“Tell me your story.”
“Again?” I asked the orc. He sat at his side of the cage, picking his teeth with a stick. We had made an agreement long ago to divide our holding cell – his side, my side. “I’ve told you my story many times already.”
“I’m bored,” the orc snarled, spitting out a piece of food he dislodged from between his teeth. “I need something to pass the time.”“And perhaps then, something to give you hope?” I added.
The orc snarled. “There is no hope. Not here. Not ever. We live on borrowed time.”
The dirty, half naked orc had a new bruise over his left eye, one of his tusks was snapped off, and a couple fingers were bent backwards. I felt pity for the orc – broken, frail, and torn away from his home and friends. For him, there was no purpose in life anymore. Death as a slave was the worst punishment an orc could endure. He should die with his tribe in glorious battle – among his friends and family and with a purpose. But here, in this damnable underworld called Xymor, his death would be meaningless.
“True,” I said with a subtle nod. “Our time is short, and each day could be our last. But there is always hope, as long as there is life – as long as you’re still alive. There is nothing to be afraid of in death if you live your life with a pure heart. Be true to yourself in life and death will hold no fear, for death is only a doorway opened by our goddess who waits to embrace us and show us our destiny to the next chapter of our story.”
“Enough of your sermons!” the orc roared. “Just tell me your damn story. Your goddess is dead.”
“Truer than you know,” I chuckled, “but I don’t think that’s what you meant. No. As long as there is life and death, Muerath will always be with us. But I’ll tell you my story once more; if that is what you truly desire. My testimony then…”
I leaned back against the iron bars of our cage and closed my eyes.
“My father was Rowan, a simple man who was a simple farmer, and my mother, Maerwynn, was arranged in marriage to Rowan at the age of 12 and gave him his first son at the age of 13. No, I was not that son. That was my brother, Rulf, who has his own story to tell, but it does cross over to my story if only for a moment.”
“He was the bastard brother that betrayed you!” the orc growled.
“True, but you’re getting ahead of yourself,” I grinned. “Besides, he was no bastard. He was legitimate in his birth – more legitimate than I.”
“I had a cousin like your brother,” the orc added, “And I bashed his skull in with a rock.”
“Yes, well,” I smirked, “I suppose you thought he had it coming. Anyways, let’s get back to the story. Neither of my parents were special – simple folk trying to live each day to provide for themselves and to survive. They were serfs who served a master named Lord Favian of Riverrun. Favian was not a kind lord. He was cruel and merciless to his people and believed himself to be god-like to those underneath him. He was a tyrant who relished in his power.
“And so I was born in such a world – born of a humble family under no special stars or signs, and no prophecy of my coming.”
“But your coming was not normal,” the orc interjected.
“No,” I acknowledged, “I suppose not. On no particular evening, for no special reason, Lord Favian had decided to indulge his wicked impulses and ordered his soldiers to pick a handful of women from his estate and bring them to his torture chambers — one of them was my mother. The things he did to those women that night were inhuman and utterly evil. The only one to return was my mother.”
“How do you know what happened to those women?” the orc asked.
“A good question,” I said. “Truth? I cannot say for certain as I wasn’t born yet. It was my mother who told me what happened that night.
“So, a month later, my mother discovered she was pregnant. She tried to convince my father that it was his; that Lord Favian never touched her in that way, but I don’t think he believed her.”
“What did Rowan do?” the orc asked. “Surely he knew it wasn’t his. Why didn’t he throw your mother out and feed her to the dogs? That’s what my tribe would have done if they knew a life mate had been sullied by another.”
I chuckled. “My father was a good man, but not always wise. He was, at first, tempted to deny the baby was his, which would have out-casted my mother.”
“Sensible,” the orc said.
