri-chip waf0er winked beside the photo; his serious face. A tiny corporate holo-logo with the name in black print along the bottom. Tenuk Jumaat. E-con Biosystems.
“The car will drop you off inside the downtown cordon.” The young brother patted the ID. “This is authentic, registered in the company database. It’ll get you past any security you meet on the street.”
“But you must act the part,” the old man urged him. The puckered scar around his missing eye tightened as he frowned. “There must be no doubt you belong there. Can you do that?”
He had nodded, sucked in his stomach. Turning to the younger man, “What about detectors? With the threat level up, surely the added security will–”
He had cut him off, boasting like a child about a new toy. “CL20 is very stable. Super low emissions. Plus, I sprayed them with a poly-vinyl membrane. It forms an air-tight seal, even on fabric. I tested it myself,” he added proudly.
The young man stopped, suddenly embarrassed. There was an awkward pause, then he brushed the front of Tenuk’s jacket, straightened the lapels with a weak smile. “Make it past the first ring and no one will even notice you.”
“Of course he will make it,” the older man admonished.”God protects the faithful.” He squinted. “You are steadfast, aren’t you brother?”
Tenuk bowed his head. “Of course.”
“Then God will smile on your efforts.”
Last of all, the young man handed him the pen. Heavy, shiny gold with an infinity symbol etched near the top. “Two clicks.”
“Two clicks,” he echoed, then slid it gently inside his jacket pocket.
When it was time to leave, the three of them stood in the hall, him at the open door, the two of them a pace back. A long pearl-white car gleamed in the driveway.
He had turned to them. “Everything you’ve done—”
“Is nothing compared to you, brother,” the younger one smiled.
“All in the Prophet’s service,” the mukhtar intoned.
“How can I thank you? I don’t even know your names.”
The older one had taken him by the elbow, turned him toward the purring limousine. “We will recognize each other in Paradise.”
***
“Sail paradise!”
The image on the building shifted: a white catamaran skipped across crystal-cut azure waves. Palms swayed in a luminous sky. He caught his breath. He swore he could step onto the beach. “Book your reservations now.”
He glanced around to see if anyone noticed his hesitation, but the younger brother was right; no one gave him a second look.
Back at the curb, his skin had itched. The limo’s rear door had popped open to reveal a huge blue and gray armored vehicle crouched on the sidewalk beside the concrete barricades. The gold Central Enforcement shield flashed in its flank, a fat-muzzle gun in its top turret. The limousine lingered as he queued up at the barriers, then, once he was deep in line, slipped into traffic and disappeared.
There were soldiers everywhere, bulked out in body armor, muttering into throat mikes, cradling stubby, complicated rifles that looked like monstrous folded insects. The aluminum tree of a surveillance mast sprouted over the checkpoint, limbs heavy with black-bulb cameras, antennae and tiny radar dishes. The line was moving fast, people filing through. His mind boiled. To step out now, push, run, would ruin everything.
Three people, then two, then one. A soldier waved him forward. He was at the turnstile.
He wondered how quickly he could reach into his jacket, if he would have a split-second warning before they grabbed him… A gloved hand came up with a scanner, blinked his ID. The hulking trooper waited for confirmation, perfectly still.
He could see himself, distorted in the mirror-shade visor: new suit, thin face, eyebrows raised impatiently.
A green light lit overhead, then the soldier and the cameras swiveled to the woman behind him. No one even glanced at his briefcase.
The turnstile click-clacked and Tenuk Jumaat strode into the heart of the Profligate.
He’d been warned Government Plaza was hectic mid-morning. His arrival was timed precisely for that reason. He simply wasn’t prepared for what that meant.
The square actually seethed with humanity. Officials and functionaries swarmed in the open space like feverish, well-dressed ants, funneling in and out of government offices. Tiny scrolling holo-spheres bobbed in the crowd – hundreds of personal Charm-displays – glowing, moving like mythical will-o’-wisps among the clamor of thousand disconnected voices.
The buildings surrounding the plaza flashed more of the massive video ads; a skyline montage of designer gene-tech, exotic cybernetics, specialized bio-software for any and every whim. Clothes, luxury cruises, yachts, implant jewelry… all hawked by a parade of the sleek and beautiful: icons of opulence presiding over the bedlam of avarice.
He surveyed the crowd. The people here even dressed like the models. In the image of their gods, he thought. Thronging at their feet.
On the far side of the plaza, the black glass spire of the Trade and Transit Authority pierced the rinsed blue sky. His goal.
He stepped into a flow of foot traffic, pacing himself, intent but unhurried. The Parliament Dome gleamed on his right, white and jewel-like in the pale sun. He spied the jade tower of Central Enforcement Headquarters ten blocks away, dogs never far from their masters. Dozens of black-clad soldiers clustered at the square’s six access points. Spindly pacification drones stalked the perimeter like steel spiders.
