“The Rot’s Last Laugh” by Charles E. Gannon

Druadaen nodded encouragement at the sleepy young ur zhog woman who had just finished her thorough account of all the foodstuffs she had eaten while a prisoner in the Under. “Thank you. That is very helpful. Can you recall anything else, Zhuklu’a?”

She shook her head, groggy. “I can barely remember my own name. Our flight from the upper tunnels was very tiring.”

Umkhira, a Lightstrider like her but both older and more formidable, added, “The shaman who held Zhuklu’a did not allow much sleep. It is a common tactic that ensures an escaped captive lacks the endurance to get very far.”

Druadaen nodded, then smiled genuine thanks at the younger Lightstrider. “Rest, then. And do tell me if you remember anything else.”

Zhuklu’a waved acquiescence, reclined, and rolled over. Her breathing became heavy and slow within a few seconds.

Druadaen arched his back to stretch it. Her recounting of foodstuffs had been quite detailed and quite long. He yawned soundlessly, fighting to keep his own eyes open.

“Well,” rumbled an amused voice from over his shoulder, “you asked for it.”

Druadaen turned to nod at the speaker: Ahearn, the nominal leader of their small group. “That I did,” Druadaen answered, stifling another yawn.

“And was it worth it?”

“It was.”

“And you really think you can reason your way to the hidden mysteries of the whole world by compiling the bill of fare that prevails among the urzhen tribes of the Under?”

Druadaen shrugged. “Not that alone, no. But knowing what they eat tells me something about where they get their food.”

Ahearn’s old friend Elweyr looked up from his book of thaumancery. “And if he knows where the food comes from, then he may be able to measure how much they acquire.”

Druadaen nodded. “And so, I might determine if they’re getting food the way the rest of us do or direct from their gods at the so-called Root of the World.”

“It is only myth,” Zhuklu’a mumbled sleepily without bothering to roll over.

The two urzhen—Kaakhag and his recently rescued brother—were anything but tired, however. They had leaned close as the young ur zhog huntress had reeled off a long list of what they and their kind—self-styled as the Rot—considered delicacies.

For his part, Druadaen considered the foods dubious at best. S’ythreni, the sole aeosti in the group, had a more definitive reaction: she had made a gagging sound even as the urzhen brothers’ stomachs growled in gustatory longing.

As soon as S’ythreni had recovered, she looked over at Druadaen, her expression simultaneously nauseated and sly. “The young Lightstrider omitted an important source of nourishment here in the Under.”

Druadaen stared at her. “Which is?”

She glanced at the Rot then around the group. “Us. All of us.”

The two mute brothers glared but offered no negative signs or gestures. Instead, after a short exchange of hand-speak, they crept toward the back of the cave, evidently meaning to get the last of the rats that, like the group, were sheltering in this chamber hidden behind a waterfall.

But Elweyr raised a weary head and muttered at them. “No. Don’t.”

Kaakhag, the one whose quest to save his get-brother had brought them all together, frowned and snapped an impatient gesture at the thaumantic.

Elweyr didn’t need to wait for a translation from Umkhira. “We need to keep at least one more rat alive. To be sure.”

“Sure of what?” Kaakhag’s brother gestured.

“That we’re safe,” Ahearn hissed back. “Now, be still! We’re at the upper reaches of the Underblack, here.”

Kaakhag shrugged and made an “after you” gesture toward Elweyr, who set Ahearn’s mute wolfhound to work finding the last of the moon-eyed rodents. Within a moment, the dog had flushed one from among a cluster of stalagmites and cornered it.

That was all Elweyr required; he put out his palm in the direction of the rat. After a few moments, it calmed, then sat, waiting until the thaumancer had tiptoed over and slipped it into a hide satchel.

The wolfhound had begun regarding the remaining rats with the same hungry stare as Kaakhag and Brother . . . but then turned his head sharply toward the sheet of water that fell like soft thunder just beyond the chamber’s entry. The fur of his ruff rose slowly as he padded stealthily closer to the narrow opening.

In the same instant that Ahearn’s hand fixed upon the wolfhound’s collar, S’ythreni hissed, “Quiet! Footsteps!”

The glowing patches of lichen they used for illumination were hastily covered, weapons were readied, and the group made sure they were positioned well back from either side of the entrance.

They could hear footfalls approach, then enter, the main cave beyond the black sheet of water. However, even though this newest batch of pursuers could not be seen, the sounds that slipped through the susurration of the sulfur-reeking waterfall told them much.

