This Iron Kingdoms story is part of a loosely connected series I’ve been writing off and on for the last five years about a misfit bunch of dwarves, or Rhulfolk, who have been stationed at a place called Baram Fort at the ass-end of nowhere guarding a pass no one cares about. They’re all drunks, miscreants, thieves, and worse, and I’ve had a lot of fun writing about them. The story below, published in 2012, is one tale in my “Dirty Dwarves” saga, and Privateer Press has given me permission to post it here.
Captain Corleg Ironforged removed his helmet, upended it, and poured a thin stream of sweat into the mud. He stood ankle-deep in the stuff at the edge of a vast bog that stretched as far as he could see, in the middle of the route he and his men had been following for a week. Their march through the northern Thornwood and the Bloodsmeath Marsh had provided limited visibility, and he was no longer certain they were going in the right direction to reach the human city of Corvis. The heavy canopy of the trees they had just passed through had offered some respite from the intense summer heat, but he knew the murky water would be like standing in a warm bath. To make matters worse, his heavy Forge Guard armor would intensify the sun’s burning glare in the more exposed region ahead, although it might also keep the hordes of biting insects at bay.
He propped his two-handed mechanikal hammer over one shoulder and glanced around. There seemed to be no clear way through the swamp, which was filled with thick stands of moss-laden trees. He turned to see that the rest of his Forge Guard had halted as well. Behind his own men a small group of High Shield Gun Corps slogged through the muck, axes in hand, shields and rifles stowed across their backs. Mixed within the Gun Corps were a dozen farrow, scouts hired to see them through the Thornwood.
“Captain Vornek!” Corleg said. “A moment, please.”
One of the members of the Gun Corps nodded and raised one hand to halt his men. His black pauldron marked him as an officer, but Vornek Blackheel was perhaps the sorriest example of a Rhulic commander Corleg had ever encountered. His men, drawn from remote Baram Fort in the Thunderpeak Cliffs, were a collection of drunkards, layabouts, and incompetents—that they had been allowed to keep their commission within the Gun Corps defied reason. But with conflict mounting throughout the Iron Kingdoms, resources were stretched thin, and a commander had to make use of the resources available to him.
Vornek squished through the mud toward him, swatting at the cloud of biting flies that hovered around his head. He was tall for a Rhulfolk and still fit despite being well into his sixties. His nose was a squashed mass of red veins that spoke of a life of violence and a predilection for strong drink. His weapons were in good shape, however, and their owner still looked quite capable of using them.
“What do you want?” Vornek asked. “Need a break?”
“No, Captain. I do not need a break,” Corleg began. “As you are no doubt aware, we are clearly lost.” He pointed one finger at the greenish-brown expanse of the swamp before them. “That is a swamp. I thought we had left the marsh behind us. Our guides don’t seem to be ‘guiding’ us in the right direction.”
The other man frowned, scratched at his beard, and then spat a chewed wad of yellow bitterleaf from his mouth. “Well, what did you expect? They’re farrow.”
Corleg wanted to throttle the Gun Corps captain. They were nominally of the same rank; although how Vornek had attained anything above latrine scrubber was a mystery to him. The Searforge, however, knowing the condition of Vornek and his men, had granted Corleg command of their joint operation. “Yes, Captain,” Corleg said through clenched teeth. “Correct. They are farrow. Farrow you said could lead us through the forest, so we could avoid the Khadoran blockades watching the Black River. By my estimates we should be at the ruins of Fort Rhyker by now.”
Vornek reached into a pouch on his belt, fished out a new pinch of dried leaf, and stuffed it into his mouth. “Aye,” he said at last. “They led us to a swamp instead.”
Corleg drew in a deep breath and shook his head, fighting the urge to scream at the Gun Corps captain. The situation was not entirely Vornek’s fault. They had lost their only detailed map of the region during a skirmish with a Khadoran patrol after they had entered the northern forest. This had added weight to the argument in favor of hiring the farrow as guides, a decision Corleg now regretted.
He tried to remember the particulars of this area. He thought the map had shown a swampy area around a sizable lake west of Fort Rhyker, marked with warning sigils. That would put them more than twenty miles off course. He turned back to Vornek. “What do you propose now? We can’t pull our wagon through a swamp, and the Avalancher will be slowed considerably by the water.”
