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Dragonsteel Prime Chapter 28: Bridge Four 2

This chapter comes from the 2000 draft of a book called Dragonsteel. Some of the settings, situations, and characters were repurposed into The Way of Kings (2010).

Death. It surrounded him, reached for him, and took his friends. He could hear himself screaming as the arrows fell, killing the defenseless men around him. Their blood fell like rain, pooling and streaming until it poured off the sides of the massive plateau, disappearing into the chasm like scarlet waterfalls.

But the deaths were only the beginning. Horrors much more vibrant than simple corpses surrounded him. Nightmarish monsters that tore men to pieces, devouring them with greedy lust. At times, the dead rose up, staring with sightless eyes. Other times, men seemed to explode, sending out waves of bone and gore. Gaz screamed that they were only Sho Del mind tricks, but Jerick knew otherwise. They were real. It was all real. The death, the blood, and the Sho Del.

They rose up in front of him, their bone-white skin shining in the sunlight. He could see them closely now, and his eyes ran across their sharp features, features that could almost have belonged to a man. A nose that was too pointed, a face that was too triangular, and eyes dark as a cavern far beneath the earth. As the demons approached, however, Jerick could see that he was wrong. The eyes weren’t completely black—near the center, where a human iris would have been, was a ring of pure white. Eyes that better would have suited a reptile, rather than something bipedal.

The Sho Del fell on him, hacking at him with bright steel swords. Jerick yelled in terror, turning to the left, looking for help. He could see Frost there, being torn to pieces by four large serpentine monsters. Jerick shook his head in horror, turning to the other side. Ryalla stood screaming, struggling as a Sho Del tossed her into the chasm. The sharp blades cut into Jerick’s skin, attacking him over and over again. He caught sight of Topaz, his head being cut from its body by a Sho Del sword.

“You killed him,” a voice informed. Jerick looked up. Standing between two Sho Del, their swords bright with Jerick’s blood, stood his father. The lumberman shook his head in disappointment. “You killed us all. You killed me.”

“No!” Jerick denied.

Rin continued to shake his head, a look of disappointment on his face even as a Sho Del blade cut into his chest.

Jerick awoke. A man stood over him, shaking him lightly. The weak light of dawn poured through the tent flap, and forms were rising around him, shaking their lethargic bodies.

“Keeg?” Jerick asked, blinking.

The man, really no more than a boy, smiled weakly. He claimed to be seventeen, but his face made him look as if he were years younger.

“Time t’be geffin’, there,” the boy said with his characteristic Jargish accent.

Jerick smiled briefly at the sound—he still hadn’t quite gotten used to the dialect, even if most of the words were Meleran. The language had been twisted horribly by the Jargish. The syntax was odd, and there was so much inflection to the words that they were often hard to understand.

“I’m geffing,” Jerick mumbled, using the Jargish word for ‘move.’ He pulled himself out of bed—a simple blanket set on the hard ground—stretching his muscles. He had slept poorly. Of course, he hadn’t slept very well since he had entered the Rothanden valley. Nights in Fallamore were almost as hot and damp as the days, and Jerick found it almost impossible to sleep in such conditions. Since arriving at the war, however, things had gone a little better; pure exhaustion often overcame discomfort. Now if he could just find a way to get rid of the nightmares.

Except he knew that wouldn’t be possible. Jerick slowly pulled on his clothing—a smelly shirt and trousers he knew he would never have even thought about wearing just a few months before, followed by his leather vest and short sword. The nightmares were only an extension of the horrors he faced every day. The death, fear, and suffering haunted him while he was awake—it only made sense that they would continue through the night.

Falling into line with the rest of the bridgemen, Jerick shuffled out of the tent into the morning light. Bridge crews were too expendable, and too numerous, to deserve a permanent structure. Outside, Gaz waited, prepared to punish those who didn’t move quickly enough.

The large man was not Ke’Chan, Jerick had discovered, though he was related to them. Gaz was from a land called Kaz’ch Tor, a remnant of the old Ke’Chan empire where some Ke’Chan warriors had settled down and intermarried with the Yolish people. The Kaz’ch considered themselves separate from the homeless Ke’Chan nation, a fact which, from what Jerick had been able to gather, suited the Ke’Chan just fine. The large merchants considered their cousins impure, both racially and doctrinally.