Compared to the first band of Bent which had entered the outer cave some time earlier, these pursuers were both fewer in number and less stealthy. Their voices were low rather than hushed, casual rather than urgent: disgruntled urzhen stopping for a break. Probably to eat, drink, relieve themselves, and do what all warriors did when on a dangerous and frustrating mission: complain.

As they did, the wolfhound remained absolutely motionless and silent. Druadaen wondered how Ahearn had managed to train the dog to maintain such stealthy self-restraint in the proximity of mortal foes. It was an impressive feat, easily rivaling Elweyr’s most elegant displays of mancery.

It was impossible to make out their pursuers’ words through the rushing water, but the longer the group listened, the more certain they were of the general tone: boredom, tinged with annoyance at having many more hours of trekking before they reached the safer upper tunnels of the Undergloom. Eventually, their exchanges became shorter and were largely supplanted by grunts and groans: warriors reluctantly reshouldering their loads. At last, there was a single weary command, a chorus of resigned grunts, and then thumping footfalls that marked their departure.

A minute after the last of their trudging steps faded into silence, S’ythreni loosed the grip on her shortsword and the wolfhound lay back down, grumbling and bored.

Just as Druadaen’s heart resumed beating at a normal rate, Ahearn whispered, “Hssstt, Elweyr.”

The mantic’s “Yah?” sounded sleepy, almost drunk; he had probably dozed off.

“Last act, chum. Time to send out our scrabbly little scout.”

“Yah,” Elweyr agreed, still slurring. Despite the dim light and his dark complexion, his face was still visibly ashy.

Ahearn took up the bag holding the rat. No longer quieted by mancery, it reacted with violent squirming and chittering. The broad-shouldered swordsman locked a fist around the animal’s body through the heavy hide before undoing the top flap. Elweyr looked inside, passed his hand over the opening, and the writhing inside ceased.

When Elweyr had completed further thaumantic passes, Ahearn put the bag next to the waterfall. The rat crawled out, its pupils contracting with fearsome suddenness when they encountered the lichen-light. Elweyr, eyelids drooping, swept his fingers at the rat and then away in the direction of the rushing water. The rat hesitated, then waddled into the pool at the edge of the entry, tucking itself tight against the wall, out of the vaporous downrushing torrent. It disappeared around the corner.

Zhuklu’a rose to a sitting position, her voice hushed in awe as she leaned toward her fellow Lightstrider. “The mancer sees through its eyes?”

Overhearing, S’ythreni responded with a calculating pout. “Probably not. That is more the domain of a faunamancer. But Elweyr?” She considered. “He probably used a thaumate that combined weak affinity and attuning.” When the young Lightstrider stared at the last word, the aeosti explained: “Attuning is a very basic link to the creature, just enough to tell the mancer what it is feeling: scared, curious, hungry, angry. That sort of thing.”

Zhuklu’a nodded.

After about five minutes had passed, Elweyr nodded wearily at Ahearn, who gestured for Umkhira to join him near the entry.

“So,” Druadaen exhaled, “it seems that, in the case of the rat, no news is good news.”

“Yes,” S’ythreni agreed, “except for the rat.”


She scowled. “Do the schools in Dunarra also teach you how to forget the common sense with which you were born? Think: what happens if Elweyr just releases his hold on the rat? It wanders off. And what if the worst of underkin seeking us, the blugner sow, chances upon it while she’s roving about, still trying to find our scent? What would she smell?”

Druadaen nodded. “Us. And so she would backtrack the scent.”

“And come right back here.” The aeosti glanced at Ahearn and Umkhira, who had been having their own muted conversation. The Lightstrider nodded, rose, and slipped through the curtain of water that reflected the faint glow of the lichen back at them.

“Many thanks and fare well, rat,” S’ythreni mumbled through a grim smile as she rustled about in her pack for some dried meat.

* * *

Umkhira eventually returned with the now-dead rat clutched in one sizeable fist. “No one was watching for us at the lower intersection. No sound or sign of movement in any direction.” She held the rodent’s body out to Elweyr, who shuddered. Umkhira shrugged, turned and offered it to Ahearn.

The big warrior considered the small carcass for several moments, but finally demurred. “No, not without a bit of roasting, first,” he murmured. “Guess I’m getting soft.”

