Gax was a pragmatic orc. And in a world where coin served a man, woman, or creature better than any sword, he made sure to keep his wallet healthy. Occasionally this meant doing things of questionable merit. Hence why he was sitting in a tavern in Beshek with his meaty hand drunkenly reaching for an empty mug only to knock it to the floor.
The two human women, the stout dwarf with an impressive beard, though also a woman, and the elf male seated around the table glared at Gax as he apologized profusely and bent down to grab the tankard. His head collided with the side of the table hard enough to knock over towers of coins and slosh ale out of mugs. The players looked down at their stashes and moved their cards away from the splattering drink.
Gax’s green-skinned hand deftly slipped inside his unlaced boot and fished out one card while replacing it with another. He raised himself up and smacked the underside of the table with the back of his head, this time without intentionally doing so.Read more
“I swear by Furlee’s beard I’m going to crack that one harder than any table ever did,” snarled the dwarf. Gax ran his hand along the strip of black hair atop the middle of his head that was pulled back in a short knot and smiled sheepishly at the dwarf as she quaffed her ale. He made sure to slip the new card into the middle of his hand and held the cards together so the back of the new one wouldn’t show, which wouldn’t match the other cards.
Gax made a show of staring at his coins and fingering the tip of one of the teeth that poked out from his lower jaw. He knew not to get too greedy when swindling people, but the pot was already substantial as it was. He just needed to hope no one else had the same card he’d just slipped into his hand. He pushed two silver ovals toward the pot. The others glared at him for a time. “What?” he asked, his brow beginning to sweat as he worried they’d found him out.
“It’s three silvers, you dolt,” snapped the dwarf.
“Oh, right,” Gax said as he tossed in another silver.
The rest of the hand played out with Gax calling bets. They showed their cards and Gax won without duplicating any cards on the table. He received glares and curses aplenty as he raked in his coins and put them away, ending his night with only a few silvers more than what he started. Counting the ale, he was about even.
He swiftly grabbed Dar and the two made their way to another tavern before the owner of the deck of cards discovered the card Gax had slipped in.
“How’d you do?” Dar asked with a wry grin as they exited, knowing full well why they were leaving so quickly.
“Broke even,” Gax said with a shrug.
“You cheated and earned nothing for it?” she snapped.
“I don’t ever cheat to steal everyone’s coin. It’s just to settle up when I’ve had bad luck.”
“Bad luck, my ass. You’re just a shit card player.”
“Pretty sure the dwarf lass was hiding cards in her beard… How’d you fare with darts?”
“Well enough to buy myself more wine.”
Gax knew that meant she was excluding him from more drink on her tab, but he still had plenty of coin to buy an ale and cover his half for a room tonight.
They entered the Rats’ Nest as a bell chimed off in the upper district of Beshek, announcing the eleventh hour of night. Sloppy drunkards and bawdy songs sung by hoarse throats spilled from the doorway of the Rats’ Nest. The duo walked into a cloud of smoke blown from a man smoking a long-stemmed pipe just within the tavern.
Dar crinkled her nose and glared at the elf. “Blighting whoreson! It’s your job to perfume people when they walk in then, is it? Stand somewhere else if you’re going to smoke that.”
The elf shrugged at Dar then turned his back to her and continued smoking, blowing the odiferous mist away from the doorway, though the draft took it that direction anyway. Gax guided Dar toward the barkeep in an effort to save the elf from bodily harm and they soon had drinks in hand. They broke off to find gambling opportunities or talk of work. After the bounty they’d received from their job in Erstov, they’d taken a week to enjoy their gold and shake off the horror of that long-dead city and its other realm.
Elbert too had departed their company, thanking them for the lucrative job, but asking that they not call on his services for at least a year. The wizard had been put through the worst of it in the realm that had swallowed the ancient Erstov citizens. Gax had sworn off jobs having anything to do with the cursed city, and Dar promised to nail his pecker to a wall if ever he attempted to make his way toward it again. He appreciated the sentiment yet still managed to receive a smack to the back of the head when he mentioned the size of the nail that would be required for the task.
Gax happened by a table secreted in the corner where two humans, a dwarf, and an elf played cards. They glared at him in unison, sending him spinning about to go elsewhere. He ran into a serving girl, bumping the tray she carried and knocking empty mugs to the floor. None of them shattered, thank Axrom, so Gax quickly apologized and bent down to pick them up. As he stood, the tip of the double-bladed battleaxe strapped to his back caught the hem of the woman’s dress.
The woman screamed as her dress lifted to reveal her undergarments, stomach, and the lower part of one breast. Gax, noticing this, dropped swiftly to a knee and reached up to unhook the dress from his axe, blubbering a string of apologies. The woman smacked Gax on the back of his head with the tray, huffed at him, then quickly took off.
Gax, embarrassed and flustered, endured bewildered stares then backed up to sit in a chair around a table with a couple sharing drinks and private conversation. “Do you mind?” snapped the human woman.
Gax, his cheeks still burning with shame, turned a glare on her that turned her scowl into a slack jaw and wide eyes.
“All is fine,” said the man, laying a hand on her forearm.
“Damn straight,” Gax mumbled as he leaned back against the table and sipped his ale, his eyes scanning the room for a bouncer coming to toss him out of the tavern. None ever came and the orc was nearing the end of his mug. He leaned forward to get up when he heard the table to his right whisper a name that stalled him.