“We could manage the ’jack, but the wagon’s a problem. Sure as hell won’t float,” Vornek said, glancing back to where half a dozen ogrun warriors in the service of Horgenhold were hauling a wagon piled with crates and boxes through the muck. Behind it, a grimy and mud-splattered Avalancher trudged, barely keeping pace with the ogrun. “Maybe we should go back and try to find another route.”
Corleg shook his head. “No. We’re short on food and fuel as it is, and between Khadoran patrols and Tharn encampments, it was blind luck we got here intact. We can’t go wandering through the woods.”
Vornek looked around for a moment, squinting through the trees. He pointed ahead and to the left, in what might have been a southeasterly direction. “I think I can see a more solid region up ahead that way. We should cut through the swamp and make for the Black River. Get our bearings.”
“And abandon our cargo?” Corleg said in disbelief. “The Searforge hired us to deliver weapons and munitions to Corvis. I will not simply—“
“I said nothing about abandoning the cargo,” Vornek said, cutting him off. “Don’t get your unders in a twist.”
Corleg opened to his mouth to loose a blistering retort, but a blood-curdling scream from behind Vornek stopped him short. The Gun Corps captain whirled around, drawing his carbine from his back in one smooth motion.
Corleg stuffed his helmet back on his head and took his hammer in both hands. Ahead, a group of large, scaly humanoids had risen up out of the swamp. Corleg recognized them as gatormen—primitive reptilian men known for their great strength and savagery. The gatormen had surprised two members of the Gun Corps near the edge of the water and had hacked them down with heavy axe-like weapons.
Vornek positioned his shield in front of him and fired his carbine one-handed. A gatorman standing over the corpse of one of his men staggered backward, clutching a gushing wound in its throat. “To me, boys!” Vornek shouted and rushed forward. The rest of the Gun Corps pulled back and locked their shields together around their leader.
More gatormen emerged from the swamp, and eight of the scaly brutes now charged forward at the Gun Corps. Corleg waved his hammer over his head and heard his men moving up from behind. “Left flank! Move!”
As one, the ten Forge Guard moved toward the Gun Corps line, and as they approached Vornek’s booming voice rang out. “Shields and shooters, boys!” In response, each member of the Gun Corps dropped his shield into the mud and braced his carbine atop it.
The farrow, having no desire to engage the gatormen in melee, pulled back and opened fire with the crude heavy rifles they carried. Twelve shots later, they managed to kill a single gatorman and had pulled back to a point well behind the Gun Corps.
The dwarves opened up on the gatormen with their own weapons. Four gatormen went down thrashing and hissing beneath the fusillade, and the rest slowed their advance, now wary of the dwarven guns. Their hesitation allowed Corleg and his men to reach them, and those Rhulfolk advanced in close order, hammers held high.
Corleg whipped his hammer around his head to build momentum and then smashed the heavy weapon into the first enemy he encountered. The head of the mechanikal hammer flared on impact, and the eight-foot-tall gatorman was knocked from its feet and sent flying. It collided with one of its fellows, and they both went down in a tangle of thrashing limbs. The carbines of the Gun Corps fired en masse half a second later, and the two downed gatormen went still and floated silently in a widening nimbus of scarlet.
The remaining two gatormen, seeing they were outnumbered and outmatched, attempted to escape beneath the water. One of them was shot to pieces before it could submerge; the other disappeared beneath the surface of the swamp.
The battle had ended so quickly that the ogrun hauling the wagon hadn’t even had time to grab their weapons and join the fray. They now moved up and created a protective barrier around the dwarven troops, their pole-cleavers creating a small but lethal hedge.
“Reload!” Vornek shouted. “Keep ranks. There may be more of those scaly bastards in the water.”
“Captain,” Corleg said and splashed through the mire to stand beside Vornek. “Your men acquitted themselves . . . very well.”
“Surprised, eh?” Vornek said with a sour smile. “I know we’re not what you’re used to in Horgenhold. We’re dirty, ugly, and foul-mouthed, and most of us drink enough to pickle an ogrun, but we can get the job done in a pinch.”