Umkhira shrugged and brought the limp remains back to the two Rot, who had no compunctions about quartering the carcass and promptly devouring it.

S’ythreni looked quickly away, focused on Elweyr. “How did you make sure it headed down to the intersection?”

“It believed something from the higher tunnels was pursuing it,” the mantic murmured, rubbing his eyes and forehead.

“What did it think was pursuing it?” S’ythreni persisted, clearly determined to keep her focus diverted from the urzhen as they devoured the rat.

Elweyr shrugged. “I don’t know. Neither did it. It was just a certainty of danger from a given direction.” Seeing the curious faces around him, he explained, “The less specific the control, the less difficult and costly it is to maintain. When the rat reached the intersection, it believed it had reached safety—and waited for Umkhira.”

“Nevertheless,” Umkhira observed, “even casting that ‘simple’ spell seems to have exhausted you,”

Elweyr winced at the word “spell.” “It’s because of the distance. When a mantic can no longer see the object bound into their thaumate, it costs a great deal of manas to maintain any contact with it, let alone exert influence.”

Ahearn nodded sagely. “ ‘Every bit of mancery comes with a cost,’” he recited. “First thing Elweyr taught me about his craft.”

Kaakhagh grunted and began a rapid stream of hand gestures. When he was done, Umkhira translated cautiously, “That is why urzhen shamen are superior to human mancers.”

After several seconds of silence, Elweyr answered, “That didn’t seem to be the case when we defeated the shaman earlier today. And you’d better hope I’m at least as good until we get out of the Under.”

Kaakhag frowned, but grudgingly answered with a few sharp gestures. “This time, yes, I do hope that human mancery is mightier than the miracles from our gods. Despite the way it weakens you.”

Druadaen felt tensions rise in response to that oblique denigration and sought to shift the comparison into a productive, rather than contentious, topic. “And now that the shaman is gone, what do you think will happen to his tribe?”

This time, it was Brother who answered. “There will be chaos.” He pointed downward. “In the Undergloom, his allies—those with red-dyed eyes—cannot even govern their own kind. They act before they think. They only made a truce with each other because of what the shaman offered all of them: a route to the surface for when the Red go a-Hordeing.” Brother made a dismissive gesture. “The weak alliance among them surely died when he did.”

Kaakhag nodded and began expanding upon his sibling’s answer, Umkhira struggling to keep up with his gestures. “The Red do not have strategies. They simply follow their hatreds and their thirst for vengeance and blood. And now that the Hordeing is near, those lusts will burst like swollen pustules. And we, the Rot”—he tapped his green-dyed skin—“shall feel it first as they push up through our tribes in the Undergloom.”

Elweyr muttered, “It’s a wonder that any of you live long enough to actually go a-Hordeing.”

Brother shrugged and sent a stream of signs at Umkhira. “For every dozen Red who stop to make war upon the Rot, there are a thousand who will not stop moving upward until they reach the surface or die trying. All races of the Under must raid to survive, to feed our tribes, or we will starve and be no more. But the Red, they are as savage as animals. They will eat us and even each other.”

“Are you saying you don’t eat other thinking beings?” S’ythreni’s voice suggested she knew otherwise.

Brother signed indignantly. “Rot are not kinslayers without cause. And we are never kin-eaters.”

Druadaen noted that his retort did not address the Rot’s dietary attitudes toward non-urzhen, however.

“Aye,” Ahearn followed with a sigh, “but the Red have the advantage, then, don’t they? For them, everything they kill is a meal.”

“Which is why we Rot must always ready to fight,” Brother explained with gestures both angry and desperate. “It is why we are, and must stay, strong and fierce. If we do not match the Red blow for blow, they will consume us all!”

“Which made it the divil’s own work trying to lead any of the Bent when Elweyr and I were trapped down here,” Ahearn explained to Druadaen.

S’ythreni started. “Why? Did your urzhen eat each other when you weren’t looking?”

The Rot brothers uttered resentful subvocal grumbles.

Elweyr shook his head. “Of course not, S’ythreni. But down here, survival depends far more on fast, violent reflexes rather than deep reflection.”

Ahearn nodded, adding. “And a willingness to kill not only if you’re threatened, but when you think you can get the jump on anyone who might threaten you one day.”

“So you’re saying the Under breeds killers.”

“Warriors.” Brother’s corrective gestures were accompanied by an angry growl.

Druadaen thought the two labels—killer versus warrior—were rarely mutually exclusive, and certainly not in this pitiless environment.