Jerick noticed Gaz’s fist just before it hit the side of his head. Pain washed through his body like a sudden spark, and Jerick wavered slightly. He probably would have tumbled to the ground if Keeg hadn’t steadied him.

“You thinking again, fick?” Gaz grumbled, using Fallin slang for peasant. The large Kaz’ch stuck his face directly against Jerick’s. “You’re paid to work, not think.”

Jerick nodded humbly as his vision cleared. For some reason, out of all the hundreds of bridgemen, Gaz had singled out Jerick for punishment. It didn’t seem rational that he would spend effort on one man when he was over so many, but Gaz nonetheless found time to keep an eye on Jerick. The large Kaz’ch claimed he didn’t trust Jerick—didn’t like the look in his eyes.

During his first few days in the War, Jerick had tried to stand up to the man, an attitude that had led him to numerous beatings. Even worse, Gaz had insisted Jerick stand at the front of the bridge crew, rather than rotating with every skirmish. Jerick had learned quickly that where Gaz was concerned, one kept one’s opinions to oneself.

The bridgemen fell into line, a few late-risers earning whacks from Gaz. The Kaz’ch was like nothing Jerick had ever experienced before. He wasn’t a bully—or, at least, not like any bully Jerick had known. Bullies used their size to gain dominance over others. Gaz already had dominance over the bridgemen—total and complete dominance.

The man made it clear that his punishments were for the good of the army, for any man who wasn’t willing to follow orders could cause the entire group to fail. The longer Jerick spent in the war, the more difficult it became for him to decide if Gaz was correct or not. On one side, he saw a powerful warrior picking on men who couldn’t stand up to him. On the other side, he had seen entire bridge crews slaughtered by the Sho Del because they lacked coordination.

“Teams one, two and three,” Gaz barked, speaking from memory, like he always did. Few soldiers, even the officers, were able to read written orders. “You are on latrine duty. Four, five, and six, you will work on bridges. Seven and eight will go gathering.”

Gaz didn’t ask if there were any questions. He simply stood expectantly as each crew leader led his men to the appropriate activity.

“All right, boys,” Tenne, their team leader, announced. “You heard him. Let’s go.”

Bridge Four began to move, following Tenne to the bridgeyards. Jerick shuffled along in line, Keeg to his side. The boy had arrived only a few days before, and he still had the energy of a newcomer. It wouldn’t last long.

For the most part, the camp was quiet—bridge crews rose earlier than anyone else. There were a few men visible outside of the large troop cabins that housed the warriors, men who were either on patrol or rising early. As they neared the bridgeyards, Keeg’s eyes fell longingly on a pair of soldiers sparring with wooden swords and shields in the morning light.

“You thought they’d teach us that, didn’t you?” Jerick asked quietly. Talking was allowed, as long as they didn’t make a nuisance of themselves.

Startled, Keeg looked over at Jerick, then nodded guiltily. “Aye,” he admitted. “I’in long wantin’ t’learn t’sword.”

Jerick smiled knowingly. “I thought that too, before I came.”

“Not for us,” Keeg said with disappointment.

“No,” Jerick agreed. It had taken Jerick weeks to abandon his dreams of obtaining quick glory on the battlefield. Even still, as they walked past the fighting men, he felt a stab of jealousy. That should have been him.

Except, now he knew the truth. Peasants could never be more than bridgemen, and bridgemen would never be trained to fight. The Eternal War wasn’t like the battles he had read of in books, where thousands upon thousands of men had met to determine the fate of nations. The Eternal War was more delicate, an extended campaign that involved hundreds of small skirmishes but few extended battles. Most of the plateaus were small, fitting only a few hundred soldiers at a time. Therefore, those soldiers needed to be very highly-trained and very well-equipped.

