The conclusion to an epic fantasy trilogy with an irresistible hook: a ragtag group of adventurers tried to steal a dragon’s gold and accidentally started a revolution. If you love the laugh-out-loud fantasy of Nicholas Eames’s Kings of the Wyld or the wisecracking misfits of Guardians of the Galaxy, you’ll love The Dragon Lords!
Death and Other Minor Inconveniences
Klink. A god named for the sound of two coins striking each other. A god of that very sound. A god of all things mercantile and profitable. The catalyst for coin moving from one man’s hand to another’s purse, where it could join its fellows and . . . clink.
Klink. A god. A being who had been old when the world was young. Worshipped by millions. Even loved by some of them. A being who had inspired hymn, and poem, and myth.
Klink. A god.
Will Fallows watched as Klink’s dirty, broken body was hoisted before the crowd and the weakly struggling deity’s throat was slit broad as a smile.
Things were definitely not going to plan.
To be fair, that was a statement that could be applied to quite a lot of Will’s life recently.
Six months ago, Will had died.
Actually, technically speaking—and Will was definitely willing to get technical over this particular point—he had been murdered. He had been on the verge of liberating the whole world of Avarra from tyrannical dragons—and, incidentally, tyrannical gods like Klink as well—when he had been metaphorically stabbed in the back, and literally stabbed in the throat, by Barph.
Barph was another of the gods, and one whom Will had previously judged to lack such despotic tendencies. It had been, Will was willing to concede, a fairly big miss on his part.
As was typical when such things occurred, Will subsequently found himself in the Hallows, the lands of the dead. Many of his friends arrived along with him. Barph, it turned out, was pretty liberal when it came to the whole murder thing. He was a god, after all. In fact, after this little coup d’état, Barph was the only god, because all the other gods had previously headed to the Hallows. They had been there under the impression that Will and his friends were going to rescue them. The whole overthrowing-their-tyranny thing hadn’t really been discussed with them at that point.
Anyway, as was also typical with such things, Will was pretty pissed about the whole affair. There had been a lot of clenched fists and passionately proclaiming revenge on Barph. Lette—a woman more poetic with her blades than most bards were with words, and therefore someone Will trusted on such issues—had informed him that it felt very epic. There had even been a ledge and wind-tousled hair involved.
Balur—a giant, mercenary lizard man and Lette’s usual traveling companion (although Balur had conceded that “into the Hallows” was further than he had intended to take things)—had possessed a differing opinion. As he put it, “Passionate words are being okay for getting bards laid, but they are killing about as many gods as my prick.”
Afrit—a former university professor, and therefore someone who Will actually thought might produce an intelligent thought once in a while—had disappointed him by agreeing “with the sentiment, if not the specific phrasing,” as she sanctimoniously put it.
Will had not been in the mood for his friends’ snark, and had immediately set about trying to prove the lizard man wrong by escaping the Hallows.
That had been six months ago.
To be fair, Will’s efforts had been hampered by a number of things. First, his friends’ snark. Second, in the wake of Barph’s takeover of the heavens, things in the Hallows had—not to put too fine a point on it—gone to utter shit. Previously the domain of Lawl, king of the gods and head cheerleader of rules and regulations, the Hallows had been a highly ordered domain. Tallies of sanctity and sin had been taken for each of the arriving dead, and appropriate afterlives delivered. Massive guardians—all muscles and no personality—had enforced these highly scripted hierarchies, and everything had been in its correct place. Barph, though, was not such a god. Barph was the god of revelry and anarchy and pissing in Lawl’s eye. Now he ruled the Hallows, and Lawl was in them, and so Barph was going to have fun.
All rules in the Hallows had been canceled. Anarchy reigned. And then, shortly after that, warlords did. All the guardians—all the massive, powerful enforcers Lawl had put in place—had nothing to hold them in check. And so they made armies of the dead, and went to war on each other.
That sort of thing tended to get in the way of one’s revenge, Will had found. And when you explained that to a massive undead general three times your height and weight, things tended to go badly. As Klink could attest.
Well . . . he could have about ten seconds ago.
