The Iron Dirge

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By Sam Sykes

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A standalone epic fantasy novella starring Sal the Cacophony, who Pierce Brown called a "protagonist for the ages," from Sam Sykes' widely acclaimed Seven Blades in Black and Ten Arrows of Iron

Sal the Cacophony does not make friends.  When you have a magic gun, a trusty blade and rogue mages to hunt, you don’t need them. Sal the Cacophony makes enemies. And when her hunt leads to a town on the edge of nowhere, she finds them in spades: an unassuming mage with a secret, a vengeful bandit queen with ideals and steel to spare, and a colossal, centuries-old beast who has decided now is the best time to migrate.

Sal the Cacophony could be their savior. But as everyone eventually learns, Sal’s “salvation” is usually worse.

Excerpt

ONE

Paarl’s Hollow

On the day before he died, Rogo the Dervish—killer, traitor, outlaw—woke up in his own bed, went to his window, and stared out over a world he had no idea he was about to be buried in.

Or so I’ve been told.

There aren’t many stories about that day, despite the carnage that occurred. Meet the right drunk with the right drink and you might hear a tale or the first remnants of a song that never got finished: a verse about the Compass Beast that flattened the town of Paarl’s Hollow beneath its feet, a limerick about the marauder Dread Niri and the vengeance she wreaked, maybe even a rhyme about the people who made all that happen.

About Rogo the Dervish himself, the man who started running from his past and thought he got away, there’s not much that’s been said.

But, on nights when I’m not too drunk to do so, I wonder…

I wonder if he got up that morning feeling like I do. I wonder if he had to take a moment to remember he wasn’t in a war, but in his own bed. I wonder if he took another moment to fight back the ache of his scars and wounds that had set in over the long sleep. I wonder if he got up and walked to his window and stared outside and said…

“Ah, fuck.”

Quietly, of course. Rogo had rarely cussed during his deployment in the Imperial legions, preferring instead to equate holding on to his civility with holding on to his humanity. But still, even with as much suffering and strife as that man had seen—much of it by his own hand—some news was just so bad that not cussing about it would be wholly inappropriate, like calling a work of art “just okay.”

Some news was so bad as to transcend coincidence and feel like the divine hand of destiny itself had carefully molded it to slam it directly into your asshole.

Like the kind that announced itself that day.

He saw the dust first, the great plume of brown earth staining the blue horizon, so vast as to choke out sight of the distant forest that had quietly greeted his view every morning for the past three years.

That was bad, he knew.

The beast’s massive stride kicked up earth with every step it took, creation itself shuddering under its colossal feet. For the dirt cloud to be this big—big enough to obscure the forest, big enough to hide even the beast—it had to be moving quickly.

But how quickly? Rogo wondered. How far had the thing come since it had woken up two weeks ago? How close was it?

Fortunately, the thing was kind enough to tell him.

The roar came next. Not a savage bellow, nor a ferocious snarl, nor a triumphant shriek. The sound that came out of that cloud was beyond such pretensions. The deep and resonant noise that it made sounded less like an animal and more like a mountainside settling, the ancient sound of something so huge it tracks its movements by centuries rather than miles called out to the world.

And the world responded.

Rogo’s house began to shake violently. The floorboards trembled under his feet and the planks shook on their foundation. The washbasin fell off his vanity and spilled onto the floor of his bedroom. The windowpane rattled so fiercely in its frame that it cracked. The cacophonous shaking lasted for a few moments before settling, leaving an eerie silence in its wake.

The screams that followed were the second worst sounds he’d hear that day.

Panic, terror, naked calls to gods that didn’t exist and bargains made with a fate that wouldn’t honor them—Rogo hated the sound of fear, hated seeing people broken down into their base, vulgar elements. It was the reason he had left the Imperium.

One of them, anyway.

But he couldn’t hold it against them. Panic, after all, was the recommended course of action that followed the awakening of a Compass Beast, even if your town wasn’t unlucky enough to be directly in the path of whatever force compelled it to march.

And while no township in the Scar can really be called “lucky,” it turns out that Paarl’s Hollow was unluckier than most.

Still, Rogo did not curse. Did not pray. Did not regret or loot or weep, as so many others had done. He did not hold their weakness against them—nuls, after all, could not be blamed for being nuls. But he was made of sterner stuff than that. Sterner stuff that other people relied on. People he could not fail.

And besides, Compass Beast or no, there were books to make.

And so Rogo closed the shutters of his window. He groomed himself—washed his face, shaved the stubble that had cropped up on his face and shorn pate. He dressed himself—a modest long-sleeved white shirt, breeches and boots, complemented by the thin frames of the circular glasses he wore. He took one last look at himself in the mirror to make certain he didn’t recognize himself, and then he went downstairs.

