Gnolls… never underestimate Gnolls. Especially after the apocalypse.
Gnolls… never underestimate Gnolls. Especially after the apocalypse.
The Black Sands was a beggarly name for an Orc settlement. Before the Grim Fall, a war-horde thundering out of the Unaka Mountains would shake the earth and chill the blood of every king within five-hundred leagues. Now the scraps of the Unaka greenskins eked out an existence in an old iron mine bored in the flank of Mount Geichak. No more Blood Tusk, Gate Smashers, or Gruumsh’s Fist; the place was named after the mounds of tailing swathed on the mountain’s slopes.
When the end started, orcs and goblins all over the region sought refuge in the mine’s twisty dark. As the heavens convulsed and continued to vomit ruin across the land, hundreds of refugees like Addas – greenskin or otherwise – streamed up to the headlands begging food, shelter, the slightest respite from the devastation. Thousands crammed into the mine, the swelling numbers spurring frantic excavation. Spent shafts were re-opened, cramped caves chiseled out, propped with scree and dry-rot timber. Desperate survivors clawed out miles of new tunnel, all twisted, looping, jumbled as a mass of chicken guts. The old mine grew into an underground city; a precarious warren of dark, foul-aired safety that offered a mountain of rock between them and the ruinous skies.
The ancient cliff-side forge was fortified, walls heaped ever thicker and higher with fresh rubble until the ledge around the mine entrance bristled with squat towers, crude bastions and craggy ramparts. Orks known more for tearing down than building, the defenses were thick, ugly things of black stone and slopped mortar. But they stood. In fact, walls of the Black Sands were one of the few barriers between the fragments of the old world and the ravenous brutality of this shattered new one.
Wind knifing into his back, Addas trudged down to the main gate and pounded on the iron-clad beams. It lurched open just wide enough for him to squeeze through, the tower guards spitting their welcome as he passed below their windows. Those orcs huddled around the braziers sneered, but made no move to stop him; the sledge was loaded. Addas figured contempt was the softest cruelty. First dibs on his kills guaranteed they left it at that – most of the time. Or perhaps it was just too cold to give up their spot near the coals.
When he reached the center of the yard, Addas drew the sledge around in front of him, slyly tugging the canvas back to reveal carcass’ meaty flanks. It was a ritual, like a whore hitching up her skirt, he realized. Then he plastered a dumb look on his face and carefully wrapped himself away.
The mine’s entrance gaped low and round like a mouth moaning in the dark cliff face. Warm, rancid air rushed out bearing traces of cooking oil and roasted meat, the musk of livestock, wood smoke, and hundreds of unwashed orks and their goblin-kin. The scent of loss, desperation, starvation, cruelty… the scent of home.
The unicorn horn was suddenly heavy between his shoulder blades. He’d snugged it alongside the javelin, out of sight. A search would turn it up straight off, but with any luck, Ogol and Igmut would only have eyes for steak.
‘Ow many times I have to say it boy? Chalk’s voice rasped in his memory. No luck left ‘cept what you make.
To name is to call; no sooner had Addas thought of them, two orc brutes lumbered out of the shadows. Addas would have prayed if there had been anyone listening. Instead, he averted his eyes and hunched slightly as they drew near.
Ogol twirled a thick studded club in his gloved hands while Igmut swaggered ahead with his thumbs in his belt. A warg’s claws had left Ogol with a milky eye and the lopsided stitched face of a rag doll, while Igmut’s jaw and right tusk caught a Dwarf war hammer in a skirmish before the treaties were signed. Twice as stupid as they were ugly, Snat had labeled them ‘Dim and Dimmer’, the little goblin claiming they didn’t have enough brains between them to organize a hump in a brothel.
Before the Fall, Ogol and Igmut were foot soldiers in the Unaka mob. Hearing opportunity knocking in the apocalypse’s thunder, they started calling themselves ‘captains’, riveting shiny bits to their armor and demanding salutes. Now watch commanders, they spent their days bellowing orders and lurking at the mouth of the mine where the air was cleaner but still warm from the depths. Where they could pinch a bit of everything that came in or out.
Ogol’s beefy hand thumped Addas in the chest. Igmut circled behind.
‘Wha’chu got there, runt?” Ogol demanded.