The gods were another epic pain in Will’s arse. There were six of them. Five now. Lawl, the former ruler of the heavens. Betra, his wife, former goddess of hearth and home, and utter pissing harpy as far as Will was concerned. Klink’s twin brother, Toil, god of fields and farmers, and one of the biggest disappointments in a series of fairly massive disappointments in Will’s life. Will thought maybe he should be reconciled to them now, but it was still a hard thing to know that you had sacrificed a fatted calf to someone you had subsequently watched cry while he pissed.
After that there was Knole, who was reportedly the goddess of wisdom, although her primary field of expertise seemed to be being an absentminded stain in the britches of Will’s life.
Finally there was Cois. Oh, Cois. Will had slept with Cois. It was before either of them had been killed, back when zhe was the hermaphroditic god(dess) of love and lust. If Will were a bragging man and not hopelessly in love (in a more literal sense than normal) with Lette, then it would have been quite the conquest. However, the reasons for their union had been more rational than romantic, and the whole thing had been rather undercut by the fact that Balur had been in the Hallows only about three seconds when he hooked up with hir. What made it even worse was that they were a revolting couple. Will was fairly sure that that level of face licking was decidedly unhygienic.
Will and his friends had met the gods immediately upon their arrival in the Hallows. It turned out the gods had been waiting for them, full of expectations and eagerness, because they had been, at the time, still under the impression that Will was attempting to save them and deliver Avarra back into their greedy little hands. A rather uncomfortable conversation had followed, but Will had figured that would be the end of it. But oh no, instead they had decided to tag along until he fixed things, as if he had any intention of doing that. Still, to a former deity, killing Barph in an inventive and painful way apparently sounded close enough.
And despite all of this, despite the nagging and the bickering and the delays and his companions’ endemic lack of urgency, Will had come up with a plan. Will had figured a way out and back to Avarra.
* * *
It had been Cois who had told them about the Deep Ones.
They’d been in the Hallows about a month. The initial scrabble to survive, and to escape the collapsing power structures that had come with Barph’s rise to power, finally seemed to be over. They had scavenged enough food, wood, and clothing to be comfortable for the night. They had made a fire, roasted meat. Will had been pacing in circles. It was his default setting at the time. Plans for revenge seethed beneath his skin.
Balur’s mind was elsewhere, though, because apparently Will was the only one of them who could focus.
“Who would be thinking,” Balur had said, pointing at Lawl, who’d been curled up in a corner muttering angrily to himself, “that that prick built the Hallows?”
“No, he didn’t!” Cois had sounded scandalized. “It existed long before he did.”
“What?” Afrit, sagging by the fire, had come alive with such ferocity, Will could almost believe she’d actually . . . well, come alive. “Before?” she’d said with wonder in her voice.
“Lawl repurposed this space,” Cois had said patiently.
“Silence, harlot!” Lawl had snapped. Though, to be fair, that was about 90 percent of what he’d said even when he was a god.
“Fine,” Cois had acknowledged. “Yes, he did expand upon it. And restructure it. And put in place a lot of the hierarchy you see now. But he didn’t build it from scratch.”
“But . . .” Afrit had pushed her hand through her growing nest of hair. “Before?”
“Is this being the first time you have been hearing that word?” Balur asked. “It is being to do with chronology.”
“I know what pissing before means, Balur,” Afrit had snapped. “The issue is that there isn’t meant to be a before. When it comes to Lawl, he and Betra are ground zero for divinity. They are the beginning.”
Cois had looked over at Lawl and squinted. “Is that what you’ve been telling people all these years?”
“Silence, harlot!” Lawl had said, taking his cue.
“Well then,” Cois had said, looking directly at Lawl while zhe spoke. “Let me dispense some truth. There was a before. There were the Deep Ones.”
“The who?” Afrit’s voice had scraped for octaves higher than the cavern ceiling above them.
“Seriously?” Cois had looked about at the surrounding mortals. “Don’t be looking at me,” Balur had said. “Analesian religious education is stopping at, ‘And the gods were inventing punching people in the face.’ ”
Cois had shaken hir head minutely. “The Deep Ones. Our former masters. Vast, horrifying beasts beyond human ken. The infinite unknowable made flesh. Well . . . almost flesh. Or . . . something a lot like flesh, although also exactly the opposite of flesh. They’re hard to explain. Just assume they’re sort of like the inverse of sanity made into giant monsters, and you’re probably close enough. Total pricks.