Bridgemen, however, never crossed onto the battlefield—the soldiers protected the bridges from their side. Bridgemen didn’t need to be well-trained or well-equipped, there just needed to be a lot of them, which there were. Training them was futile; not only did they rarely need the skills, their casualty rate was so high that teaching them would be about as wasteful as throwing money into the chasms. The only sort of training they received was running—every day, whether they went on a run or not, they were forced to jog around the camp perimeter three times carrying a bridge.

And this was the situation in which Jerick found himself. He had considered running away, but where would he go? Pretend to be a scholar or a scribe? Surely someone would eventually discover his ruse. Even assuming he were able to find one of the fine-worked gold or silver scholar’s castemarks, scribes were a very closed group. Eventually they would ask who trained him, and there discover proof that he had never been to Trexandos.

He could return to Melerand, but that would not only require him to face Martis and Courteth, he would also have to admit how wrong he had been. He couldn’t bring himself to do such a thing—not in front of the princess.

So, he struggled on, hoping for the same thing every bridgeman wanted, the one dream that kept them going in the face of such horrors. Any bridgeman who lasted a year would be made leader of his own crew, a rank that not only earned him more pay, but allowed him the privilege of always walking at the middle of the bridge—the most protected spot. Survive another year as crew leader, and he would be moved from the bridge crews entirely and be made a runner or a watchman.

It wasn’t much to hope for, especially to a boy who had once lived in the palace of a King. For most peasants, however, it was an absolute dream. Runners and watchmen were allowed to bring their families to the camp, and the pay they earned was a fortune when compared to a farmer’s wages—or, rather, lack thereof.

“Jerick, you take the second squad and Gent, you take the third.” Tenne’s voice brought him out of his contemplations. They had arrived at the bridgeyards.

“Right,” Jerick said with a nod, gesturing for Keeg and six other men to follow him. After just a couple of months in the field, Jerick was already one of the most experienced members of the bridge crew. He felt little pride at the distinction—it only meant he had lived longer than the others.

Ske company, named after the third letter of the Fallin alphabet, was reputed to be the unluckiest company in General Demetris’ camp, and Jerick’s bridge crew the least lucky in the company. It had certainly lived up to its reputation. During Jerick’s time in the war, the crew had been decimated on four separate occasions. Rarely a battle went by that they didn’t lose at least two or three men to Sho Del arrows. In fact, the only man Jerick remembered from his first day was Tenne, the crew leader.

“All right, men,” Jerick said, nodding to the scattering of planks. “You know what to do.”

The men nodded, moving with dull eyes to begin working. Dragonsteel battles occurred infrequently, only about one a day. During their off time, however, the bridgemen were never allowed to relax. They were used to keeping the camp running, doing menial labor such as cleaning, constructing buildings, and building replacement bridges. Whenever possible, the Sho Del knocked their opponents’ bridges into the chasms—at times, it seemed to Jerick almost as if they lost more bridges than they did bridgemen.

Jerick knelt down beside Keeg, pounding nails into the wood. The camp engineers kept careful watch on the bridgemen, setting them to work at tasks that required little skill or training. The bridge work didn’t go as quickly as it could have had all the participants known exactly what they were doing, but it all came back to the training factor. Why teach a man to build bridges when he would likely be dead tomorrow?

“Thinkin’ there’in last til a year?” Keeg asked, pounding nails with a smirk that was almost contented.

Jerick shrugged. “Either that or I’ll be killed,” he mumbled. Then he paused—that wasn’t what the boy needed to hear. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I’ll last, Keeg. Of course I will.”

Keeg smiled. “I’in too, there. I’in wantin’ t’be long best warrior in camp.”

Jerick felt himself smile back, but as he did so the memories surfaced. Memories of men dying, one after another. Why did he bother to learn their names? No one lived; the Sho Del killed them all.

With that thought in his mind, he heard the distinctive blare of the warning horn blast through the camp. Two short blasts, followed by a long one: the signal for Ske company. All three companies in the camp took turns going on runs, placing only one company on the Shattered Plains at any one time. Occasionally Dragonsteel would be discovered on two plateaus at nearly the same time, requiring two companies to move out.