Addas kept his eyes down. “Horse.”
“‘orse, he says.” Ogol smacked his lips. “Rare find, runt. Horse is good eatin’.”
“Where’d you find ‘orse ’round ‘ere, piglet?” Igmut grunted over his shoulder.
“South of the ridge,” Addas lied. “Near the old road from Dumovaar.”
Ogol flung back the tarp and smiled all teeth. He swallowed hungrily and took a step forward, but then his one good eye narrowed. He stopped, looked Addas up and down. “What happed to its ‘ead?”
Addas shrugged, tried to sound tough. “Fecker kicked me. So I bashed him with a rock. Made him stop.”
Igmut had come around to stand beside Ogol. “That’ll do it,” he chuckled nastily. He slapped his partner’s shoulder. “C’mon. Cooks need to see this.”
But Ogol was on the scent. He took another step, thick muscles sliding under his green skin. “So how’d ya get that gash?” He pointed to Addas’ chest. “Hoofs don’t do that.”
Addas flushed. He hoped it looked like shame. “I slipped,” he stammered. “I tracked it through the Razors. I was creeping over the karst like I seen you do when ice took my feet right out from under me. Damn near cut my own head off. Chased him two miles after that.”
Ogol shoved Addas, sent him backward onto the frozen dirt. “Clumsy git.” Laughter erupted from the gate.
Igmut hawked up a gob and spat at Addas’ feet. “That’s cause you’re only half orc, runt,” he belched out. “Pink little piglet like you will never be good as us.”
Ogol loomed over Addas and hauled him to his feet. He pulled him up until his warty, tusked face was inches away. “Fecking weak is what you are,” the orc growled. “Useless. Can’t hardly kill a mangy ‘orse.”
Addas hung his head. Play the part, he thought. Let them see what they want.
“Piglet and the ‘orse,” Igmut guffawed. “Now there’s a battle, eh?”
Ogol pushed Addas aside, bent and hefted the corpse over his shoulder. “We’ll get this to the cooks for you, runt.”
Igmut on the other hand, rummaged around in his trousers and started pissing on the sledge. When the last drops spattered out, he gave Addas lopsided leer. “Cleaned some of the blood off for you, piglet. See to the rest of it straight away.”
“Will do.” Addas saluted, then watched the two of them disappear into the cave.
Behind him, the tower guards sniggered. An ice chunk bounced off his shoulder. More laughter. Without a word, Addas stooped for the ropes, straightened the load on his back, and followed after.
*No sooner do I decide my next writing project, my work schedule fills up with serious commissions. Ah well, “The best laid plans…” Too much work is a nice problem to have, particularly for an artist.
Here’s chapter two of the Post Apocalyptic fantasy, currently titled “The Grim Fall.”
The snow stopped on the way back to Black Sands. Hunched against the cold, dragging the sledge, Addas was too busy not breaking a leg to notice the exact when. The ridge trail though the pass was treacherous at the best of times, but the storm had draped a coat of ice slick as lies over every rock and hole. Each step was a wager. Wasn’t until a huge shadow skimmed the ground, something long-tailed and jagged, that he looked up.
It was vanished in a blink, swooping behind snow-piled crags, its screech shattering the brittle air behind it. Addas threw down the ropes and abandoned the sled, floundering through drifts to the nearest ledge. He tucked himself as far back as he could, shivering against ice-ribbed granite, craning his neck, javelin ready. The bloody carcass lay in the open thirty paces away like bait, or an offering. Depending…
All manner of things roamed these mountains now. It was six kinds of stupid to stand and see what turned up. Hide and peek was the smart game, fear the key to staying alive.
Near the end, when Chalk was wheezing, hacking up bits of lung, he would yell at Addas to pack a big dose of it whenever he went outside. The world had turned a darker shade of murderous, the old orc snorted; fear would keep him breathing better than anything else.
Addas was the only scavenger past the gate today. Two leagues distant, he’d get no help in a real fight.
But he was used to that. So Addas studied the grimy vault of the sky while his teeth chattered out a hundred count.
The storm had hammered the clouds into a blanket of dirty wool stretched over the peaks as far as he could see. In the west, a pale sun oozed behind them like a wound under gauze, its sick light bruising their edges purple and yellow. The dark stone scarps of the Unakas rose like walls all around him, a north wind moaning off their peaks. Other than the creak of snowfields on the mountainsides, the uplands felt as still as a crypt.
