Secrets of a Dark Fortress
By Ryan Torbert
Life in the fortress of Stor-gris continued in Karoxfang's absence much as it had when the half-fiend had been present. General Jorung, being one of the highest-ranking officials in the city, was handling many more of the mundane tasks, and they served to bore the hobgoblin warrior nearly to death. He was up well into the morning hours tending to correspondence after correspondence and assailing Raug with a seemingly endless string of curses directed at the levels of bureaucracy that had seemed to take over the city-fortress.
Thus, the massive general and Raug were awake when there came a pounding on the bedchamber door two mornings after Karoxfang's departure. Jorung looked up from his table as Raug crossed the room to pull open the door. An orc messenger, slight of body for his race, peeked his head around the door.
"General Bozzurak has requested your presence at a meeting of vital importance, great general."
The orc's voice was high-pitched and nasal, and Raug's teeth were set on edge merely hearing a single sentence. He hoped that the messenger had nothing else to say. Luckily, the orc obliged by taking his leave, obviously figuring that his message was delivered and thus his work was done.
Jorung's bloodshot eyes narrowed at the orc's retreating figure, however, as he stood from the table and began to don his ceremonial armor. He nodded to Raug, and the half-orc fell into line behind his master as both turned to follow the already departing orc messenger.
The heavy boots of Jorung rang louder than those of either of his companions as the trio made their way through the vast stone chambers. Many slept through the daylight hours, having just crept back into their rooms from a night of debauchery, torture shows, or fighting; thus, the halls were mostly empty.
Raug's nervousness increased with every step that the group took, and it tripled when they stepped into the council chamber to see General Kahn Bozzurak, standing in his plain, battle-tested armor.
No less than half a dozen of Kahn's guards lined the inside of the chamber, each glaring intently at the newest arrivals.
Worse yet, the orc general's human servant was in the room as well, leaning somewhat nonchalantly against a far wall. The man still wore an arrogant grin, and he fidgeted idly with a clasp at his belt.
General Jorung stopped after entering the room, and his gaze fell down to Bozzurak's armor and the heavy sword at his side. The general looked ready for war, not a simple meeting. General Jorung's eyebrows furrowed in confusion.
The massive hobgoblin's hand went swiftly to his side, where his ceremonial sword rested in its bronze scabbard.
"What are you about, orc?"
Kahn appeared to be calm, even in the presence of Jorung's intimidating figure. He smiled as he stalked closer, and bright tusks protruded from the corners of his mouth.
"I should ask you the same, General Jorung. For, it seems like you and your half-breed have been busy."
Raug's heart sank as his fears rang true: he was discovered. The fear that had threatened to overwhelm him for years built up behind his flimsy wall of control. As Raug's heart pounded faster and beads of sweat glistened on his forehead, Raug realized that he was on the brink of being consumed by his fears. He looked to Jorung, but the general was busy glaring at Kahn. Raug's eyes, instead, strayed to the human servant, who was grinning even wider now as he seemed to enjoy Raug's discomfort.
Raug turned back to the two generals as Jorung drew himself up to his full stature, which would be imposing to nearly anyone.
"Busy perhaps, but in the name of our great ruler! You should remember your place, orc. There are some plans of the mighty Karoxfang that you're not privy to."
Kahn merely smiled, and he turned to look at Raug. The half-orc squirmed under the general's gaze, much to Kahn's delight. He chuckled to himself.
"It seems as if even you have been duped, general Jorung. Perhaps your servant is more resourceful than I had thought. The half-breed has you fooled."
Kahn stepped even closer to Raug with his words, and general Jorung looked from one orc-kin to the other as Kahn closed the distance. The latter continued to speak as he stalked forward.
His guards, meanwhile, moved to flank Jorung, obviously viewing the immense hobgoblin as the most immediate threat.
"Karoxfang left Stor-gris, indeed. But, he walks into an ambush, an ambush that your man here helped to set up. This one is on the wrong side, General Jorung. By the use of a forged document, this fellow has sent our great leader to his doom."
Jorung's gaze snapped up to meet Raug's as Kahn's accusation was finally laid bare. The massive hobgoblin stared intently into Raug's eyes, searching for the truth.
Raug's mouth went dry under the scrutiny, and he licked his lips in nervousness. His hands grew clammy, and he put them behind his back so as not to show their trembling.