“Come on!” Jerick called to his sub-crew as he saw Tenne’s brown and gray-haired form motioning for them to gather. The nightmares from his sleep were pale competitors for what was about to occur.

“Down!” Gaz ordered.

Eight thunks could be heard as the bridge crews dropped their loads. Jerick jumped to the side, grabbing one of the steadying ropes as other bridgemen began to push. He leaned back with all his weight, adding his strength to the other steadiers as they struggled to keep the far end of the bridge from sinking too low and toppling the entire construction into the chasm. Jerick had seen such a thing happen before, though never to his crew.

The edge of the bridge plunked into place, and the bridgemen quickly dodged out of the way. A few seconds later the warriors were across, forming a protective wall around the small rock basin at the center of the plateau. Jerick sat down with a sigh, looking around at the rest of the crew. Most of them had looks of exhausted relief on their faces—this time the humans had arrived at the plateau first. There had been no hail of arrows to meet them, no slaughter of bridgemen. Their part in the battle had been completed without casualty.

Keeg groaned next to him, sweat pouring down his face. Jerick smiled to himself, remembering his first week as a bridgeman. Even the Fallin Emperor wouldn’t have been able to pay him enough to go back and do it over again. Though he had never really grown used to carrying the horrible weight of the bridge, over the months his muscles had grown strong and his body firm. He was still tired after a Dragonsteel run, but not so exhausted he couldn’t move.

Oddly, after just a moment of sitting, Jerick heard a sound from Keeg that wasn’t a groan of exhaustion. It sounded more like . . . awe.

“Jerick, be lookin’ at that, there,” the boy said, his fatigue forgotten, replaced by excitement.

Jerick followed the boy’s gesture, looking high in the sky. There, flying just below the clouds, was a dark winged silhouette.

“By the Lords!” Jerick mumbled, rising to his feet to stare into the sky. “What is it?”

“So the rumors are true,” a third voice mumbled. Jerick turned to the side, his eyes falling on Tenne, Bridge Four’s grizzled leader. Tenne was old for a warrior, perhaps in his late thirties, and he had skin almost as tan as his brown hair. He was missing several teeth, and his face was littered with scars. He was a harsh man, but not unkind.

“Rumors, Tenne?” Jerick asked.

“About him,” Tenne said, nodding toward the form high in the sky. “Drephrast, king of the dragons and lord of the Sho Del. The stories say he used to watch over the Shattered Plains, but stopped appearing decades ago. It appears that he’s returned.”

“A dragon?” Jerick asked, turning back to watch the form. Vendavius had said that there was no such thing as dragons. But, it appeared that the scholar could be wrong. The form circled above them for a moment, too far away to appear as more than a shadow, then disappeared, rising into the clouds. When Jerick looked down, the entire army—bridgemen and soldiers, had stopped their movements to stare up at the sky.

“Why did he return now?”

“You’re asking me?” Tenne said, laughing gruffly to himself. “I’m just a soldier, Jerick.”

The men stood for a moment watching, then, realizing they were about to have a battle, continued with a hurried gait. Fortunately, the Sho Del had yet to arrive, and the humans were able to take and surround the well unopposed. Now it would be the Sho Del who had to take up the offence.

“It’s a bad sign,” Tenne mumbled.

Jerick shrugged, taking a seat on the plateau. “I don’t know. It looks like the battle today will be an easy one.”

“True,” Tenne agreed, sitting beside Jerick. “We might even get a bonus.”

Jerick nodded. “Probably,” he agreed. Every time a company made a successful run, it meant a copper flep—the Fallin equivalent of a Meleran penning—for every bridgeman.

Tenne studied the soldiers, handing Jerick a waterskin. “Look there, Jerick,” he said, nodding to the side.

Jerick followed the older man’s gaze, barely making out a small group of warriors on the plateau next to their own. They weren’t Sho Del—their armor was human, and they bore the blue standard of Demetris’s Camp. Squinting, Jerick could make out a tall form standing at the front of the group.

“Who is it?” he asked.

“The general, I’d guess,” Tenne replied.

“Demetris?” Jerick asked with surprise. Then, looking more closely, he realized he had made a mistake. The figure at the front wasn’t a tall man, it was a short man standing on several boxes. “So it is,” he agreed.

