Evil in the Teeth
By Gerry Torbert
*** Somewhere where Evil is Nurtured ***
Morbagg kicked the little kobold as savagely as he had done many times over the last year and a half. Not for any specific reason, mind you, unless you raise the sheer infliction of torture to the status of a logical reason. Most people would hesitate to do such a thing without some modicum of sympathy--but most people are not an Oluk of Morbagg's stature.
Gemlat rolled a few times across the dirt floor of the command tent, after which he settled in a heap with an audible grunt. He had tried many times to please the sadistic commander, but to no avail. He thought that with the recent raids on the villages across the Northern Teeth he would receive less punishment, but no one could know what was in the twisted mind of such a being.
Perhaps the pressure Morbagg placed on himself drove him to mindless rage, he thought. Being the most feared and twisted genius of the Dark Folk was a lot to live up to, and he expected his projects would always be successful. His benefactors had waited a long time to see the fruits of his labors, but had become tired of waiting. With the timetable turned up several notches, he had to prove his latest germ of an idea would blossom into a weapon that would strike fear into the hearts of all Farland and grant him blessings from Vornoth himself.
"Get up an' stop whimperin', ya slimy little rat! Bring me grog, now!"
The pitiful being, no more than four feet tall (when not hunched over from the pain of repeated torture), meekly replied with a "Yes, Sir" and waddled over to a barrel of an Oluk's favorite brew, a fermented blood wine. He dipped a mug into the viscous liquid, corralling some of the ropy texture along its rim before it could roll back into the vat. It was a sight that would curdle the lymph of any normal man, replete with floating fragments of bone and marrow that could tell their own sordid tale, if they could talk. He ambled his way back over to Morbagg, who thought about kicking him for moving so slowly but didn't feel like expending the effort.
Between gulps and slurps, clearing and biting one ropy quaff that threatened to climb back into the tankard, Morbagg muttered, "Garlack will be here in five minutes." He stared at Gemlat, whose sudden realization that this wasn't a premonition, but a command, made him turn on his feet and barely escape another kick, answering "Yes, Sir, right away!" He limped to the tent of the second-in-command.
Gemlat wasn't dumb; he had heard much of the plans the two concocted over the last year, and stored much of it in his tiny skull. The Black Swarm, as they were known in much of the north of the continent of Farland, were driven by the perverse brilliance of Morbagg and the military might of Garlack, along with seven hundred orc troops. They had never been anticipated, let alone stopped or slowed as they tore their way through small town after village along the Teeth. They were now poised to strike further south, hopefully forcing a wedge of domination toward Zeland itself.
But poising oneself merely by establishing one's presence, or even by an occasional raid, wasn't in the plan book of the Dark Ones. There was little but the sheer elimination of the Human race, the obstinate Dwarves, and the stubborn Elves that would satisfy their craving for power. However, the raids along the Teeth were designed to appear as a rather benign and pesky set of forays into those cold wastelands, to test their latest weaponry and tactics. These were the kinds of military endeavors that seemed so un-Dweller-like, for the want of a better term, that they would draw little attention from the powerhouse that was the united lands of Farland and its allies.
The battalions of orcs, oluks and kobolds were growing tired of traipsing into a town, killing and pillaging the inhabitants and withdrawing as soon as the surrounding farmers and hired help amassed and showed up on the scene. It had grown demoralizing to them, as it wasn't their way to allow an enemy a standing town or any semblance of an infrastructure--their way was to burn and flatten everything in sight.
But this was Morbagg's show and it was going to be played out on his own stage, with his own players. The most substantial gains they seemed to make with each sortie was to bring back food (in the form of cows, horses, and blood) to the extensive cave system to nourish them for the next attack. If Morbagg had another plan up his sleeve, he wasn't telling.
But he didn't have to tell Gemlat. The greasy creature had eyes of his own. And ears. And bones to feel the horrid cries and groans from the lower adits of the caves.
