Secrets of a Dark Fortress
By Ryan Torbert
Approx. 9,770 E.R.
The mission that had been given Raug and his master by mighty Karoxfang had taken them into the depths of the Undercity, to the large, inner sanctum of the great general himself.
They had received the summons only a day and a half after Jorung's discussion with the half-fiend and had left in a hurry. Raug now followed behind his massive hobgoblin master, as the latter's heavy boots pounded a rhythm through the stone halls. Raug soon found himself marching with the cadence, his steps falling in tune with his master's. The half-orc shook his head as he caught himself and purposefully changed his steps to differ from the hobgoblin's.
Reaching a thick stone door low in the depths of the Undercity, Raug leaned over to look past his master. A guide, himself a hobgoblin sergeant, unlocked a series of bolts and pushed the door in. A grating sound soon followed as the portal swung in on its pivots. Gritting his teeth at the noise, Raug followed the two hobgoblins inside and into a dark corridor.
The sergeant pushed past to shut and lock the door behind the trio. Raug's stomach tightened even further as the door scraped shut and any hopes of escape were dashed. The bolt slammed into place, thrown by the powerful hobgoblin, and the sound made Raug start slightly. Thankfully neither the general nor the sergeant noticed.
The hobgoblin snorted as he stepped into the lead. He motioned for the general and servant to follow and stalked away without waiting.
The trio continued down the corridor, with little light save torch sconces set several dozen feet apart. The hall was quite possibly kept dim on purpose to hide the inhabitants of the small cells that lined either side.
Raug, his curiosity overruling his good judgment, wandered closer to a cell, peering into its depths. A shadowy figure stirred in the darkness, but Raug simply couldn't make out its features.
With two thudding steps and a loud bang, the creature closed the distance across its cell and reached through the cell bars with a massive arm. The open-handed swipe missed Raug by scant inches, and the half-orc stumbled backwards in shock. As he backpedaled, his feet interfered with each other, and he plopped down on his backside. Raug stared up in open-mouthed surprise at the beast that reached out from within the cell. The creature's head was distended and misshapen, with bones and skin sticking out at odd angles. Two smaller heads hung lifelessly from boneless necks on either shoulder of the beast, which looked to have once been an orc. The creature had one massive and thickly muscled arm, which he had used to swipe at Raug; its other arm was gaunt and skeletal. The thing moaned in pain, anger, or even hunger, and its oozing sores left a viscous trail as it backed away from the bars and fell deep into the shadows of the cell.
Jorung chuckled at his servant's misfortune.
"Muahaha!! Ol' shoulder-ead almost got a hol' of ya', ya' runt! Best not to be pokin' round in what's not yer own business, 'specially in this place. Now, git off yer ass!"
Raug shot the general a look that could stone an ogre, but Jorung had already turned away. Thankfully, Raug thought to himself as he considered the greater good that he represented.
A knowing grin creased the hobgoblin sergeant's face as he motioned further down the corridor with a slight tilt of his head.
"If yer done playin', then."
Raug cast one baleful look back at the cell of "shoulder-ead" and moved swiftly to follow his two companions.
The trio encountered many more of the horrors as they continued down the corridor, but Raug's fear and common sense forced back any urge to investigate their cells more closely. He did, nonetheless, stare in wonder as he considered just what he had gotten himself into. Sometimes when the rare torches cast pools of light on the cells, he could see into them clearly: lumbering giants, the size of ogres, stooped low with misshapen bodies and extra limbs; orcs burdened by the bulk of extra heads or useless, twig-like limbs. Even a few formerly human creatures were locked away in the cells, now creatures with massive sores that seemed to incessantly ooze vile, clear pus.
As Raug began to seriously consider that he might be being led to his doom, the hobgoblin brought them to another massive, stone door. The guide unlocked it and Raug followed the two large hobgoblins inside.
If the corridor outside had disgusted Raug, then the sight inside of the chamber into which he had entered thoroughly chilled him to the bone. For, on the other side of thick, iron bars, dozens, perhaps hundreds of hulking orcish creatures stood about bunks set up closely together. The creatures stared at their visitors with intelligent eyes, many even taking a few steps towards the thick bars.
