Ropes cracked against a tent's canvas as the wind whipped through the encampment, torrential rain limiting visibility to a few yards. Orcs were not known for their big cities or large stone buildings like the elves, dwarfs or humans. The orc host had been on the move for some time, so this temporary camp was home as they searched for a new place to settle. Uprooting an entire tribe was not usual; however, frequent clashes with a rival tribe had begun to take its toll, so the decision was made to move on. The rise of the Summoned had unsettled many of the races however perhaps none more so than the orcs. With the Summoned had come the return of the orc witch doctors, and their master, Kruul, was proving to be a divisive force among his people. Orcs were naturally a potent race, steeped in shamanistic ways and the power that comes with that, however, the division between witch doctors and shamans was slowly eroding their effectiveness as a people. No one liked living under the constant threat of civil war.
The hunched-over figure trudging through the mud went mostly unnoticed, hood pulled low, an old gnarled staff providing surety when the ground proved unstable underfoot. Had the weather been better, the sentries may have perceived the cleft hoofs sometimes visible below the figure's cloak, or the distinct imprint they left in the mud. However today they assumed it was an old orc, if not a little large for one of their race. Xyvera paused for a moment, listening until she heard the grunting sound that usually accompanied childbirth. She made her way towards the tent where the birth was taking place until, about 10 yards from the entrance, a piercing, and painful scream cut through the din of the inclement weather. Xyvera quickened her pace slightly as time was short.
A lone orc stood at the front of the tent, a worried expression on his face as he looked back nervously at the flap that marked the tent's entryway. He stood straighter and wiped the water from his eyes as Xyvera approached. Saying nothing, he peeled the flap back, which allowed her passage into the tent. Another mid-wife he assumed, here to assist with the child's birth.
Xyvera stepped inside without a word, her stooped posture concealing the fact she was a minotaur and more substantial than most orcs. Two orc mid-wives were attending to the mother, both covered in blood, as was the bed. The moaning indicated the mother still lived. However, she sounded weak. Xyvera walked to the foot of the bed before throwing back her hood and revealing herself. The midwives turned, startled, before instinctively grabbing anything that could resemble a weapon to prepare for, what they assumed, was an attack. Minotaurs were not enemies of orcs; however, the two races had very little to do with each other, and a mutual distrust existed.
Xyvera leaned her staff against the foot of the bed and held up her hands in a gesture of peace. To further ease the tension, she spoke in a local orc dialect.
"The woman is going to die. If you do not let me help, so will the child."
"The child…is an abomination. We assumed ettin-kind however, it only has one head. The size…it is like nothing we have ever seen. We do not know what to do.", the older of the two mid-wives replied.
"I have foreseen the coming of this child. Up until this morning, I assumed she would be of my ilk, however apparently not. As I said, let me assist, or you will lose both, and the babe is too important to die." Xyvera reply left no room for rebuke, so the two midwives stepped away from the bed.
The mother was into her last reserves of strength, any other race and she would have perished already, however, orcs were known for nothing if not their sheer constitution. Xyvera traced her finger across the orc's forehead, leaving a faint green glowing rune, before reciting an incantation. The rune glowed brighter as a yellow tinge spread across the woman's body. She became reinvigorated, jolting forward and grabbing Xyvera's arm with renewed strength.
"Push" Xyvera whispered.
The orc woman looked into Xyvera's eyes, her eyes bulging, veins protruding from her neck and temples as if she was about to explode. Her body contorted as she pushed. The sound of bones cracking and flesh tearing cut through the sound of the rain pelting against the tent roof. The midwives moved towards the bed. However, Xyvera waved them away with an irritated hand. The orc woman continued to push until the wail of a newborn babe could be heard. Xyvera pried the woman's hand from her arm and pushed her back into the bed. Her life force left her as the yellow tinge covering her body, and the green rune on her forehead also faded into non-existence.
Xyvera gestured to the midwives so they could attend to the baby. They cleaned it quickly, wrapped it in a blanket, before attempting to feed it milk they had on hand for whenever such times as the mother did not make it.
"Crone, what did you do to her?", the older midwife asked.
"I saved her life.", Xyvera replied nonchalantly.