Corleg coughed and nodded, somewhat embarrassed by Vornek’s blunt appraisal of his men. “Yes, well—”
Vornek turned away without waiting for a reply. “You!” he shouted, pointing at the largest of the farrow. “Come over here.” The farrow moved to stand before him.
“I hope you’re better with those shooters than you’ve shown so far,” the Gun Corps captain said. “There’s bound to be more gators out there in that stinking bog.”
“Lersh can fight more . . .” the farrow grunted in broken Rhulic, and then his tusked face broke open in a ghastly smile, “. . . if pay more.”
“Pay more!?” Corleg said. “We paid you to lead us to the Black River, and you led us into this swamp!”
The farrow shook his misshapen head. “Then we leave short shields and go away.”
“That’s fine, piggy,” Vornek said with a shrug. “We had a pretty easy time with those gators, and there’s enough of us that they probably won’t attack again. A dozen farrow on their own, though? You’ll get eaten before you make it half a mile.” He poked his carbine at the big farrow to drive home his point.
Lersh crinkled up his snout, glanced at the scaly corpses floating in the mire, and scratched his stomach. Finally, he grunted and said, “We fight for short shields. No more pay.”
Vornek chuckled. “Good. Maybe you aren’t as stupid as I thought.”
“I take it you want to continue on through the swamp,” Corleg said to Vornek after Lersh had walked away. “How do you propose we do that?”
Vornek looked back at the dwarven wagon and smiled. “Easy. We make a boat.”
Mortitheurge Helkara stepped from the reed raft and onto a large mossy island situated near the west shore of Blindwater Lake. The island was covered in the squat grassy huts of the gatormen, the single largest village of the reptilian creatures she had ever encountered. As a paingiver taskmaster, it was her duty to command the formidable, if primitive, gatormen in battle, and she had had many dealings with them in the past, but she knew this time it would be different.
Ahead, a trio of gatorman warriors led the way through the village. Her sizable force of bloodrunners had been left a mile or so behind in the swamp; the gatorman leader, a powerful bokor called Bloody Barnabas, had requested she come alone. She might have refused if it had been anyone but Barnabas making the demand and if her need had not been so pressing. The archdomina had commanded her to make contact with the gatorman nation that populated the swamps around Blindwater Lake within the Thornwood and commandeer a number of their warriors—and perhaps one of their most powerful shamans—to serve the Skorne Empire in the next major campaign in the west.
She could not simply walk into Bloody Barnabas’ domain and demand tribute as she had done so many times with lesser groups of gatormen. By all accounts, Barnabas was a mighty gatorman bokor, with martial and magical skill rivaling that of the most formidable skorne tyrants. He was also known to be utterly unpredictable, prone to fits of murderous rage, and possessed of delusions of grandeur that included aspirations of godhood. In short, he was just as likely to murder and eat Helkara as he was to listen to or bargain with her.
In the past, she had dealt with Barnabas’ second, a bokor named Calaban, when she needed gatorman warriors. In her experience, it was Calaban who was the true mastermind behind the gatorman alliance, and it was he who coordinated its expansion. Calaban had even instructed her to avoid dealing directly with Barnabas, but the ancient gatorman bokor had, for some inscrutable reason, taken an interest in her arrangement with the Blindwater Congregation. This time, Barnabas had demanded she speak with him instead.
They had reached the center of the village, a clear open space that held a great hut, like a longhouse, festooned with what could only be trophies from Barnabas’ past exploits, from the bones of massive, unrecognizable beasts to bits of the machines humans called warjacks. There were so many that the foundations of the longhouse were almost completely obscured, giving the impression that Barnabas’ abode was constructed from the remnants of his fallen enemies.
Barnabas himself sat upon a throne of sorts positioned in front of his longhouse. It was largely constructed of bones, skulls, and the shattered remnants of broken weapons. Atop the throne rose a colossal fanged skull whose empty reptilian sockets looked down on the clearing. Barnabas sat forward, taloned fingers wrapped around the haft of a savage two-handed axe. His face was obscured by a ragged leather hood, but Helkara had a clear view of the long ivory fangs that projected from the upper and lower jaw of his reptilian snout.