Raug took an involuntary step back at the sight. Not only did the orcs appear to be intelligent, they moved with a deadly grace, and they were larger even than the general Jorung, who happened to be the largest hobgoblin that Raug had ever seen. Raug's eyes widened as he thought about poor Venedal, and his other elven brothers and sisters and what these massive creatures would do to them.
General Jorung, mistaking Raug's fear for wonder, grinned at his servant. He looked back at the orcs as he spoke.
"Behold General Karoxfang's newest creation: the Oluk."
The next few days and nights proved to be particularly trying to the half-orc, for Raug allowed himself little or no sleep. During the morning hours, he stalked the halls of the outer towers of the fortress, finding and following the path of missives that were brought to the ruler of Stor-gris. During the day and early night hours, Raug was in the Undercity, training the Oluk orcs in knowledge of magic and its effects.
The half-orc was torn as he showed the beasts the power of the simple cantrip, the strength of an arcane shield, and even the shock of a grip charged with arcane power. And still the Oluk orcs stood firm, remained confident, and-worst of all-they learned. Karoxfang's newest warriors grew stronger and more intelligent with each passing day, and Raug was sorely tempted to refuse to train them. But to lose his cover at such a crucial time...it would be unacceptable to the elves. They would see the greater good behind delivering the missive, and Raug knew they were right.
So the half-orc servant continued to train the creatures in their knowledge of magic, as Jorung trained them in battle and war. The Oluks took to their teachings as if they were bred to be warriors, as they obviously were. It was rumored that they were a combination of human, orc, and ogre, bred through years of experiments, experiments whose dark side-effects Raug had no desire to see again.
Raug reflected on his own teachings as he instructed the dark race, on how Sage Finnial of House Nustra had begun with simple stories at Raug's young age.
The great Sage was ancient even when Raug was a youth, and would probably outlast the half-orc by a century or more before he went over the sea, but he took the child in as he would his own. Raug always found it disconcerting that Finnial looked as young as he did, although the weary look in his eyes betrayed his real age
The golden-haired sage's stories were always different but were almost always about a hero from long ago. Having done a great deed or won a great victory, the hero would issue a shout of victory or exultation. It took Raug months to realize that the heroes only used a few select phrases that never seemed to differ. Soon enough, the young half-orc realized that he'd been memorizing spells and didn't even know it.
Great Sage Finnial had a vast array of tricks for learning and remembering spells, concentrating on a single point or task, and even using ancient devices that stored arcane energy. The elder elf taught Raug all of these things, and he loved the bastard half-orc like a son.
Raug had to do little but envision what the vicious Oluks would do to his mentor to know what had to be done.
So during those several days that turned into a week, then more, Raug continued to teach the Oluks. However, he managed to turn the lessons more to his liking, using only his least powerful incantations. He explained to the Oluks that this was the extent of a mage's power, which brought about derisive sneers at the lack of capabilities. Raug kept the Oluks from learning the true power and secrets of the arcane in hopes that they would be ill prepared for the Elves. Luckily, none had inquired enough of the teachings to notice his deception, and Karoxfang hadn't deemed it necessary to check up on it...yet.
After days and nights of teaching in the vast halls of the Undercity, the scheduled day had finally come. Raug, dressed in his typical robes and with his cowl pulled low, stood in a long line of messengers bearing documents from the occupied lands of the west, and as far as the Wintervale in the east. Near the head of the line, a hobgoblin sergeant collected the documents from the messengers and sent them on their ways.
Raug uttered a foul curse that he had heard from Jorung as he stared at the hobgoblin-the same sergeant that had guided him through the Undercity many days ago. With five people in line before him, Raug chewed his lip as his mind churned through a dozen different scenarios in his mind. None seemed to end with his survival.
Spotting a small goblin set away from the main line, not twenty feet away, Raug slipped out of line. He stopped and cursed himself, however, as he heard the hobgoblin's voice.
"Ey, where ya' goin'? Got sumpthin' to report, er not?"
Ruag grimaced at the attention and kept his back to the hobgoblin. He turned slightly to speak over his shoulder.
"Seems like I've gotten into the wrong line, master. I was looking for the infantry headquarters."
The hobgoblin snorted and chuckled at Raug's statement. The half-orc could feel the sergeant's beady eyes boring into his back.
"You ain't fer infantry, son...'less you put some meat on ya! Maybe you should look for the tailors or cooks headquarters...that'd be more your speed."