Before he left, he wouldn’t have been allowed within five blocks of this place. His family had been Fugees, Earth’s scraps risking the long sleep across the void hoping for a better life only to find they had dropped even lower than second-class citizens.
Yet drape tailored cloth over his dark skin, code in a different name and number, and suddenly he was acceptable. Those things weren’t him, didn’t make him any more or less a human being, but here he was.
It was a travesty. Blasphemy.
He walked on, head down, feeling the weight of that thought, of the briefcase, the tightness of the vest with each breath. Hundreds jostled him, flowed past without meeting his eyes, without a murmur of apology. Holo-spheres shattered and reassembled as he passed through, barely a flicker of annoyance registering on the user’s face.
All these people, yet each was utterly alone. The crowd wasn’t a mosaic, but a mass of oblivious fragments.
Oblivious not just to the person beside them he realized, but to primal things. These aristos had exploited, squandered so much for so long, they took the sun’s warmth on their skin for granted, the fresh, un-recycled air, the bright space over their heads. All the things they denied the thousands consigned to off-world mines, to low-g factories and cramped Belt habs, huddled in the fragile colonies that worked the craters and asteroids, straining to meet their quotas in rusty ships held together with wire, bootleg software, aluminum tape and prayer. All those who made their indolence possible.
Half way across the plaza now.
Twelve stories up, the latest Ero-Tech doll sprawled across the face of an office tower. “Svetlana Series Nine. Upgrade your sex drive, comrade.”
He couldn’t help but stare. The cyborg’s sensuality was so brazen, so perfect. So unreal.
How can they make such things?
The answer struck him like a blow: they have even lost the capacity for intimacy. With themselves, with each other, with God. Gorged on resources, they have to twist technology to sate their appetites.
It was beyond cruelty or callousness, as if they had traded their humanity away. Sold it for a bump in their next quarterly report.
After all, what good is a soul if you’re not using it?
He suddenly felt like the only true person in the city, a man surrounded by a legion of doppelgangers. Shades from some mirror dimension.
The Prophet was right: they were beyond wicked. Beyond redemption.
The cabbie yesterday spoke of Abraham, the old man begging for the city of Sodom. Would the Almighty spare it if there were found fifty righteous residing within? Naive, Abraham pleaded his way to forty, thirty, twenty, down to ten.
The city burned.
He looked around. Here in a crowd this size, were there not even nine others?
He moved through the press, listening. No alarms whopped, no soldiers ran toward him waving rifles or shock sticks. The skies remained silent.
The TTA building loomed ahead. He could see the stairs up to the entrance.
Scanning the sea of faces, he bit back his scorn. Humanity can harness the power of the sun to power space ships, send crew and cargo sleeping through the silent depths between stars – a seed in the vast night. We span the gulf of centuries and light years only to see the same old hatreds, fears, and squalor take root under strange stars.
We bring ourselves with us.
Sin is in our bones and only the fire of God can burn it out.
Nearly there now.
He understood he had died all those years ago when people like these had subtracted him and his parents like numbers on their efficiency reports. Downsizing. Restructuring. Positions surplus to requirements. He had survived the voyage out to the Belt, but the severance notice might as well have been a death warrant. They had taken everything.
A bench sat to one side of the central staircase, empty, brown and smooth. Three birds pecked at crumbs in a foil wrapper near one of its curled feet. With a logic more urge than articulate, he veered toward them, drew close in quick steps.
At the bench, he stamped his foot and stood to watch the birds flutter into the sky. They winged over the rooftops and vanished.
He realized a man in a black suit was staring at him. He smiled and mounted the steps to the TTA Administration.
The wall of black glass windows rose before him, reflections moving across the framed expanse like slabs of deep ocean. He took a breath and plunged through the door.
Air-conditioning chilled the perspiration on his face. He was inside, in a tiled foyer: desks, flatscreen directories, a row of full-spectrum scanners.
A large, polite man in a blue uniform stepped forward. “Good morning, sir. Do you have an appointment?”
“I do.”
“Fine, sir. Step this way and I’ll log you in. I just need to scan your ID, get your thumbprint and signature. Then we’ll get you on your way.”
He reached inside his jacket. “Of course.”
***
A flash of light and heat like a sliver of sun. Then a rumble of thunder – approaching hoof beats – echoing down the canyons of concrete and steel. Those not vaporized drown in a deluge of glass. Tongues of fire begin to lick twisted beams, claw through the rubble. Ashes and choking dust swirl on a hot wind as sirens begin to sound across the city, their chorus rising with the vast shroud of smoke, wailing like the ghosts of the newly dead.

