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Zhonyja stepped down the last few stairs and out into the valley. She breathed in the sulphurous steam that greeted her, momentarily losing herself in the memories it evoked. She had been coming here since the first cycles of her life, when she had received the markings of her clan across her shoulders. Those same marks were still there, though they had been expanded and re-made a dozen times. Now, markings covered most of her skin, different ones visible depending on which tint she wore. Some were elaborate, like the massive serpent that wound around her left thigh to her hip. Others were simple, such as the skull on her left arm. It was tinted to show strongest when her skin wore the red of war, and least when she wore the green of home and peace, as she did now. Today though, she was here to wear something different, something new. Kruul had summoned her, and he intended to tint her himself, something that was almost unheard of in the last hundred cycles.
At her feet, the twisting path extended from the base of the stairs, out across the stony ground and into the mists. She could hear the bubbling of the mud pools all around her, the burps and splashes echoing oddly off the valley walls and providing counterpoint to the underlying snore of the gas caves that pocked the valley edges. Just to the side of the stairs was the first of those caves, and she could see the small tower of delicate yellow crystals that marked where the emerging hot gas met the cooler air of the valley. There were dozens of these caves, hundreds perhaps. The valley was full of vents, caves, pools, treacherous ground and boiling mud. It was a sacred place for her clan from before these more civilized times. The floor of the valley was littered with shards of stone, but with bone too. Bones of enemies from more recent times, bones of the witch doctors from after the fall of Edarr, when the orcs had turned on one another. All of the bones were ground to chips and dust, softened by the moisture and shattered by the feet of new generations. It was now a mark of respect to have bones of your ancestors in this place. Kruul and others had reclaimed it as a place of power long ago, and the legacy of the witch doctors was now returned to a level of respect, if not honour.
Zhonyja stepped out onto the path, lost in her reflections. She was sure-footed, as she had walked this path enough times that it was seared into her memory. She could walk it in her sleep. She passed a dozen sights that had fascinated her as a child, small fumaroles and vents that slowly dusted themselves in crystals of every colour. Those crystals formed part of the base for the tints used on orc skin. In some cases, they were also used in the marking dyes, allowing for marks that would show through one tint but not another, such as her skull mark. Today, Zhonyja strode past them without interest. She only paused when she reached the massive mud pool that she had always had to negotiate using a series of stepping stones, solid islands in a sea of bubbling, scalding mud. Someone had built a sturdy walkway across it, wooden planks arranged and moored to give a stable and simple passage. She watched it for a few moments, trying to asses whether it could perhaps be a trap or trick of some kind, but she could see that it was moored on those same islands she had used for crossing on her last visit. With a shrug and a hint of regret, she stepped out onto the boards and made the crossing, admitting to herself that it was considerably easier and would at least mean fewer orcs with burn-scarred legs and feet. Still, it felt like another minor yielding of culture to convenience... another softening. She remembered that the older orcs saw the marking as a test of their vitality. They had always said that if you were too old to cross, you should give yourself to the mud. She knew that Kruul would see it as another failing, though a treacherous part of her felt sure that he too would have used the bridge.
She stepped off the end of the boards and back onto the trodden path. There were cracks to all sides, venting the sulphurous steam and occasionally spitting scalding water. Each crack accumulated a slightly different shade of crystal, and she knew that the shamans all used each shade differently. The blues and dark greens favoured by the witch doctors were only found at the very back of the valley, and others were not allowed to enter unless specifically granted access.
The marking area was not much further in. She only needed to pass one more obstacle, which emerged from the mist in front of her now. The ravine, or chasm, depending on who you asked, was hundreds of paces wide in some places, but here it narrowed to a mere twenty or thirty. There had always been stories of orcs in history who had jumped the chasm, but she had never believed them. Now she looked at it contemplatively, feeling the strength in her limbs and wondering whether the new power she had gained from her time Between might make it possible.
On the back of that, she wondered if perhaps those orcs of myth had simply been chosen like her. She hadn’t run across them if so. The orcs she had seen on the shadow plane seemed to all be from her own time, or very close: Haksa, Kruul and Rakkir. Even the new chosen, Sharn, a giant of an orc, seemed to be of this time, however where on Athien Sharn lived, Zhonyja did not know. She would surely have remembered such a large orc if they had crossed paths on Athien. All chosen orcs coming from the same point in time was an oddity as far as Zhonyja could tell. Kruul thought it was important, though he wouldn’t say, or didn’t know, why. At first, she had thought it meant that her race didn’t exist in the future, but she had spoken with the strange elf and a minotaur who also lived in the far future, who both confirmed that orcs still lived, though they were not comfortable discussing specifics.