Gax shifted toward them ever so slightly and listened intently. Before long, he’d pieced together enough of their conversation to come up with a job for he and Dar. Only, they wouldn’t be paid any coin for this one. The flames of fury burned hot in the orc’s chest. He grabbed another ale and took it outside. Dar joined him some time later, having seen him leave and concluding her game of dagger tossing.
“How’d you make out?” the elf asked with a gleaming smile that quickly dissipated when she saw the anger in her companion’s eyes. “Are we waiting out here to bash heads?”
“I’d like nothing more, but no. A herd of lirrus are likely arriving in the Dornwood to the north in a few days. Poachers learned of it, and it doesn’t sound like the creature’s guild has any idea.”
Dar’s gaze turned to steel.
“If we kill the poachers out here, others will get suspicious and bring a much bigger group to the herd,” Gax continued. “We’ll have to gather a force and ambush them there.” Gax paused for a moment, flexing his hands in fury. “I’m going to split as many of them in two as I can, Dar.”
“And I’ll put an arrow through the skulls of all the rest.”
The duo turned in for the night, though neither slept much. One of the commonalities that connected the two companions was the ancestral reverence they held for the mysterious and magical lirrus. Wherever those creatures walked, life blossomed, bearing food for all manner of beings, even those of a magical nature. Their horns and bones, however, were highly sought after by selfish monsters and fetched enough platinum to make a man rich until he died if he found the right buyer.
Though orc and elf culture differed in their belief of the creation of the lirrus, they both held that they were creatures made by their god. To lose the lirrus from the world entirely was blasphemy. The forests would whither, the seas would become toxic, the weave of magic would fail entirely, and all living things would perish. So, while pragmatism guided much of Gax’s actions, no amount of coin could sway him to harm a lirrus, and knowing that there was a band of vile people preparing to do just that awoke an archaic and zealous urge to protect them.
The next morning, the two struck out for the Dornwood. The blue, spring sky boasted wispy clouds that seemed painted across the heavens by a few mighty brushstrokes. Beshek’s walls fell away and woods greeted them, the calls of many songbirds and chittering of squirrels rebounding through the lush forest.
“Wonder why the lirrus are coming here now,” Gax mused. “Forest is plenty healthy.”
“That could be why,” Dar said. “Elf lore holds that they appear on the material plane in thriving places to energize themselves the same way they appear in desolate lands to invigorate it.”
“You’d think they’d be able to feel the danger coming their way, what with their magical abilities.”
“Could be they can,” Dar said flatly. “They’re beasts, guided by instincts and habit. Does not the deer gather at the spring even though the tiger has lain in wait behind the tall grass at its edges since the beginning of time? That’s why our people have taught us of the importance of the lirrus.”
“One of them didn’t get the message it seems,” Gax said. “An elf was with the poachers last night.”
“Hradune!” Dar snarled, spitting into the grass.
Gax nodded at the elvish word for betrayer. Any elf or orc not to observe reverence of the lirrus was a betrayer to their entire race and should be struck down by any of their kind with such knowledge. It was one thing for humans, dwarves, goblin kin, and beasts, so enamored with their gold and baubles, to poach the lirrus. It was another thing entirely for an orc or elf to do so; protecting the lirrus had been ingrained in their blood over many centuries.
“The Songbow elves are only two days’ hike this way,” Dar said after a time, using the common name for the tribe.
“That’s too far. We’ll miss the poachers.”
“We’re on our way to the Rock-Throwers, then?”
“Bremmsh!” Gax corrected. “Rock-Breakers.”
“Silly name, is all.”
“Hundreds of years ago, the Bremmsh used iron weapons to destroy the rock arms of the Tukxt tribe. It’s a name with history. Songbow… so they shoot bows and sing songs.”
The companions spent much of their time on the road arguing history with one another until they turned off from the beaten path at a boulder that was sunken into the ground at an angle, providing a slanted cover to walk beneath out into the thick forest. They navigated through the undergrowth, mindful not to snap any of the plants at the base, knowing a few crumpled leaves would mend soon enough.
As the sun was setting behind the canopy of trees and the forest was bathed in the orange glow of spring evening, the companions came upon the Bremmsh tribe of orcs. They marched from behind the final tree and into a relatively clear patch of land, some trees still left standing amidst the huts and tents. A guttural voice suddenly spoke from behind the two in the orc tongue.
Gax, being a descendant of a different tribe of orcs clear on the other side of the country, struggled for a moment with the local dialect. Dar shot him a wilting glare, demanding that he say something to placate the sentry, or sentries, behind them that likely held something very sharp and painful in hand.
Slowly, Gax spun to face the Bremmsh orc to find a male with clay-colored skin dressed in thick hides with a full head of braided hair and swirling patterns inked into his cheeks, jaw, neck, and bare chest and arms. He gripped a thick-bladed spear in two hands, the steel tip expertly sharpened. Gax spoke to the sentry and the others that had circled around to either side of the pair in the orc tongue. Again, they took a moment to comprehend the intricacies of his form of the dialect, but the message quickly struck home and the sentries lowered their weapons then hastily ushered the pair into the heart of the village.
They passed many busy orcs on their way. Men and women worked with hammer and wood or needle and thread to mend structures. Children, many of them naked, played about their parents’ feet like little whirlwinds that never slowed. A deep voice hummed a ceremonial tune as they drew closer to the middle of the village. The sound awoke a sorrow and fascination in Gax all at the same time.