"Not the babe! The mother, you used dark magic!", the mid-wife hissed through clenched teeth before gesturing to the newborn baby. "The babe, she is bigger than any I have seen, and I have been delivering orc children into this world for over 40 cycles, ettins even. I have seen nothing like her. She is a devil-spawn."
"Shut up fool, unless you want to join the mother.", Xyera's visage and menacing tone stunned the mid-wife into silence. "The babe is not devil-spawn, quite the opposite. Her coming was foretold, and she may yet be the saviour of your people. If you care for your kind, take her to Haksa, the great shaman. Do you know of him?"
The midwife nodded.
"Tell him Xyvera sent you, he will know what to do. Leave now, tonight, and do not show the babe to anyone before you reach Haksa. Do you understand?"
"Yes, crone, we do." The midwives began gathering provisions, including a wooden cradle that would serve as a makeshift cart for their journey.
Xyvera turned from them and began tracing runic lines on the earth floor. Once complete she began to cast a spell which caused the runes to glow before she disappeared, teleporting back to her domicile.
"Pick up the shield."
"I am tired papa…"
"Pick up the shield."
"Let her rest Haksa, she has been at it for over 4 hours", Korgulg interjected before returning to sharpening his axe on a spinning grindstone.
Haksa sneered as he turned to the orc warrior, "Stay out of it unless you want to be the next to spar with her," and then his smirk turned into a grin. He looked back at Sharn, "One hour girl, rest and drink, you have your lore studies with Ghorza this afternoon." He watched the hulking frame of the girl as she walked from the training arena to grab a skin of water and almost devour it in one go. Twelve cycles old and as big as Haksa already. Stronger too. She was turning into a warrior without peer, except for Zhonyja perhaps, however without the latter's demonic demeanour. Sharn was extraordinary, and Haksa gave thanks every day since Xyvera had sent her his way. The shaman believed the girl was a gift from the old gods, one who would stem the tide and restore the pride of the orc people. The pride that Kruul and his minions had recklessly eroded over the last few decades. His commune with the old gods had informed him she would also become a Summoned, in time. He wondered whether the new gods were aware that the old gods were recruiting their heroes into the Summoned ranks. Their lust for power so blinded them, as did their fear of destruction, he assumed they either didn't know or did not care as long as the Souls continued to flow.
"She grows stronger by the day, and bigger. The girl is going to tower over Bonestorm soon. Have you thought about breeding her? I have heard she is ready to sire." Korgulg had stopped sharpening his blade and looked at Haksa earnestly.
"You volunteering?" he responded. "I would gut you before you got anywhere near that girl Korgulg. Anyway, it is a moot point, the girl is not an ettin, however like them, she is not able to conceive. Her purpose is far greater than breeding a band of giant orcs."
Korgulg thought pensively before speaking, "She worries me Haksa, most of the tribe feel the same. She is not natural; nothing about her is natural. We accepted ettins long ago, despite them being an abomination. However, she is different. Are you sure she gets her strength from the old gods? That minotaur witch sent her. Sharn could very well be demon spawn."
"Watch your tongue Korgulg!" Haksa's patience was wearing thin. "Since when did you stop trusting me? I have communed with the old gods themselves, she is from them, and that should be the end of it."
Korgulg looked to change the subject. "So where from here? She will have learned everything I can teach her before the cycle is out, and the rate she is growing, she will probably kill me before then." A smile formed across his face.
"I am going to send her to my brother Shaman, Doenrakkar, for a time. He will complete her training. Sharn will only be with you for a few more months. You have done well, my friend."
Haksa pulled a small vial from the folds of his cloak. "Come, let us relax and enjoy this new herb mix I have put together."
"A new one? What is it this time?" Korgulg asked.
"You won't be disappointed.", the shaman replied before slapping the orc warrior on the shoulder as the two friends walked away from the village centre.