She snapped out of her reverie and stepped out onto the rope bridge that had been used by everyone she had ever seen cross. It consisted of three ropes, representing mind, body and spirit if you believed the shaman. Your spirit walked the path, guided by mind and body, so went the coda she had recited with her class the first time they had all crossed.
Today, with no one else watching, she indulged herself and placed her feet on the lower rope, the spirit, and walked without any other contact, hands by her sides. Her balance was better than ever, and she felt sure that she could jump from this rope to one of the others if she felt the urge to tempt the gods. Zhonyja did feel the urge and fought it. Having recently acquired a much more personal comprehension of the gods and their lesser cousins, the everlasting, she now knew that the old gods had no love for her. Crossing the path in five or six bounding steps, she did a summersault on the last to land on the other edge with both feet.
The rest of the path from here was under the eyes of the shaman and witch doctors. Though Kruul knew her nature, she wasn’t eager for the others to know as yet, so she consciously returned her stride to normal, and self-consciously adjusted the vest that covered the spreading tell-tale mark that gleamed dully on her chest above her heart, reaching towards her shoulder. The Chosen mark showed through every tint, and made that area of her flesh impervious to attempts to apply other ritual markings.
Fortunately, Kruul had always been her witch doctor, and had applied all her markings from the first, so she hadn’t needed to hide the developing marks from him. They had been a source of satisfaction for Kruul, despite the old cultural taboos that other shaman held concerning the shadow plane. He had told Zhonyja that he had been training her to join him as one of the summoned all along, from before her first marking. She had felt proud at her achievement, but doubts had slowly crept in, particularly about her parents, or lack thereof. She had suspicions now that she did not dare voice because, although Kruul treated her like a daughter, she feared him. He had never really given her cause; she had seen him kill on many occasions, but he had rarely even raised his voice at her. Nevertheless, as she grew older, she was coming to fear his intentions; his plans for himself, but also for her.
Much as she respected him, the treacherous part of her suspected that he would not make a good god.
“You are late, daughter”, his growling voice emerged from the mists in front of her, moments before they parted to reveal him standing on the path. He wore full ceremonial garb, the robes and mask of a witch doctor over the deep black-blue tint that marked his whole body. On his arms and legs where she could see his skin, creatures writhed in brilliant ice-blue and sea-green. The eyes of the creatures were a ruddy red-orange of a banked hearth-fire and when she looked at them, they seemed to blink and stretch languidly as he moved his limbs. Only the witch doctors and shaman bore marks of such potency and of them she had only seen demons on Kruul. No other dared to carry them. She often wondered what that said about him and the state of his soul. She had never dared to ask.
“I am sorry, father. I took time for…. reflection.” she responded quietly, eyes downcast. She rarely played the role of daughter now, but in this context, at the place of marking, tradition demanded certain things.
He nodded as his eyes scrutinised her from behind the mask. “Some reflection is good. Today though we focus on your future, not your past.” She bowed her head in assent and he turned to lead her off the path and out into the mists.
Zhonyja stood for a moment, uncertain. Previously, she had always been marked in the same place, only another two dozen paces down the path. A large tent would be there, waiting. She had never been led elsewhere before, and she was not sure what it meant. A worm of fear twisted in her gut at the thought that perhaps he had seen her doubts, seen her treacherous thoughts and meant to… what? He would not dispose of her, she was far too valuable to him. She had served as an enforcer of his will, a symbol of his power among the tribes. She had never voiced her doubts publicly, and while she was useful, she was confident that he would not wish to lose her. He was nothing if not practical.
“Come, daughter”, his voice drifted back to her, impatient. “Why do you linger?”
“Sorry father”, she muttered, forcing her legs into motion and stepping where she’d seen him step.
In this place, a misstep could cost you the skin on your feet at least, so all orcs learned early to memorise where others stepped without thinking. In a few steps, she could see him again and he strode onwards. She followed and the path fell into the mist behind her. We have literally stepped off the path of spirit, she thought, more than a little troubled. Kruul abandoning tradition was almost unheard of. So much so that she thought it more than likely that he was reinstating another of the lost traditions that he occasionally uncovered in his research of the time before Edarr.
That wasn’t particularly comforting; a lot of those traditions had been… unpleasant. She hissed as a slight misstep put one of her toes onto the bare earth off Kruul’s steps and a searing flash ran up her leg. She steadied herself back into the footprints and paused for a second.
