In which I give the two patrons who have selected their respective reward option both a named character and a death scene. I apologize for this (unless you think having a redshirt character named after you being killed off is cool. I won’t say I haven’t met people who have taken that as a sign of affection) as the nature of the story and the names involve yield this as one of the few options for any named characters.
The Mistress crumpled the intercepted letter in her fist. “General Frost conspires against me.”
The Orc started to speak, and then thought better of it. “He seeks my throne, and to make matters worse, there are others rallying to his cause!” Her visage flickered like a candle against the wind. She took a deep breath and her proportions settled. “My apologies. Such petty anger is beneath me. These are matters easily settled. My throne will remain secure. I will make sure of it.”
The Orc struggled to remember a time when the Mistress’ throne was not secured. She had always been queen—she had always been in Castle Rivenrock, breeding her Orcs and solidifying her power. For someone who had ruled as long as the Orc could remember, it was astonishing any still set out to oppose her.
But the Orc was not ignorant. It knew that there were those of ethereal power who craved the title of Dark Lord.
The Orc also remembered Frost—he had been around as long as the Mistress. He was a cold man. Physically and emotionally. His icy touch scared the Orc.
The Mistress snapped her fingers, breaking the Orc out of its trance. It shuffled to her aid. “You—” She snatched the Orc’s arm and read the number she had burned onto it. It felt like so long ago. “00185.”
“Take your company out to the Twin Mountains. General Frost will be there soon. I want you to kill him.” She took 00185’s free arm in her other hand and forced it to look at her. Her gaze bore deep. “Say the words.”
“What 00185 does is for the good of the land. What this Orc’s company does is for the good of the land, and the rule of Rivenrock. For there is no I. No me. No he. No she. There is only Orc.”
The Mistress met the Orc’s gaze, her gaze as implacable as a slab of stone. Then her expression softened. She released her grip. “Good,” she said. “Now go.”
The Orc wound through the Mistress’ hallways. She had carved the castle out of the mountain itself, so that none could take it.
It also made for a long descent.
00185 trudged down the stairways, kicking up clouds of dust. It hobbled into the lower chambers where scores of Orcs prepared for wars yet to come. The room grumbled with the grinding of gears and hammers on anvils.
00185 spotted its company sharpening blades for the next brood of Orcs. 00185 drew a sword from its scabbard. “Forth, company eighty five!”
Other Orcs looked on. The rumbling groaned to a halt, and the light of the furnace dimmed as the Orcs watched.
Threescore Orcs stepped forward. Each of them had the same yellowed flesh and ebony tusks as the other. Their boils protruded in the same spots on their faces. They were the same height and wore the same armor. Only the numbers burned into their arms told them apart.
One of them hefted a crossbow. “What news from the Mistress?”
“We leave now for the Twin Mountains,” 00185 said. “There is someone we must kill.”
The other Orc grinned. “Good.”
As the others went back to their duties, the eighty fifth company saddled their horses and readied themselves for the quest. Theirs was a journey through jagged rock and looming stone. But it would not last long. Frost did not know that the Mistress was aware of his deceit. He was foolish to hold council so close to her tower.
Rivenrock was but a pebble in the distance when the company reached the Undesirables. The human outpost was composed of men who had crossed the Spine—the wall that isolated this land from all else.
The Orc led its company through groups of beggars clamoring for them. Their words ran together.
“Food!” “—Please, water!” “—So thirsty…” “—Anything to spare?” “My child, Saija—” “Spare us!”
00185 growled and drew its sword. Its underlings followed that example. The humans scurried away like rats from the light.
In the midst of the chaos, the Orc commander spotted a mother shielding her child from the Orc’s visage. It refrained from making eye contact.
Yet the commander’s thoughts stayed on that mother. They feared Orcs. Why did they stay? Did they have nowhere else to go? Perhaps it should help. 00185 reached for its pack to find any extra supplies it could spare for the humans.
The second it reached into its pack, a pang of pain shot through the Orc. 00185 fell from its horse.
It was an acute pain, like needles that drilled just under the surface of the flesh. The Orc grunted through it, until time and place became lost. All it knew was anger and hatred. It was kindness—kindness that brought this misery upon it. And humans. They were responsible for this—they wanted its food—they caused this. The Orc hated them. Hated them.
And then the pain stopped.
00185 grunted to its feet and dusted itself off.
As its senses expanded, the Orc became aware of a conflict close by. An Undesirable—a woman armed with a knife was advancing on an underling. There was a man in the among the onlookers—her father, most like who screamed the woman’s name, “Lydia!”
00185 pulled a jagged dirk from its sheath.