Another gatorman stood to the right of the throne, his scales painted with white swirling patterns that covered him from head to toe. He gripped a short, barbed spear in one hand, its stone head hung with feathers, bones, and scraps of metal. Helkara noticed that this gatorman appeared to be the only one in the village that dared venture so close to the mighty bokor.
Barnabas shifted in his throne as Helkara approached and waved away her escort with a casual flick of one hand. The guards held their heads almost straight up, baring their throats, and then retreated. Helkara now stood, alone and unarmed, not more than ten feet from what was arguably the most powerful gatorman in western Immoren.
“Mighty hok-shisan,” Helkara said in the rumbling syllables of Quor-Gar, the gatorman tongue, baring her throat in the same manner as the guards. It was an incredibly submissive gesture and one expected by gatormen when being addressed by an inferior, who, quite to her disgust, she was. “I offer greetings of my great chief, the strongest warrior of my people.”
“Red scale,” Barnabas said. His voice was a deep, hungry growl that filled Helkara with a nameless dread. She had never before felt so threatened, so vulnerable. She realized she had never before felt like prey. “You have come for my warriors. Yes?”
Helkara was quite familiar with the gatorman language and had no difficulty understanding Barnabas. Speaking Quor-Gar was another matter, however, as it incorporated complex body language and guttural sounds in addition to spoken words. Since she lacked a tail and other vital pieces of gatorman anatomy, her answers would have to be brief and simplistic.
“Yes,” she said. “My chief has need.” She paused and took a breath. “She asks, will the hok-shisan bring his axe also?”
Barnabas’ eyes narrowed, and his tail twitched from side to side like that of an angry ferox. “Impudent! Your chieftain was unwise to send an inferior to treat with me,” he said, then snapped his jaws together with a menacing clack. His long, scaled fingers tightened around the haft of his axe, and Helkara could feel the air grow thicker, the world somehow smaller against the tide of his displeasure. “And what do you offer for this favor? Surely your ‘great chief’ did not send you to beg before my throne with nothing.”
Helkara gritted her teeth. Dealing with this savage creature at such a disadvantage was infuriating, but she dare not antagonize him. She scraped the ground with her right foot, digging a shallow hole in the mud, and again bared her throat. It was the most submissive gesture she knew, and one that was meant to convey desperation and need. “I offer weapons of fine steel,” she said. “And the friendship of my chieftain.”
She stood still and silent. Any movement might be construed as an insult—or worse yet, a hostile action. She was glad the gatormen had confiscated her weapons; she doubted she would have been able to keep her hands from them out of pure survival instinct.
Barnabas suddenly stood and surged across the short space between them. He was gigantic, the size of a cyclops brute, and the smell that accompanied him—a foul mixture of spoiled meat, swampy earth, and reptilian stink—was all but overwhelming. He strode within a few feet of her, and her senses, honed through years of study with the mightiest of skorne mortitheurges, were all but overwhelmed by the strength of his will, his ancient, indomitable spirit, from which his own magic was surely derived.
“You are lucky, little red scale,” Barnabas said, staring down at her, the rotting stink of his breath washing over her like a warm, stagnant wind. “Today, I have chosen to be generous.”
Helkara dared to look up at the gatorman bokor. “You will send my chieftain warriors?”
Barnabas took a step back and let his jaws gape open, the gatorman equivalent of a nod. “I shall,” he said. “But first I require a service of you.”
“Speak it,” Helkara said, relief flooding through her body—relief because she had a chance to complete her mission, and relief because she might avoid being eaten alive.
“Interlopers intrude on my domain—dwarves, well armed with steel and fire,” Barnabas said. “I know not why they approach, and do not care. You will slay them for me.”
“Garvak will show you the way,” Barnabas said, pointing one taloned finger at the bokor standing next to his throne. Helkara could feel strong magic in this gatorman as well, although nothing as potent as his master.
She bared her throat again. “It is an honor to slay these interlopers for you, hok-shisan.”
“Then waste no time,” he replied and walked back to his throne. “Return when it is done, and your chief will have the warriors she requires. Serve me well and perhaps we may speak of more personal assistance.”
Vornek slashed his arm down, and the Avalancher’s cannon went off in a blast of smoke and flame. The explosive shell struck a group of gatormen not twenty yards away, flinging their broken bodies in all directions. The rest of his Gun Corps had lined up in front of the warjack, kneeling in the water and firing their carbines at the swarm of reptilian marauders that had suddenly appeared from the swamp.