“Careful daughter, this way has been freshly revealed. It is not yet as…tamed as those we have followed in the past.”
“Is it a new way, father? Or is it an old way come again?”
He laughed quietly. “You were ever perceptive, my child. This one, this is a little of both I think.”
They continued on for a while longer, and Zhonyja wondered how he could possibly have found this path. They wound among dozens of small fissures and vents, at one point walking the edge of what must have been a small crater, the rubble and dirt falling steeply away to their right into darkness and mist. She began to lose track of time and felt sure that she would not be able to find her way back, memory or no. They had wound around too many times, jumped too many fissures, landing gingerly on exact footprints, wincing when she slipped a little and the scalding sand bit into her feet. Through this all they moved in silence, Kruul clearly focussed on finding the path, occasionally his staff would spring out to steady him or probe where footprints appeared to split in many directions and she realised those must represent either failed exploration or deliberate false trails. Given the cost to the explorer of each exploratory footstep, she felt sure that this path represented years of work. Judging by the familiar prints, it was work that Kruul had performed alone. In fact, she might be the first orc to walk this path after him. That was a great honour, if true. It seemed extremely unlikely that he would go to these lengths for punishment.
At last, after what must have been several thousand steps, he stopped and she stood behind him as the mists opened on a site unlike any she had seen on Athien. She recognised it immediately, of course. She had seen a hundred variations, just never on this plane.
The Effigy was a dozen feet tall, towering over them. It was hewn of black volcanic rock and she couldn’t recognise which of the gods, old or new, it represented. Nonetheless, she knew it to be an effigy. The glow of power, nowhere near as visible as on the shadow plane, was nonetheless undeniably present. It depicted a creature she didn’t recognise, a giant lizard of sorts with wings of all things. Its eyes glowed ruby red and it was perched atop a giant skull that looked human, though it could easily have been orc or dwarf. The roughness of the sculpture made it distinct from those she had seen in Between.
She was completely at a loss for words, mind whirling with questions and confusion. This, as far as she had thought she knew, was impossible. She did not pretend to understand how the planes worked, but she knew, or believed, that the energy required to cross the planes was enormous. To place an effigy here from one of the other planes implied projection to this plane from one of the others….
As far as she knew that had only happened for one being. Edarr. Edarr had crossed between the planes first in the direction of ascension and then back in the catastrophe of incarnation.
“Can you feel its power?” Kruul asked quietly and she nodded, feeling a thrum in her chest, beneath the hidden runes that denoted her as one of the summoned.
“I felt it for years before I finally found it. Many years.” There was a slight tinge of bitterness to his tone.
Zhonyja stepped forward, ignoring the prints she could see in the sand, ignoring the spikes of pain in her fascination with the effigy. She circled it slowly. It looked far more real than those Between, the crafting here on Athien was limited by more than just imagination and will. It showed markings where the tools used had hewn the black stone, chipped it steadily into this shape from a massive block of black stone bought here from the gods alone knew where. Its base was fused into the stone of the valley floor somehow, but a string of small vents emerged around its base and she saw there were also small vents in the statue itself. The nostrils of the beast were leaking wisps of mist and each had an accumulation of tiny blue-black crystals. Each of the vents were growing the same crystals and she could see that they had been harvested. Kruul noticed her attention and spoke softly.
“These crystals are the truest pigment I’ve found. They suit both tint and marking.” He gestured to his calves where the blue marks twisted. “The marks show on this tint, but on no other. They are marks of power. I suspect they will only mark the chosen, though I haven’t tested it yet.”
“You shouldn’t,” she felt certainty “This is not for others.”
Kruul nodded “I agree. Those who deserve it, if they exist, will find it.”
Zhonyja shivered with anticipation. Today would be a marking that would stay with her forever, a tinting that would mark her indelibly as aligned with the witch doctors, aligned with this effigy, this power. A small part of her felt trepidation, but it was drowned in the surge of pride that she should be only the second orc to bear this sign! This sign would echo into the future, she could feel it. With this she would change the planes, change the future of her race.
“What marking would you bear, daughter?” Kruul’s tone was formal, ceremonial. A question she had been asked a hundred times. But this time...
“I would bear a mark of our past and of our future, father. A mark of the power of our race and a mark to command respect. I would bear the mark of the fallen one. She who rose in the name of mortals and fell in the fight against the old gods. The one whose fall shattered the world.”
“Speak her name, daughter.” His voice was low and soft but intense.
The entire valley seemed to fall silent, as if holding its breath. She felt the Effigy before her thrum with a power that she now recognised as she breathed out, letting the word fall from her lips.