He knocked on the board laid outside Garlack's tent several times. It was a strange custom that the General had begun: some believed it was because he didn't want to be bothered; others thought he had softened up and taken to the ways of more civilized folk (although no one would openly say such a blasphemous thing); Gemlat knew that Garlack simply trusted no one to come close enough to his tent to see plans or to peer into his life any more than necessary.
"What'ya want? Who is it?"
"Gemlat, sire. Morbagg wants ya in his tent."
"Bastard. I'm busy. Get out."
"I'll tell him that, sire."
"Arrghh! Tell him I'll be there in fifteen." Not what Gemlat wanted to hear, nor what he would feel comfortable relaying to Morbagg.
"I...he...I mean, Morbagg said five, sire." Gemlat dug his heels into the soft alluvial soil to seek a purchase to run from what was sure to be a rampaging oluk. The tent flap flew open with a vengeance.
Out stepped a huge mountain of a beast, his eyes piercing the darkening dusk air like two beacons of rage. His blue features were wrenched in anger, and one hand held a sharpened axe that shone with the reflection of the waning pinkish and orange sky. That glint seemed to be out of place with what sunlight still shone--it seemed that most of the light for acres of the wasteland about him was concentrated in the sharpened edge of the weapon. It gave Gemlat pause, but the sudden realization that he would be better served by running pulsed in his spindly legs.
He managed to duck the axe, which wasn't swung with the precision of which he knew the General was capable; perhaps it was a warning; perhaps Garlack knew it was hard to get good help.
Nonetheless, he bounded to safety as the huge oluk gathered his swing into a fearsome ready stance; a smile crept across his face.
"Yeah, run, ya lit..."
The groan from the nearby cave stopped both hunter and hunted, torturer and tortured, in their tracks and whipped their heads and eyes toward the black of the hole. Garlack was the first to talk, once it subsided. "I'll never get used ta that, kobold. Never."
Gemlat wouldn't ever mention it, for fear of the minimum of horrible disfigurement exacted by the military leader, but despite the fact that his shivering legs and arms shook the rest of his body and blurred his vision, he could see a few beads of sweat forming around Garlack's brow. It was perspiration, borne of the same source that froze the kobold's stance. He had even seen it on Morbagg's forehead at times when whatever was kept in that dungeon bellowed.
"Damned playthings of his! Come on, puny kobold. Any place is better than right here, right now. Let's see what he wants."
Gemlat almost mistook the soldier's fear of the unknown for a softening of his spirit. A well-placed but surprisingly gentle kick got him moving from the holes his feet had dug, shivering in the soft soil.
*** Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop along the Collin ***
Norville wasn't your typical town on the continent of Farland. Most villages start out with a farm or two needing a bar and a store; other farmers or fishermen find a place to begin a homestead; support jobs such as lumbermen, thatchers, potters and blacksmiths spring up; soon, the populace has a need for government and protection; walls go up, soldiers are hired, laws are made. Then come the churches and temples. Not Norville.
It never really grew up. Like some overgrown conglomeration of houses and businesses, there was no plan to the streets, no definitive infrastructure and no semblance of protection, which was one reason it never showed up on a map of Farland. And one reason that no developed country felt the need or compulsion to protect it.
But large and bustling it was. Thousands of cattle and bison made their way from the fields to the slaughterhouses each year, to be processed, salted and sent down the Collin to Zeland and Orland. Lumber and fish made up a large part of the trade as well, and the folks of Norville made decent but modest livings for quite some time. Until recently, this little grown-up town had been growing slowly but surely. All that changed several months ago when the first Dark raid happened.
It was a dark and rainy night along the banks of the Greatwash in the middle of the workweek. The main town was starting to get a little busy; people were hurrying home from work and a few had stopped off in the inns for some refreshment. No one spotted torch fires bobbing along from the Northern Teeth.
Richard Hallerd kicked the mud and an occasional bit of cow dung from the bottom of his boots as he made his way down North Street toward Drurim's Alehouse--a perfect place to warm the bones and dry the clothes while a few of the region's finest were hammered down.