Whereas he would always be orc and kin to his folk, he didn’t live amongst the old ones with their old ways. There was a certain oneness about the life of tribal orcs that he would never have. His culture would continue without him participating in its full capacity. But he had chosen his path as an adventurer with his friend and companion, just as many folk who came from tribal communities such as he did. He wondered if all of them felt this pang of duality about their roots.
A shaman, her torso naked and breasts only covered by her grey hair and the beads braided into them, presided over a half dozen slain elk, each nearly the weight of an orc teen. Gax marveled at the catch, but more so because the hunters who had caught them numbered only three. They knelt on two knees before the animals, their heads bowed and hands resting on an elk. These three hunters, two male and one female, were stark naked, just like the animals they had killed to provide for their people, their sepia bodies covered in tattoos of green leaves and dark, jagged patterns.
The shaman rattled a staff over the nine bodies as she swayed and hummed. Gax stood reverently as he looked on, a deep part of himself wishing he was naked and kneeling before this ancient creature as she blessed him and the creatures that gave their lives for the orcs. A handful of other orcs watched as well, many of them nearly into adulthood and observing the ceremony that they would one day participate in and fill them with pride.
Once ended, the hunters stood and nodded their thanks to the shaman then wrapped themselves in cloaks and were off to fully dress for the night’s feast. The shaman looked from the hunters to Gax and a pit of fear opened in his stomach as her wise eyes bored into him. She would condemn him for being an orc of the world instead of one of his people. Regardless of the derision he faced, it was his responsibility to warn them of the coming attack on the lirrus.
The shaman’s face broke into a wide, toothless smile. Her many wrinkles multiplied many times over and she beckoned Gax over to her. “Ivv,” she said in her deep, raspy voice, the orc word for kin and a manner of greeting a strange orc.
Gax, knowledgeable of this greeting, strode toward the woman with a wide smile then reached out his arms to place them on her bony shoulders. She raised her creaking arms up to grasp his elbows and the two pressed their foreheads together for a moment. They broke the embrace and she looked to Dar, offering a nod and an elvish greeting. She returned the greeting and Gax stood next to the elder proudly, feeling like he belonged here.
In short order, Gax, Dar, and a handful of other orcs sat before the four shamans of the tribe, a cold and empty fire pit between the two parties. The powerful orcs to either side of the companions held some important station here in the tribe, Gax surmised. His tale was a short one that garnered fierce glares from each orc in attendance, though they were not aimed at him.
“From what I heard,” Gax concluded, “they’ve devised some way of tracking the lirrus and making them appear during the day.”
“Making them appear?” asked one of the orcs to Gax’s right. “The lirrus live in the other realm and only visit this plane when the day is done.”
Gax wondered, briefly, if orc legend was wrong and they truly were here on this plane, but invisible during the day. If that was true, perhaps a simple spell of true sight could show a tracker their trail and the beasts themselves during the day. Though he wondered how such a trail would prove fruitful anyway, given that the lirrus only walked in the true sense of the word to spread their life-giving magic; each creature, according to the histories, could wink out of existence to appear a thousand feet away.
“We knew the lirrus were coming,” rumbled one of the shamans. “Our divinations told us they would pass only a mile north of here two nights from this evening.”
“The poachers will ambush them that day,” Gax said.
“How could they know this?” asked another orc.
“Hradune,” Dar put in, her face wrinkled in disgust. “One of their number is an elf. It’s likely there are other hradune with them as well.”
Many orc faces screwed up in anger at that. The shaman that had so kindly greeted the companions stared into Dar’s eyes. “You will kill that hradune,” she said plainly and with unwavering finality.
Dar nodded, gladly accepting the responsibility. She would make that a painful death.
The group dispersed shortly after discussing their plans to leave the Bremmsh tribe at dawn. The shamans had predicted the arrival of the lirrus using their ancestral magic weeks ago. Tonight, they would convene again to ask the spirits for further guidance so that the hunting party could locate them earlier and farther from their village. With Axrom’s blessing, they would arrive at the place the lirrus would appear at before the poachers to lay in wait for them.
Gax and Dar joined the feast amidst the other orcs that night, the three hunters responsible for such a bounty seated cross-legged at the head of the large, low table set out in front of the large hut where the meeting concerning the lirrus had taken place. Gax looked on at them with a sort of jealous pride, he and Dar seated on the ground a few steps away from the table, other important members of the tribe and family members of the celebrated hunters taking up its space.
Children dressed in hides came to serve Gax and Dar from large clay bowls. Gax took a meager portion of the elk, his stomach protesting at such a small amount. Dar gave him a quizzical look when she noticed her own slab of elk meat was bigger than his.
“We’re ivv, but I’m not a Bremmsh orc,” he whispered, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s good and well when I stuff myself fat at a tavern with crusty bread and days’ old stew, but this is something else.”
“You mean you have manners amongst your people?” Dar whispered in shock, putting one callused hand in front of her slack mouth. “I might just want you to stay here!”
Gax smiled and chuckled at her sarcasm before tearing his chunk of meat in half and popping it into his mouth. As it would happen, other orcs noticed his small portion and directed a serving child back his way.
A muscle-bound female orc, with her auburn hair pulled back in tight braids and glistening in the firelight slapped Gax on his shoulder then pointed to a gargantuan orc walking amidst the feast with his massive hands bursting full of food. “You want to be big like Urdek,” she said in heavily-accented common, “you eat more than bird’s meal.”
For the first time in many years, Gax felt small amidst the people around him, and truly he was no bigger than the average male. He graciously accepted another handful of elk and boiled, though now cool, bitter-tasting leaves of a dark green hue.