The Grim Fall 4 – STUNTIES

Still deciding which fiction project to pursue in the new year. In the meantime, this is the latest from my post-apocalyptic fantasy piece. Hope you enjoy.


FOUR: STUNTIES

The mine’s entrance was little more than a low, round cave lit by flaming torches. Inside, it turned into a narrow passage that ran roughly fifty paces before opening abruptly to a second, larger cavern. From there, three more passages led to different areas of the mine; the North, West and South shafts that dove into the gnarls of cramped shafts, caves and grottos carved in the mountain’s heart. A forth opening next to the main entrance led to the Chief’s Grotto. Guarded night and day by a pair of heavily armored brutes from his warband, no one went into Largash Goretusk’s presence unless specifically summoned. Anyone who tried otherwise was butchered on the spot.

Addas had only met the Chief once, the day Chalk presented him to the clan as his drudge and apprentice scavenger. Addas remembered the orc’s sinuous bulk, how he’d leaned forward in his throne of bones and fur, a huge hand adorned with iron rings closing around his throat, yanking him closer. Goretusk had looked him over and shook his head, laid a blade on Addas’ throat. Addas remembered hard, bloodshot eyes narrowing in a flat slab of a face, yellowed lower tusks curling up in a snarl, the stench of cruelty. The sinews in the Chief’s arm had coiled and Addas squealed, certain he was about to die, and pissed himself. Goretusk’s nose had wrinkled in scorn and he started to laugh. He threw him back at Chalk’s feet. “You want this piglet, you feed him. He stays useful and stays out of my way or he gets slit. Clear?”

Chalk had nodded without a word, cuffed Addas on the head and dragged him out. The memory still made his stomach knot.

Stretches of each section in the mine were claimed by different orc families, yards of dank burrows guarded fiercely, bitter rivalries measured in inches. Scorch the world, orcs still found a way to fight over territory. Stronger, bigger families lumped near the surface, outcasts and the weak were shoved deeper where the air was foul and the light dingy. Addas guessed hundreds of greenskins, orc and goblin, lived like pale blind maggots in the deep dark below the main shafts. He only saw those he scraped past in a tunnel, gaunt faces illuminated by guttering, stinky torchlight. The rest he calculated by feel, and smell.

Except for a council in Chief Goretusk’s grotto, the central cavern was the only place one could see more than a dozen orcs at a time. Before the Fall, a gathering like it wouldn’t be worth a pitcher of spit, more riot than anything else, but now it was the height of greenskin endeavor. It was the Swap, the clan’s one and only marketplace. More than that, the Swap was the Black Sand’s lifeblood and lifeline; their source of food, goods, news, and their only contact with those outside their walls.

Addas hesitated, picked his path before plunging in. He wanted to get through as fast as he could, hide in the crowd’s convulsion and noise. The wide cavern floor was a maze of crude stalls, threadbare awnings, and vendors’ tables. Most were iron-mongers offering weapons, tools, or armor, but several advertized rough-stitched hides, mangy fur capes, even bowls of lumpy gruel and sticks of greasy mystery meat. Dozens of small braziers spit and flickered, emitting more oily soot than warmth, their brume mixing with the roar of orcs arguing, bartering, bellowing in their guttural tongue. Smaller, faster goblins scurried through the sea of burly bowed legs carrying goods, messages, picking pockets… Addas counted as many brawls going on as trades. A few worn paths wove through the mess to the far side of the cavern where the main shafts were. Addas stepped into the flow of chaos and despite the clamor, immediately sensed a strange pressure in the air. Thicker than smoke it was, and ready to pop.