Durim's brew was acclaimed as the best along the Northern Teeth. Any dwarf worth his salt had to nod approval of the amber refreshment painstakingly malted on the second floor of the bar, an old converted warehouse just half a mile from the river. His grandfather left Wawmar years ago following a hint that the fertile valley around this busy little town had some of the best soil for growing barley for hundreds of miles.
Following his own dreams, he worked as a boatman, fisherman, and butcher to save enough coin to buy the run-down warehouse and convert the upper floor to a state-of-the-art malting floor; the mash tun was hammered and riveted by some of his family and a few acquaintances to whom he was owed favors.
Soon after his first few batches the word spread, and the restaurant was the next logical step.
Now, with his grandpap having handed the business down to first his father, then him, Durim's congeniality and personable nature contributed to the popularity of the venue. It had become the perfect place to wind down after a hard day of work fishing, farming, or cattle-raising, which were the mainstays of work in Norville.
One thing hadn't changed at Durim's Pub over the years, no matter how much money he made or saved--the floor. Packed clay served as the entrance, built high enough above the street to prevent rain from collecting and turning it to mud. Some well-placed cobbles kept the dirt in place, and no one seemed to mind knocking off the soil from their boots just before entering. It was almost a tradition here, and one that Richard gladly obliged.
He smiled toward James O'Malish as he opened the wooden portal and beat the clumps from his boots. "Richard, my friend. How goes life in your neck of the woods today?"
"Good, good, James; from the fisherman's point of view. I caught a few today. Wife, kids, how are they?"
"They're good as well, thanks for asking. I'll get the next round."
James finished a quaff and set the tankard on the table with a resounding thump. "Not today, old friend. You got the last one, last week, remember?" He pointed his mug toward a waitress and held up two fingers; she nodded and turned to the bar.
But O'Malish's demeanor turned a little more serious as they continued their small talk and reacquainting themselves. "What do you think of the talk around here? A little frightening?"
Hallerd swallowed a gulp or two and sat his drink down. "You mean the orc legions running wild east of here? Isn't that the way it's always been?"
"Not like this, Richard. Not much more than a hundred miles from here, they've been spotted. Dacker's Fort, for one. Then there was Redmount..."
"Redmount? That little spot on the map? What the hell do they want with Redmount?"
"I don't know. I guess it was in the way. Funny thing is, they didn't kill many people, just took every bit of meat they had. They came back several times, too."
"Hmphff. Unlike orcs, isn't it? They usually like the human type of sustenance. Well, isn't there anything anyone can do about it?"
"Do? Who? Zeland, Farland, none of any of them really cares about us. Creagland, they just fight amongst themselves. Wawmar, they don't fight much unless they're attacked. We're in it by ourselves. Some believe it's some kind of precursor to a huge wave of attacks."
A frown crept over Hallerd's face. "But we're just a bunch of fisherman; cattlemen; loggers. They'd wipe us out. Most of us have never even seen a bow or an arrow."
"That's exactly right. There wouldn't be much of a resistance if they decided to take us over."
The talk continued over a few more rounds, with a few patrons sitting nearby chiming in their thoughts. The picture seemed bleak for the sprawling town that gave little thought to its own safety. Richard and James soon noticed the wax-wick on the wall and agreed to call it an evening, James heading out into the rain toward Blackbird Street and Richard soaking his way down North.
But it wasn't more than half a minute before Richard noticed the lights--hundreds of them, bobbing and swaying along the road to Redmount. He stopped in his tracks, frozen still with the sudden remembrance of his discussion with his friend. He turned on his heels and ran back to the intersection; seeing James, he called out and got his attention. His old friend ran back and they both watched in horror at was about to unfold.
The strike was swift and deadly, but quite unlike battles that the few retired warriors who called Norville home remembered. Led by several ranks of oluks and a few kobolds on worg-back, they slashed their way down North toward the cattle yards and meat-vending section of town. So surprised were the residents that they barely had time to mount a defensive thrust. Both James and Richard ran into the alehouse and yelled warnings, bringing some patrons out the front, and the smarter ones scurrying through the rear entrance. Some orcs pushed huge empty carts, while others adopted a defensive posture to ward off anyone crazy enough to try to stop them.
