By Gerry Torbert
One of two centuries-old men climbed down from the rocky bluff overlooking a valley leading to Norville, carefully picking his way along the dew-soaked sandstone lumps that make up much of the Teeth's sedimentary structure. A waft of breakfast caught him square in the olefactories, making him pause slightly and breathe deeply to determine what was in store.
As he approached the campsite, wishes of a good morning blurted out from all but two of the campers could be heard over the sharp crackling of fire coals and grease in pans. A thoughtful and deep glance from a large Anarian, followed by a devilish grin, was the most poignant of salutations, despite its silence. But the furrowed sneer from one Dwarf named Owin was the loudest quiet of the two.
Burin and Tao were dishing out eggs and salmon, a common camper's fare on Núrion, and coupled with some hard tack and boiled roots found by Tao, it was quite sufficient to give them all energy for the last leg of the trip.
As Yngvarr spooned some of the meal onto a wooden plate for Darmon, he stopped with the utensil poised over the plate and got the Creag's attention. He looked around at the others, who were well out of earshot, and whispered, "Well?", punctuating it by rolling his eyes in a glance toward Tao.
Darmon's eyes went wide, accompanied by a frown. "...uh...nothing..."
"Know the daydreams you been havin', first in line." He followed with a wink and a smile.
"Not in two hundred years, brothah. Just talk."
Yngvarr leaned a little closer. "Ya'd better let one Owin know that, then. Seems he thinks other. Don't look now, but he's starin' a hole thru ya."
"Nothing, my large friend. I was there..."
Yngvarr blushed as he went about tending to his own meal. "Oh. Sorry, Slayer."
"I...was asleep...Yng...yes, asleep...I can't believe it."
His friend almost dropped his plate. "Wha...?" He pulled his knife and quickly ran a shallow cut along Darmon's forearm, moving so fast that he barely noticed.
"What the...?" Darmon looked at his brother-in-arms and then at his arm; the blood welled up, quickly clotting and falling to the ground as dust. "...Ya wanted PROOF?"
"Sorry. Yeah, somethin' like that. How...?"
"Herbs...Tao...even a demi-god's gotta rest, or look away, or somethin', or maybe Tanarus just thought e'd tease me wi'a taste o' reality. So much we don't know about Tao, though."
"Humfph. Gotta get me some of that..."
Darmon looked with one eyebrow up.
"Herbs, Darmon." It elicited a chuckle from both Darmon and Slayer.
A Thunderous Roar
The sound of an orcish charge in the Northern Teeth is a strange sound, indeed. The deep, raspy voices; the gutteral, filthy utterances; the cadence of their boots as they march, the beating of sword hilts on wooden shields, all mix in a powerful dirge of what, in another time and place, would strike a little fear into even a well-trained army such as that of Farland, itself.
And most of such a jangle would be fearsome enough, had there been enough time to acclimate oneself to the onslaught--most Dark Force charges are performed at night, with hundreds of torches lining the road and striking fear into the hearts of the victims; but this one was without warning and completely in the dark.
Richard Hallerd opened the front door of his simple home on Collin Street and stepped out on the front steps. Despite Suzanne's warning and the fear in her voice, he looked up the street to better make out the source of the thunderous sound. His short sword dropped from a quivering hand to the stone walk; luckily, it stuck in the sod and didn't clank, and only a single orc caught him out of the corner of his eye.
Richard obliged his wife's entreaties, and turned quickly; the Orc laughed loudly and pointed to the sword. "I think the bag o' meat peed himself!" They all enjoyed the laugh, and Richard slumped to the floor inside and against the closed door, humiliated.
"You're here, with us, Richard," said Suzanne, as she knelt and held his head in her hand.
"I should be out there," he said, looking away.
"You'd be dead right now, dear. No one can fight them, there's too many."
He looked over his shoulder outside the window as the starlight faintly lit the hulking backs, spears and heads of the troops. Shaking, he held her to his chest and tried to stop the shivering.
Garlack marched alongside his troops as he led them along the road from the stockyards of Norville toward the camp tents several miles away. He didn't have much to say, a lack that seemed to fit his personality and leadership style well. But what he lacked in verbosity was balanced by a stern gaze, a long memory and the use of a torturous training regimen.
Some of the orcs cheered and sang a few old orcish war chants as they walked. Some pushed a few carts that had fresh bovine meat draped over the sides; a few others pushed a cart that contained some human trophies--more of them than in past raids.