Another dozen steps, Addas saw the reason.

Stunties. A dozen of the little bastards.

A veritable troop of Dwarves stood guard over a string of ponies and pack-mules on the north side of the cavern. The track-makers.

Twenty paces of open space separated the Dwarves from the greenskin mob, and Addas felt the ancient grudge between the two races seething around the cavern. Even felt it stir in his bones. If it weren’t for the Treaty, there’d be blood soaking the dirt right now, sure as shit stinks. Still, desperate times need desperate measures; however surly, both sides were abiding by the terms.

Tired and hungry as he was, Addas took the long way to the hole that led to his burrow. Wasn’t every day he saw outsiders in Black Sands territory, let alone Dwarves.

Their usual stoutness long since burned off, the Stunties were gaunt and looking serious as a knife in the belly. Their armor was black, gleaming and smooth like it was new from a forge. Every Dwarf held a naked blade at their side, casual but ready. Addas thought about his one good javelin head and wondered what it would take to get his hands on steel like theirs. More than he could scrape together in a lifetime, probably.

Of all the races, the Dwarven folk had weathered the Fall the best. It was said their Gods warned them by rune and seer, that they sealed the massive doors to their underground cities and feasted until the fires burned out. Some even whispered a Dwarf God or two survived, hidden among their people, and the Stunties were scheming to take over what remained with the help of their housebroken deities. Addas figured that was a steaming pile of envy and rot-gut hooch talking.
The Gods were dead; ashes and bone scattered across the Three Worlds.

Besides, who in their right mind wanted to reign over a scorned and broken land?

The Dwarf leader was an odd one, easy to pick out. Taller than average, maybe up to Addas’ chest, he radiated authority like a white-hot coal. With flaming red hair to match his attitude, and sharp green eyes, the strangest thing was the thorn tattoos coiling across his clean-shaven cheeks. Addas had never heard of a beardless Stuntie. Must be some kind of Fall sickness, he thought. Or a punishment.

Big Red had a wicked double-head axe head standing upside down beside his right leg. His fingers caressed the handle like he was itching to snatch it up and put it to use. Addas spied runes on the broad steel, chunky marks marching below the edge. Chalk used to boast he could cipher Dwarvish scratchings, and a bit of Elvish too. Addas never learned the whole truth of that claim, but the old bastard did live long enough to beat a few runes into his head. Which was why Addas started when he saw the icon on the buckler that rested against Big Red’s other leg.

An anvil: a Dunak dwarf from the White River. A long way from home, these Dwarves were. He wondered what, by Gruumsh’s Shattered Balls, would bring them all the way here in the dead of winter?

Big Red caught Addas staring and gazed back. The look was more curious than hostile, but Addas turned away quickly anyway. If the Chief caught wind of him eyeballing visitors, he’d get a kicking, no doubt. Lifting the sledge like a shield, he went straight into the South hole. Stunties were trouble, and he had enough of that in his life already.

Deeper in the mine, each turn, each drop, the stale air grew heavier, rank with damp, mold and piss. Caves yawned off the sides of the main tunnel, wretched dens filled with squabbling orc families. In an especially wide stretch, the rock walls were notched floor to ceiling with sleeping cubbies like human tombs, studded with guttering torches and rude lanterns.

Stepping aside for oncoming traffic, none of the orcs greeted him or gave a second glance once they saw he wasn’t carrying food. Addas’ place in the pecking order long since fixed, the piss-soaked sledge warded off any other problems as well. Everybody had their own stink to worry over.

The shaft sloped down and down again, deep into a new section of the mine, ending in a tiny chamber bristling with limestone devil spikes. Addas twisted through them, ducked into a partially collapsed tunnel on the far side, then slid down a length of loose shale to his burrow.

Snat had found it for him the day after Chalk went in the dirt. Little more than a stone ledge with a ratty hide for a curtain, the best thing about it was it difficult for full-size orcs to reach.