“Yet, my mother told me that he had a dream,” I continued. “In this dream he stood alone on a rocky cliff over a sea of blood. The sky was dark with an impending storm and the wind was harsh. In the distance, in that sea of blood, he saw a ship with black sails. A raven took flight from that ship and flew towards him, cawing the word ‘Craven.’ The raven perched on the ledge of the cliff and stared at my father – its stare was as black as the abyss of death and he had to avert his eyes. Then, behind him, he heard a baby cry and a woman’s voice making soothing sounds. He turned around and saw a gaunt woman in a simple, gray gown with a hood covering her face; her black, tangled hair flowing out of the hood. In her arms, she held a baby. She reached to caress the baby’s face with a skeletal hand, and the baby’s cry went silent. Fear and dread gripped my father and he fell to his knees. The woman pointed at Rowan with her bone finger and then to the ship. The ship burst in purple flames but did not sink. The black clouds above the ship rumbled, circled, and formed into a powerful cyclone, and out of that cyclone, emerged giant eyes and within those eyes were thousand more eyes. He heard a shrill laugher echo across the sea. Bursts of lightening struck the sea around the ship, but the burning ship still did not sink. Instead, it sailed forward towards the cyclone. A giant maw with thousands of pointed teeth emerged from the cyclone and roared in anger. ‘The avatar is born,’ a woman’s voice whispered to Rowan. The raven changed into a black owl, took flight, and plucked the baby from the woman’s arm and flew away to the ship. Again, he heard the word ‘Craven,’ and then he woke up.”
“What did the dream mean?” the orc asked.
“Hard to say, I’m no interpreter,” I replied with a smirk. “But it changed my father’s mind about my mother’s pregnancy. He told her of his dream and decided accept the baby as his. And so that is how I came to be.
“In the years of my youth, I think I had a relatively ordinary childhood, such as it was living under the yoke of a cruel tyrant. I worked hard, along with my brothers and sisters, in the farming fields. I had friends and bullies to contend with, yet I even learned how to read and write from a witch in the woods who taught me.”
“Tell me about this witch,” the orc said.
“She was a witch of the woods who lived a solitary life. Her name was Artemis.”
“And how did you meet her?”
“I wandered into the woods one night, got lost, and she was there to find me. Nothing truly fantastical. She took me to her hovel, which was a hollowed out tree, and fed me sweets and kept me safe until dawn. The next morning, she took me home and invited me to return any time I wished, promising me more sweets. She said she would teach me in the ways of the world.”
“But she was a witch!” the orc interrupted. “Weren’t you afraid her was luring you into a trap and going to eat you?”
“Eat me?” I laughed. “My friend, if she had wanted to kill me, she had had plenty of opportunities. No, she had no intentions of harming me, let alone eat me. Her intentions for me were benign, like an aunt caring for her nephew. I particularly remember her telling me stories by her fire – legends, myths, and fairytales – which, of course, enraptured my young imagination. She always had a new story to tell whenever I came to visit.”
“And what did your parents think of Artemis?” the orc asked.
“I never told them about her. When I would disappear after working the fields, they assumed I was off playing with friends or wandering the countryside. In fact, as strange as it was, I don’t think anyone from our village ever knew about Artemis. You would think a witch of the woods would be infamous among villagers, but no one seemed to know about her. The only other person who knew of Artemis was a friend I brought to see the witch – Angelica.”
The name brought an overwhelming sense of joy and I smiled.
“Artemis loved Angelica,” I continued. “She embraced Angelica like a daughter, teaching her secret ingredients for meals, old maid sewing patterns, complex potion mixtures, how to read the minds of animals, and even taught her a spell that lit candles. Oh, I remember when Angelica first mastered that spell, as a joke, she lit the backside of my pants. I was furious, but that only made Angelica and Artemis laugh that much harder. I think at times, I was secretly jealous,” I chuckled.
“Didn’t the witch teach you such things?” the orc asked.
“I was a young boy who really didn’t care to learn, at least not those things. I wanted to hear the stories of gods, kings, and wars, which Artemis gladly told. It was through those strange and wondrous stories that Artemis taught me how to be a decent human being – how to be a man in a world of chaos and wickedness.”
“Worthless,” the orc huffed. “One’s worth is not in what he is taught but what he kills.”
