I found Half-high kneeling next to Runt's corpse.

"Get up, you maggot-brained sack of shit. Get up. No one gave you permission to die, you sorry pile of rotting pig's assholes."

I decided to just give him a minute. Willow, Pock, and Rabbit were finishing the mop-up just fine on their own.

Once they finished, I ordered them to drag the bodies into a pile.

I headed outside. I found a couple of crates to stack, climbed up, and tore down that lion tapestry hanging over the entrance. I brought it inside, over to where Half-high was still giving orders to Runt's body.

"Let me give you a hand here, corporal." I said it gently, using his rank to remind him he needed to reel it in, get it under control. He was an NCO, and the boys didn't need to see him cracking up.

To the man's credit, he did. And quickly.

The two of us grabbed Runt and his weapons, and rolled him up in the tapestry. It was hardly dignified. But it was a hell of a lot more dignified than openly carrying a corpse with a split-open head all the way back to our barracks.

Once the enemy bodies were stacked, I had Rabbit and Pock search for the supply of lamp oil. I knew they had some somewhere, because they were burning lanterns to light the place.

I detailed Willow to the front entrance, acting as guard. I didn't want any more surprises tonight. The presence of a Reborn had been enough.

The boys found the oil, and we piled everything that would burn on top of the bodies: old crates, blankets, burlap sacks, doors, timber from the old inventory shelves.

Once it was done, we soaked everything, emptying one of the oil casks over the whole mess. We tossed the rest of the casks in the pile, figuring when they burst they'd add some extra oomph.

I had the boys take Runt to the door, ready to move out. I handed Half-high one of the burning lanterns.

He was Runt's team leader. He deserved to do the honors.

Half-high shattered the lamp against the pile. Globs of flaming oil caught the soaked fuel, and quickly began to burn.



We managed to steal a cart in the confusion surrounding the fire, and got back to the barracks without much more fuss.

It's possible we were seen, but honestly, that didn't matter much. The disguises were meant to hide our approach from any covert lookouts—kids in the crowd, "shoppers," or hawkers and hucksters paid to drop the hint trouble was en route.

Now that the deed was done, I didn't especially care who tied us to it. In fact, rumors that we were behind the raid would help our overall cause. They'd serve as a warning not to set up shop in Raider territory.

It was only an hour or so until daybreak by the time we made it back to the Copper Cross barracks. We unloaded Runt. I ordered the boys I'd left on duty to put him in the root cellar. It was cool, it was dry, and it was out of the way.

We'd take care of him the following day, with proper honors.

While the boys were getting cleaned up, I had Sergeant Kell—the team leader I'd left on duty—send a runner over to get Madam Dalah. She presented herself in my office around twenty minutes later, wearing a sweet and seductive smile to hide her obvious annoyance.

Rickard's Raiders had an ongoing relationship with Madam Dalah. By unspoken custom, we took care of any rough customers that mistreated her girls. She, in turn, made sure out-of-town adventurers knew about our services.

She also allowed us to use her services on credit, and settle up at the end of the month. It wasn't a courtesy she extended to many.

That said, she wasn't at all happy about being called in at this hour. Morning was the traditional close of business for whores. If it was a slow night, then she and hers were already off duty.

"I owe you for the burkhas," I told her.

"Is that all?"

"No," I said. I opened my desk, reaching for my personal coffer. The small lock box had 120 silver in it. I'd been saving it for something specific, but—

I reserved five silver for myself, and handed her the box.

"Open the bar. Give the boys as much liquor as they want. And wake up the best girls you have. Wake them all up. Have them give my boys whatever they want today."

She eyed the coins, did the mental calculations. "This won't be enough."

"Put the difference on my personal account."

"That's going to be expensive, Xev. Are you sure?"

I was, and I told her so.

Fact was, after the night we'd just had, Half-high's team needed soft flesh, strong drink, and plenty of both.

We could get back to the business of things tomorrow. Right now—a time where death was fresh on everyone's mind—they needed a good reminder of why they were alive.