Addas misered his lamp oil worse than a Dwarf with silver. Deep and isolated, the place was syrupy dark when you snuffed out your wick, thick and heavy enough to choke you if you thought on it too hard. But the air was cool – a touch cleaner somehow. Sometimes as he fell asleep, Addas even heard the sound of rushing water echoing in the hard black. There was a tall fissure in the granite face a few paces past his shelf. He studied it once with a candle stub, saw that he might squeeze through in a pinch, but never found the time or inclination to explore further.

Home.

Lighting a battered tin lamp, Addas began the careful removal of his armor and gear. First he set the cleaver, javelin and skinning flint aside. Next his belt, the pack with its carefully wrapped horn, and his vest.

Finally, he began to undo his mail shirt.

He winced as he tugged the buckles open, the pain shooting across his chest, ribs. The dried blood pulled his skin, the gash weeping as he pulled it off. The undershirt was ruined, little more than a rag to start. Definitely one now. He’d have to scrub the mail straight away if he wanted to keep the iron rings from rusting any more.

Get to it now, he heard Chalk say. Fight don’t let you sharpen your blade once it starts.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know,” Addas murmured. “‘Take care of your gear and your gear will take care of you.'”

It took several painful tries, but eventually he held up the mail shirt and studied it in the feeble light. Thin, dull brown with age and use, the front glistened where the rings were severed and still sticky with blood. Odd loops of copper or tin, even leather cord, betrayed half-a-dozen older repairs. A pair of kidney-low holes in the back must have done in the original owner. Mark of a hellspike, Chalk claimed, Hades’ minions known for being backstabbing little feckers.

Chalk had bequeathed it to Addas the morning he died. The old tracker could have paid off a debt, the Chief’s boys already gathering like vultures to divvy up his gear. But Chalk passed it to Addas on the sly, the warty old brute bubbly-blood whispering he should tuck it out of sight.

Worth more’n you, runt. Smith could melt a dagger or three out of it.

He’d grabbed Addas’ shirt. No one gives a runny shit to saving your skin. You’ll have work harder, smarter. Earn the right to keep it. Make yourself valuable so they think twice before they gut you. Gotta be worth more alive than dead.

Addas set the mail shirt down, emotions tearing him two ways. Cruel old bastard was worm food – good riddance. But what did it mean when a ghost’s scorn was the only kindness left, and letting go looked easier than going on?

No answer came to mind. Even Chalk was uncharacteristically silent.

“Might as well pray to the dead gods,” Addas growled, and jabbed his fingers in the wound. He probed his side, ignoring the pain that seared along his ribs. He cuffed back the welling in his eyes.

“Less think – more work.” That had been Chalk’s solution for near everything.

The edges of the gash were raw, and Addas could see the purple-brown bruising starting to spread. At least the bleeding had stopped. He looked at the rent in the shirt again. “I’m gonna get gouged in more ways than one, getting patched up here.”

But there was no choice at all, not if he wanted to stay alive. Poor armor is always better than none.

Setting the mail shirt aside, he picked up his vest, his pouch, belt, water skin, and skinning dagger one by one, and inspected them in turn. Only when he had gone over every inch, edge, and seam and was satisfied at their condition, did he allow himself to look at the horn.

Carefully, quietly, he fished a slab of jerky from under his bed mat, tore off a hunk, then began to unwrap the rags.

“Ooooh…izzat what I think it is?”

There was a scrunch of gravel and flap of cloth as a small goblin dropped into his burrow.

Addas spun, reflexively jabbing with the horn. “Feck me, Snat. Stop the sneaky devious. I’m gonna shank you one of these days.”

The goblin grinned. “Sneaky devious is what I am.” He yanked the horn out of Addas’ hand. “Besides, shank me, and who’d flip your smuggle?”

Addas clawed for the horn but Snat clambered up on his bed shelf and began earnestly scrutinizing the horn up and down its length.

The goblin was typical of his race; small, about the size of an older human child with pale green skin and a wiry body. Everything about him looked sharp: his cheeks, pointed chin with an arrowhead goatee, hooked nose, pointed ears. Even his bright amber eyes were narrow and slanted. Snat, whose full name was Gezwill Snatterwaul of the Slowshiv clan, was like a cutpurse dagger: short, ugly, and sharp. And occasionally very handy to have around.