“Still,” S’ythreni objected doggedly, glancing at Ahearn and Elweyr “I would think urzhen with fast reflexes are exactly what you two would have wanted for your war-band, down here.”

“Yes,” Elweyr nodded, “but when you are leading fighters who react before they think . . . well, you can try to make battle plans, but they usually fall apart in the first half minute. Or less.”

Ahearn nodded and sighed expansively. “Our urzh were good fighters, but even if we put the steadiest of them in the lead, damned if there wasn’t always one—or more—that couldn’t stay quiet when they felt a fight coming. Or that couldn’t remember the plan when they got their blood up.“

The two Rot had become completely still and silent. Druadaen discovered he found it more worrisome than when they had been shifting and snarling.

S’ythreni’s faint outline nodded. “So because the traits that make an urzh a leader are big muscles and quick reflexes, it means they tend to rush in when they should make or follow a plan.”

Umkhira translated Kaakhag’s urgent addition: “Many of our leaders are cunning as well as bold!”

Ahearn nodded. “Many are, but their brain is not what puts—and keeps—them in power is it, my big green friend? Particularly not when tribal leadership is decided by challenges. Yes, some chieftains will fall in battle, but most of them die at the hands of warriors they trained themselves.”

This time the brothers just shifted where they sat. Druadaen was fairly certain that if they had a rebuttal, they would have offered it. Which meant that they were losing what had become a one-sided debate about the value of urzhen warriors: a sure recipe for resentment and rage.

Apparently feeling her tense, worried stare, Ahearn turned toward Umkhira. “Now, I’ve learned that you Lightstriders are a whole different kettle of fish. Being hunters and trackers in all kinds of terrain, you have to be smart, resourceful, cautious, patient.” He turned toward Druadaen and S’ythreni. “And just as you’d suspect, their leaders have those qualities in equal measure to physical prowess.”

Umkhira raised her chin. “And because of that, we have the wisdom of our elders until their very last years.” She shook her head sadly. “Among the Rot and the Red, leaders are challenged more frequently just as the experience of their years offers greater value to the tribe than their physical might. But among us ur zhog, a challenge may only be made if one’s honor has been offended.”

Brother sneered, gestured. Umkhira answered sharply in his own dialect and looked away, . . . which prevented the initiation of a staring duel that might end up being settled with weapons. Druadaen glanced at Ahearn for a translation of their exchange.

The swordsman shrugged. “Brother asked, ‘And what if some old Lightstrider insults a young warrior or his family?’”

Umkhira’s chin came up as she repeated her answer. “Then that chief’s many years have either made him so arrogant that he no longer sees himself and his abilities accurately, or he has entered his dotage. And so, whether he is put aside by losing the challenge or the censure of his own clan, his lack of wisdom and prudence leads to his removal as a leader.”

Brother sneered, gestured . . . and earned a mild cuff from Kaakhag.

Umkhira kept looking away, but her jaw grew rigid.

When no one translated, Druadaen looked round the group. “What did he say?”

Zhuklu’a yawned as she rose up on one elbow. “Brother said that being led by a chief who cannot kill his challengers is typical of the Lightstriders. ‘Weak ways for weak urzhen,’ is how he put it.”

Ahearn sighed. “And here you see the other problem we always had down here: endless bickering. And none of them could admit to being wrong without losing respect and honor. Our band spent more time swinging at each other than our enemies.”

Umkhira’s voice was as taut as a cocked crossbow string. “As least for you and Elweyr, the consequences of that bickering and stubbornness was a passing problem.”

“Didn’t feel like it at the time!”

“You miss my point. You and Elweyr were merely interlopers here, which meant that as soon as you escaped, it was no longer your problem. But for Lightstriders, it is lifelong.”

S’ythreni’s voice was quizzical. “How so? Your people don’t even visit down here.”

“No, but we live close to our dark-dwelling kin. And so, many of their problems become ours.”

Brother poked Zhuklu’ah to start translating his sudden burst of angry signing. “Oh yes, Lightstriders have it so very difficult, don’t they? Terribly bothered when we starving Rot come up a-Hordeing every ten years to raid for food, for survival. Better that we should just stay in the Under like the Red, eh? Become kin-eaters and savages, too? Might as well, since you treat us the same way.”

Umkhira was very still. “I have never said such things. I know very well why you must go a-hordeing; you refuse to feed on your own kind. “ She glanced toward him. “But you come up to hunt far more frequently, and never do you ask for the right to hunt in our lands. You simply poach.”