They reached the tents and pulled the "cattle cart" to the entrance of the cave that they all dreaded entering; as if able to see through solid rock, a hungry groan reverberated from the hole in the mountain. A grunt from Garlack elicited glances from half a dozen Orcs responsible for the catering duties. He pointed out three of them, who unhappily slinked to the cart and began cutting slabs.
The others pulled the other cart to a single tent a hundred feet away; they tied open a flap to reveal a large wooden tank, and they began cutting body parts off and tossing them into the vat for fermentation. The cart was tilted and pots were placed along the lower edge, catching the blood to replentish the liquid part of the blood grog.
Human slaves were made to stir the grog, a horrible job due to the putrid odor and occasional floating facial components. The slaves were constantly derided and abused, being splashed and reminded that, at any time, they could become part of their work. It was most reviling to the Kunese--who found the abuse of corpses to be humiliating and terrible to watch--let alone to be a part of. Sung Twa Noo detested the job, and often volunteered for waste pot duty to get away from it.
This evening, he was doing just that particular job and was carrying two pots on a shoulder yoke just after some of the meat was served to Groll. As he struggled with the pots and made his way toward the passageway behind and below the main cave, he felt the presence of Morbagg walking toward Groll; he quickly concentrated and dropped the buckets to the floor. Morbagg glanced at the buckets but stepped around them.
Groll sat on the floor of the cave, downing a hind quarter, and looked up to see him entering. The wizard stopped at the entrance, which although immense by normal
standards, was cramping the giant's frame. Crossing his arms, he nodded and quipped "Well, its good ta see yer eatin' like a growin' boy should!"
Groll dropped the meat across a rock and swallowed what he had. "Hungry boy eat, become orc. Hungry orc eat, become Groll. Hungry Groll eat..." He punctuated the phrase by picking up the meat and turning his back on his keeper--perhaps a little too aggressive for Morbagg's taste, and testy, at that.
The sorcerer drew a deep breath and seethed, but let the breath out slowly and composed himself. "Ya know, when you were Grolak, ya shot yer mouth off too much, and ya ended up in the hot house a lot. Ya better learn some manners, slime, and think about what could happen to ya!" Morbagg grabbed his pendant and muttered a few words in Ancient Dark Speech; the rock glowed, as did a ring of muscle around the back half of Groll's neck. Searing pain blasted through the giant's body as he gritted his teeth and dropped to his knees, unable to mutter anything more original than a tortured grunt.
He looked to Morbagg and saw a shorter figure behind him, to the right and just over his shoulder. Twa looked into his eyes and pointed two fingers of his right hand toward Groll, then back at his own eyes. The Kunese took a very animated, deep breath, bringing his palms up from his waist to mimic deep breathing; he then turned his palms over and slowly forced them downward, as if to remind Groll to slowly exhale. The peace and concentration on his face was overwhelming, and the giant couldn't help but mimic him and breathe, concentrating on a point on the wall.
The pain still tore through his nerves, his veins, his muscles, his organs and bones; but he was relaxed, and saw his body below and away from himself. He left the body to rack in pain, muttering incoherently and uncontrollably; he felt the pain leaving him and his mind becoming calm and relaxed.
He let his body suffer, knowing if he returned too soon he would be subject to indescribable torture. After what felt like an eternity, but really lasted only twenty seconds, he felt Morbagg leave go, and felt his body relax a bit, so he returned and gasped, remembering to make it look as if he was in pain.
"Ha! Maybe ya'll respect my might a little more, boy! An' 'at's half of what I'll do if I catch that little toy man of yours! Remember who's boss, orc!" The oluk turned and laughed as he walked toward the entrance.
Groll let out a few more groans for effect; he saw Twa regain visibility and smiled to him, and the giant raised a finger to his own lips to silence him and let him know he was not in pain. The Kunese nodded and bowed, picked up the buckets and hurried out the adit.
Groll sat. He ate. He planned.
A Ghostly Portent
Darmon decided to take the post for their group, walking ahead a half-mile or so to scout out and assure that the coast was clear. Miss Tao argued that it was best for her to view from tree top, but Darmon didn't want any more strained feelings between the dwarves and himself over the only female amongst them, so both he and the Anarian voted against it. The trees, as he explained, were to get a little sparse in places as they headed to the farmland south of Norville.