“Anyway, they ruled the Hallows before we did. They also created Lawl and Betra. Who then birthed the rest of us one way or another. But we were all their slaves. And then Lawl led us in rebellion against them. And we defeated them. We condemned them to eternal sleep. We stole their divinity. Lawl reshaped this place, then got into the whole ‘divine ruler’ thing, and created the heavens and the mortal plane. Then humanity, and eons later . . . this mess.”
There had been silence then, except for the sound of Afrit hyperventilating.
And in that silence it had felt as if tiny slivers of glass were falling through Will’s mind—slashing through confusion and frustration and carving a shape.
Stole their divinity.
“The Deep Ones?” he had said. “They’re still down here?”
“I didn’t condemn them to be eternal sleepwalkers,” Lawl had barked.
Stole their divinity.
And for the first time since he had entered the Hallows, Will had smiled.
* * *
Will didn’t know much about how to escape the Hallows, but he did know that divinity sounded a lot like a way to achieve it. And apparently some of it had been left lying around. And so all he had to do was get to it. And as he had the very architect of the Hallows with him, that hadn’t seemed like too much of a problem.
Except Will Fallows was also the punch line of life’s little comedy.
“How should I know?” Lawl had said when Will had asked him where the Deep Ones lay.
“For all the obvious reasons,” Will had pointed out, while trying to ignore all the obvious reasons for punching Lawl in his obnoxious face.
“There is so much,” Lawl had told him, apparently relishing the rare opportunity to be a condescending dick, “that you don’t understand. I constructed reality. I created law. I made order. That is not a simple thing. I hid the Deep Ones. I sealed them from memory and discovery. They are a hidden thing. That is a rule. I did not tuck them under a rock. I created a rule of reality that they be hidden. They are hidden from everyone. Even me.”
Will had checked his companions’ faces just to make sure it wasn’t just him. It wasn’t. “Yeah,” he’d said. “That’s a stupid rule.”
Lawl had shrugged. “The Hallows were a first attempt.”
Lette had cleared her throat. It had sounded a lot like the word bullshit. Lawl and Will checked to confirm this.
“What?” Lette said. And then, off their continued arched eyebrows, she said, “Oh, come on. Even if that is true, what? He just threw that much power away? Nobody does that. Not even someone who comes up with a rule that stupid. If he doesn’t know, someone knows. Someone he had access to. There is Someone Who Knows Hidden Things or some such portentous bullshit.”
Lawl had a terrible poker face.
* * *
The name of Someone Who Knows Hidden Things was Gratt. He was one of the massive guardians, all muscle and no personality, three times Will’s height and weight. A creature to make even Balur’s eight feet look small. Gratt was also one of the generals in the civil war that was churning the eternal plains of the Hallows to mud.
Still, Gratt also knew what Will needed to know, and so Will had traipsed across the eternal plains, dragging his sorry crew of companions with him, and finally, after months of searching and haranguing, and dodging combat, and not dodging combat and subsequently washing a surprising amount of blood off himself, he had arrived here.
Klink’s body spasmed once, twice, lay still. The god’s blood steamed in the early morning.
Here wasn’t as good a place as Will had hoped.
Once one was already dead, Will had figured, that was pretty much the last stop on life’s journey. There were no places to go from here. Yet again, reality had found a way to disappoint him. “There is the Void,” Cois had told him after their first real fight in the underworld, while Lette had been picking throwing knives out of the corpses and Balur had been licking the blood off his claws. There is the utter unmaking of one’s self. The dissolution of personality and identity into the abyss.”
“At least it would mean not listening to you,” Lawl had called.
Well, now Klink never had to listen to Cois or Lawl or even Will ever again.
Gratt was holding Klink by the feet. In his other hand he held a vast sword, at least as long as Will was tall. One edge was sharp and bloody as a butcher’s cleaver, the other was a ragged assembly of rough spikes.
“That is being an impractical weapon,” Balur muttered next to Will.
“Seriously,” Lette whispered. “That’s just going to get stuck on a lot of armor. Someone’s going to stab you in the kidneys while you’re trying to unhook it.”
“Well,” Will said, “why don’t you go up there and tell him?” Will was never at his best, he knew, when he was bound hand and foot.
“Silence!” barked one of their guards. He put a boot in Will’s back and kicked him face-first into the mud.