A few men who dared out onto the avenues were struck down and killed, their bodies thrown on the carts, presumably taken for blood grog. But it appeared to be only a counter-thrust, as the legions didn't follow any of them back into their houses or set fire to any of the buildings. In all, there was a lot less devastation than what would be expected.
James stood there, his fists clenched in anger, his blood cold with fear, and the rest of his body frozen with embarrassment. A simple man, his family and ancestors had fished the waters of the Collin for generations and always could follow the herd along its bushy banks. He knew the hunger of the good, fat fish and when it would override their caution; he would then plan his spots and wait. He usually bagged enough to sell in town and barter for goods; enough goods and money to keep his family fed and clothed; even enough for a cold beverage on the way home at Durim's Alehouse. He wished he had learned to fight somewhere along the path of life, and also wished he hadn't stopped tonight; he would much rather be at home with his family.
Richard stood beside him with like feelings. He and his parents had farmed the area for quite a few years, raising cattle and selling enough to make a pleasant lifestyle for his family. If what he heard was true, any cattle he had would be carted away in the next few hours.
But like James, he realized he, and most all of the rest of the town of Norville, were woefully unprepared and incapable of protecting themselves. Sure, there was Old Captain, a codger who loved telling his war stories of fights with the Dark Ones in Northern Farland. There were a few other old soldiers as well, but mostly they lived a day-to-day existence of retirement, fishing and farming at day, cuddling with their grandchildren at night.
Unimpeded by such a cast, the Dark forces marched to the yards and slaughtered dozens of the finest cattle, piling the meat high and returning up the streets.
On their way out of town, the largest of the oluk orcs turned and bellowed, "We'll be back, ya scrawny bags o' meat. Ya'd better have meat fer us, or we'll make ya pay. Remember the name Morbagg, ya little bastards..."
Word went out from the more prestigious of the farmers and fishermen in town--a few had dealings in Zeland and fewer more in the more remote Farland. They pleaded for help from other businessmen and politicians, but no one seemed to want to stick their necks out against unknown raiders who would be difficult to track or defeat. A few units of the Royal Guard of Zeland marched northward once, but didn't go out of their way to search for the offenders.
The raids came twice more, each time punctuated by cattle theft and loss of a few lives. Observers estimated that as many as five thousand orcs and oluks led the wave of theft, taking some of the finest beef.
The supply of meat on hoof was dwindling, though, and the demands from Morbagg were becoming more stern. Another call went out from the desperate cattle barons, and their plight, although still largely ignored, was heard...
*** A Cave of Horrors ***
No one came today. At least I think it has been a day. I sleep, I walk these dark pathways, I eat. I think that's a day.
Everything is so dark. Light is what the slaves have on the end of their sticks. I believe that half the time the air outside is filled with this light...that is what my thoughts tell me.
I was one of the dark-skinned people once, I think. I remember something...my name was...Grolak...or something, I don't know exactly. Something happened. Morbagg--that is what he calls himself--tells me he created me. I think I was one like him so long ago...or was it just a little while?
Some slaves come to clean waste. Some come to bring food. They are all afraid of me--especially ones with slanted eyes. They are no taller than my waist, and puny. Even orcs are puny to me--they come and force slaves to feed and clean.
Morbagg keeps me here--something he said. He waves his hand when I say something he doesn't like, and I can't talk. I don't know why or how he does it. He wears a stone on a string around his neck, and it glows when he stops me. It gives me pain in my head, sometimes in my chest.
He calls me Groll.
The huge abomination stood up to his full height, remembering at the last moment that the cave was not high enough for him in several places, and hunching over slightly to compensate. He walked over to the back of the room, in a tunnel leading to one side, and relieved himself.
Groll half-walked to the front, from where he knew the slaves would bring food. He vaguely remembered the food he had when Grolak owned his body, and it was nothing like what he had been fed since.
He sat down on a pile of stones; he pulled them down from the roof of this part of the cave with his bare fingers and spread some around, while piling some others in a neat pile. He could sit comfortably here, but still stand in the higher spots. He knew it was time for more food--he started to think about his plight once again.