His shop, I would later learn, was one of two joys he held after he had disappeared. Its sounds were comforting to him, its routines a pleasure to visit each day when he came downstairs. The sounds of the printing presses—his printing presses of oiled machinery busily rising and falling, of plates being arranged and rearranged, of inkwells clinking were the greatest chorus he could imagine, topped only by…

“Mister Lowhill.”

Usually there wasn’t quite so much fear in Teria’s voice when she greeted him each day. But these were difficult times.

“Teria.” Rogo greeted the girl—her clothes stained by ink and her face wearing panic plainly—as he always did, with a smile and an offer. “Did you have coffee yet? Would you like some?”

“What? No!” She snapped, then looked sheepish. “Er, I mean, no thank you, Mister Lowhill. I don’t think coffee would be appropriate for… for…”

“I see. I’ll make extra, in case you change your mind.” Rogo glanced to a pile of books, freshly printed and bound, stacked neatly in the corner. “It looks like there’s… what, ten books missing from that order?”

“Er, I guess, but sir, Mister Lowhill, the Compass Beast…” She began breathing heavily. “They say it’ll be here soon, sir. My sister and her husband have already fled. It’s just my mother and me here and we have to… we’ve got to… I’m sorry, but I have to—”

Rogo calmed her as he always had. He laid a hand on her shoulder, smiled, and nodded gently.

“It’ll be fine,” he said. “Finish up that order and please go be with your family.” He produced a small pouch from his belt, jingling with metal, and handed it to her. “Here is your pay for the week, with a little extra. Please hold on to it.”

“I…” She swallowed her despair long enough to pocket the money. “Thank you, Mister Lowhill. But sir, won’t you and Virian come with us? I don’t like the idea of leaving you behind.”

He chuckled. “I appreciate your concern. But please, don’t worry about me.” He glanced to the other end of the shop. “I expect Olio will need my help, after all.”

It had taken a lot of scrimping, saving, and at least one argument, but the day he had gotten his second printing press was the third greatest day of his life. Twice as many books made, twice as many orders filled, twice as much coin to be made.

Olio, tall and lean and dealing with teenage awkwardness that continued to haunt him into his adulthood, was feverishly working at the press, producing page after page. He expected that was less to do with fervent work ethic and more to keep his mind off the impending arrival of the Beast, but Rogo didn’t mind.

He would be as safe as Teria. He vowed to himself to make that so.

He watched the two of them return to their work, acquiring the last pages to fulfill their order, as he went to begin crating up the books to be sent off. A finely oiled machine, he admired, with everyone satisfied in their roles: Teria and Olio to work the presses, himself to crate and keep track of the order, and the bindings of the books…

Rogo’s eyes drifted to the empty bookbinding station, to the chair that should have had a young lady with fingers sticky with glue upon it. And for the first time that morning, Rogo felt a surge of fear crawl up his spine.

“Where is Virian?” he asked.

“She…” Olio paused, swallowed fear. “She went outside a few minutes ago, sir. They… they found another pair of peacekeepers dead today, sir. The outlaws are getting closer.”

That fear, the fear he had met once in a dark room and had been taking the long roads ever since to try to avoid, reached the top of his spine. It crawled into his mouth and coiled around his tongue. His eyes drifted to the door of his shop, to the narrow windowpane through which he saw the blurry images of a struggle.

He couldn’t speak—to speak would let that fear out. He couldn’t look away—to look away would let that fear escape and find some new corner to curl up in. Rogo the Dervish, his heart in his mouth and the little pain at the back of his head that all people who can’t stop making mistakes feel, took a deep breath.

And walked to the door.

“Sir! SIR!” Olio—or Teria? Both of them appeared at his sides. “Mister Lowhill, please! I tried to tell Virian, those outlaws are insane. They aren’t just after metal, Mister Lowhill!”

“I appreciate your concern, but I assure you there is no great difference between thugs, no matter what they claim.” He placed his hand upon the doorknob. “Nor does it matter what they seek. I will speak to them.”

“Sir, I can’t let you do that.” Olio this time—they sounded similar, but Olio always was the one who wanted to sound stronger than he was. He reached out and placed his hand on Rogo’s shoulder. “Those outlaws are going to kill—”

“Remove your hand from my shoulder.”

Rogo’s voice lowered a single octave. Nothing more. No snarl, no threat, nothing like that. He merely made his voice a little deeper. He didn’t need to do anything else. The hole his voice dug was filled with the promise of violence.