“Wonder what he’s up to,” Tenne mumbled, accepting the waterskin back and squirting himself a mouthful.

“Watching us, I’d guess,” Jerick said. “That plateau is far enough away that he’ll be safe from the battle.”

“Probably,” Tenne agreed.

Jerick snorted quietly to himself. “It almost makes me wish we hadn’t had such an easy time of it,” he mumbled, studying the diminutive form. “Perhaps if the general actually saw what his bridge crews go through, he’d find a better way to protect us.”

Tenne grunted in disagreement. “I doubt it,” he grumbled. “He sees the numbers, Jerick. He knows what we go through. The only thing that man cares about is the Dragonsteel we bring in.”

“What about the Sho Del?” Jerick objected.

“That’s all they care about too,” Tenne informed. “They could get through if they wanted. The camps are too disjointed to repel a determined offence. The Sho Del don’t want our land, they just want the Dragonsteel. They may be demons, but they share one trait with the rest of us. Greed.”

Jerick rubbed his chin, feeling the whiskers there. He couldn’t even remember when he had started growing a proper beard—back in the palace he hadn’t been able to grow anything but fuzz. Tenne’s words had an uncomfortable truth to them. One of the reasons he had convinced himself to stay in the war was because he believed it was necessary, that he could protect his father and the rest of Yolen by keeping the Sho Del out. However, Tenne was right—the Sho Del could probably break through the camps if they wanted to.

“I don’t know, Tenne,” Jerick mused, turning his head from Demetris to the Ske company warriors on the plateau just beyond the bridges. They were fidgeting uncomfortably, waiting in anticipation of the Sho Del’s arrival. Perhaps the demons wouldn’t arrive. Such an event was unlikely; in all Jerick’s months at the war, never once had he seen a well harvested without a battle.

Unconsciously, Jerick’s eyes sought out the well itself, even though he knew he wouldn’t be able to see it through the warriors. He had seen plenty of them, however—there was one at the center of every plateau. Turning, he caught sight of the one on his own plateau. It looked somewhat like a tub, a large round cup that rose a few feet out of the ground. The one on his plateau was brown, just like the rest of the ground, but he knew the one the warriors were protecting would be dark black, an indication that liquid Dragonsteel would soon seep up into its basin.

Other than the raised wells, the plateaus were all perfectly flat, and generally the same height. Their surfaces were slick and dry, unadorned save for the occasional white boulder. There were a few of the boulders on every plateau, their white providing quite a contrast to the dun earth beneath. They reminded Jerick of Melerand; there had been similar strains of rock near his home.

“You don’t belong here, Jerick,” Tenne said quietly beside him.

Jerick turned with a confused look. “What was that, Tenne?”

“You, Jerick,” the older man said, his eyes staring out across the plateau. “You don’t belong in this war—or, at least, you shouldn’t be a bridgeman.”

“Why not?” Jerick asked slowly.

Tenne shook his head. “You’re too poised, too confident. You aren’t a peasant, no matter what that castemark says. The other men, they look up to you, even though you’re nothing more than a lad.”

“I’ve been here for a while,” Jerick defended.

“True,” Tenne agreed. “But I’ve seen men much older last much longer without earning the respect you have. The men don’t look at you and see a boy, they look at you and see a leader.”

“I’m just a lumberman.”

“I’ve never met a lumberman who could speak Fallin before,” Tenne noted.

“How many lumbermen have you met?” Jerick asked pointedly.

Tenne smirked. “You see? You say clever things like that, Jerick. You think like a noble. You’re a waste, dying here with the rest of us.”

Jerick didn’t respond for a moment. “Why did you come to the war, Tenne?”

The older man looked surprised at this comment. Then, he just shrugged. “Greed,” he finally said.

“I find that hard to believe,” Jerick replied.

Tenne sighed, leaning back. “My son did something very foolish, Jerick; got himself made a slave. A farmer can’t earn enough to buy a man’s freedom, so I came here.”

Jerick nodded, opening his mouth to respond, but Tenne cut him off.