The feast ended and the table was cleared away to make way for large drums and gourds that had been filled with seeds. A deep voice boomed a number count, then the tribe erupted with the sound of music the likes of which stirred Gax’s soul. The banging, frantic melody and the occasional whoops and bellows of the orc that had counted into the beginning of the song quickly had his feet moving and his bulk shifting side to side.
Many orcs had already taken to dancing in their vibrant and chaotic way, some donning brightly colored headdresses or shawls made of feathers and fur. Others also accepted smears of colored clay across their cheeks, forehead, and neck, making the scene one of bedlam and joy and color. Before Gax was lost in the beat of the song, a child ran up to him with red clay in a bowl and held her hand out toward him.
Gax bent down and smiled at her, but she waved her head and pointed to his chest, using the orc tongue for shirt. Gax quickly removed his shirt, now matching most of the males in the tribe, and the girl painted his green skin with patterns of swirling red across his collar and down the middle of his chest to the top of his stomach. She moved to Dar next and the elf began to shake her head.
“Dar,” Gax said, drawing out her name, “now that wouldn’t be polite.”
She raised an eyebrow in irritation at Gax then knelt and allowed the girl to paint her face with clay.
Then the companions were out in the clearing with the other Bremmsh orcs, bumping hips and shoulders as they moved. A small circle had been created in the middle of the dancers for individuals to hop into and display their best moves for a few moments before making way for another. Gax watched the display as they jumped into the position to be showered with praise and the occasional cascade of colorful leaves and feathers as they bucked and stomped.
A powerful hand shoved Gax toward the center. He looked back in surprise and fear to see Urdek grinning at him and driving him out to dance before the whole tribe. The green orc stumbled out into the circle and paused for just a moment as the other orcs encouraged him to dance. Gax found the rhythm of the booming drums and shaking gourds and fell into his dance. It wasn’t the most impressive display, he knew, in no small part due to the laughter that came at his expense from the crowd.
An orc cried out in his native tongue that it seemed green-skinned orcs danced as though a stick was lodged in their rear.
“That happened once,” Gax boomed over the music in the orc tongue. “Damn Erguns are quick with their spears. It’s a good thing it was holding it backward.”
The Bremmsh orcs erupted into laughter before falling back into their aggressive dance, a smiling orc female pushing Gax gently back into the crowd as she took his place and danced in a graceful and provocative manner.
The night went on with Gax and Dar partaking in the life of the Bremmsh orcs. They played games with curved animal bones and crudely constructed spheres. They drank a fermented wine that tasted heavily of pepper and harsh spirits. They sat around a large communal fire and told stories, Dar doing most of the talking and Gax adding bits in the orc tongue when her common or broken orcish didn’t suffice to drive home a point.
Sparks and embers from the fire shot upward and flitted about aimlessly toward the heavens, dark with the disappearance of the sun and twinkling with thousands of stars. Gax felt at home surrounded by his kin and their hide tents and the lush forest just a stone’s throw away bearing all manner of wild animal and flora. And yet, once their stories ran dry, he knew he and Dar would yearn for the road once more. Despite the comfort and belonging he felt amongst the orcs of the old ways, he knew he couldn’t stay in a place like this.
They turned in shortly after reiterating every small detail of their adventure in Erstov, the shamans having joined them as they finished that tale the first time and so prompting them for a retelling. The ancient and magic-wielding orcs were fascinated and horrified by the tale all at the same time, several making religious hand gestures and one even taking it upon himself to bless the duo with a long-winded spell that required no small amount of burning animal dung.
The morning greeted them with the song of many birds and the croaking of large frogs from a nearby pond. Gax and Dar climbed their way out of the tent that had been erected for them and stretched their tired limbs from their night on the hard ground. Most of the tribe had awakened by now and were hard at chores, snickering at the two guests as they bent this way and that.
The hunting party had assembled near the heart of the village, awaiting the shamans from their large hut. Gax and Dar joined them, greeted by many shoulder slaps, grasped forearms, and the occasional forehead press. Urdek waited at the threshold of the hut, facing the hunting party. He had also been at the meeting last night and Gax figured he must be the tribe’s leader, likely due to his size and battle prowess, but knew too that a shaman’s word would trump his.
As Gax was busy admiring another orc’s axe, similar to his own yet with a blade a hand’s width wider, the shamans came out from their hut dressed in animal skins and bones. Their eyes were red and bloodshot and watery, as though they had taken wanderer’s moss. A ceremony to bless the hunters began as the shamans broke the silence that accompanied their appearance with a deep chant.
Unlike the blessing from last night, Gax felt a physical change overcome his body as the shamans chanted. He knew he was supposed to stand reverently and stare into the shaman’s eyes as he or she passed by him, but as his muscles swelled and his heartbeat quickened, he couldn’t help but look down at his arms and flex his hands. Sure enough, the muscles of his forearms widened, veins sticking out with vigor.
It ended shortly after and the shamans went back into their hut, their gait slow and hitched, as if they’d aged a dozen years as the price for the ritual. Gax imagined they hadn’t slept the night before to commune with the spirits and that the effects of whatever substance they’d taken had worn off and given way to exhaustion, especially after enacting their spell. Urdek commanded the party to move out and they left the Bremmsh tribe at a swift pace.
Urdek announced their intended location, though it rung no bells with Gax and Dar. The shamans had discerned the location of the lirrus during their divinations. This evening or the morning after, there would be poachers to slaughter.
“They’re quiet for orcs,” Dar whispered to Gax as they marched through the forest.