Olio felt it. In the muscle beneath Rogo’s shirt. In the weakness of his own fingers. In the quaking of his heart as he reached the same fear that everyone who mistakes soft-spokenness for weakness does. The fear, the realization, that Mister Lowhill, who always paid him extra on holidays and gave him a week off to stay with his sick husband, was both extremely capable and extremely willing of hurting him in ways he couldn’t begin to imagine.

Rogo looked over his shoulder, smiled softly. “Please.”

And Olio did. And raised his hand never again in that store.

Rogo pushed his door open and stepped out into the streets of Paarl’s Hollow. The fear greeted him there.

People ran through the streets, carrying whatever burdens they could manage to carry and couldn’t bear to be apart from—heirlooms to be hawked later, friends and family who couldn’t walk, at least one case of a large, hairy cat, duly unimpressed with all the panic going on around it. People were loading into their neighbors’ wagons, hitching rides on their neighbors’ birds, helping their neighbors collect what they’d dropped in their panic.

Like the clock that rolled across the dusty street and came to a stop against his shoe.

“Mister Lowhill!” A voice shouted, a hurried body followed. Mister Rathaxes came rushing up, sweat caught in the wrinkles of his face and voice breathless. “You’re still here!”

“Mister Rathaxes.” Rogo plucked up the clock, dusted it off. “This is a fine clock. From Lastlight, I believe?” He checked the mark of it, nodded to himself, handed it back to the man. “You would not want to lose this.”

“Forget the clock,” Mister Rathaxes said. “I can get more clocks. I can leave this clock behind. There’s still room in my wagon, Mister Lowhill. Grab your daughter and join me. We’ve got to get out of here before—”

The roads shook under their feet. Windows of the local houses cracked. From somewhere far away, the Compass Beast bellowed, fertile soil for a thousand terrified screams to follow in its wake.

“I will leave in my own time, Mister Rathaxes.” Rogo smiled and pressed his hand to the man’s. “Do not be concerned.”

“Not be concerned?” Mister Rathaxes screamed after him as he began to walk off. “Are you fucking insane, Mister Lowhill? A monster the size of a city is coming! And the outlaws are already—hey, come back here! Lowhill! Lowhill! RODAYA, COME BACK!

Rogo didn’t. But he appreciated the concern. Paarl’s Hollow had always been a friendly township. Even in the throes of terror, it greeted Rogo as warmly now as it had when he had arrived those years ago.

They had taken him, bloodied and weary from fear, and asked him no questions. They’d given him food, company, and as much of either as he needed until his shop was ready for business. He’d always felt like he would never be able to truly repay them.

And always had hoped a day when he would, a day like this, would never come.

“Are you fuckers blind?”

In the middle of the street, the people surrounded the small pile of their belongings that the outlaw currently stood upon.

Rogo could see why this one had been chosen to be sent as an emissary. He was big—bigger than most of the outlaws he’d seen in the Scar, certainly bigger than anyone in Paarl’s Hollow and almost big enough to be waving around that gigantic sword. The rough hides and piecemeal armor he wore were tarnished with white powder, a match for the chalk that had painted his face in the visage of a ghastly skull. But even the grisly makeup couldn’t conceal the anger in his snarl as he swung a blood-slick weapon around.

That, at least, answered how he had gotten in here without the peacekeepers stopping him.

“Do you not see how this ends? Or are you not fucking seeing this now?” The outlaw threw his big arms out toward the distant dust cloud. “The Compass Beast will be here in two days. Maybe sooner. And when it does, it’ll grind your shitty little houses to dust with everything inside them.”

“How’s that going to happen when you’re trying to steal all our shit?” a disgruntled townsperson snarled, then promptly looked away when the outlaw glanced in his direction.

“The payment demanded by the great one is mercy,” he growled over the populace. “Leave your shit. Your metal. Flee into the hills. You’ll have walked away with more than we did.”

“You mean your thug friends?” another anonymous hero shouted.

“The Children of the Dead are not thugs,” he roared in response. “Would thugs extend mercy to you? Would thugs ask for only half your debt in payment? Would thugs deliver you from the death you so richly deserve? Thugs wouldn’t. But Dread Niri would. And she will.”

“Fuck you!”

“No warlord has ever delivered anything except a messy death!”

“You’re nothing but thieves!”

The outlaw grinned broadly at the abuse they hurled at him, knowing as well as they did that they weren’t fighters. Too good for that, they had never learned how. They could do nothing but hurl curses.

“Your impotent screams are proof enough,” the outlaw scoffed, “you can do nothing except—OW! Fuck, who threw that?

Correction. Most of them could do nothing but hurl curses.