The guard was a member of Gratt’s army. One of the many, many dead who had found their way down to the Hallows however many millennia ago, who now had found his way into Gratt’s employ. He seemed to enjoy kicking people bound hand and foot. Will hoped he’d had some pretty shitty millennia down here.
In all honesty, that was probably the truth of things. Many of the members of Gratt’s army, now all arrayed before the general and Klink’s limp corpse, seemed to have had a rough go of things in the Hallows. Enough that they felt more than a little resentful toward the gods who had established the system of rewards and punishments within the Hallows. Enough that should, say, some unsuspecting idiot march into the middle of that army asking for favors, with all those gods in tow at his back, then negotiations would take a distinct downward turn for said unsuspecting idiot.
And then said unsuspecting idiot would find himself tied hand and foot in a cage at the back of an army, while a despotic warlord stood at the front of it, slitting the throats of one of those gods for his army’s amusement.
The army was cheering. The other former gods—also enjoying the hospitality offered by the cage—were in more of a wailing-and-gnashing‑of‑teeth mood. Toil, Klink’s twin, was crying and had apparently pissed himself. Will couldn’t help but think of all the meals he could have enjoyed if he just hadn’t bothered sacrificing that fatted calf.
The morning’s entertainment over, the army dispersed and went back to . . . doing army things. Will wasn’t entirely sure what that involved. He had been a farmer before he had been . . . several other things. A false prophet. A figurehead of a popular uprising. A farmer again. A resistance fighter. A man with divine power in his blood. A dead man. None of them had given him any insight into what armies did in their off-hours.
What one small detachment of soldiers was doing, though, was approaching the cage where Will and his companions were all being held. They exchanged words with the enthusiastic back kicker. He went over and kicked Lawl in the back. “Get up,” he said, somewhat paradoxically.
In the end, several large and energetic soldiers got tired of kicking Lawl over, and carried him away like so much bundled meat. Lawl screamed a lot, which was rather unbecoming for someone who had once styled himself “the king of the gods,” but on the other hand this was exactly what had happened to Klink shortly before his all-too-brief appearance onstage with Gratt.
“Well,” Lette said to Will, “if you’re all done observing people we know being killed, now seems like a good moment for a plan out of here.”
This was an entirely accurate statement. However, it didn’t help Will come up with a plan any faster.
From the direction of Gratt’s tent, the screaming intensified.
“Bones are being useful,” Balur contributed. “I have been using them as all sorts of tools for escaping jails. Clubs. Shivs. Picks for locks.”
Will looked over the bare iron floor of the cage they were in. “There aren’t any bones here,” he pointed out in the vague hope it might get Balur to stop.
“Toil is being full of bones,” Balur pointed out. “And it is only being a matter of time before he is being murdered anyway. Why are we letting Gratt have all the fun?”
This didn’t help Will plan either.
Eventually Lawl was brought back to them. He wasn’t screaming anymore. He was barely even breathing.
“See you bright and early tomorrow,” said one of the guards with a cruel laugh. Another drew his finger over his neck and rolled his eyes back. His compatriots laughed. Toil let out another sob.
Will still did not have a plan. Will did, perhaps, have the idea of what his plan might be. But he supposed that was as much as he usually had. And it wasn’t as if his plans ever seemed to work out anyway.
“Take me to Gratt,” he said with as much force as he could.
The soldiers stopped laughing. They eyed him cautiously. Which was what sensible people did when they were in a room with a crazy man, and that was what Will was announcing himself to be.
“Will,” Lette said, “let’s talk about this.”
“You got a death wish, little man?” said one of the guards, ignoring Lette.
Will ignored her too. “Yes,” he told the guard. Because that, in the end, was his plan.
* * *
There was a lot of kicking involved, of course. The guards took great pains to ensure Will knew where his kidneys were and exactly how much they could hurt before they took him to see Gratt. It seemed to be a point of pride with them.
They dragged Will across what was left of a field of wheat. There wasn’t much left of it. Mostly it was mud and trenches and poorly dug latrines. There had been a lot of wheat fields when Will had first arrived in the Hallows. In one of his less truculent moods, Lawl had described them as a “motif.” Lette had interpreted that as “a pretentious way to describe a lack of imagination.” Even Afrit had laughed at that.