As he looked ahead at a long, straight portion of the road ahead of him, he noticed a little bit of blurring, a hafgerdingar caused by the rising temperature of the road at a long distance. He had seen such a mirage before, and it had always been a reflection of a bird, a cloud or overhanging tree that made it appear as if a person or an animal was on the road ahead; he was told in his youth that it was a simple mirage, and at this time, that is how he categorized this anomaly.
He was listening carefully to Dragonslayer as the sword talked in great detail of his impressions of the party and what he had gleaned from them over the short time together. He 'contained' souls of many racial types - dwarves, elves, human, even a few orcs who were trapped in the melee at the remains of that first human kingdom, Aelfar. It was good traveling fare, and Slayer based much of his knowledge of the humanoid condition upon those souls. He listened and learned, but became entranced by the content, so much that he wasn't paying attention to the mirage ahead.
A particularly compelling story was halfway through when the claymore was interrupted by a voice - one old, forgotten, but slightly familiar. "A fine sword, my good man! And it talks, too!"
Darmon looked up quickly to an old man, walking toward him on the road. The old man smiled courteously and warmly, one hand on his hip. His clothes were marked with smears of the dust from the road, and the tatters on his old, torn pants fluttered in what little breeze blew around them, the ends a little burnt. He had a sack in the other hand, filled with vegetables - some lettuce and carrots peered out over the top, as did a loaf of fine, freshly baked bread. The dust of travel also marked his cheeks. And everything about the scene tugged at Darmon's senses; the sword in his hand gave off a feeling of caution.
"Oh. . .uh. . .sorry, sir. . .I was deep in thought, just watchin' the road." Darmon slid his companion back into the scabbard on his back. "Looks like you've been on the road awhile, sir. Good day fer it, is sure. Ya seem quite familiar. Have we met?"
"My name is Lucius. . . Lucius Lucinius." He didn't offer to shake Darmon's hand, and now the Creag seemed to be remembering something from his distant past.
"Mine's Darmon Stewart. Am I getting' close ta Norville, sir? I'd like ta sample the spirits in the bar."
"Uh. . .why, yes, about a mile. You're close to some refreshment, Darmon. Just don't take the right fork, it leads too far north, along the river. If you're lookin' to get across the Greatwash..."
"...they have a dock there, for a few coins they'd be happy to ferry me across."
Lucius smiled. "Ahh, so you've been there?"
Darmon smiled and nodded. "Yea, both there...and here." He noticed the few nasty scars on the man's wrists, and without a doubt, he knew he was seeing the same ghostly apparition he had over two hundred years ago, played over and over again, to countless travelers.
Lucius continued. "I have to rush along, Darmon, although it's been a pleasure to meet you. I have a party at my farm - my son is coming home tonight from far away, and the whole family is very excited. Lots of things to do, you know."
Darmon smiled. "Of course. May the day be your best, and may they never end."
The old man smiled and walked away, this time up the pathway to the right. "Thanks, friend. Left fork, remember. Have a safe trip!" He turned and continued walking.
Darmon watched as he walked toward a small opening in what was a farm, now grown over. The remains of a roof lay leaning against what used to be stacked, mortared stone. A lone, rusted weathercock pointed down, the shaft bent and nearly corroded in half.
He turned to his right to see Yngvarr, carrying his pack and axe. "Was that who I think it was?" Darmon glanced quickly back to the farm, but the old man was gone.
"Ya saw 'im, too?"
"No, just your eyes." The donkey, pulling the cart, crested the slight hill in the road behind Yngvarr.
"It was his father. Jus' as I saw 'im, hundreds o' year ago. Carryin' the same groceries. Getting' ready ta fix dinnah for Sumus, 'e was."
The Anarian looked up the path to the ruins. "Nothin' there but..."v
"...oh, he was there, Chief. And no doubt, Sumus is still alive...or dead...or whatever they call it..."
"Pardons, Slayer. I'm sure he was."
"Everything alright, Darmon?" Thanos was surprised they had caught up with him, and was concerned, as the rest stopped.
"Ever see a ghost, Thanos?"
"No, Darmon, just in the body of Slayer. Was this where you saw the one before?"
"'Zak'ly. Then 'e walked up 'at road, to that barn, just the same way. Hundreds 'o years afore... I dunna know..."
Tao walked up to him and looked at the face of a tortured man. "Will you be...alright, Darmon-san?"
"Close enough to alright. I'll...I'll be okay...I guess..."
He turned and continued along the road, alone. He liked it that way.