I smiled again. “You judge a man by his actions and not his words, which is commendable and correct of you. But a man must first learn what actions are right and wrong. And that was what Artemis taught me.”
I paused and noticed the glare in the orc’s eyes. “Anyway, you don’t want to hear another sermon, so allow me to continue.”
The orc snarled and licked one of his sharp teeth in anticipation.
“When the two of us reached the age of 15, Angelica and I were engaged to be married. It was no surprise to anyone in the village. Everyone knew we were already inseparable. I grew up with her as a friend and, oh, how I grew up to adore her. With her curly, strawberry-colored hair, lightly freckled face, and bright, blue eyes – she grew up to be the most enchanting creature the heavens had blessed our humble village with. She was sweet, charitable, innocent, and exceedingly smart.
“The wedding date was set and the village prepared a grand festival. Everyone was happy. It was to be a joyous time. But the night before the wedding, Lord Favian enacted jus primae noctis.”
“That is when the leader of a tribe takes the right to lay with a woman,” the orc interjected.
“Yes,” I said with a heavy sigh. “Lord Favian sent three soldiers to enforce that right and took Angelica. I tried to stop them but they overpowered me. They were going to kill me, but Angelica interceded and begged them not to. She said that she would willingly go to Lord Favian and do whatever they asked, if they spared me. I still remember the evil intentions in the eyes of those soldiers. My blood boiled and I was ready to fight to the death. But Angelica whispered something strange to me and I felt calmed. They took her away into the night and that was the last I ever saw of Angelica.”
I sat silent in the cage for a long moment, staring into the darkness of our surroundings, as the name ‘Angelica’ echoed in my mind. I felt a tear fall from my face.
“I still think she cast a spell on you,” the orc said, breaking my silent moment.
I cleared my throat and wiped the moisture from my face.
“Perhaps,” I said. “Artemis did teach her many things. Whatever the case, after they had left, my rage returned. I tried to give chase, but I couldn’t find them in the darkness. And so I returned home and I prepared for their return.
“The next morning, it was raining with dark clouds above and the occasional lightning striking the sky. I stood in front of my hut, in that rain, waiting for Angelica’s return. And as I waited, three soldiers approached. There was no sign of Angelica with them. I remember, as I watched them come near, I whispered a short prayer: ‘To whatever gods who will listen – hear me now. I have never prayed to you before. I’ve never had to. My life was simple with no need for any of you. But now, I beseech you. Grant me one request – revenge! I give my life for death. And if you do not listen, then to HELL with the lot of you!’
“The three soldiers surrounded me, sneering. Each of them threw a sack in front of me. ‘Wedding gifts to the groom from our most gracious Lord Favian,’ one of the soldiers said.
“The sacks were soaked in black wetness and flies hovered over them. I stared at them, confused and hesitant. ‘Go ahead,’ said another soldier, ‘open your gifts. Lord Favian and the rest of the guards worked really hard on them. It took all night. I’m sure you’ll like what you see.’
“I bent down to open one of the sacks to the subtle sounds of sniggers; the horror that I saw…”
“What were in the sacks,” the orc prodded me, already knowing what I was going to say.
“Angelica,” I whispered through clenched teeth. “They had mutilated her. ‘She was a spicy flower but delicious,’ one of the soldiers said.”
“What did you do?” the orc continued to prod me.
“My rage and despair overwhelmed me, and I lost all sense of myself.”
The orc bellowed in glee.
“I took the scythe I had with me and pierced it up through the groin and up into the chest of one of the soldiers. The other two drew their weapons but I reacted too quickly, bashing the head of another with a club. The third and final soldier took a step back, ready with his sword and shield. I stood there, covered in gore, breath deep and my eyes locked on him. Something strange came over me, and weird words came out of my mouth. I felt a rise of energy flow through my body and I leapt at him, grabbing his face. A dreadful sense of power rushed out of me and surged through the body of that soldier. He screamed as his flesh turned gray and taut, his veins bulged, and boils exploded out from his skin. He fell to the ground – dead. I had slaughtered all of them like the animals they were.”