Brother rose, quivering with rage. “And that would make it different between us? Really? Oh, it sounds very nice, what you say. To treat each other as different families within one great tribe. But that’s not really how it is. Because it’s not what you want. “

Druadaen frowned. “What do you mean?”

Brother signed dismissively. “Can you not see that the Lightstriders feel toward us the way you thinskins feel toward all urzhen?” When he saw the lack of comprehension in Druadaen’s face, he grimaced. “Do you know why only outcast ur zhog visit us, trade with us, mate with us? No? Then I shall tell you.

“Because we live in the Under, the oh-so-noble Lightstriders believe the Rot are dirty and dumb, like animals. And that because we fight just to survive, every day, we are savage and hasty. That we are too primitive and ignorant to work or speak or mate with . . . because our dirt and stupidity would somehow rub off on them. Sound familiar, human?”

Ahearn stared from Umkhira to Brother . . . then shouted suddenly: “So move! Both of you!”

“Move where?” wondered Umkhira as S’ythreni put her face in her palm.

“You Lightstriders should just move further away from the Rot,” Ahearn roared. “And you Rot—leave the Under! Live on the surface. You could both—”

But Druadaen shook his head. “They can’t move. Or at least, it wouldn’t do any good.”

Annoyed at the objection, Ahearn’s impatience refocused on Druadaen—as he’d hoped it would. “And why is that? Or is it just some theory you read in that precious Dunarran Archive?”

Druadaen sighed. “I don’t need books to tell me that humans make no distinctions among the different urzhen. Most of us don’t even know that there are distinctions to be made, so we never learn that Lightstriders are different. So they are bountied and hunted the same as the rest of their kin.”

“And your point is?”

“That the bountying pushes the Lightwalkers to live in the same remote, forbidding lands beneath which the Rot and Red live. But since the Lightstriders are already there, where would the Rot live if they moved to the surface?”

Ahearn opened his mouth to rebut—but nothing came out.

Brother laughed: a guttural hooting sound. “Nothing pleases me so much as watching thinskins bickering the same way we ‘savage and stupid’ urzhen do! Yes, you are so much better than us!”

Ahearn’s eyes flashed at the urzhen.

Umkhira glanced at him. “The Rot speaks harshly, but there is also some truth in his words. And humans ignore it—and us—at their peril.”

Ahearn glared at her. “Is that a threat?”

Druadaen stood quickly, threw his weapon on the ground with a loud clatter.

The chamber was suddenly very silent . . . but also very tense.

He looked around at them in the dimness. “We are about to do what no opponents have been able to: destroy this group.”

Umkhira nodded slowly and stood beside him. “Are we truly determined to war amongst ourselves, with escape just a day away?” She aimed her words directly at the two Rots. “Like it or not, you need the rest of us—humans, ur zhog, and aeostu—to escape.”

Druadaen turned toward them, adding, “But we need you just as much. We cannot escape without your help.”

Brother sneered, signing slowly. “More than you know, human.”

Druadaen frowned, puzzled. “What do you mean by—?”

“Let it be,” Umkhira muttered. She and Zhuklu’a exchanged knowing glances and within seconds had burrowed into their sleeping rolls. Still smirking, the two Rot did the same . . . leaving the humans and the aeosti staring at each other in utter bafflement.

* * *

They woke a few hours before the start of what Kaakhag assured them was a “new day.” Ahearn was the first to stand, and he immediately uncovered the glowing lichen. The spongelike clumps had grown noticeably dimmer. “Time to go.”

S’ytheni frowned. “Go where ?”

“First we make our way to the Grotto of Stone Bones. That’s our shortcut to the back door.”

“The back door?”

“The way out of this gods-forsaken place. So let’s be on our way . . . unless some of you want to remain?”

Druadaen shook his head, but asked, “This back door: is this the way you escaped from the Under last time?”

“It is,” answered Elweyr.

“Where is it located?” Druadaen asked.

Ahearn smiled at him. “And if I described the path, rattled off one turn after the other, would you have any better idea of where we’re heading?”

Druadaen shook his head.

Ahearn nodded. “Then I’ll tell you when we get there.”

Druadaen shrugged. “Let us go, then.”

“Not so fast,” Ahearn objected. “One last bit of preparation.”

“Which is?”

