Chapter One

4 Newthaw, 54th Year of Kings

"I know this is going to be rough for your first assignment, but everyone at the Academy speaks very highly of you, Lieutenant. We wanted to send someone with you, someone with more experience with this sort of thing, but we're terribly short on good men just now, so you're going to have to wing it for now. We'll get someone down there as soon as possible. Until then, they're all yours. Here's the file, and here are your orders and my personal seal. Whatever you need, it's yours. Just get these men ready before the first snow."

The young lieutenant who stood stiffly at attention saluted sharply by clenching his right fist over his heart before gathering up the papers and tucking them safely away. "Yes, sir. I will leave immediately, sir."

His superior smiled tightly. "That's what I wanted to hear."

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"Pyp, give it back. Please."

"Make me, weasel whiskers!"

The young man sighed and turned to leave, a bit awkward with only one boot.

"Ah, cut it out, Pyp." An older man appeared and snatched the missing boot from Pyp's hand. "Here you go, Jroy."

"Thanks, Hawk." Jroy pulled on his boot and hurried off.

"And Pyp, stop messing with him," Hawk chided.

"Why should I? He's just a stupid kid!"

"He's only two years younger than you."

"But a thousand times stupider!"

Hawk made a brief noise of dismissal and turned away in disgust. A second man joined him after he had taken only a few steps.

"Somebody's gotta do something about him. He gets worse every day," Hawk huffed.

The newcomer pulled a snake from the pocket of his uniform. "I'm already on it."

Hawk grinned. "Wonderful. I knew I could count of you, Gary. C'mon, let's go have a drink to celebrate."

"Sounds good to me." Gary stuffed the snake back into his pocket, and the pair of them ducked inside a nearby building. They crossed the lobby and passed through a door that hung listlessly on one hinge and into a small office.

The great oak desk that dominated the dreary room was covered in dust. Hawk ignored the grime as he braced one hand on the desktop to pull the first of three drawers out of the bulky thing. He set the drawer atop the desk and reached down through the broken out bottom of the second drawer to retrieve a bottle of whiskey from the locked third drawer that was nearly as dusty as the desk was. Gary replaced the first drawer as Hawk coughed and wiped around the mouth of the bottle before forcing it open. He took a whiff and whistled in admiration.

"Oh, that's good…"

Gary snatched the bottle and took a swig. He sputtered, swallowed quickly, and handed it back. "Whoa!"

Hawk grinned hugely. "That bad, huh?" He took a drink.

Suddenly, a shaft of torchlight lanced in through the gaping hole left by the lopsided door. Then the door was thrown open, and both men blinked in surprise.

"Who the hell are you?" Hawk finally managed.

The young officer frowned darkly. "I am Lieutenant Jimmy Python, your new commanding officer. Who are you, and what are you doing here?"

Hawk took another drink before responding. "I'm Benji Littlehawk, and he's Gary Mitchell. We were drafted."

Python's expression turned grim. The man clearly had no sense of humor. "I meant what are you doing here, in my office?"

"Testing your whiskey for poison," Hawk replied promptly.

"Get out," Python snapped rather irritably. Hawk and Gary did so with great alacrity, but the young lieutenant caught Hawk's elbow as he passed. "Leave the whiskey."

Hawk offered the bottle and a brilliant, knowing smile. "Why, certainly, my benevolent boss."

Python would have slammed the door behind them, but he feared that doing so might cause it to collapse entirely, so he refrained.

Hawk turned to Gary the moment they were back out in the sunlight. "You know, I think Pyp's attitudinal adjustment just might have to go on hold."

Gary nodded sagaciously. "A little python for the Python?" He drew his snake from his pocket once more.

"Actually, that's a garter snake…"

"Shut up, Hawk."

"Right."

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Lieutenant Jimmy Python dropped his rucksack to the floor of his new office. The place was really a dump. The whole place was a dump. What was happening to Crestil, that such an historic site as Fort Drake could fall into such ruin? And the people here! From the sleeping guard at the half-open gate to Littlehawk and Mitchell…It was so…so unmilitary! And these men were supposed to be the advance force when the first snows drove the Killeen'ghymn over the mountains later this year…

Ah, well. He was an officer in the Crestilian Army, and his opportunities were endless. Hell, if he could pull this thing off…Well, it would be a prestigious victory for any man, and one hell of an accomplishment for one fresh out of the Academy at Crestilan. Rangerhood would be only a step away, and then…

Then world would be at his beck and call.