The orc continued to laugh and clapped his hands.
“I had murdered three of Favian’s soldiers. I had put my family and the village in danger. I had to leave. I took the sacks and left in haste. My first instinct was to run to Artemis and tell her what happened.
“That day, Artemis and I grieved and held a funeral of sorts, burning Angelica’s remains in a pyre and burying her ashes under a great, giant tree. Afterwards, Artemis took out an odd amulet from one of her chests and placed a pinch of Angelica’s ashes inside a secret compartment.
I fiddled with the amulet around my neck, shaped of skeletal hands cradling a baby.
“’The two of you shall never be apart,’ Artemis said, as she attached it around my neck. ‘Let it guide you in the dark places and you shall never be lost.’”
I sat there, silently, staring into the dark beyond the cage.
“What happened next?” the orc asked.
“Artemis allowed me to stay at her tree hut that night,” I continued, “and during that time, I formulated my plans.”
“And what was that?” the orc asked.
“Revenge,” I replied.
The orc nodded with approval.
“It was time to put an end to Lord Favian and his cruel rulership, and I believed I was the one to do it. I told Artemis this and she grew violently angry with me. She wanted nothing to do with what I was planning. She begged me to stay with her and leave the village once and for all. She offered to take me away from that horrid realm and show me wonders that only existed in my dreams. She said that was what Angelica would’ve wanted for me. ‘You were meant for more than this,’ she said. ‘Do not let hate and pain blind you of your true calling.’ I grew angry with her. If I thought anyone would want revenge more than me, it would be Artemis. Yet, she wanted nothing to do with it. She wanted to run away. I hated Artemis for that and said as much to her. I stormed out of her tree hut, never to see her again.”
“So what did you do?” the orc asked.
“I planned for war,” I said. “I took inspiration from all the heroes and war stories that Artemis had told me and modeled myself after them. I was a mad man, driven only by the craving for vengeance and death.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” the orc said.
“In the year that followed, I organized pockets of resistance in different villages and cities all over the lands of Lord Favian. We stole weapons, armor, and anything else that could help us against Lord Favian. We sabotaged operations and foundries, rescued innocent prisoners, and gave back to the people the money and food Lord Favian had stolen from them. We exacted bloody revenge and, through it all, we were ghosts; always staying in the shadows, unable to be caught. Each day, our numbers grew and I slowly built an army; even my brother, Rulf, joined the resistance.“
The orc growled.
“But I realized that all that we did was not enough to end Lord Favian’s reign. We needed a true war – we needed to attack Lord Favian’s castle. Remembering the strategies from the stories Artemis told me, I organized my rebels, picking generals and leaders, established lines of communication, identified our resources, and planned all objectives and contingencies. With each village, town, and city we took, purging the yoke of Lord Favian’s tyranny, the locals would join our ranks and bolster our numbers. And with each victory, we were closing in on Lord Favian. The realm was truly at war and we were winning.
“When we had finally reached and stormed Lord Favian’s castle, we knew the war was nearly won. Our whole army was there. Victory was in our grasp. All we had to do was capture Lord Favian and the war would be over. But it was not to be.
“Just as the walls of the castle crumbled, a new army approached, but they did not come to support us. This new army was of the king and they came to Lord Favian’s defense. We were caught surprised –outflanked and outnumbered. Before we even understood what was happening, half of our army was decimated. We didn’t have a chance. And so, in single moment, our victory turned into defeat and we lost the war.”
“Your bastard brother,” the orc snarled, slamming his fist against the ground.
“Again, Rulf wasn’t a bastard; but yes, it was Rulf who betrayed us. He had covertly decided to parley with Lord Favian, telling him all our strategies and secrets and then he went to the king. The three of them made their plans and set the trap.”
“But why? Why would your brother betray you like that?”
“I don’t exactly know, but I believe he was afraid.”
“Someone needs to slit his throat and….”