Corleg and his Forge Guard stood ahead of the Gun Corps with half a dozen ogrun warriors. Vornek, of course, knew the reputation of the Forge Guard, but he’d never seen them in the heat of battle. Vornek watched as Corleg and his lieutenant, a stocky dwarf named Borl, stood in the center of the Forge Guard line, their heavy armor shedding blows from gatorman poleaxes with nary a scratch. Behind the Forge Guard line stood the ogrun warriors; they attacked over the heads of their dwarven compatriots, cutting down gatormen with each slash of their pole cleavers.
Corleg wielded his hammer as if it were made of lightweight tin and wood instead of forty pounds of mechanika-enhanced steel. It blurred around his head and struck each mark with exceptional speed and precision. Where it landed bones were crushed, flesh pulped, and gatorman lives extinguished. The rest of the Forge Guard fought nearly as well as their leader, and despite the number of enemies, the combined might of dwarves and ogrun had forced the gatorman back and was holding them at bay . . . for the moment.
Ogrun and Forge Guard were spread out enough that the Gun Corps behind them had a clear view of the enemy through the gaps in their line. The farrow guides stood near the Avalancher as they’d been directed and were firing their rifles at any gatormen that got past the Forge Guard and ogrun to engage the warjack. They were also protecting the Searforge cargo, a dozen wooden crates on a crude barge that had been cobbled together from the remains of the dwarven wagon.
Vornek stood behind the Gun Corps, next to the Avalancher so he could command it. It had been quite a while since he’d marshaled a warjack, but once the battle had begun, the techniques had come back to him.
Shortly after midday, they’d been attacked by an overwhelming force of gatormen supported by—and this is the part he still couldn’t get his head around—skorne warriors. The attackers had come barreling out of a large stand of cypress trees and charged into the middle of the surprised dwarves. They’d lost half the Gun Corps right then and there, plus a couple of Forge Guard to boot. He and Corleg had sounded the retreat and their band had managed to reach a defensible position, with their backs against an impenetrable tangle of swamp trees. The explosive shells from the Avalancher’s cannons, the constant fire from the Gun Corps and farrow, and the efforts of the Forge Guard and ogrun had kept the enemy back—but that wasn’t going to last forever.
A gatorman shaman accompanied the combined enemy force, with a towering bipedal gator that was the size of the Avalancher. The bokor had kept his beast out of the battle so far but had lashed the dwarven ranks with bolts of black energy that withered the flesh of any dwarf struck by them. As far as Vornek could tell, the skorne were led by a tall female armed with a polearm of some kind, a bladed crescent moon set upon a stout metal pole. She stood next to the gatorman shaman and seemed to be casting spells of her own, although Vornek couldn’t discern any offensive elements to her sorcery. She also commanded a small force of skorne warriors armed with daggers that were horribly fast and nimble enough, it seemed, to dodge bullets.
A cacophony of squealing and grunting caused Vornek to whirl around. The farrow were aiming their guns at another of the giant gator beasts as it came charging through the swamp behind their position. Its target was obvious. The pig-men fired their rifles in unison but either missed or failed to penetrate the thick hide of the beast.
“Turn around!” Vornek howled at the Avalancher. The warjack responded and swiveled its cumbersome bulk toward the oncoming warbeast. It got off a single shot with its cannon at point-blank range, splattering a portion of the beast’s insides across the swamp. The wound was mortal, but it didn’t slow the enormous gator, which plowed into the Avalancher’s shield, gripped it tightly with its claws, and then rolled onto its back. The weight of the beast pulled the warjack down into the water, and a huge billowing cloud of steam went up as the Avalancher’s boiler was flooded and extinguished.
Vornek moved away from the huge gator; it had pulled the crushing weight of the warjack down on top of itself and was thrashing out its death throes. Without the Avalancher, he knew they were in serious trouble.
“Get the barge!” Vornek shouted at the farrow and pointed his carbine at the cargo-laden skiff that had somehow avoided the charging warbeast. The pig-men obeyed and moved to surround it.