Can't remember much about Grolak, and not sure why I was chosen, if I was. The pain hurts so much, several times a day, all over my body. It is the same pain I have when Morbagg stops me from doing things, but very strong at knees, elbows, wrists, all my joints. I think my body feels larger when it is over, but not sure.
If same pain, then Morbagg must make the pain. Something in that stone hurts my whole body. Why he does it, I don't know. Pain is also being alone, knowing no others than slaves and feeders.
Groll breathed deeply and sighed--he found that it calmed him and cleared his mind. He concentrated on one particular rock near the entrance of the cavern and imagined it a few feet to one side. He had accidentally performed this trick once before in one of his fits of rage. Sure enough, the rock rolled to the spot and stopped.
Don't know why I can do that...maybe what Morbagg does to me makes it happen. It might be part of what is happening to me. Can roll rocks, but what else can I do?
Groll noticed the torches wedged into a pile of rocks at the left side of the entrance of the cavern; it was only one of four torches propped up in this particular room. He concentrated on the fire intensely, not sure of what he wanted to do with it. The flame began to flicker and spurt; he thought of increasing it, and it flared up to twice its size.
He then thought of darkness and cold, directing power from his mind to the torch--it blanked out completely, without even a coal or spark. Pumping heat back into the torch, he produced an image in his mind of fire again, and it burst into flame.
Don't know why Morbagg gave me this power...not sure why moving rocks and burning things is important. He told me to try hard and concentrate on these things, and when I don't do what he wants he makes me hurt again.
Groll's thoughts stopped suddenly and he lapsed into a self-protective mode; he had been doing this almost automatically for the last week. He wasn't sure why it happened, or even how, but it seemed to be second nature now.
He could see the pathways leading from his chamber to the outside, even though he could direct it wherever he wanted; this particular time he saw two orcs forcing two slaves to push a cart piled with red meat.
Feeding time was a necessary evil to Groll. He was always very hungry, and the protein from the fresh beef surged through his veins and filled him with energy. But soon afterward the pains would begin; he could feel his skin begin to tear, his bones grow longer, his muscles expand; as of late, the pains had subsided within his body, replaced by those in his head.
And he would groan, and bellow, and cry...
Now pains go. Morbagg comes this time every day, when I have had food. He talks, tells me what I have to do, tells me where pain comes from. Tonight he doesn't come. Pain was bad this time. Feel urge to empty again.
Groll returned and sat down; before long he lie down and fell asleep. It was a welcome sleep, interrupted only by a jolt from his inner protection. His third eye saw one of the slaves carrying two buckets and being prodded to move by a spear wielded by an orc.
Groll recognized the slave. There was something about him that seemed different, but physically he looked like the rest of the tortured few who drew the short straw and had to clean the thunder hole. There was something different about his mind, his demeanor; Groll wasn't sure why he could notice such a thing--perhaps it had to do with the way he could see things from afar.
He felt an aura around the slave, some sort of power that was different from the orc. He got up from his seat and hunched over to the entrance as they approached. Looking around the corner, he caught both men's attention; they stopped dead in their tracks ten feet away, the orc having just prodded the bloodied back of the slant-eyed man with the spear. Their eyes grew wide as they beheld quite a large head in the adit.
"Little Orc, why you poke man thing? Think he feels fear, maybe obedience? If hurt too much, he can not work for you!"
Both men trembled at the depth and deepness of the voice, and yet the almost childlike use of language. Groll nodded forward after a few moments of intense staring, demanding some sort of response.
"Uh...uh...he's a human...weak...they're stubborn little things. We gotta let 'em know we're the boss. I...uh...I don't...think I'm supposed ta be talkin' to you...Morbagg would..."
"...see Morbagg here? Not see him. If he is here, will tell him I talked to you, made you talk. You afraid of Groll?"
"Y- yes, boss...I didn't do nothin'...just my job. I'll leave now--come on, pig!" The Orc grabbed the slave by the shirt and started to lead him out.
"Leave slave, little Orc. Come back later."