Not that quiet was ever a sign of safety – usually the opposite – but with no second shriek, no new slice of shadow, Addas finally thrashed his way back to the sledge, warily took up the ropes and shouldered on.
Two hours later, he stood bone-tired and shaking in the ruins of Gruumsh’s Henge, overlooking the settlement. Down slope – five hundred paces to be exact- squatted the thick walls and mawing cave, the entrance to the Black Sands. Addas could see the second watch crowded around glowing braziers, weapons stacked, their thick armored shapes bunched like cattle. He watched them as he flexed warmth back into his hands, almost feeling the delicious burn of the coals, smelling the singed hair, the baked iron and body stink. At this hour, cooking smells would be wafting up out of the mine tunnels. Smells of home.
“Home. ” He spit out the word.
Truth was there was nowhere else to go. The thought of going down the slope, through the gate and descending into mouth of the cave chilled him. Addas almost felt safer here, in the big outside, in the freezing rubble. Almost.
At least out here he could catch his breath with no one jeering, booting, shoving him into the next filthy job. Privacy like this, moments alone were rare as eggs, and Addas snatched them whenever he could. He soaked them in, squirreled them away like the memory of sunshine against the dark.
Addas had discovered this refuge by accident years before, in the wretched, blighted weeks of the Grim Fall. The world tearing itself apart, he’d been thrust from despair and confusion straight into Chalk’s cruelty and the orc clan’s contempt. Refugees were boot-scum and a plague; more mouths to feed, strangers who took up space. Anyone not blood-bound to the clan was kicked, lashed, abused. He and the other fugitives fought dogs for scraps and a place to lie down. Only those who worked could stay. Being youngest and a half-breed at that, when Chalk wasn’t beating lessons into him, Addas emptied the shit pits, two buckets at a time.
He studied the calluses on his palms and kicked a lump of brown ice. It skittered and smashed against a stump of carved granite. Two rows of them, broken pillars, lined either side of the hilltop. Gruumsh’s Henge had been the heart of greenskin power for centuries, the orc deity’s stone colossus bellowing perpetual defiance from its sacred plateau across the circle of the world. Hordes of pilgrims would gather every year for his bloody, brutal festivals, pledging blood, strength and eternal fealty.
Part citadel, part arena, part temple… it was one of the first casualties in the war, smashed like an egg by some Elvish godling’s wrath.
The temple’s massive stones had been heaped into walls around the settlement’s entrance, but the feet were rooted too deep, too solid to break apart.
Out of sight, out of the biting wind, ankle deep in filthy slush, Addas squatted in the lee of the Boots, two gigantic mounds of marble – all that remained of Gruumsh One-Eye’s great statue. The Black Sands clan dumped their filth there now. And Addas had brought most of it up the slope two buckets at a time.
The wind bit into his skin and the shadows were lengthening on the mountains. Addas sighed, turned to pick up the ropes. Then he spotted the tracks.
They came straight up the valley, made a wide path churned by riders. Lots of riders. Whoever it was had scuffed through the icy crust down to the mud; a shit-stain on a swathe of frozen linen, arrowing right toward the main gate.
Caravan wasn’t due for another month, Addas mused. Raiders then?
He crept out of the stones’ shadow to peer down at the walls again. Cocked his head for screams and ringing steel, but the only thing drifting on the air was oily smoke off the fires. Everything was business as usual.
Not raiders. Then who?
Forewarned is forearmed, he remembered Chalk saying. Addas coiled the sledge’s ropes, set them down, then slid down the reverse slope out of sight of the walls and crouched beside the trail.
He traced a deep print with his finger. Not paws, so it wasn’t wargs. Not that there were many of the giant hyenadons left alive, but a few had survived with the orcs and goblins who fled underground. They were reserved for clan chiefs and favored warriors.
The tracks weren’t split-toe great boars either, so it wasn’t Orcs from the Craters either. Weather this time of year ruled them out anyway. No, the hard crescent imprint meant shod hooves, which meant ponies. And ponies meant Dwarves, and Dwarves meant trouble. Graspy, bearded little feckers.