I also decided to split Sergeant Kell's men, and send them over in shifts. The only caveat was they couldn't get too drunk to fight or stand post.

Half-high's boys could stay out until next muster.

Dalah shot me a look, using the same come-hither eyes that must of made her the darling of Kairo back when she was still a working whore.

"You planning to partake yourself, Xev? I could make sure you got your money's worth."

I had to admit, it was tempting. Especially under the circumstances. But I was still heartsore from a recent dalliance with a lady in town. It had gotten far more serious than I meant it to, and I was still nursing some wounds over it.

I didn't need a tumble with one of Dalah's girls opening the scabs for me.

"No thanks," I said. "Just take care of my boys. See to it they get my money's worth."

A knowing smile, a slight nod of the head, and she was gone. I knew damned well she was going to mark up the drinks on me, if not everything else.

But now wasn't the time to haggle.



I spent the rest of the day and most of the following night doing admin work. The one advantage to standing duty as the barracks OIC was that it gave me ample opportunity to do my job as the company operations officer.

I wrote up a quick after-action report, focusing on lessons learned, and our employment of the ceramic eggs. They'd worked as intended, and the water-soaked shemaghs had been effective in preventing us from feeling the worst effects.

The only hiccup was the dust getting in our eyes. I didn't get it too bad, but Pock and Willow had both ended up fighting blind for part of the skirmish. Fact was, we only won because we the enemy got it worse than us, and we had speed, surprise, and violence on our side.

Though to be fair, that could be said of most engagements involving Rickard's Raiders.

I also looked over our ledgers, and tried to determine if I could squeeze the budget enough to buy more of them. The choking dust would be useless against the undead, but the eggs could be a potent weapon against any living denizens of the Crypt.

Lastly, I went over personnel, updating the company roster. The loss of Runt brought us down to a total of 31 men, counting officers. That was presupposing the captain didn't lose anyone on his trip to see the satrap of Kalah. I dreaded the possibility of having even more empty spaces on the organization table.

Fact was, we were badly undermanned for the job.

Rickard's Raiders—originally an entire company of specialized infantry—was effectively an undersized platoon with attached headquarters element. Our other two lieutenants, Slack and Baraz, were currently serving as squad leaders. We had three NCOs occupying ranker billets.

We needed more men, and not just the kind of riff-raff we got whenever we did a temp hire. Any nitwit with a pile of gambling debts or a pregnant wife could be a torchbearer. Anyone with more guts than sense could be a man-at-arms. If the gods blessed you with a strong back, you didn't even need the brains of a mule to be a porter.

We needed men who were Raider material.

Unfortunately, there were damned few of them left in Kairo.



A little before sundown, I called a general muster, and ordered the duty team to bring Runt's body out of the root cellar. Two of the rankers cleaned him up as best they could, and loaded him into a cart. We piled his personal possessions around him. We crossed his hands over his chest, and placed his dagger and hatchet in them.

The hatchet was symbolic of Rickard's Raiders, and the closest thing we had to an identifying trademark. It was a holdover from long before my time, back when the Raiders were a company of forest scouts and bushwhackers hiring out to the kings of the North Continent.

While the short-handled axe didn't get much use clearing brush here in the Soha Desert, it was an ideal close combat weapon down in the Crypts. One of the captain's standing orders was that no Raider ever went underground without one.

Dead or alive.

As the only officer present, it was my job to say a few words. "Runt was a brother," I began. "Though he didn't serve the Lords of the North, as some of you did, he was a Raider through and through. When the city of Kairo abandoned him, we accepted him. We gave him a home and a family. He gave us his loyalty and his courage.

"He was a man brave enough to delve the Dark, a man brave enough to stand in the shield wall, and a man brave enough to patrol the dunes. He was brave enough for this world or any other. We'll see him again, brothers, as he joins our recon element leading the way into the next one."

I rendered a final salute over the body.

Out in the city, the Al'leh worshippers' evening call to prayer echoed over the rooftops.


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