Someone, at least, had been smart enough to bring an empty bottle.

The outlaw, rubbing the red spot where the bottle had struck him, glared out over the crowd for the fool who dared to challenge him. He didn’t have to wait.

She stepped up to be heard.

Virian had always been one of those people who thought she was much larger than she was. Tall, she might have been, but still so painfully slender, still so proper in how she tied up her brown hair in a bow, still so gentle in her face. Even the long scar that marked her from jaw to brow couldn’t diminish that gentleness.

And in her eyes, still so, so angry.

“I did.” Virian narrowed her eyes, spat the next word. “Grylla.”

The snarl on the young outlaw’s face became its own war paint: broader, crueler, angrier. Rogo, I like to think, realized who his daughter was talking to at that moment.

Was this young man waving a sword around truly Grylla? Big Grylla who had unloaded shipments of ink and blushed whenever Virian looked his way? What had happened to him? When had he gotten so big?

He didn’t know. Virian didn’t, either. Only one of them cared.

“And I’ll do worse next time, to you and your fucking mistress, if you don’t get the fuck out of Paarl’s Hollow,” she snapped, “and go back to Lucid Thought.”

“Lucid Thought is gone,” Grylla replied. “The fields are gone. The houses are gone. The people are gone. Everyone died there. Including me.”

“Then go back to your fucking grave. We don’t need you here.”

She looked to the townsfolk for support. The townsfolk looked at their feet for their lives. And when she looked back up, the outlaw had descended his small pile of treasures and approached her with the kind of grin only vile men wear.

The kind that Rogo had seen far too often.

“Why do you stand with them, sister?” Grylla asked, his eyes drifting to the long scar across Virian’s face. “These mewling fools who huddle behind their walls and their guards and leave everyone else to die? You belong with us, Virian, with the Children of the Dead.”

Rogo’s heart froze as he looked at Virian. Just like it froze whenever someone noticed her scar. Whenever someone mentioned her old town.

There was a time when even a mention of it was enough to make her break down in tears. But that was a long time ago. These were angrier times.

“A gang,” Virian corrected, meeting his snarl with her own glower. “Just another fucking gang. Your leader isn’t a prophet, you’re not a soldier, this isn’t a mission. You’re just another pack of beasts sniffing for scraps.”

“It started that way, I admit,” Grylla replied. “But I’ll tell you what she told me.” He swept his hand out over the crowd. “When the steel comes out and the blood starts spilling, are you really ready to find out if they’ll choose you…” He glanced at a nearby merchant, who looked away. “Over their comfortable beds and nice shoes?”

Virian grimaced at that. How could she not?

“Lucky you’ve got someone smarter than you to give you words, then, because I know you’re too fucking dumb to come up with that on your own.” She sneered. “How great can this cause of yours be if you show up to terrorize people trying to escape a Compass Beast?”

“Huh. That’s a pretty good question.” The outlaw scratched his chin briefly with the tip of his sword before shrugging. “But Niri told me that it’s never smart to ask her questions, either.” He drew his blade back. “Too bad, huh?”

Virian was a smart girl, I was told. Had been ever since they’d met. So she knew how this was going to end and there was no reason for her to look so shocked when the outlaw raised his blade, aimed for her throat, and swung.

But, like so many people who grow up with a bad deal, Virian was also a good person. Good people are rare, rarer still in the Scar, for precisely this reason. Good people, even smart ones, are never as quick as bad ones. Some big asshole with a big sword is never going to worry about what he’s doing beyond the fact that it makes him feel even bigger to hurt people.

Good people—people like Virian Lowhill—can never think quick enough to get ahead of people so awful.

Good people did what she did on that dark day.

She closed her eyes, spread her arms out in front of the townspeople, and waited for the blow to hit.

She told herself she was ready for death, I heard. But every good person says that—it’s the lie they always tell themselves. And while no one in Paarl’s Hollow was ready for death, they probably all expected it.

What they didn’t expect—what they couldn’t possibly expect—was finding out their neighbor was a killer.

Not until they all saw the man leap out of the crowd, until Virian opened her eyes and beheld the outlaw’s meaty wrist held effortlessly in place by a hand stained by ink that never quite washed away.

She didn’t know what to say when she saw it. No one did. After all…

How are you supposed to react to seeing a man as kindly and quiet as Mister Lowhill standing in front of a bloodthirsty outlaw carrying a sword as big as him… and winning?

Rogo shoved the outlaw away, the brute looking as astonished as everyone else present.

“Mister…” Grylla gasped. “Mister Lowhill?”

He went rigid as Rogo leaned in and whispered harshly.