The orc shook in his boots and hesitated a moment. "If...If I do...If I do, Morbagg will..."
"...if you don't, I will."
The orc let loose of the slave's tunic and backed away, almost stumbling on a rock, eventually turning and briskly walking to the outside. The slave shook, but tried to regain his composure. He stood upright, breathed deeply and a calm look of serenity enveloped his unique facial features.
"Hmmm...man breathe to clear mind...Groll do too. Man not afraid like orc--why?"
"One cannot see through blanket, so a sword can plunge into it easily. Not wear blanket of fear so I can see the sword."
Groll stared at the man, mesmerized by the depth of his words and lightly confused by the use of imagery in a language that he was just beginning to understand. But even as he struggled, he began to realize that the images were powerful and far-reaching.
"You think I use sword to hurt you? You know I can make you into flame with thought?" He looked to one of the buckets; the metal rings holding the staves in place began to heat to a reddish hue and smoke curled up and around from it. The slave dropped it immediately, his eyes growing even wider. Groll nodded to the bucket and it promptly cooled.
The man breathed deeply, once again calming his nerves. "Yes, know you can do many things. But great one as yourself not hurt ants, only worry about important things."
Groll nodded, this time not only understanding the concept of priorities and the uselessness of violence for no reason, but appreciating the man's ability to control his emotions in such a situation. "You not think like orcs, little man. What is name?"
"Sung Twa Noo. Family name is Sung, own name is Twa."
"Family? What is family?"
Twa stopped for a moment but soon realized that Groll probably didn't have any recollection of such a concept, even though he had to have parents. "Family is people who create you; who care for you."
Groll's eyebrows tightened in thought; his mind raced. "Morbagg created me. He is family?"
"Does he care for you?"
"Gives food; sends slaves; tells me what..."
"...what to do? Not all family tell one what to do. Does he hurt you?"
"Yes...YES! Is this family?"
"No, Groll. Family will not hurt you."
Groll's features wrenched in confusion. He raised a fist and slammed it against the rock wall of the cave entry, shattering the stones into dust.
"Breathe, Groll," bravely reminded Twa, "...breathe..."
Groll unclenched his fist and took a deep one, transporting him to a calmer place. "Yes...calm thoughts...you, Twa...man...are you family?"
Sung could see the confusion and emptiness within Groll. He knew that to be untrue to himself and to others will be found and revisited tenfold; but he also knew his plight, and his desire for self-preservation took over. "I may be, Groll. I care for your health."
Groll became calmer. "Little man...Twa...is something in your mind...something will happen to you. Have not felt like this until now."
Twa was startled. "You...you know what thing is?"
"No. Just feel something. Watch out. Orcs are danger to you."
Twa nodded. "Hear orc coming back. Will fill buckets so he does not hurt me. Must leave or be in danger."
"Yes, Twa. Come again. You are family."
Twa hurried along to his disgusting chore, the orc appearing in the passageway. As he approached the cavern, Groll poked his head out again, stopping him. "Slave filling buckets. Not poke with pole, orc."
The orc began to say that he would do what Morbagg said, but Groll cut him short. "No, you will not tell Morbagg. Go now."
The orc couldn't seem to remember losing control of the slave as Twa returned with full loads. He followed the Kuni and began to prod him along the path, but thought better of it.
Morbagg sat in his tent, watching at the images in his crystal globe and stirring his mug with a stick he had just picked up from the grass.
Although he couldn't hear what transpired, he could see some flashes of Groll and the slave.
"This is good, Gemlat. Something in Groll's wakin' up. He's got some new control of the magic abilities I gave him. Now he has a little pet."
"Izzat good, Boss?"
Morbagg chuckled. "Yeah, ya dumb little snot. It can be. Just what I need. Let the big dummy get attached to this slave; when he gets close, I'll show Groll just how to treat these humans."
"Whatcha gonna do, Boss?"
Morbagg reached over to the fresh cup of blood grog and stirred it with the stick. He pulled the stick out and ran the wet end between his lips, savoring the inebriating liquid. He then broke the stick between his fingers. "Kill his little slave friend, snot."