“Here they come,” the grizzled man noted.

Jerick looked up. Sure enough, the Sho Del had arrived. He could see their bone-white faces approaching on the plateau beyond the one the warriors held, and soon arrows began to fall on both sides. As the demons reached the edge, they began to jump, sailing over the twenty-five foot gorge to land on the contested plateau. They needed neither bridges nor bridgemen.

All the warriors had to do was hold out until the Dragonsteel appeared, then they could collect the prize and retreat across the bridges. The Sho Del rarely gave chase, for they knew that once the Dragonsteel was in human hands, it was very difficult to retrieve—Sho Del legs could jump far, but they could not keep up with a galloping chariot. Couriers waited on every plateau leading back to the camp, ready to accept a thrown vial of Dragonsteel should the Sho Del decide to try and follow.

Jerick and the other bridgemen watched the battle with strangely uninvolved eyes. It was odd, seeing men fight and die just a few feet away but knowing that he himself was in no danger. Jerick couldn’t feel quite as detached as the rest of the bridgemen, with their tired eyes and uncaring faces. The horrors of what he had experienced over the last few months were too strong, too vibrant, to forget simply because this time he wasn’t personally in danger. Watching the soldiers fight, the Sho Del throwing horrible visions at them, made Jerick shiver with dread. I will never last two years like this, he realized.

“By the Lords, have a look at that,” Tenne mumbled from beside him.

“What?” Jerick asked, glad of any distraction that took his mind off of the battle.

“Look over there,” Tenne said, pointing at General Demetris’s plateau. A powerful-looking figure in white and gold was approaching Demetris, followed by a file of tan-clothed warriors.

“It’s General Ki Tzern,” Tenne said with awe.

“Really?” Jerick asked with interest, looking closely at the form. Tzern rode a magnificent horse like Sir Hsor had back in Melerand—one of the amazing Tzend beasts that was capable of carrying a man on its back. It towered over even the chariot horses used in Demetris’s army. Ki Tzern was a tall man, though Jerick had always heard that Tzends were a short people.

The general dropped off his horse and approached Demetris with a firm stance. Jerick had heard of Tzern; the Tzend was said to be the most successful general in all of the Eternal War.

“Ah, Jerick,” Tenne said wistfully. “How many times have you wished you’d gone to that man’s camp for recruitment instead of here? They say his companies almost never have casualties, even bridgemen.”

Jerick snorted. “I wouldn’t believe it, Tenne. Like you Fallins say—your tea never tastes as good as your friend’s.”

“Ah, but wouldn’t it be nice if the stories were true?” he asked. “The most successful camp, and the one with the least deaths? They say his warriors are immune to the Sho Del illusions. They even say he has men on his side that can make illusions of their own.”

“I doubt the Emperor would stand for the use of demonic magic, even if it did bring him Dragonsteel,” Jerick contested.

“Probably true,” Tenne agreed. “What do you suppose he’s doing over there?”

Jerick shrugged. “I don’t know. Having tea with Demetris?”

Tenne snorted. “I hope so. Maybe if Demetris associates with Tzern enough, some of the Tzend’s humanity will rub off on him. The hardest thing about this war, Jerick, is knowing your leaders are nearly as monstrous as the devils we’re fighting.”

“Hush, Tenne,” Jerick said, looking around for Gaz. If the Kaz’ch heard such talk, it would mean serious retribution.

“I’ll say what I want to,” Tenne grumbled sullenly, though he did lower his voice.

The sound of galloping drew Jerick’s attention back to the battle in front of them. One charioteer was riding madly for the bridges, the rest of the company retreating more slowly behind. In the charioteer’s hand was a steel container, and inside of that Jerick knew there would be a small glass vial. Dragonsteel, which would remain in liquid form until some fortunate buyer touched it and gave it shape with his mind, determining the form the metal would hold for eternity.

“Let’s move!” Gaz bellowed, ordering the bridgemen into place for the trek home.

Demetris stood watching the battle’s end, a slight smile on his lips. Earlier, when he had seen the dragon, he had been angry. Others had told him that the cursed creature had returned, but Demetris hadn’t believed them. Dragons were supposed to be superstitious tales. But now he had seen it himself—he would look foolish for punishing the men who had claimed to have seen it before.