The fallen warjack had galvanized the gators and skorne, and they charged forward en masse. The Forge Guard and ogrun cut down the first few, and then Corleg waved his hammer above his head, signaling his men to retreat.
“Keep firing, boys!” Vornek yelled. “Keep ’em off the Forge Guard!” The remaining Gun Corps laid down a blistering hail of gunfire that stalled the enemy advance for a few precious seconds, allowing Corleg and the ogrun to move behind them.
“We can’t hold them off without the warjack!” Corleg shouted, pulling his helmet off to gain brief respite from the stifling heat.
“No we can’t,” Vornek agreed. “There’s too many, and once that bokor looses his beast on us, we’re gator food.”
“Then we shall die honorably,” Corleg said.
“Hah!” Vornek snorted. “I’m not planning to die honorably or otherwise. Just hold those bloody gators off for a few minutes.”
Corleg nodded and stuffed his helmet back on his head. “Forge Guard! With me!” The armored dwarven warriors formed a rough wedge around their leader and waded back into the fray. The ogrun joined them and the Gun Corps continued to lay down suppressing fire.
Vornek splashed through the marsh to the inert Avalancher. The warbeast beneath it was quite dead now. He squatted down next to the warjack’s cannon protruding from the water and opened the breech. Inside was an unfired shell. He reached in and removed and pulled it free, grunting at the effort of lifting the thing. The shell was a foot and a half long and weighed close to twenty pounds.
Vornek hefted the Avalancher cannon shell and turned to the farrow guarding the cargo barge. “Lersh!” he shouted at the farrow leader. “Push that barge over here.”
Helkara grinned as the warjack toppled into the swamp. Without it, the dwarves would be easy targets. “We should attack with all our force now,” she said to Garvak, the gatorman bokor Barnabas had sent with her.
His jaws gaped in agreement. “The prey is weak now.” He turned toward the hulking gator beast and she felt his will expand like a sudden pressure in the air as he gave it an unspoken command. The beast moved forward behind the wall of gatormen pushing forward into the ranks of dwarves and ogrun.
Helkara raised her staff and pointed it at the dwarves. Her bloodrunners needed no further encouragement and began moving around to the right and left. They would strike from the flanks once the gatorman had engaged the armored dwarves and ogrun in melee. She felt no need to enter battle herself; instead she followed behind the advancing gatormen, using her mortitheurgy to enhance their strength and resilience. This was her role and her purpose: enlivening the primitive flesh of the savages who served the Skorne Empire.
The battle was becoming a slaughter, and many of the armored dwarves and ogrun had fallen to the gatormen or the great beast fighting alongside them. More dwarves, and what appeared to be farrow, were positioned behind the melee, firing short rifles at any unengaged enemy. She paid them no mind—they would fall once the dwarven heavy infantry was destroyed.
Helkara heard one of the dwarven voices rise above the din of battle. She did not speak their crude, guttural tongue, but the meaning was clear enough. The heavily armored dwarves and most of the ogrun pulled away from combat and began a fighting retreat back toward the dwarven gun line and what appeared to be a floating barge laden with boxes and crates. Three of the ogrun, in an ultimately useless bit of heroism, charged the huge gator warbeast, killing it with multiple strikes from their heavy polearms. The ogrun were cut down seconds later by gatormen and bloodrunners.
There were enough bodies in the water now that some of the gatormen had stopped to take trophies or tear off hunks of flesh to devour. This slowed their advance and allowed the dwarves time to rally around the skiff. The dwarves had halted their retreat, however, and were trying to salvage a portion of their cargo by unloading some of the crates and transferring them to the waiting arms of ogrun or farrow.
Helkara poked her staff into the back of a gatorman chewing on a dwarven arm torn from a floating corpse. “Move!” she shouted “At them!” The gatorman hissed but dropped its prize and obeyed, moving toward the fresher fare around the dwarven skiff. A few more motivational prods from her staff had the rest of the gatormen advancing once more, and again she followed, urging them on with her mortitheurgical power.
The bokor Garvak paced alongside Helkara and raised his taloned hands as he summoned his will to manifest a spell. She felt its power and understood it would heighten the predatory nature of the gatormen it affected. She lent her own power to the spell, ensuring it would endure longer. Helkara’s bloodrunners were moving swiftly around the flanks of the gatormen; they would finish any dwarves left alive after the initial rush.