“You do not want this fight,” he said. “You do not want this town. Go to the woman you serve and tell her what I have just told you. Leave Paarl’s Hollow in peace. Find another town.”

I didn’t know the outlaw that Niri sent, but I heard he wasn’t that bright. Which made sense, since he bit the terror on his face down behind a snarl and leaned in to tower over Rogo and growled.

“I don’t just want the fight,” he replied. “I want the town. I want the people. I want everything you miserable little shits ever deluded yourselves into thinking people like me couldn’t take. I want it. I’m going to take it.” He held his blade up again. “And I’m going to start with your head.”

Rogo held his gaze for a moment. Every townsperson there watched him, waiting for his response, waiting to see if they were going to have to bury their neighbor before this day was up.

And when he stepped back, stood perfectly still, and closed his eyes, they weren’t sure what to think. I don’t blame them.

They couldn’t hear the Lady Merchant’s song.

The outlaw drew his sword back, aiming for Rogo’s throat and grinning, pleased that he wasn’t even going to try dodging. He didn’t notice someone approaching behind him. Not until another hand seized his wrist.

“Who the fuck—”

He growled as he turned to see. And both the anger and the fear fell off his face. He had no idea how to react to what he saw. No one did.

There, holding the outlaw’s wrist, was Rogo the Dervish.

The outlaw blinked, glanced back to the man he was about to kill. There, watching expectantly, was also Rogo the Dervish. And when the outlaw looked back to the man behind him and, from his left, an elbow caught him square in the jaw with a sickening crack…

Well, that was also Rogo the Dervish.

The blow hammered him so hard he dropped his blade. Rogo the Dervish plucked it up, tossed it aside. The outlaw cried out, made a grab for it. Rogo the Dervish caught his wrist, brought his fist down upon his elbow, shattered it with a shout and a crunching sound. He shoved the outlaw back into Rogo the Dervish, who jammed a fist into his spine even as Rogo the Dervish delivered six punches to his kidneys while Rogo the Dervish hammered his face with relentless blows.

You’d have thought there’d be screaming from someone other than the outlaw. Maybe there was and I just didn’t hear about it. But from what I heard, on that day, every last person in Paarl’s Hollow, including Virian, stood in stunned silence and watched six individual Rogo the Dervishes beat the shit out of a very large man.

The flurry of feet and fists lasted for countless bone-crunching seconds before the Rogos, apparently satisfied, stepped aside. In orderly unison, all of them stepped back and folded their hands behind their back. The outlaw, his face a twisted mass of blood and broken noses, stared up through the one functioning eye they’d left him and tried to speak through a mouthful of broken teeth.

“The Dervish” is a popular name in the Scar. So much so that every three months or so, another thug with a better than average vocabulary and something to prove picks it up and wears it until another Dervish comes and seals their claim on the title.

“Mage,” he gasped. “You’re a mage. You’re a fucking Vagrant!”

Rogo, all the Rogos, were the only ones who could hold onto it.

The Rogos didn’t reply. There was no need. Anyone with even a hint of magical talent would have known a Mirrormage when they saw one. And now, everyone in Paarl’s Hollow knew one, too.

“I’ll tell her…” The outlaw gasped, body shaking as he struggled to get back to his feet. “I’ll tell her… I’ll tell them all… I’ll—”

“You will not.” Rogo stared down at the outlaw through six different sets of eyes, none of them moved by the blood staining the street or the echo of broken bones that lingered like a memory in the air. But only one of them stepped forward. “It is clear that words will not suffice to send a message.”

He raised one leg high into the air, perpendicular with his body. His heel, slick with the outlaw’s blood, hung there.

“Your body, however, will.”

And then, came down.

Before the outlaw could beg, before anyone could scream, before Virian could stop her father. Rogo’s foot came down too swift to see, let alone stop. What meager reaction followed was drowned out by the sound of something thick cracking.

And then the outlaw went silent.

A great dent staving in his skull.

And he did not move.

What happened after that is rather bare, from what I’ve heard. Rogo—just one of them—rolled down his sleeves, buttoned his cuffs, removed his glasses and cleaned a spatter of red from their lenses.

Genre:

On Sale
Dec 8, 2020
Page Count
64 pages
Publisher
Orbit
ISBN-13
9780316363600

Sam Sykes

About the Author

Sam Sykes – author, citizen, mammal – has written extensively over the years, penning An Affinity for Steel, the Bring Down Heaven trilogy, Brave Chef Brianna, and now The Grave of Empires trilogy. At the time of this writing, no one has been able to definitively prove or disprove that he has fought a bear.

Learn more about this author