Suddenly, something strange happened within the half-orc. Thoughts of his failure disappeared from his mind and were replaced with visions of his happiness when he was with the elves of the Sarumvest. During his training in their home, Raug had been tested and worked, without a doubt. But he also considered it to be the most joyous time of his life. He thought of those he would never see again if they fell to Karoxfang's and Stor-gris' might. He thought of his sage mentor and of Venedal. He thought of the pale light of the moon when it shimmered over the clear, cool waters of the lake of the swan. More than anything, he thought of how all that he loved would be stamped out like the ashes of a dying fire when the forces of Stor-gris came through. It had to end!
A dangerous calm took over Raug's features as his training took over and pushed any wisp of fear from his mind. His course became as clear as the waters of the lake, and his jaw set in resolve. With his hands still behind his back, Raug reached into a concealed pouch and pulled out a small pinch of a dry substance. Rubbing the dried serpent tongue between his fingers, Raug activated the substance's properties with the natural oils of his skin, and the potential power of the spell component tingled in his hand. Suddenly, he sprang forward, pointing at General Bozzurak, though his eyes were always on Jorung.
"My lord, can't you see? He plots against Karoxfang and has brought you here to usurp your rule! With you and Karoxfang removed, he plans to rule Stor-gris!"
Raug's words were enforced by the power of his spell, an implanted suggestion, and the seed of doubt immediately began to grow in Jorung's mind. Needing no more than that little doubt to believe Raug over his hated rival, Jorung turned to Kahn, his face frozen in rage.
The orc, seeing the change, drew his sword with a hiss and took a wide stance to meet the potential attack of the mighty hobgoblin general. The guards of Kahn's retinue acted just as quickly, darting towards the sides of Jorung to restrain or perhaps kill the mighty hobgoblin. Their swords caught and reflected the flickering light of the numerous torch sconces about the chamber as they burst into action.
Raug, seeing the guards in action, took a small crystal rod from his pouch and rubbed it quickly on the sleeve of his robe. Feeling the tingle of static forming on the rod, the half-orc whispered a few words in the language of the arcane and lifted his hand to point two fingers, each at a different guard. A bolt of white hot lightning burst from each of Raug's two extended fingers and slammed into the guards with a deafening boom. Light from the twin bolts of electricity outlined the room, and all within saw spots from the bright force of the spell. The guards were flung away from Jorung by the power of the blow and slammed into the far wall, where they fell to the floor, smoking and lifeless.
Raug relished in the sensation as arcane power coursed through his body. His eyes grew wide as he stood tall and straight, a figure of pure confidence. He was no longer the frightened half-breed child of old. Instead he was the elven-trained wizard who had been chosen for a task of great importance.
Roaring in rage, Jorung crossed the distance between himself and Kahn in two bounds. He batted the orc's sword away with a calloused hand and lifted Kahn up by his throat. Jorung continued his charge through the orc and drove his opponent against the far stone wall of the council chamber. A sharp expulsion of air followed as the wind was blown from his lungs. At least one crack was audible in the room as Kahn's ribs broke under the pressure.
The four remaining guards, left standing dumfounded at the speed of Jorung, moved to attack the hobgoblin's flank. Raug's magic, however, intercepted the orcs. He pointed at one and uttered a quick trigger word. Instantly, five darts of green energy flew from his fingertips to pound into the orc's side. The force of the blasts sent the creature stumbling into his nearest companion and both hit the floor in a tangle.
Immediately after the darts left Raug's hands, he was in motion again, pointing at the next standing orc. At the half-orc's whispered command, his enemy's body contorted and changed before the astonished eyes of his companions. In mere seconds, a small rat was all that was left of the former guard.
Raug charged forward towards the remaining orc and stomped on the rat in the process, spreading its guts all over the stone floor. Raug's eyes never wavered from his next enemy, and the remaining orc backed away, his sword held up in defense. The orc's eyes showed his very real fear as he was confronted by the mage wielding powerful Elven magic.
Raug stopped just out of range of the orc, and the guard swung his sword haphazardly, to try and keep the mage at bay. Raug, however, proved too quick and grasped the trailing hand of the orc before he could retract it. With a few quick words, the air about Raug tingled with energy, and the hair on his body stood on end. With a sharp crackling sound, the mage's hand lit a bright blue as energy transferred from him to the orc. The orc arched his back and dropped his sword as he screamed out in pain, every inch of his body being shocked by the intense power of Raug's spell. The orc jerked with spasms strong enough to crack his bones and then finally fell to the ground, dead.