The dwarves were roughly a hundred yards away, and they had now abandoned the skiff and were retreating into the swamp. They weren’t firing their weapons any longer and appeared to be focused on escape, but they had not abandoned the crates and boxes they were carrying, and their retreat was ludicrously slow.
As her bloodrunners neared the skiff and the gatormen flowed around it, Helkara noticed the cargo had been arranged in a very specific way. Four large boxes sat in the center of the barge, and the rest of the boxes and crates were positioned around it in a crude circle. Additionally, what appeared to be a large metal cylinder with a rounded end was wedged between the central crates, half a foot of its length projecting above them.
The arrangement of the metal cylinder and the crates suddenly clicked within her mind, sending a cold wave of dread coursing through her entire body. This turned into outright horror when one of the dwarves turned and pointed his rifle at the skiff—which was now positioned in the center of the gatormen and bloodrunners.
Helkara opened her mouth to shout out a warning, but the sharp crack of the dwarven rifle sounded before she could utter a single word.
Corleg watched Vornek aim his carbine at the Avalancher shell wedged between two crates of blasting powder and held his breath. Very little of the shell was visible, and the skiff was fifty yards away. He wasn’t sure it would detonate if struck by a bullet, and he was even less sure Vornek’s plan would have the effect the Gun Corps captain hoped.
They’d taken the most valuable cargo from the skiff and positioned crates of weapons—short swords, daggers, and axes—around the blasting powder. In a perfect world, the weapons would act as lethal shrapnel once the shell was detonated, increasing the kill radius of the bomb.
The gators and skorne were now swarming around the skiff, and Corleg heard Vornek draw in a deep breath and then release it slowly. He saw the rifle buck against the Gun Corps captain’s shoulder and heard the crack of the discharge, and then the world dissolved into thunder and fire.
The shell detonated and then set off the blasting powder around it. The secondary explosion was an enveloping roar that Corleg felt more than heard; the shock wave from the blast slammed into him and Vornek and hurled them both from their feet. Corleg splashed down into the muck ten feet away, for once thankful they were in the swamp.
It began to rain pieces of debris and chunks of gatormen and skorne, and Corleg saw one of the Forge Guard go down after being struck by a limbless gatorman torso. He rose to his feet and looked back to where the skiff had been. The barge had been annihilated, and most of the gatormen and skorne had vanished—although their splattered remains hanging from the trees were a ghoulish enough reminder.
A handful of gatormen had survived, including the bokor. These lucky few had likely been shielded from the blast by their fellows. The skorne leader had also survived, and Corleg watched her climb to her feet, using her staff to brace herself.
“That went well,” Vornek said loudly as he hauled himself out of the muck to Corleg’s right. The Gun Corps captain wiggled his finger in his ear and shook his head.
“Don’t get me wrong, Vornek,” Corleg began. “Your . . . plan . . . saved our lives, and I’m grateful, but we’ve lost more than half our cargo. I don’t think the Searforge would consider this the best outcome.”
“We’re alive; our enemies are dead. That’s about as good as it gets,” Vornek replied with a shrug. “These things happen. My guess is that the Searforge will be happy we managed to salvage anything at all.”
“Perhaps,” Corleg said with a sigh. “What now?”
“Short shields, we must leave,” Lersh, the farrow leader, said. The big farrow had come up behind them. When they turned at the sound of his voice, he pointed his rifle at the gatorman bokor retreating along with the skorne leader and the remaining gatormen. “That one is belong Barnabas, strongest gator warrior.”
Vornek grimaced. “There’ll be more gators on the way, then.” He looked back in the direction of the retreating enemy and added, “At the least.”
The farrow nodded, grunting. “More gators soon. Yes. Maybe others, too.”
“Very well,” Corleg said. “Let’s gather what cargo we can and get out of this swamp.”
Vornek fixed Lersh with a stare. “Can you lead us to the river? Without running into the Khadoran blockade north of Corvis?”
Lersh offered the Gun Corps captain a tusk-filled grin. “No worry, short shield. Lersh knows way now. River is east. No Khador men there. Lersh has no doubt . . . this time.”
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