The woman, had dragged an underling to the ground. 00185 hauled her off of the underling. Her face screamed a silent No! And the Orc thrust the dirk through her eye.
00185 spotted the underling Orc dragging itself through amidst the confusion. The commander closed in on the Orc. In its weakened state, 00185 easily overpowered the underling.
“Off!” the underling muttered. “Get off!” It elbowed the 00185 in the ribs. The commander ignored the pain and forced the underling to turn over.
A wound ran down the side of the Orc’s face, still slick with blood. It reached up to cover the lacerations, hands shaking.
00185 grimaced. The underling had marked itself. Still, it paid to be sure. “Medic!” The Orc shouted.
A third Orc shambled over. “Commander?”
“What do you make of this?” 00185 gestured to the wound. The underling was still trembling.
The medic tsked. “That’s going to scar. A shame, really.” It drew a curved dagger.
The scarred Orc’s eyes widened. “No…no, please!” The medic slid the dagger between the scarred Orc’s ribs, and then wiped the blood off on its pant leg.
Once finished, 00185 said the words. “What 00185 does is for the good of the land. What this Orc’s company does is for the good of the land, and the rule of Rivenrock. For there is no I. No me. No he, no she. There is only Orc.”
“There is only Orc,” the other echoed. “You shouldn’t worry,” the medic said. “The Mistress will have a replacement when we’re done.”
“This one hopes so,” it said. “An incomplete company is no company at all.” The Orc leader almost felt sympathy. Then it remembered the agony it suffered mere moments before, and it strangled those instincts.
They moved on, past rock-dunes and boulders. In the distance, the Orc leader descried the Spine. The Mistress had told 00185 that they would cross the Spine when her hold on her homeland was secure. And yet nothing had crossed the Spine in living memory. Her generals grew restless.
Was this why General Frost opposed her?
Pain rocked the commander’s brain like a war-hammer beating inside its skull. “Do not think,” the Orc muttered. “The Mistress does not like Orcs that think.”
Morning came, and the company continued, stopping only briefly for food and other necessities. Gradually, two mountains took shape on the horizon.
“The Twin Mountains,” an Orc said, pointing to the mountains parallel to each other.
“General Frost will be there,” another said.
“Then we kill him.”
“Yes,” 00185 said. “We will kill him.”
The Twin Mountains drew near, until their shadows blanketed the company. The two large spires of rock stretched into the heavens. Between the two peaks was a narrow passageway, just large enough for three men on horseback to ride abreast.
00185 had a feeling the Mistress’ enemy would be there.
They came to the pass when the Orc heard voices. It raised a fist for silence.
“They can be used,” Frost said. His voice was like boots over gravel. The general was a being of pure ice. His every movement crackled. “If the Mistress did not keep them all for herself—”
“We would be leaderless,” another voice said. The Mistress’ advisor. The Snake. A forked tongue lashed out every few seconds. “While you and others like you quibble for the rights to the Orc, we lose precious time and energy we could be using to cross the Spine and conquer the free kingdoms.”
“The Mistress knows not how to properly utilize them, Snake,” Frost snapped.
Snake narrowed his eyes. “And you do?”
“Her means of control are her own undoing. If you give me the time, I can demonstrate.”
“How?” Snake asked. “How do you know these things?”
“I have my ways. I know secrets the Mistress would rather not be shared.”
“And the demonstration?”
“It shall begin any moment, now,” Frost said. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, Snake. Do you think me so ill-prepared that I would not anticipate the arrival of Orcs? You think it was chance that I chose to meet this close to Rivenrock? Chance that my letter got intercepted?” Frost turned to the darkness in which the Orcs hid. “You can come out, now!”
00185 signaled for a dismount. The others obeyed, and the threescore Orcs approached the ice-general.
Frost stepped back, crackling with his movements. Snake fled at the sight of them.
One of the Orcs buried an arrow in the Snake’s back.
“Well, there was no need for that,” Frost said with a shrug.
A dozen Orcs surged forward, weapons ready. Frost flicked his wrist and spikes of ice shot through the air, impaling several of the creatures.
“Fire!” 00185 bellowed.
The Orc archers loosed bolts and arrows. Frost extended his hand and they stopped short of him. He plucked an arrow out of the air and examined it. “Fine craftsmanship. Good to know the Mistress is still doing something right.” The arrows turned like weathervanes and shot back at the archers. “I do not wish to fight you, Orcs,” Frost said. “Let us talk. As reasonable men…Orcs.”
“The Mistress has sent this one to kill you,” the commander said.