Elweyr produced a hide flask. “Concealing our scent. Here at the edge of the Underblack, there are many large predators. And most of them find prey through scent, at least at first.”

S’ythreni smiled at the flask. “And is that some alchemical fluid that will conceal our scent?”

Elweyr smiled back. “In a manner of speaking.” He wetted a rag and held it out to her.

S’ythreni had just started daubing her skin when her noise wrinkled and she recoiled. “This is vinegar!”

“It most certainly is,” Ahearn affirmed with a chuckle as Elweyr passed out more of the damp rags. “All of you: get to it.” He stared when the two Rot simply grinned at him. A bit malevolently, Druadaen thought. “Here, now!” Ahearn exclaimed. “I said all of you.”

They signed briefly while Umkhira translated. “They say that you will want to keep their scent as it is, since it is typical down here. And at this point, we are no longer concerned with the blugner sow, but basic predators.”

Before Ahearn could reply, Elweyr stayed him with an upraised palm. “I think I understand, Umkhira. Now we don’t need to conceal our scent, but rather, make sure we smell like we belong in the Under.”

Umkhira nodded. “Any scent that is uncommon—or unknown—in these tunnels will attract creatures that are curious. And predators tend to be the most curious species.”

Ahearn shrugged, nodded. “That’s right enough; they’re always looking for a novel tidbit to try. But if the vinegar alone isn’t enough, then what do we do?”

Druadaen was wondering the same thing as he put finished wiping down his body with his own sharp-scented cloth . . . and heard a grunt behind him. He turned.

Kaakhag was wadding up another wetted rag which, from two yards away, smelled decidedly worse. Much, much worse. He held it out toward Druadaen. With his other hand, the urzh picked up another rag and commenced urinating on it. Profusely. With a grin, Brother began doing the same thing with another rag.

Druadaen stared at the Rot, then at Umkhira. “You are joking.”

“Do I look like I’m joking?”

Ahearn nodded. “Umkhira’s right; there’s no other way.” He held out a rag toward her. “Well, given the choice, I’d prefer you do the honors!”

“No, mine is not helpful.” She gestured toward the two Rot. “It must be theirs.”

Theirs?” Ahearn grew slightly pale. “Oh, godsblocks—have you smelled it?”

“Not yet, and I have no wish to, but we are going into the Black. My scent would not protect you. Only theirs will.”

Druadaen sighed. “Is this absolutely necessary?”

“It is if we want to live,” Zhuklu’a replied.

Umkhira nodded. “Remember: the odors that arise from your flesh are not merely foreign here; they are associated with enemies from the surface.”

In the meantime, Brother had finished gulping down a bowl of water and set about urinating on a second rag. He glanced at S’ythreni and started chortling, which sounded a great deal like rocks bouncing their way down a terra-cotta pipe. The aeosti looked away and shuddered.

Umkhira merely shrugged in response to her glance. “I will have my own turn,” she said bluntly.

“You? But you’re—”

“Do you think that because we are both of urzhen blood that our urine has the same smell? We grew up in different places, eating different foods. And the Rot take their name, in part, from the fact that their gut is far more tolerant of spoiled food. They can scavenge and consume meat that a Lightstrider would vomit up in a moment. Our organs work so differently that the scents are quite distinct. But we are still similar enough that I shall use the last rag.”

“Because, since they’ve been drinking water, the later rags will be the most dilute.” Druadaen shuddered.

“You perceive. Good. Now, wipe yourself with the rag he gave you. Thoroughly.”

Kaakhag stopped long enough to make a few hand gestures at her.

“What did he say?”

“Nothing of importance,” Umkhira replied almost evasively, tucking her chin down.

“He said,” S’yntheri drawled, “that since you ate so much fine food growing up in Dunarra, you will smell sweeter than anyone else. So you need to wipe your lips and face carefully. Repeatedly.”

Druadaen glared at Kaakhag.

Who simply shrugged and—mimicking human whistling—picked up another rag.

And winked.

Copyright © 2021 by Charles E. Gannon

Charles E. Gannon is the author of Compton Crook Award-winning, Nebula-nominated Caine Riordan series. He is the coauthor of several novels in best-selling Ring of Fire series. He has written two novels in John Ringo’s best-selling Black Tide Rising series. “The Rot’s Last Laugh” is set in the world of his upcoming epic fantasy novel This Broken World. A former professor, Gannon lives near Annapolis, Maryland, with his wife and children.