The Bremmsh orcs were amazingly silent despite their bulk, their hands ever working at gently moving flora out of their way then coaxing it back into its position without a snap or rustle.
“They’re good hunters,” Gax put in, remembering the six elk caught by just three hunters in a single trip. Many of them had bows strapped to their backs, likely carved by their own hands, and thick-bladed swords or axes as well.
The hunting party reached a small glade near the elbow of a flowing stream, the gentle crash of water moving over stones and the song of birds filling the air. Long grass filled the space and ferns burst to life near the water’s edge then gave way to long reeds with their brown, fuzzy tops wavering in the slight breeze.
“This is it,” Urdek called, surveying the glade with visible fury. Gax understood. This was a place of serenity and abundance, teeming with life and sustenance. It was no wonder the lirrus would appear here. Even Gax felt the energy from the earth itself filling him and invigorating his spirit. “If this ground will be soaked with blood,” Urdek boomed in orcish, “it won’t be that of the lirrus!”
Though Gax had overheard that the poachers would arriving to this place tomorrow, the Bremmsh orcs would take no chances. Some of them spread out along the edge of the glade and began digging deep holes in the earth to hide in while others climbed tall trees with lush leaves and more still trekked off as far as a half mile from the clearing to scout for the incoming poachers.
Gax, accepting that he was the least stealthy of the group, took a position near the stream and dug his hole. He’d be the closest to the poachers when they came into the clearing so he wouldn’t give away the Bremmsh before the poachers were surrounded. Dar took up position in a tree above Gax and the party waited in silence. The Bremmsh orcs had found and picked leaves from a specific plant and had instructed the duo to crush them then rub them vigorously over their exposed limbs. This kept the bug bites mostly at bay.
Evening came and Gax had already dozed off twice now. Bird songs had mostly given way to the perpetual hum of insects. He watched a bullfrog the size of his head hop lazily toward the stream just a pace away from his nose, his sight obscured by the needles of a pine tree branch that had been laid over his hole after he’d pulled the shoveled earth back in and around himself. It let out a deep, rumbling croak. A fish leapt from the stream and slapped the water. Birds chirped. A distant cry sounded, like that of an eagle’s screech.
The screech repeated. Gax shifted, his senses sharpening. The screech sounded once more, the call from a scout that the poachers had been spotted.
Gax reached his hand out beneath a tangle of branches and felt the haft of his axe. The boon he’d received from the shamans this morning seemed to fill his being with strength again, as though it was cast anew. Not even a branch moved up above the clearing, though Gax was sure bows were being readied.
Within half an hour, as the glow of the sun was changing to orange, Gax heard the rustling of leaves. A warlock came into view between the trees on the far side of the clearing, clad in dark robes, his bald head poking out from the voluminous vestments. Behind that human came more people clad in similar garb. Along with them, was a smattering of warriors of all manner of race. There were tall, lanky goblin folk with their canine muzzles and beady eyes, a handful of elves, and two orcs with green skin.
Urdek had instructed them all to await his command, at which time arrows would rain on the poachers then axes and swords would follow. Gax felt such hatred toward the orcs that looked so similar to him that he could barely contain himself. His breath came heavy and his face twitched, his teeth bared despite the dirt that got in his mouth.
Several of the warriors in the group drug litters behind them, slowing the procession. Urdek was likely waiting for each poacher to enter the glade before giving the call to decimate them. The warlocks reached the middle of the clearing and one produced a serpentine dagger. Gax jolted, nearly bursting from his hiding position. Another warlock raised a talisman of wood carved into the symbol of some dark god, and slowly spun toward Gax.
A red flash of light erupted from the symbol and Gax felt a force pulling at his chest with such pressure that he was sure his heart would erupt from his torso. His vision became a blur. Then he was standing before the raised holy symbol, staring directly into its fading glow. Another burst of light came from somewhere behind the warlock holding the symbol.
“I’ll hold that,” rumbled a deep voice. Gax, still disoriented and focused on the holy symbol of an eye surrounded by wavering tentacles, stood still as a fist struck his wrist. His axe fell from his grasp, but it didn’t hit the ground.
The shock of pain was enough to shake him from his stupor. He tossed his head back and forth, his eyes roaming the clearing before settling on the warlock in front of him. He snarled and raised his arms to rip the hairless woman limb from limb, but a club struck him in the stomach, sending him to one knee where he fought the urge to vomit.
Sharp metal pressed against the front of his neck, cutting a shallow furrow into his skin. “If anyone comes within the circle,” called a voice in common, “he dies.”
Gax risked his life to raise his head. A hand clamped on his hair, but he ignored the pain. Two of the warlocks stood over the dagger that was now planted in the ground and chanted in a dark language. The other three as well as the various warriors were arrayed around them. A dome of fluorescent green and white light shimmered around the perimeter of the clearing, the dagger’s doing.
Gax’s mouth dropped open as he noticed a creature shining even more brightly than the green wall. It looked something like an elk, though much smaller and with thinner legs. Its many horns, however, gave its head a majestic and commanding presence. All of it shone like a star, its eyes a radiant purple and its body a prismatic spray of light. It stared at Gax impassively for a moment, then turned its head up toward the heavens and its eyes closed.
Motes of light drifted up from the earth, the flora swaying in a phantom breeze, and collected on the lirrus’ skin. Two other such creatures were within the glade as well, their colors unique from the first and each other. They followed suit, ignorant of the hunters surrounding them. As Gax looked on, tears forming in his eyes at the wondrous sight, two more entered the dome of light and materialized.