Sharn's patience started to wear thin as she waited for the return of her companion. Her trust in the rogue had grown over time. However, you always have to keep a certain level of awareness when dealing with someone of his ilk. They were an incredible team really, him a legendary assassin and one of the first to be summoned, and her, a literal giant among her people whose sheer size had set her apart from her kin at birth. Sharn's ascension to Guardian had been a gruelling test of her physical and mental strength over many cycles, and she strove to become the first orc to join that illustrious order for a generation. Every Guardian had to complete a final quest, the last hurdle which would entitle them to claim the Guardian title. For Sharn, the task was to uncover an ancient, dwarf warhammer that, rumour had it, was somewhere deep within these catacombs.
Her mentor, and father figure, Haksa, provided initial guidance on where to locate the hammer. The shaman's ability to commune with the old gods was well known, and it was through this commune that he discovered the name of the hammer, which greatly aided Sharn's quest. "Stormforged" was what the dwarfs used to call it. A mighty warhammer with the ability to produce a thunderous clap that would hurl foes flying through the air in battle. Despite Haksa's best efforts, he was still not able to accurately locate the hammer's whereabouts. For that, they had to speak with Zaron Bogdan, one of the most feared and famous beings on Athien. Zaron was an enigma. However, he had grown into an unlikely ally of the orcs in these troubled times, attributed mainly to his friendship with Krognar, the orc demigod. Rumour has it that Zaron's first commune with Krognar had enabled him to become the beginning of the Summoned and in doing so greatly enhancing Krognar's powers. For his part, Zaron seemed hellbent on becoming a god himself, and there were whispers he had transcended into un-death already.
Sharn was initially apprehensive about meeting the legendary necromancer. However, he seemed eager to assist her and provide directions to the catacombs she was currently exploring. The only request from Zaron, for his aid, was that Rakkir accompanies her. The relationship between Zaron and the orc rogue was a complex one that had, somehow, stood the test of time. Their friendship had elevated both of them to two of the most powerful heroes in the Summoned ranks. As for Rakkir, he was deadly efficient in combat, and coupled with his powerful shadow orbs, was frighteningly tricky to catch. The two of them combined were a formidable foe, and they had dispatched scores of dwarfs, golems and other adversaries that were hellbent on stopping her recovering Stormforged, in the last few days.
Sharn started to think that the rogue had betrayed her, and was not coming back before he suddenly appeared next to her.
Rakkir broke the silence. "I have located the hammer. It looks unguarded however I certainly doubt that is the case. There is a secret passage that will bring us to the side of and slightly behind a dais, floating above that is your hammer."
"It looks unguarded, you say?" Sharn replied.
"I did not see any guards or sentries, although the room looks like a temple of sorts. We should prepare for anything. Also, you say this is a dwarf warhammer, I have never known a dwarf capable of wielding such a weapon, it is huge. Even the mighty Thrommel would struggle to wield it in both hands."
"It was forged in ancient times, for the dwarf titans. They were bigger than the dwarfs we know today, and they disappeared around the time of the Gathering. No one knows why." Sharn was growing tired of the conversation, so close to her prize. She took a deep breath to calm herself. Impatience would not be an ally at this stage.
"Lead on rogue, let's claim Stormforged for our people."
"Heh, your people are not my people girl, I help you claim it for reasons of my own." Rakkir sneered.
Sharn did not know what to make of his last comment. More than once, she silently questioned what Rakkir, and indeed Zaron, were set to gain from her claiming Stormforged. In the end, she decided it meant little. All that mattered was she would wield Stormforged in defence of her people, and Haksa was in favour of it. She trusted him without question and was sure he would deliver the orcs from the clutches of the witchdoctors and the new gods they worshipped.
They set off together, Sharn following behind Rakkir. He realised stealth was useless with an 8-foot behemoth in heavy armour following his footsteps, so he readied himself, dagger in one hand, shadow orb in the other and set a decent pace. The secret passageway was a little cramped for her size so Sharn privately hoped a fight would not break out in such confines. She needn't have worried, as it soon came to a dead end at what looked like the back of a secret door.
Rakkir crouched low with his ear to the stonework trying to discern if anyone was on the other side. After a few minutes, he pulled gently on the door to open it toward them. The rogue slipped through the opening while pulling his cloak over his head becoming almost invisible to Sharn as the cloak shimmered a deep black. The Cloak of Darkness. It was the stuff of legend and a magical artefact of considerable power. Another reminder of the influence of one they called the Blood Shadow.