The Hallows themselves consisted of a seemingly endless chain of massive, country-size caverns. Each one could take weeks to traverse. Some were tall enough for clouds to form. They were interconnected by narrow channels of rock that formed natural choke points and had served as most of the battlegrounds in the sprawling civil war that had consumed the past six months.
Gratt’s tent—complete with its surrounding army—was near the entrance of one of these tunnels. It was, Will suspected, supposed to be imposing. In all honesty, it mostly resembled a filthy circus tent, but based on how Will’s last conversation with Gratt had gone, he wasn’t going to point that shortcoming out.
Will had been unceremoniously flung at the feet of many people in his time. More than most people, he suspected. Still, Gratt’s feet were by far the most imposing.
Gratt himself was perhaps twenty feet tall, and squat despite his height. His skin was the dull angry red of yesterday’s violence, covered in whorls and knobs of hardened gray horn. Tattoos in a myriad of styles, colors, and skill levels had been scrawled across his arms. Slabs of metal were strapped haphazardly across his vast muscles, which seemed to have been built on an industrial scale.
Atop this mountain of angry flesh was a head that looked as if it had been abandoned halfway through its construction. It probably had been. One evening, Lawl—in an oddly confessional mood—had told Will the creatures here had been among his first creations. He had, he’d said, still been figuring out how to do faces.
“Getting the eyes even . . . ,” he’d said. Then Lawl had just shaken his head.
Gratt sat in a chair built on the same scale and with the same skill as himself. A lot of skulls were tied to it.
“He wanted to see you,” one of the guards said by way of an explanation for Will’s abrupt appearance. He kicked Will in the kidneys again just in case Will had forgotten where they were.
“So?” Gratt asked.
“What?” asked the soldier.
“So what if he wanted to see me?” Gratt asked around massive jutting jaws. His grating voice made Balur’s baritone sound almost melodious.
“Erm,” the soldier managed.
“He’s a prisoner,” Gratt said slowly. “We don’t take requests from him.”
“But . . . ,” the soldier said, “I thought . . . perhaps . . . some sort of valuable information . . . or . . . something? Like . . . a bargain?”
Gratt stood from his chair. He paced toward the soldier. He peered down at him. He was three times the soldier’s height. The soldier gulped. Then Gratt backhanded him. Gratt’s hand was so big, he actually backhanded most of the man’s torso. Large parts of the man’s body lost their structural integrity. A bloody, ragged, pulp-filled sack that used to be a soldier flew through the tent flap and outside.
Will begin to think he should have waited until he had slightly more of a plan.
Gratt then looked down at where Will was, in the dirt at his feet. He smiled. His tusks were very prominent. “So,” he said, still smiling, “what was it you wanted?”
“Okay,” Will managed, “this probably isn’t the smartest thing to do, but I’m going to ask you to bear with me here for just a moment.”
Gratt cracked massive knuckles.
“So,” Will said, because, really, talking was all he could think to do now, “I’ve been thinking. For, well, millennia, you have known where the Deep Ones are. The very beings that gave the gods themselves power. For millennia you’ve had the possibility of going down and taking that power for yourself, of ascending to godhood. And you’ve not done it.”
Gratt stooped. His face was monumental. His breath smelled of meat. “You have come here,” he said, “to tell me things I know?”
“Oh no,” Will said. “Sorry, I should have been clear. I’m negotiating.”
“And what,” Gratt asked, “do you have to offer beside a fast mouth?”
Which was a fair question, although in Will’s opinion it underestimated the value of a fast mouth. His had gotten him this far, at least. Though this was the Hallows, so perhaps that wasn’t that far after all.
“Well,” Will said, “I do have a death wish.”
This seemed to give Gratt pause, which was good because it was supposed to.
“You see,” Will went on into the gap, “the only reason I can think that you haven’t taken that power for yourself is because you’re afraid.”
Gratt straightened. He licked his tusks. “Not so fast a mouth after all,” he said.
“Oh!” Will would have held his hands up in protest if they weren’t bound together. “I’m not calling you a coward. Not at all. That’s sort of my point. If you’re afraid of it, then going to the Deep Ones and taking their power must be some pretty messed‑up shit. Something really awful, and almost certainly involving being condemned to the Void. And I have to figure you don’t have a death wish. So you don’t want to go and get it. But you see, I do, and I’m willing to give it a go.”
Gratt thought about this. “So I let you go and get the power of the gods, because . . . you are suicidal? That is your bargain?”