“Kill them!” Gax bellowed, the knife held at his throat cutting deeper from the call.
“This will be over soon enough,” said the warlock who had called the warning.
Why hadn’t Urdek commanded the Bremmsh orcs to loose their bows and draw their swords?
Gax feared the orc may have betrayed his kin to share in the spoils of the lirrus catch.
“Dar, shoot!” Gax boomed. He let out a growl of agony as the warlock who had ensnared him in her spell spun around and plunged a dagger into his shoulder then yanked it free. Blood poured from the wound.
“Bitch!” Dar screamed. The twang of a bow sounded next, but wasn’t followed by the thwack of an arrow hitting flesh. Gax turned toward her voice to see her arrow suspended in the wall of light, moving ever so slowly through it. Once the fletching moved free of the light, it dropped to the ground harmlessly.
While the lirrus passed through without issue, it seemed matter of the material plane would be hard-pressed to make it through the dome before being struck down by the warlocks’ magic or the blade of one of the mercenaries. Gax wondered how the band of poachers thought they would escape with the slaughtered lirrus.
“Magic,” he whispered to himself. He wasn’t sure how exactly, but he was confident that the warlocks could harness the magic of the lirrus to boost their powers to immeasurable levels and decimate the Bremmsh orcs. As the thought occurred, one of the warriors, wearing gloves crafted of odd material colored a deep blue, marched to a lirrus then grasped the small creature by its horns. The network of swirling and bending horns reached only as tall as the human’s chest and the lirrus was easily led toward the warlocks and the dagger planted in the ground.
A bellow of fury rose from the Bremmsh orcs outside of the dome and the sound of them crashing through the foliage followed. They would throw their lives away to save the lirrus, though it would be for naught. Warlocks and warriors produced crossbows and bows fitted with ammunition.
Had Gax not been positioned so close to the clearing, he likely would have been left outside of it and subject to the same fate as the others. If he stayed inert to preserve his own life, he knew it would only be for a short while.
Dar loosed a feral scream and Gax saw her leap from the top of a tree to land at the peak of the dome. Her body slowed suddenly, as if she’d landed atop a pool of thick clay. Ever so slowly, her body descended, her feet poking into the dome. Weapons trained up at her.
Gax felt the arm holding the dagger against his throat tense. It pulled backward and to the side to open him wide. He expected the execution and threw himself backward with the pull. He struck the assassin bodily in the chest and the two tumbled backward. Gax felt warmth spilling from his neck but his body didn’t fail his commands as he rolled over the poacher and to his feet.
Before the inert assassin could squirm his way up, Gax raised a foot high in the air then brought it down with all his might on the man’s skull. A wet crack sounded.
A dozen weapons swung toward Gax. The nearest warlock held her dagger aloft, still dripping his blood, and began to cast. Crossbows fired, but Gax was already summersaulting toward the warlock. The Bremmsh orcs and Dar loosed a bestial battle cry as they helplessly watched Gax, their forms suspended nearly to complete inaction.
The shaman’s blessing provided just enough of a boon to keep Gax ahead of the bolts and to come up before the warlock before she could complete her spell. Gax’s balled fist pulverized the warlock’s face, sending her into unconsciousness, if not death.
Bows sang again, but bolts and arrows didn’t fill Gax. He looked over the shimmering horns of the lirrus, calm and seemingly oblivious to the violence around them, to see several Bremmsh orcs with half of their bodies through the dome, quarrels sunk deep into their flesh. One of them had taken a bolt to the forehead and was clearly dead, falling ever so slowly to the ground.
Gax realized too late that one of the warlocks not lost in its chant had oriented on him and was casting. Vines bristling with thorns shot from the ground all around the orc, showering him with dirt. They encircled his legs, torso, and arms, then spun slowly about him as they pulled. The harder Gax resisted them, the deeper the thorns lacerated his body. Like a raging bull straining against its yolk, Gax pushed onward.
A green-skinned orc stepped in front of Gax and poised his sword for a thrust through his chest that would end his life.
“Deksha!” Gax boomed at him, the orcish equivalent of hradune.
The title gave the orc pause for just a moment, his scowl softening as the weight of it fell over him. Gax’s arm, bleeding from dozens of deep cuts, shot forward as vines snapped. He caught hold of the orc’s jerkin collar then pulled with all his considerable might. The deksha, surprised by the move, gave no resistance and stumbled forward.
Ever resourceful, Gax used the only weapon he had at his disposal. Blood filled his mouth as he sank his teeth into the orc’s throat. The deksha’s wet, hot lifeblood spilled down Gax’s gullet and over his chest. Still, he continued to bite down, to rip and tear until his head snapped to the side, a large portion of the orc’s esophagus filling his mouth. Garbled, Bestial growls escaped Gax’s stuffed mouth, the deksha sputtering wetly.
The deksha staggered to the side, but Gax maintained his hold on the man’s jerkin. Before his grip slackened as he expired, Gax reached out and snatched the orc’s sword from his grasp then let him fall away. Gax hacked at the vines impeding him and was free in moments.
He didn’t have the time to look up to see whether or not Dar had been hit by any arrows as she descended. Instead, he surged forward to the dagger stuck in the ground and yanked it free from the ground. The two warlocks chanting over it let out a piercing scream and gripped their haggard faces in agony.
The dome winked out of existence, as did the lirrus, including the one that the final warlock had been holding by its horns, dagger poised to open its throat. She cried out in terror and surprise when her hand became suddenly empty, and Gax was sure they would have harnessed the power of the lirrus to bolster their abilities and eradicate the Bremmsh orcs.