“No!” I interrupted. “I loved my brother. I still do. He did what he believed was right. I don’t believe he did what he did out of malice.”
“You don’t hate him?”
“Of course not,” I smiled. “He is my brother and he will always be my brother and I will always love him until death and beyond. Nothing can change that. I grew up with him and know what kind of man he really is. No, he did not betray the resistance because he despised me or was bribed. He hated Lord Favian just as much as the next man, but he did not believe that removing the lord would ease our burdens. I think he believed that there was no true way to win the war. Perhaps he thought the removal of Lord Favian would only cause more problems. He might have thought that if Favian couldn’t end a revolt in his own land and wind up dead, the king and other lords would take notice. And if that would have been the case, we would’ve had bigger problems to deal with. But, sadly, I never told Rulf of what I intended to do once we removed Lord Favian. I had plans that might have prevented his fears, but I kept them to myself. So, perhaps, all of it was my fault.
“But the past is the past. He did what was right in his eyes, and perhaps he was. Who am I judge?”
The orc huffed.
“So, my army was destroyed. Everyone involved in the battle were slaughtered. Those who surrendered were publically tortured and executed. No one was spared death’s embrace, except for one.
“They imprisoned me in the deepest part of Favian’s dungeons. I thought they would throw away the key and leave me to rot, but they had other plans. Instead, each day and night, they would come and torture me near death, but they would always keep me alive. This went on for gods know how long. Days? Weeks? Months?
“I tried to resist at first. I was defiant and determined to be strong. I would not let them break me. But a man can only hold on for so long. They had rats eat my eyes, they cut off my right ear, pushed needles into my gums and pulled out teeth, ripped off fingernails and toenails, scalped half of my head, sliced off the skin of my legs, pierced spikes into my knees and underarms, and mutilated my genitals. By all accounts, I should have died, but their techniques kept me alive. In the end, they broke me, and they still continued. I begged for mercy. I begged them to stop. I begged them to kill me. I said I’d tell them anything; do anything if they’d only kill me. But my pleas fell on deaf ears and they continued. I realized that this was my life now – inhuman pain and suffering that would never end.
“And so, one night, as I hung there, in that dark prison, alone and with no hope, and I once again made a simple prayer to whatever gods would listen: ‘Please,’ I said, ‘let death come. I give myself – body, mind, and spirit – to whoever will end this.’
“The door to my prison opened and I thought my torture would begin again. I heard the shuffling sounds of footsteps approach me. I felt the warmth of someone’s breath in my ear. ‘Death has heard you and come,’ a woman’s voice whispered. I readied myself for the end.
“A bony, sharp finger touched my forehead and bore into my skull. It was a pain I never felt before or since. ‘You are reborn,’ the woman said, and the finger dug deeper. I screamed. My body felt like it was melting, my mind set ablaze, and my spirit shattered into a million pieces.
“I thought I had died and that was the end. No afterlife. No existence. Nothingness. And then I heard a rushing sound and I felt myself falling, moving faster and faster the farther I went. I had the sensation I was not alone. There were others around me, watching me fall. I did not know who they were, but I sensed they were very powerful in presence.
“Suddenly, my eyes opened and I was able to see. In fact, my whole body was healed, or, I should really say, born again. My eyes, ear, nails, and teeth grew back, my skin was renewed, my wounds healed. Even my scalp healed, though I was still balding,” I chuckled. “My body was rejuvenated. I felt like I was a teenager again.
“But that wasn’t what shocked me. No, it was the gaunt woman dressed in a simple gray gown that stood in front me. Her hair was long and black; a tangled mess. She had no eyes, but her empty eye sockets crawled with worms, maggots, and other various bugs. I could sense exalted power and divine supremacy, and I was in absolute fear and reverence. I was no longer chained to the wall, so I fell to my knees and groveled before her. I felt a bony hand caress my face and lift me up to my feet.
“’Rise my son,’ said the woman, ‘for you are chosen.’
“’Who are you?’ I asked, barely able to speak those words. I stared at the ground. I couldn’t look at her.