Dwarves any day set the Orc Chief on edge. Large bunch of stunties pounding at the gate unannounced would make him nastier than usual. And seeing as slop runs downhill, the Chief would vent his spleen on the clan, and the clan would take it out on him.
“Shit and shit again,” Addas spat.
He almost turned around right then. Almost.
Chalk had told him about his ‘bolt hole’ the week before he died; a tiny hollow on the western cliffs. There was enough kindling and unicorn to hold him a while, providing he was sparse about it.
Addas looked up at the sky and wondered how much daylight was left. Enough to reach the cave before night? Time ran strange these days, sometimes greasy fast, other times the sun seemed nailed in place. Freezing was better than a beating any day.
But if the Chief sent anyone to round him up and they found him, not only would the beating be worse, but he’d lose a good hiding spot. And maybe get kicked out for good.
Between the sword and the cliff, ain’t you? Chalk sniggered in his head.
“Even dead, you don’t leave me be,” Addas muttered.
The wind dragged a wheezing cackle off into the crags. Resigned, Addas clambered up and shouldered the ropes.
Maybe Snat would have something up his sleeve, he thought as he started downhill.
Figured I’d try this on you guys, see if you liked it.
Oh, and Happy Easter to K. Coble. – This is for her. 😉
Prologue: to Conjure Destiny
Ragnarok. Twilight of the Gods.
Whom the Gods destroy they first make mad… but when Gods purpose their own annihilation, what lunacy preludes that ruin? What malefic visions birth gibbering deicide?
Ragnarok… the end of all things.
It was an end, yes. But not final. A conclusion, not a consummation.
No one remembers how it began, only that the savagery raged for days. No realm spared as celestials expended their very essence to unleash the primal energies required to murder their kind. Continents heaved, oceans boiled, stars exploded. Time, space, day, night lost all meaning. Erstwhile allies and servants, our lives were abruptly incidental, insects in the scale of their grand self-immolation.
So while the Gods hurled doom across the three worlds – rending the Heavens, scorching the Earth, shattering the Underworld – we huddled and hid and dared not pray. Terror, woe, and havoc crashed over us like great waves of the deep. All turned to rubble and ash – an utter desecration – for when Gods make war, who can escape?
Then one day Ragnarok ended.
The Gods were dead.
We who survived blinked in horror at what remained – that we remained – and called ourselves cursed. Remnants of Men, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, scattered across the blighted landscape, fated to still draw breath, forced to sift meaning from desolation.
Minor deities remain, few, feral and precarious, their minds overthrown by pain, loss, and dismay at the hells they helped unleash. On themselves. On us.
We shun them.
Ragnarok… The word twines from two roots, their true meaning: ‘to conjure destiny’.
The Gods abandoned us, took their capricious favor, their lofty scorn to whatever afterlife Gods go to. If there is such a place.
The only destiny that remains is what we conjure from the remains.
One: All the time in this ruined world
Year Three after the Grim Fall
Addas had smelt it before he heard it: hoofs pounding out of the bleak half-light and swirling snow. Twisted aside, just barely. Damn thing still bashed the air out of his lungs, sprawled him down the hill. Last he saw was the ass-end vanishing in the gloom.
He stumbled and gasped his way into a tall clump of scraggle, pain spiking his ribs every step, every ragged breath pluming the frigid air. The bush weren’t much. Its desiccated branches rattled in the wind like finger bones, but bad cover is always better than none.
Warmth drooled under his shirt and he knelt, risking a glance were his hand pressed his chest; blood seeped through his thick fingers. Bastard’s horn had gashed clean through the armor rings and the jerkin.
God-cursed fecker near gored me, he grimaced. Add another scar to the batch – if I live.
Addas steadied himself. Peered out.
The storm had hunkered down to stay; ugly, low and leaden. Bitter winds howled out of the north, bringing a frenzy of large flakes the color of ash that burned skin raw, and the cold that froze boiling water in the pot. It was dumping hard, swallowing the landscape, dropping the view to a stone’s throw. Only a few shaggy humps of brush and black boulders jutted out of the icy slop.
The beast was nowhere to be seen. But not gone. It was still out there, stalking him. Addas could feel its hunger.
He cocked his head, listened under the roar of the storm. Nothing.