Raug turned from the defeated guards and looked to Kahn's human servant, prepared to stop him from helping his master. To his surprise, the human merely grinned and watched with excitement as the life was crushed from his master by the mighty Jorung.
Once the orc's thrashing ceased, Jorung dropped his now-lifeless body and turned to face the two servants. As the three stared at one another, silence reigned throughout the chamber. After several seconds, the silence was broken... by clapping.
Raug looked at the human in astonishment as the man slowly but steadily applauded Jorung's victory. The human's voice cut through the silence as he slowly walked towards the hobgoblin general.
"Well done, great general. I knew that a pawn such as Bozzurak wouldn't stand up to your might. You and your servant have both done a great service in bringing about a new reign. Alas, no remnants of the old can remain. I'm sure that you understand."
Jorung looked to Raug, confusion evident on his face. Finding no answers on the half-orc's shocked face, Jorung turned back to the human just in time to see the man's hand darting towards him. The human moved with blinding speed, plunging his rigid fingertips through Jorung's throat. With a strong jerk of his arm, the human pulled back and ripped away skin and arteries from the hobgoblin's neck. Blood gushed from Jorung's throat as he gurgled his final, dying words. Alas, the words were unintelligible as the hobgoblin's windpipe was torn apart.
The human turned from the dying general before his body even hit the floor, and Raug backpedaled as the dark man advanced upon him. Raug's training, extensive tutelage from the sages of Alustel, was lost to his terror-addled mind. His confidence, which was absolute mere moments ago, wavered and broke in the face of the approaching figure. Raug cursed to himself as he backed away, wondering what sort of creature could kill the great general so quickly.
As he looked at the approaching form, the human's appearance wavered and began to change. His clothes began to turn into black shiny scales, his arms extended, and ended in sharp talons, and his eyes, formerly the dark eyes of a brooding human, began to look like the eyes of a deadly serpent.
The words to a spell died on Raug's lips as the creature plunged razor sharp talons through his chest. Blood erupted from the half-orc's back in a fountain, and his vision wavered as his body grew cold. Raug's last, dying vision was the deadly calm of the serpent eyes of a powerful black dragon. As that vision blurred, Raug felt much like the lonely, little half-breed of years before, hiding in the corner of the empty stable.
The carnage in the council chamber that day was soon forgotten, as even darker news assailed the city-fortress of Stor-gris: Raug's secret was kept, and Karoxfang's army walked blindly into an ambush in the far north.
Historians of the Elves kept a vivid record of what happened in the deep canyon in which Karoxfang had fallen. Their descriptions of the battle stand to this day, a testament to the victory that their cunning had wrought.
According to such histories, the elves of the Sarumvest, adept in the ways of the arcane, duped the forces of Karoxfang into a trap. The falsified missive had detailed a meeting of leaders of the elves, and the leaders, or what appeared to be the leaders, were found right where Karoxfang was told that they would be.
Had Karoxfang not been so proud and arrogant, he might have seen through the illusion before it was too late. However, he didn't, and the small force from Stor-gris chased what they had thought to be a handful of elven leaders into a deep valley, rimmed on both sides by high stone cliffs.
After entering the canyon, Karoxfang realized his error only too late. The image of the retreating elves shimmered and took on the form of orcs, gagged and bound, running from their own kin. The retreating orcs must have been duped as well, for they glanced about in confusion as the first drums beat around the rim of the canyon.
With practiced formations, a thousand dwarves lined the ridge, crossbows and slings at the ready. The dwarves, warned of the approaching force from Stor-gris by an elven priest, had been in position, waiting for several hours.
The massacre commenced, with bolts, bullets, and stones hurled down on the enemies below. Soon enough, only Karoxfang the Vile still stood against the onslaught. The half-fiend hurled bolts of arcane energy at his attackers and ran through any dwarf who ventured too close. The great general flapped his wings to try and leave the ground, but their thin membranes were torn by the rain of piercing missiles from above.
It was said that no less than a hundred dwarves lay dead at the half-fiend's feet when Karoxfang was finally brought down.
For a full year, chaos ruled in Stor-gris. The vacuum of power left behind by Karoxfang's death had many dark folk leaders at each other's throats. It was one man, formerly a servant to General Kahn Bozzurak, who took the reigns of the powerful western armies of the Dweller in the Vale. That was how Bardanax the Voracious, mighty black dragon, came to rule the powerful western city-fortress of Stor-gris.