He’d been a shaman’s apprentice before the Fall, one of Bargrivyek’s faithful, ironically devoted to peace between the ever-quarrelling goblin tribes. But the treacherous gods being dead, and devotees of any stripe killed out of spite, Snat hid his former vocation. Disavowed it, in fact. Now, instead of spells, poisons, and potions, Snat lugged a goatskin bundle of hand tools. Addas didn’t know how he did it, but the goblin had everything in there from a maul to lock picks. Snat claimed there was nothing mechanical he couldn’t patch up or make better. For a price.

Truth be told, in Addas’ experience, he was annoyingly right. If it weren’t for the little goblin’s expertise, he’d be scrounging beyond the walls with nothing but rags and a wood cudgel.

There was nothing Snat couldn’t find either, seeing as he was the boss of the Nick; the goblin black market. Given enough time and money, if it still existed in this wreck of a world, he could get it. “Keep the silver coming, I’ll find you a bridge to the broken moon,” was his favorite phrase.

Snat kept up the chatter as he inspected the horn. “You see the stunties? Of course you saw ’em. How could you miss ’em? Bold as balls up there in the Swap. I mean I know they’re short and easy to overlook but they’re stirring up shit, big time. Chief Lard-Arse is–”

“Largash,” Addas corrected. “Chief Largash Goretusk.”

“–Lard-Arse is fielding their embassy right now. One of the bearded little feckers is even some kind of Prince. Making demands, he is. ‘Course our Chief is acting all frothy and monstrous, flogging his dog at ’em like he knows shit from porridge and he’s got muscle to do anything other than bend over and take it. Feck no. Stunties got everyone by the short and curlies these days. Still…Dwarves in this weather? Coming here from the White River? What, by Maglub’s hairy sack, what do you make of that?”

“Nothing to make,” Addas said carefully. “Got nothing to do with me.”

Snat was still scrutinizing the horn, but he nodded like he’d heard Addas and agreed. After another second, the goblin cocked his head and eyed him suspiciously. “Slap me stupid. This is real. Where’d you get it?”

“From a unicorn,” Addas said.

From a unicorn, he says. Smartarse. Where?”

Addas said nothing, held out his hand for the horn.

“Fine.” Snat slapped it back in his palm. “Tell me later.”

“Maybe.”

“You will.” Snat spied the mail shirt. “Shit me blind! Prancey pokey pony do that?”

Addas nodded.

The goblin whistled appreciatively. “Using up all the luck left in the world, aint’ ya?”

Addas let out a bitter laugh. “Making my own.”

“The horn for a patch job, half a pound of jerky, half a loaf of barley and an ounce of salve for that slice,” Snat said quickly.

Addas laughed again, less bitter. The post-run haggle was a ritual between them. “Half the horn for a full pound, full loaf, the salve, and iron rings for the mend.”

The goblin grabbed his crotch. “Iron rings,” he scoffed. “Want my stones too? Two-thirds of the horn, new copper rings, half jerky, half a loaf, and a javelin head out of the final third.” He leaned towards Addas. “You know that iron head won’t last forever.”

Addas hesitated for a split-second and the little Goblin smiled. Addas lifted his arm and bared his injured side. “What am I going to do about this though?”

Snat’s amber eyes radiated mock sympathy. “Suffer silently?”

Addas held his gaze. “Throw in half an ounce of salve.” He’d reached bottom. Addas needed everything he could get for the horn, but pus and a fever from infection were out of the question.

The goblin spit in his hand and held it out. “Done.”

Addas spat in his own and they shook.

The horn and Addas’ mail shirt vanished into Snat’s tunic. The goblin winked. “Now to see if me and the boys can’t pinch one of them ponies. Cooks’ll pay good for horsemeat.”

“Talk about stirring up shit,” Addas exclaimed. “Chief’ll bust his gut, embassy horse goes missing. Breaks the Treaty. ”

Snat shrugged, started climbing the shale. “Hey, joke ’em if they can’t take a f—” Suddenly a bellowing started echoing off the rock, down the slope from the mouth of the tunnel above. An orc’s voice.

“Hey Piglet! Crawl your hairy little arse out here. Chief wants you in the Grotto. Now!”