Frost sighed. “Are we going to do this that way? Very well.” His visage folded in on itself, and amidst the darkness, Frost shouted, “Come find me!”
00185 looked over what was left of its company. “Spread out!” He bellowed. “Find him!”
The Orcs did as they were told, 00185 making a path for the East Mountain. He spotted a precipice just out of reached and stopped to search for a foothold. One step at a time, 00185 climbed higher.
00185 spotted Frost looking down on it from a ledge. He looked like he was waiting for the Orc commander.
00185 reached the precipice Frost stood on. Its shoulders heaved from ragged breaths. It lay on its hands and knees for a time. General Frost looked on.
“You are flawed,” the General said.
“This one knows not what you say. 00185 is an Orc. 00185 cannot be flawed.”
Frost dismissed that with a wave of his hand. “You have no sense of self. Of course you’re flawed.”
The Orc knitted its brow. “What 00185 does is for the good of the land. What this Orc’s company does is for the good of the land, and for the rule of Rivenrock. For there is no I. No me. No he, no she. There is only Orc.”
“Oh, give it a rest, will you? How many times did the Mistress have to beat those words into you until that you got it right? How many more until you believed it? How many times since she conjured you up from her pits has she beaten the kindness out of you?”
“00185 is an Orc. 00185 knows no kindness. 00185 needs no kindness.”
“And that is why you are flawed. You follow orders blindly without any thought of the consequences. But you were not always this way, were you?”
The Orc rose to its feet. “00185 has always been an Orc.”
“An Orc, yes. One of the sheep, no. Not in the days when you were first conjured.”
“Frost can’t know!” 00185 bellowed over the shrieking wind. “Frost can’t know!”
“I can and I do.” Frost seized the Orc by the throat. His touch was colder than the Mistress’s. “Do you think I reached the position I have today by sitting idly by? Who do you think helped create the Orc? Who else could have engineered you? I helped the Mistress, to my eternal shame.”
“But why? 00185 is the perfect soldier.”
“Have you known imperfection, Orc?”
“This one has not.”
“Than how can you know you are perfect?”
“The Mistress has told 00185.”
“And now we’re back to the beginning,” Frost said. “You follow the Mistress’ orders. How well will that serve you in battle? If all you do is what the Mistress tells you, you cannot create any kind of strategy, save going in and killing everything in sight. You are more sword than you are Orc.” He released the creature. “But there is another way.”
“A way of thought. Numbers and ferocity do not always win battles. I can teach you to think. I can separate you from the sheep.” Frost offered his hand. “What say you?”
00185 winced. “What must 00185 do in return?”
“Call off your attack. The Mistress will notice the order, as she did not command it. She will come here. And you will kill her.”
Torn allegiances wrote lines across the Orc’s face. “It—it does not have to be only Orc?”
“It does not have to be, my friend,” Frost said. “It does not.”
The Orc took Frost’s hand. And in its other it freed the dagger from its belt. Frost noticed the weapon a moment too late. His voice crackled a heavy “NO!” before 00185 punched the dagger through Frost’s heart. The General’s icy flesh cracked and crumbled, until a shriek of wind broke the general into pieces, scattering it across the mountainside.
The Orc fell to its knees. “What 00185 does is for the good of the land. For there is no I…no me. No he, no she. There is only Orc.”
Worn and battle-weary, the Orc led its company back to Rivenrock. It left what remained of the company in the lower levels, took count of what Orcs had fallen, and with a heavy sigh the Orc wound up the stairways and into the Mistress’ chambers. Her back was too him, and her proportions danced. “Have you killed Frost?”
“This one has done so.”
“You have done well…what number was it again?”
“Yes. That. You have done well, Orc. I hope to see such success from you in the future.”
The Orc kept its eyes downcast. “This one will serve you well. It will be the perfect soldier that the Mistress has always hoped for.”
The Orcs words gave her pause. She turned to face him. Like a sandstorm she billowed over to him. “Hoped for? My dear commander, you are already perfect. You need no improvements. Why would you think that?”
The Orc looked away, but it could feel the Mistress’ gaze. “This one misspoke. Forgive it.”
She seized the Orc’s lower jaw and forced it to look at her. “You shall be forgiven. You are perfect, do not forget that. You are dismissed.”
The Orc almost spoke again. Spoke of how it knew not any will of its own. But such words fell silent on its tongue. Those were lies. Perfect Orcs did not succumb to lies.
It exited the Mistress’ halls, muttering to itself. “There is only Orc. There is only Orc. There is only Orc. Is there only Orc?”
A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala, Lydia Raya, Abbey Newman, and Temi Olatinwo.