“’You prayed for death,’ she replied. I think I peed a little.
“‘I don’t understand,’ I said.
“’You are my son and I have chosen you for a purpose.’
“’Me?’ I said, bewildered and frightened. ‘I’m nobody. I’m only a farmer and failed leader. Why me?’
The woman cackled and I felt cold shivers run down my back.
“’Because I have chosen you. Is that not enough? You are my son and you are blessed. You have always and forever will be cherished and loved by me. I knew you before you were in your mother’s womb. I prepared your way long before you mortals turned away from the gods. You are the first to turn back and here I am. Like your Steward ancestors before you, it is time for you to serve and devote yourself to me.
“’I…I…I still don’t understand,’ I said.
“’Understanding will come, but first you must have faith and worship me.’
Again, I fell to my knees and I began to bawl like a little child. I released all my hate, pain, despair and doubts, and I gave it all to her. A great well of joy and purpose overflowed upon me and I looked up at her. ‘Who are you?’ I asked.
“’I am your mother. You mortals once called me Muerath.’
“’Then, Muerath, I offer this humble soul to you in life and death for eternal, to do with as you please.’
“She caressed my forehead with her skeleton hand.
“’There is a young woman you must find,’ she said, ‘a beautiful half-drow, who was blessed by one of my brothers. She is a fledging sorceress who grows in great power, but a power that will consume her if she is led astray. She has an onyx embedded at the base of her throat. This onyx is a powerful artifact that must be returned. This drow and her stone are the key to returning the benevolent power of the Gods back to Materia and peace finally being restored. You must find her, protect her and her stone.’
“’Where will I find her?’ I asked.
“’She travels on a wayward road that leads to darkness and the shadows follow. She is blind and lost, and does not know or understand the true dangers beset all around her. It is a place where her own purpose cannot be uncovered and her destiny will remain unfulfilled. She must leave that place and you must help find her true path.’
“’My son, you will be sent into slavery and endure great hardship in a place called Xymor. It is a place where I cannot go. There, your suffering will forge your powers and your alliance with me. You will be my avatar. You will find the sorceress in that place. Be patient and be prepared.’
Two angelic beings stepped out of the shadows from behind the goddess. One was a beautiful, youthful woman that wore black and glittered in gold; she wore a crown of golden thorns. The other was an old man in a thick, black robe. His face was pale, tight, and decaying.
“’These are my servants,’ she continued, ‘Barchiel and Azrael. They will take you to Xymor.’ The goddess held out her hand and in it was the amulet Artemis gave me. ‘You will need this,’ she said. I took it, placed it around my neck, and then she touched my eyes and all went black.”
“I do not understand how our captors let you still have that thing,” the orc said, pointing to my amulet.
I did not answer him for I did not have any to give.
“When I awoke,” I continued, “I found myself here, in this place; a slave to the duergar, just like you. For five years, I have been here. For five years, I’ve toiled and worked, and in that time, I’ve learned more about my communion with Muerath and the gifts she bestows on me. And for five years, I have waited; listening and watching for anything that would lead me to find the half-drow.”
“You’re mad!” the orc shouted. “You’re story makes no sense and it’s stupid. If your goddess was real, then she is weak and not worth following. She can’t come to Xymor, and instead sends a weakling like you? How pathetic.” He laughed.
A small goblin came scurrying to our cage. “Hey, did you hear,” the goblin said to the orc, “a group of slaves broke out and the duergar are really mad. They sent out, like, a hundred patrols to find them. One of them was that big brute you fought in the pits. The others were a pudgy gnome, a poopy elf half-breed, and a half-drow spell slinger that has a rock in her neck. They might still be around here, hiding. So keep an eye out.” The goblin darted away, back into the darkness, and on to tell others of the news.
“Well my friend,” I said, “it is time for me to go.” I spoke a short prayer and a bolt of radiant light burst from my hand and broke the lock to our cage.
“May Muerath guide you.”
Found Arien and believes her to be the sorceress Muerath spoke of.