With nothing standing between the poachers and the hunters, carnage ensued.
Dar landed behind one of the screaming warlocks who had just begun to regain its wits and separated the top of his head from the rest with single swipe. She turned toward one of the elf hradune as he spun toward her and took his arm off at the elbow then hacked into the side of his knee.
Gax turned away from the gory spectacle to see the warlock that had been so close to slaying a lirrus press her palms together then roll her wrists over and point her hands out in front of her then to the side. A wave of fire shot outward from her, first catching her own companions then washing over the orcs. Gax threw his legs out from under him and got below the fire, but his face went fully through the flames as he did and agony exploded across his head.
He dropped his scavenged sword and slapped at his hair to put out the fire he knew would be burning there, then crawled his way toward the warlock. Her spell ended abruptly as Gax reached her ankle then pulled her leg out from under her. He climbed her downed form like a rope ladder and pinned her arms to the ground beneath his knees. She screamed like a trapped and feral beast at him until he brought his first fist down on her face. Now it was Gax’s turn to bellow as he rained down more blows until her skull was much flatter than it was round.
The violence had nearly ended then. Gax stood and surveyed the area, his skin more red than green from his and his enemies’ blood. Every human had been slaughtered. The hradune and deksha, however, were still alive, though certainly incapacitated. Limbs had been severed or shattered on the few that weren’t yet dead. Blistered and bleeding orcs continued to dismantle the betrayers with a fury bordering on zealotry. Even Gax felt uneasy at the morbid scene.
It ended shortly after, with the few remaining poachers dying of blood loss or shock. Gax and Dar found one another, the orc far more injured than his elf companion.
“Blight and damnation, Gax,” she whispered as she surveyed him. “Come to the stream.”
Gax lumbered after her, exhaustion settling over him like a weighted blanket. The cold of the stream barely registered with him as she took him out into it and cleaned the blood from his body. Seconds after she wiped blood away from an open wound, however, just as much seeped out from them.
Gax’s vision blurred and swirled before him. A hum sounded in his ear. A far-off voice gave him a tender command, but he didn’t quite hear it well enough. “Drink!” it said again more firmly. He obeyed and a warm liquid poured down his throat. Was it the blood of the deksha again?
Vitality flooded Gax, washing away the daze. He looked around to see several Bremmsh orcs and Dar standing over him and found that he was on his back. One of the orcs held an empty glass vial. Gax looked to him in confusion.
“It was Urdek’s,” he said in orcish.
“Urdek?” Gax mustered.
“He’s dead,” the orc replied solemnly.
“I didn’t see him.”
“He scouted furthest ahead. Dark magic killed him before the fight.”
The chorus of night bugs filled the air as the last of the sun’s rays vanished. Gax, Dar, and many other wounded orcs or those carrying the dead bodies of Urdek and the other Bremmsh warrior headed back to the tribe. Several unscathed orcs remained behind to bury the poachers so that their decaying bodies didn’t pollute the earth, especially in a glade where the lirrus had appeared.
The village folk swiftly took the burdens of the warriors as they arrived. Gax tended to Dar’s burned and blistered arms until a shaman came to apply a poultice. Gax, too, received treatment, the healing potion he’d quaffed keeping him alive and closing some of his wounds, but not all of them. He quickly fell into a deep sleep afterward and didn’t wake until the evening of the next day.
That evening, a funeral procession was held for the two Bremmsh orcs who had perished in the fight. Gax and Dar observed the ritualistic dances and chants solemnly along with the rest of the tribe then contributed a log to each pyre before they were set aflame. Urdek’s body had been shriveled and blackened by the dark magic that had killed him. Once the bodies had been consumed, the Bremmsh orcs left their village and headed north. The hike only lasted a quarter of an hour before they came upon a place where the stream was thin.
Plant life was sparse and the trees were stunted with many branches bearing dead leaves. Sandy expanses around the stream and the surrounding forest boasted only a few scraggly bushes that could thrive with little water.
“Loggers from Beshek had cleared out many trees some years ago,” said one of the shamans to Gax. “The stream was redirected by manmade channels. The lirrus have yet to visit this part of the forest. Until now.”
Gax looked away from the elder orc and again was touched by wonder as a lirrus winked into existence. A dozen more appeared, bathing the damaged area in sparkling light. Motes of prismatic light spread out from the lirrus this time as they walked along the bank of the small stream. Gax noticed the water level rising and the stream’s current quickening ever so slowly.
The lirrus, still seemingly ignorant to the onlookers, spread their magic about the area for only a short time before they again disappeared. “Come,” the shaman said, “we’ll return in the morning. But first, there is something for you.”
A maudlin atmosphere descended over the tribe when they returned to find the ashes of the pyres. Wonder and hope infiltrated the morose mood as the orcs recalled their sightings of the lirrus and the accomplishments of the warriors from the day before. Shortly after their return, as they all gathered before the shaman’s hut, pride filled Gax.
An artist with implements to bestow tattoos setup her archaic equipment and Gax was called forth. Smiles and the occasional cheer showered him as he strode forward to stand next to the shaman.
“If not for Gax, adventurer and ivv, the lirrus of our forest would have been destroyed. If not for Gax, friend to the old ways, many Bremmsh warriors would have perished last evening. If not for Gax, tearer of throats and basher of skulls, this Bremmsh tribe may have been reduced to near destruction.