But, fortunately, Ki Tzern had arrived. Not that Demetris liked the Tzend, quite the opposite. Tzern’s arrival, however, had given Demetris a chance to show how well his armies were doing. His army had won this battle—they had even managed to do it with minor losses. Demetris knew the victory would bring envy to the Ki Tzern’s heart.

“Well fought,” Ki Tzern said with mock-humility.

Oh, you can’t fool me, Tzern, Demetris thought to himself with glee. I know how you’re really feeling. I know the resentment, the jealousy, the hate. I have felt them all too often.

The thing Demetris hated most about Ki Tzern was his height. Normally, a single box allowed Demetris to stand even with other men, and a second box allowed him to tower over them. Tzern, however, was tall enough that two boxes only gave Demetris a few inches advantage. What’s more, the Tzend had a stature so militaristically sharp that Demetris felt short no matter how high he stood. It was frustrating, and he knew that Tzern enjoyed his discomfort.

“They did passably well,” Demetris said, watching the men retreat across the bridges.

“Your bridge crews are remarkably efficient,” Tzern said, his Tzendish accent making each word sound staccato.

Demetris scanned the crews, searching for the flaw Tzern must have noticed. The comment was obviously meant sarcastically, but how? Tzern’s own crews couldn’t possibly move faster than Demetris’s. When it came to peasants, a carefully cultivated sense of terror was always the best motivation.

Tzern turned away from the battle. “I came to inform you, Demetris, of a new bridge mechanism I have designed.”

A new bridge? Demetris scoffed. Impossible. I know what you’re doing, Tzern. You seek to trap me, to make me think you have a technology I do not. It will not work.

Tzern continued. “I have noticed the casualties amongst your bridge crews. I think this new design will cut down on your losses.”

Ah, so that’s it, Demetris realized. He’s come to plead for me to stop making him look bad. He knows that my aggressive tactics will soon overcome, and then I will take his precious place as first general.

“I don’t think that will be necessary, Tzern,” Demetris said with a smile.

Ki Tzern’s brow wrinkled with confusion.

Yes, you weren’t expecting me to see through your scheme, were you?

“At least let me send you the plans, Demetris,” Tzern said.

Demetris frowned. A clever comment—Tzern was always lording over the other generals, seeking to gain prestige by implying he could read. Demetris knew better. The man carried around books, as if he were some sort of scholar, but no general had time for such foolishness. It was a trick, one Demetris had never been able to prove.

“Not necessary, Tzern,” Demetris said, hopping off of his boxes and wandering toward his chariot.

“All right, Demetris,” Tzern said, his voice sounding displeased.

The Tzend’s pet warriors, a squadron of men dressed in tan uniforms, parted as Demetris waved them out of his way. Demetris climbed into his chariot.

“I should let you know, Tzern,” he said, turning to regard the team of warriors, “I’ve let the emperor know about your devil-warriors. I doubt he will be pleased.”

Tzern’s face grew dark. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Demetris.”

Demetris snorted, shooting a look at the warriors in tan. “I’ve heard about these men, Tzend. I know that you’re teaching them demon Sho Del magic.”

“In Tzendor we teach our men to focus their minds, Demetris,” Tzern said stiffly. “There is nothing magical about it. A man who controls his thoughts cannot be fooled by Sho Del illusions. That doesn’t make him a demon.”

“Claim what you want, Tzern,” Demetris said lightly, nodding for his honor guard to mount. “We’ll just see what the emperor has to say.”

At this, Tzern just shook his head, smiling slightly. “You know your Fallin Emperor has no jurisdiction over Tzend troops, Demetris. I doubt he would say anything even if we were using magic—he needs the Holy Tzend Armies far too much to risk offending us.”

Demetris shook his head slightly. He seems so confident. Could he have bribed one of the Emperor’s advisors? But which one?

Mulling over this new information, Demetris signaled his men and rode away, leaving the Tzend and his devil-warriors behind.

|   Castellano