He jerked his hand away from the wound, hissed as the chill bit exposed flesh. Ignore it, Chalk’s customary advice rang in his head. Bleeding ain’t important now – living is.
Easy for you to say, Addas muttered. You ain’t here.
Warty brute had been in the dirt a month, and Addas almost missed him. Almost.
The old tracker had taken him out every day for three years, rain, shine, blistering summer, freezing winter, taught him every trick, trap, track and snare he knew. He’d beat the piss out of Addas every day for three years too, cuffing him at the tiniest mistake, bellowing, “World’s hard now. Get that in yer skull. You needs be harder.” Those lessons had started the scar collection, everyone a jagged little clue, a reminder of what was gone and what was now.
Filthy, senile, grueling, cruel, Chalk had been his savior – if you could use the word nowadays. He’d been the only one willing to take Addas in, half breeds being bucket scum even before the Grim Fall. Most of the other refugees from those days were long dead, so there must have been something to the cunning old fecker’s brand of schooling.
Addas’ bloody hand brushed the handle of the cleaver sheathed at his side. It had been Chalks. Wish me luck, he thought. Ain’t none left, he heard him grunt. Get on with it.
“Well shit, then,” Addas said to the wind.
He gripped the shaft of his javelin. One of his good ones. Pitted and rust-scabbed, the iron head still held a wicked edge.
Squinting into the gale, Addas froze still as a stone. He counted thirty heartbeats then reared up. “Come on then,” he roared. “Here I am.”
Good’un, he heard Chalk snigger. Charging the likes of you means it’s starvin’. So control the brawl. Make the ‘ungry bugger come to you.
You can shut up now, Addas thought.
Twenty more heartbeats. Nothing.
Then, snow scrunched, slithered on his right.
Addas shifted toward the sound, the javelin suddenly twig-thin across his meaty palm. Three fingers to steady, thumb and pointer to aim, like Chalk had taught. Coiled as a spring, he sniffed the wind ever so delicate.
The air was flat, hard as iron, but a sick-sweet hint of skin-rot spiced the back of his throat. Mange on the beast’s coat.
“Oh, you want me, doncha? You royal fecker,” he murmured. Addas slow-stepped forward, half out of the bush, and planted his boots deep and firm. “Come then,” he hissed.
At those words, a dark shape heaved out of the roiling squall like an avalanche. Head down, long horn straight as a pike, it fixed to skewer him like a hunk of meat.
Heart in his mouth, storm in his ears, time sludged, stretched like tar; a whole day in a heartbeat. Suddenly everything was chiseled, separate and new; each flake of snow, the twine wrap on the shaft under his fingers, the muscles rippling on the charging wax-white mass, the snort of fog from its nostrils. That spike tip was mere feet away, but Addas had all the time in this ruined world.
He drove the javelin and pivoted in the same moment, saw the iron head sunk deep in the beast’s chest as it blew past, heard its scream of pain and frustration. Another dozen steps, the front legs folded and it dropped like a sack of rocks, furrowing the snow out into the gloom.
Addas whipped out the cleaver. Crouched. Waited.
Over the wind, he heard it thrash and grunt, raging against Addas, against the blizzard, against death. The cries grew steadily weaker, and he crept toward it, heavy broad blade raised over his shoulder.
It was kicking its life out fifty paces on. The javelin wobbled and twitched in its chest like a dowsing rod, snow darkening to a bloody mush underneath. It rolled its eyes, jerked its long head trying to stab him even as it wheezed its last.
Now that’s how ya live another day, Chalk cackled in his head.
Beast was gaunt, ribbed as a washboard, but there was still some meat to it. He’d drag it back for eats, but that horn was his. It was scored and dirty, but unbroken. Rare and valuable thing, unicorn horn. Pierce plate armor, it would.
The reek of offal churned in the wind as its bowels let go. Addas watched the creature shudder, slump and go still. A gust blew the stringy mane over one staring eye.
Addas Dashag, hunter, tracker, rover, scavenger, half-orc from the Black Sands clan put his boot on the unicorn’s chest and yanked his javelin out. He wiped it clean, inspected it for bends or cracks. Satisfied, he strapped it on his back then he hefted his cleaver and set to hacking the skull to get at the root of that lovely horn.