After a few moments, Sharn opened the door wider so she could fit through. She was grateful to find herself in a large room with a vaulted ceiling, some kind of temple, which from the adornments, looked like a place of worship to a dwarf god. Rakkir had already positioned himself on the other side of the room from where the secret door opened. The temple was dark, except for a glow that emanated from the altar, a few feet above which hung Stormforged. The hammer looked magnificent, and it drew Sharn in.
She could no longer see Rakkir and was not even sure he was still in the room, so she paused for a moment to peer around the temple. It was too dark to see anything really, the glow from the altar made it difficult for her eyes to adjust completely, so after a few moments, she decided to act. First, she slung the large shield from her back and held it in a defensive position. She then took a deep breath before striding confidently towards the platform, stood ere it for a moment, before reaching out to grab Stormforged.
Sharn was not sure what she expected to happen. However, it was notably unremarkable. Stormforged felt terrific in her hands, much lighter than she imagined yet perfectly balanced, even when held in one hand like she did. However, beyond that, nothing. She turned to head back towards the secret passage, stopping one last time to see whether she could spot Rakkir. Just before giving up, she caught a glint of steel in a far corner. Moving towards it, she eventually could make out the profile of the rogue, in a vestibule to the left of the main chamber. He had pried open a stone with his dagger and was carefully pulling out a small jewelled chest from a secret compartment in the wall. He turned to her briefly before carefully placing the chest in a leather container attached to his belt.
"What are you doing?" she asked more harshly than intended.
"That is not your concern, Guardian," he replied.
The realisation he had just called her "Guardian" caused her to pause for a moment.
"We need to get out of here Rakkir, I am not comfortable in this place," Sharn said.
They walked back into the main temple and quickened their pace towards where the secret passageway was. Neither Rakkir or Shan noticed the absence of glowing light above the altar that appeared earlier. Rakkir stopped at the stone wall and began searching for the secret door. Sharn instinctively turned to stand guard, pavise shield and Stormforged at the ready.
"Something is wrong. The door, it is no longer here." Rakkir stated with a hint of peril in his voice.
Sharn looked over her shoulder to where the rogue was frantically searching for the opening. Sharn knew that a rogue of his skill would not struggle to find a secret door that he knew was already there.
"It must be a defensive mechanism for the hammer. The dwarf custodians are forcing us to go out the main entrance." Sharn offered.
Rakkir turned sharply, drew his dagger and shadow orb, and moved towards the front of the temple, gesturing for Sharn to follow. Without the glowing altar, their eyes were able to adjust better to the darkness. After a short time, they could see the front wall, in the middle of which stood two huge ornate doors, with large brass rings for handles. On either side of the doors stood giant stone statues of dwarfs, one a warrior and the other a priestess. The statues were a full foot taller than Sharn.
Rakkir slowed his pace a touch as they neared the doors. Sharn stopped and once again stood guard as Rakkir got to work on the doors. He expertly searched for traps or magical glyphs that may trigger if they were opened incorrectly. Suddenly, a sixth sense clicked in, and Rakkir tumbled away from the door, just as an enormous stone axe crashed into the cobblestone floor. The sound reverberated around the temple startling Sharn into action. She swung around to see the priest statue about to crush Rakkir's skull with her mace. Instinctively Sharn recited an incantation and motioned Rakkir toward her. He immediately moved toward her quickly as if pushed by a magical hand, evading the strikes of both axe and mace.
Sharn stepped forward between the dwarfs and rogue, setting her shield in place to deflect a crushing blow from the warrior's axe. The statues fought ferociously, causing her to inch back all the while protecting Rakkir as he regained his composure. Sure enough, a moment later he was back on his feet dropping a shadow orb and disappearing from view. It was only then that Sharn noticed a low thrum emanating from Stormforged which was also emitting a soft glow. Sharn instinctively swung it in an upward arc unerringly striking the dwarf warrior in the chest. With a loud crack, lightning clapped in a bright flash before Sharn felt the power surge through her arm. The warrior launched into the air, flung back several yards before crashing into the doors which shuddered under the impact.