The hobgoblin chuckled again, even as Raug's mind raced, searching for a way out of the predicament. His salvation, it seemed, came from the high-pitched voice of a tiny kobold at the front of the line.
"Missa', I needs ta' 'git back."
The kobold held up a rolled bunch of papers in his ruddy brown hand, and he waved it in the face of the hobgoblin sergeant in an effort to get his attention. The sergeant snarled as he looked down at the kobold, and his meaty hand whipped across to snatch away the papers.
"Damn, dirty snog! Fine then, you've delivered your papers, now stand aside!"
Just like that, Raug was quickly forgotten as the hobgoblin turned back to cycling through the line of documents that came in for the fortress. Silently thanking Tal-Allustiel for his fortune, Raug swiftly left the line and motioned for the goblin, who stood leaning against a far wall. Raug flipped a silver coin in the air as he passed, and the goblin's eyes widened with greed as he turned to follow.
Coming to a small alley, Raug turned, and the goblin followed. As the little creature got closer, Raug turned to look at it and whispered a few practiced words in the language of the arcane. The goblin opened his mouth to speak but closed it as the spell took effect. His eyes took on a glazed look, and he smiled at Raug as if he had found a long lost brother.
Raug, wasting no time, handed the important missive over to the goblin.
"Friend, I ask a great task of you; would you undertake such a thing for me?"
At the little goblin's eager nod, Raug continued.
"This document is vital to the success of Stor-gris, your very home. It is a message direct from the Dweller in the Vale, and it must not fall into the wrong hands. Please, will you wait in the far line and deliver this to the imperious hobgoblin at its head? I'd not ask this of anyone else-I trust you implicitly."
The goblin nodded again, and his chest swelled with pride.
"Tell the hobgoblin that you discovered this on a messenger's body outside of the city, and you deemed it important. I knew that I could trust you, friend."
Raug smiled widely as the goblin gave a mock salute and turned to hurry off in the direction of the line.
The half-orc followed at a distance and walked only until he had a clear view of the line. His grin widened, though it was mostly hidden in the shadows of his cowl, as he watched the goblin carry out his instructions to perfection.
Once the deed was done, the goblin walked back proudly, in search of his friend. In time the little creature had forgotten whom it was he searched for and what, exactly, he had done for him.
Raug could only guess at how word of the Dweller's missive traveled through the stone halls of Stor-gris so quickly. Within no more than an hour, Karoxfang the Vile called a meeting and all generals were ordered to attend.
Raug was admitted as Jorung's manservant, as was Bozzurak's man, the brooding human. The room was tense, and Karoxfang's abrupt arrival and the sense of urgency with which he moved did little to assuage concerns.
The great form of the half-fiend dwarfed all in his presence, save General Jorung. Even though the hobgoblin general almost rivaled Karoxfang in stature, Jorung wisely lowered his head in deference to his ruler.
Karoxfang chose not to sit as he entered the center of the semi-circle, instead glaring at the assembled military leaders as he paced ever so slightly back and forth. His voice, though raspy, still could be heard among all of the gathered attendants.
"Gathered generals, our forces are on the move. To the north, a resistance stirs, and it is apparently one that our great leader would not have us take lightly. The Dweller in the Vale has decreed that this force must be destroyed and, to do so, I must personally lead a block of our strongest troops against our vile paleskin foes. I leave today, no later, and the maintenance of this city will rest in the hands of your council until my return."
Karoxfang's decree was news to all...save one. Raug's eyes were wide at the prospect; their plan had worked! The first step had been taken in dismantling the great fortress of Stor-gris.
The half-orc's excitement turned to his usual worry as he gazed upon the mighty figure of Karoxfang. Who could stand against such a foe? Raug feared for his elven brethren, knowing full well that many would lose their lives in the coming ambush.
Karoxfang answered a few quick and to the point questions and then turned to leave the chamber. Raug's eyes followed his form, only to be caught up by another. His eyes locked with those of the mysterious human servant, who was staring at him...again!
The human grinned wickedly as Raug's eyes met his. Raug turned away swiftly and looked to General Jorung for direction. The hobgoblin was the last to file out of the council chamber, but Raug made certain not to lock eyes with the enigmatic human again.