Which on the face of it, Will had to admit, probably didn’t sound that attractive. He knew he should have thought this through beforehand. “Well,” he said, “at the end of it you have me. The person who got the power of the gods. I’ll work for you.”
Gratt snorted through his malformed nose. “An easy promise to make,” he said.
“Well, you do have in your possession some people who are pretty important to me,” he said. The gears of his mind were starting to smoke now.
“Hostages,” Gratt said. Of all the things Will had said, Gratt did seem to like this the most.
“I’ll need some of them,” Will said quickly. “You couldn’t have all of them. If I’m going to pull this off, I’d need my team.”
“Your team?” Gratt said.
“Yes.” Will nodded enthusiastically. “The humans. You keep the gods, I go with the humans and get the Deep Ones’ power, and I bring it back to you, and then I make the world burn, or whatever you want, but I get to live. Sound good?”
He didn’t mention that he’d have the power of a god, and would do whatever in the Hallows he wanted, and that Gratt could go hang. However, he figured that Gratt would probably figure that out on his own.
And yet, somehow, Gratt didn’t. Because Gratt said, “All right.”
“What?” Will asked.
“A bargain. A deal. You have it.” Gratt reached down and seized one of Will’s bound arms. His fist was so large it enclosed both forearm and bicep. It would take only a slight squeeze for multiple bones to be broken. “We shake on it.” Gratt shook Will’s entire body.
* * *
Gratt went back to the cage with Will. The others watched open-mouthed as Gratt commanded the soldiers to free Will’s arms.
“Sold us out, did you?” Lawl asked.
Will ignored Lawl. He looked to Gratt. “And the other humans,” he said.
Gratt nodded, and Lette’s and Afrit’s arms were freed. Will realized his mistake. “Oh, and the Analesian,” he said, pointing to Balur.
Gratt arched what might have been intended to be an eyebrow. Lawl really had done a terrible job on his face. “That was not what we agreed.”
“I need him,” Will said, and then tried to think why on earth that might be true. “For muscle.”
Gratt considered. “You will need it,” he said.
Will began to think he should probably have checked exactly how difficult it was to get to the Deep Ones before he started embroiling his friends in these dangers.
Limbs freed, Balur stood and growled at a lot of people. Then he pointed to Cois. “And hir,” he said. “We will be needing hir.”
“Cois?” Gratt said. He sounded amused.
“For muscle,” Balur said, somehow keeping a straight face.
Gratt looked to Will. “Zhe has . . .”— Will tried to kill that little pause—“important information about this place. And zhe’s Cois. Zhe’s unimportant. You have Lawl and Betra. The king and queen of the gods. You have Toil, the god I worshipped my whole life.” It was hard to keep a straight face when he said that. “I will come back for them.”
And he would. He really did mean it. They might be arseholes. They might have been tyrants. But they had been the gods of his childhood. And they had somehow become his responsibility as well. He would come back, and he would bring the power of a god with him, and he would free them, and he would scrape Gratt from the landscape as if he were scraping pig shit off his shoe.
They all assembled in front of Gratt. “So,” Will asked, “where are we going?”
“The Killing Plains,” Gratt told them.
“That doesn’t sound great,” Afrit said.
“It sounds bad,” Lette agreed.
“It is bad,” Cois said.
“What?” Balur shook his head. “It is sounding amazing.” But then again he said things like that.
“It is where we send the worst who come to the Hallows,” Gratt told them. “It is where we send the psychotics, those who kill for pleasure and who cannot stop killing. It is where we send them so that they may kill each other and condemn each other to the Void. It is where only the strongest, and fastest, and most deadly of us survive. It is certain death to go there. In the Killing Plains—if you live long enough—you will find a gorge. Go down into the gorge. At its base is a tunnel. That will take you to the Deep Ones. To something worse than simple death.”
He smiled at Will. It was not a pretty smile. “What is left of you will return to me, or these gods will die.” He nodded. “A good bargain, I think.”
Will’s companions did not seem to agree with Gratt on this point. But they, in Will’s opinion, were still having a lot of trouble focusing on the end goal here, which was getting out of here and beating the ever-living shit out of Barph. As far as he was concerned, this was a step forward.
And so he stepped forward, and he led the others toward the Killing Plains, and toward certain death.