The surprise barely left Sharn before a cracking sound was followed by the crashing down of a massive column of flame, engulfing her. Sharn reared away from the priest that had produced the flame column, runes glowing on its stone robes. Despite her heavy armour, the pain was intense, and she could still feel herself burning. Suddenly the priest arched its back as the tip of Rakkir's dagger protruded from its chest. The priest whirled around swinging its mace widely, however, its weapon carved through the air since the rogue had already disappeared, only to reappear several yards away. Sharn moved quickly to close in on the priestess, hoping these things could actually be killed. She started to swing Stormforged like before; however, before she could complete her swing, her pavise shield shuddered from the impact of the warrior's axe. The force was so great that Sharn felt a sharp pain shoot up her arm and shoulder. This was starting to look grim, she thought to herself.
"Sharn! Distract them both. Give me time." Rakkir yelled from the shadows. The sound distracted both dwarfs for a moment allowing Sharn to charge into the priest, this time using her shield as a weapon. The impact slammed the priest yards away before crashing into a stone pillar. The collision sent her crashing to the ground and prone on her back. To Sharn's dismay, the damage on the priestess still seemed trivial.
The warrior reared back to Sharn, swinging its mighty axe in a vast arc.
"Hurry up rogue!" Sharn roared.
The Guardian began manoeuvring herself to where Rakkir kneeled holding something in front of him. It was the small chest he discovered earlier. The rogue worked methodically in an attempt to open it. Rakkir knew Zaron would not be pleased that he was opening the chest. However, they were in a nasty predicament here. He would worry about Zaron's wrath later. For now, he was in survival mode. Rakkir was sure he could escape through stealth; however, he did not want to leave the Guardian to inevitable doom.
Sharn was starting to tire, numerous cuts and bruises taking their toll. She was firmly in defence mode now, using all her strength to keep both dwarf statues at bay. She had managed to manoeuvre herself adjacent to Rakkir as she dug deep into her training to keep her pavise shield off the ground. Minutes passed, and still, Rakkir worked feverishly away on the device. A glass globe with a bright, magical glow within it. Sharn was not sure how much longer she could stand, blood seeping through the gaps in her armour as the blows reigned down on her shield. Just as darkness began to overcome her, Sharn heard the sharp crack of magical energy and a sudden explosion of light.
"Sharn! To me!" Rakkir screamed.
Summoning the final reserves of strength, Sharn shoved the dwarf warrior with her shield and blasted the priest once again with Stormforged. She was acting entirely on instinct at this point. Momentarily freed from her adversaries, Sharn turned to Rakkir. He held the magical globe in one hand and had his other outstretched beckoning her. She took a giant stride and reached out a massive paw, grasping his hand. The light travelled from Rakkir's right hand, across his body and through Sharn's outstretched arm until it eventually engulfed them both. Sharn started to lose consciousness. Her last memory a feeling of being pulled towards the globe and then a falling sensation.
Sharn opened her eyes. She was lying prone, and her body ached all over; however, it seemed, from the silence, that she was no longer in battle. She turned to her side and saw the familiar silhouette of Rakkir hunched over, peering across a rocky ledge. He looked to her, with a hint of compassion before asking "You ok Guardian?".
"I have been better", she replied.
She lifted herself off the uneven earth floor and crawled over to where Rakkir was. It wasn't until now that she noticed the intense heat spilling over the rocky ledge they were on. Rakkir motioned for her to look over the natural rock wall before him. Sharn inhaled sharply as she took in the scene before her. Pools of molten rock dotted a sprawling valley floor. Lava geysers spewed 25 yards into the air with poisonous vapours floating low above the ground.
"Rakkir, where are we?" she asked.
"I have travelled all over Athien and Between, but I have never before seen this place," he replied.
"The magical device?" Sharn enquired.
"It was destroyed in the process of transporting us here. We cannot use it to get back. Rest up Guardian, we are going to need your strength to get out of this."
Sharn sat with her back to the rock wall, breathing deeply as she began the road to recovery. She absentmindedly placed her hand on Stormforged. Tingles of energy running through her thick fingers, as she sat there wondering what tomorrow would bring.