“For that,” the shaman continued, turning Gax toward her, “you are forever welcome amongst the Bremmsh orcs as one of our tribe. Come and sit.” Her brittle hand guided him toward the artist.
“Where?” asked the artist when Gax approached her.
He began to unlace his shirt so his chest could be bestowed with the tattoo, but the shaman interjected, gently placing her hand on the side of his head. A hushed gasp ran through the tribe, and even Gax was stunned into silence by the gesture.
“You truly are one of us, Gax,” she said with a smile of compassion.
To receive the tattoo of the Bremmsh tribe on the side of one’s head was to dedicate one’s self fully to the tribe. It was traditionally reserved only for those who shared blood with the Bremmsh. It was only awarded to those orcs whose actions were spectacular and selfless enough to garner the approval of the shamans. It also meant that Gax would be committing himself to life here in the tribe.
An ancient stirring within his soul yearned for the tattoo on the side of his head. It craved the acceptance and oneness of life with the Bremmsh.
Gax’ eyes searched for Dar’s. He found them and understood that the importance of this event was lost on her. He also knew that he would lose her companionship if he took this step of finality. Though Dar seemed to fit in as well as he, she was no orc. She would tire of life here. Truthfully, Gax knew, so would he. There was a reason why he had devoted his life to the road and adventure, and that hadn’t yet changed.
“One day, perhaps,” Gax said in his native tongue, reaching up to hold the shaman’s hand. He gently placed it over his heart. “You honor me, but that is not my road at this time.”
The shaman nodded, her smile not diminished. The tribe looked on while Gax removed his shirt and sat before the artist. She quickly set to work, continuously hammering the spiked tool with its ink reservoir into his chest.
The process took well over an hour, during which Gax didn’t even wince at the pain. His heart was too full of pride and joy to let the pain show through. Once finished, Gax looked down and saw the tribal symbol of the Bremmsh orcs: a pattern of symmetrical shapes and lines that, when viewed with its meaning in mind, was clearly a rock split in two by a slash of ink that resembled a blade. Other curved lines extended out from the center picture, adding flair and further symmetry.
Dar was called upon next as Gax thanked the shamans and the artist then returned to the Bremmsh orcs, his people. They welcomed him with pats on the back and warm embraces. While Dar wasn’t bestowed with a tattoo, she did receive sincere thanks from the shamans and the rest of the tribe. A necklace crafted of natural gems sparkling green, blue, orange, and yellow was placed about her neck.
Another feast was held that night, in honor of the warriors, particularly those that had fallen. Gax ate like one of the Bremmsh orcs and danced with abandon, this time garnering no comments about the stiffness of his movement. He and Dar swung about each other for a time, laughing and smiling heartily.
In the morning, beneath a blue sky and the melody of birds, they visited the place where the lirrus had come and found new life and a flourishing stream. They remained with the Bremmsh orcs for two more days to rest and enjoy the camaraderie. A familiar urge swelled in Gax, and he knew it was even stronger in his companion. They left the tribe to a procession of farewells, their packs fit to bursting with food and baubles. The shamans blessed both of them with a spell of invigoration and luck.
They came to the large rock where they’d veered from the road. As Gax’s foot hit the hard-packed road, a sadness fell over him. Dar looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “You want to go back, huh?” she asked wryly.
Gax raised one shoulder and half-smiled. “Eh, it’ll pass.”
“We could holiday there whenever we come through Beshek. Dance like fools all night, eat elk until we’re fat enough to pop, bite out the throats of our enemies.” She shot a wicked smile at her companion. “You liked it, didn’t you?”
Gax frowned at her. “Axrom’s balls, no! Well, I’m sure the deksha didn’t much enjoy it, and that I did like. I’m sure it hurt something fierce. Blighting whoreson deserved worse.”
Dar was silent for a moment, staring at Gax with that same grin. “You totally liked it,” she said finally.
“Godsdammit, I did not.”
“Tearer of throats. That’s a good title. You should get a banner with that on it. Maybe a stitching of you actually biting out someone’s throat. We could hang it over your shoulders as you ride into towns so everyone knows who their messing with. We know tailors that could get it done.”
“How about it’s your throat, then?” he asked with a silly smile before snapping his jaws in her direction.
“You wouldn’t get close.” Gax raised an eyebrow in challenge. “You know how magical items take a while to tell someone their purpose, if ever. Well, grab my arm.” Dar reached out toward Gax and he stared at her in trepidation. “Go on, basher of skulls.” Her sarcastic tone pricked Gax’s pride and he snatched her wrist.
The necklace of stones she wore glowed faintly and seemed to vibrate. Then a wave of force struck the orc’s palm and shot his arm away with such power that he staggered backward lest the limb be torn from its socket. “Blight me!” Gax yelped, rubbing his stung hand that was quickly becoming numb.
“Shit,” Dar said, her smug smile fading and her hand going to the talisman. “It must be a daily charge. The magic’s gone out of it.”
“Serves you right, blighting show-off.”
“You know what’ll be fun, though? When it recharges, I can randomly use it to scare the shit out of you.”
“You’re a bastard.”
“No, we’re bastards, Gax.” Dar strolled to his side and put an arm around his waist.
“What are you doing?” he asked, his tone dripping with worry.
“Showing my love, is all.” Gax’s arm slowly draped over her shoulders, his eyes still staring at her suspiciously. “That and I was lying about their only being one charge in this thing.” She turned a devious smile on the orc and grasped his hand which was dangling in front of her shoulder. “There’s more.”