“Up there, ahead,” Kador yelled over the sound of the pounding rain. The thick, red mud made each step slippery and tacky at the same time. The rainy season in this arid part of the plains was a miserable time; when it wasn’t hot and dry, it was drowning in torrential downpours. Kador’s woolen hood was soaked and no longer offering any reprieve from the rain. Val, tasked by what she saw as gods, was right behind him, faring slightly better. Her cloak was made of a light, supple leather that afforded some resistance to the rain, but everything else on her was soaked. There was no place in this flat deserted land that offered any shelter. There were some mesas here and there, but mostly just flat plains as far as the eye could see, which in this case, was not very far at all.
Kador trudged on, scanning the horizon for any sign of relief. They had been walking in this rain for a half day. It was clear when they set out for the caves. The Old One had described to them the general location of a relic that had to be found and guarded by the leadership of Red Raven assassins. They acted as his hands and feet in their time to protect the world from itself; rescuing nations from making catastrophic decisions. Knowing the future and past is one thing. Affecting the future and past simultaneously is altogether different.
If the Old One really could do what he said, his timeless state at least wasn’t wasted. He had already affected great change with help from Kole, Kador’s father. Kole had sacrificed his own life to keep the knowledge of the Dragon King’s magic from falling into the hands of Men.
Kador wasn’t sure if it was a righteous cause or a vendetta for the life that was stolen from Kole by King Avendyr that led him to do what he did. Hed did know one thing: he would never sacrifice his life for anything or anyone else. Even running these errands for this magical vision of some old man was partly based on his prophecy of getting his desires of home and family, the two things he missed out on for most of his life.
The rain let up slightly as some quick bursts of light made their way through the patchy clouds overhead. In the distance, Kador caught a glint, something shiny. He raised his hand and pointed as he turned halfway around but not stopping.
“Up ahead,” Kador said loudly. The rain was still making a lot of noise and in every direction.
“I follow,” Val shouted back.
It was several miles of flat terrain and it seemed like forever before they arrived at what had been glinting in the intermittent sunlight. It was back to raining as Kador and Val marched up to the stack of shiny metal tools at the entrance to a large hole in the earth. It appeared to gently slope downward as a snake’s den would appear. The opening was as wide as a carriage and a semblance of steps were dug into the loose clay mud. Several cubits down was a large puddle, a trap for any rain making its way into the cavern’s mouth. Kador didn’t ask for any advice, jumping straight into the opening to get out of the rain.
Overhead, Kador noticed the rock outcroppings. It was mud up top, but beneath the surface, it appeared to be dense rock. Kador stepped around the deepest portion of the water trap in the entrance and slid his way across the berm to the other side. The rain had not made it into the tunnel, but the echo from the splashing outside reverberated through the darkness in front of him. He took a moment to strip his cloak and hung it off of a sharp rock jutting out of the side of the tunnel’s wall. Val was moving through the center of the pool, disregarding the water. She pulled herself over the berm and joined Kador. Val noticed Kador’s cloak hanging in the cavern but did not remove hers. Kador noticed her look at his. He wondered if she gave any thought to the comfortability of clothing or whether orcs just didn’t care. Maybe the cloak had special meaning to her. He wasn’t sure, but he knew that he would be miserable walking around in that cloak and hood when you could be drying out.
“We could use some light down here if we are to find a spot further in to rest,” Kador thought out loud. He looked over at Val who was standing beside him waiting. “So… could you…”
Val looked past him, not paying any attention to his cues.
“Could you,” Kador tried again, “you know, do your thing?”
Val looked at him with a look of irritation.
“You know… the thing…” Kador held up his hand and made whooshing sounds with his other hand around it.
Val understood what he said but she wasn’t about to cater to this pitiful man who couldn’t see in the dark.
“Vwhat you like,” Val said. “I make fire forr you?”
“Well, I just figured, you know. It’s easy for… You know what, nevermind,” Kador said, feeling ridiculous standing here being mocked by an orc. He pulled a leather sack from his pack and poured the contents into a cup with a glass lid and a wick fixed to the lid. The makeshift lamp he put down on the floor as he retrieved his lighter kit. After a moment, he pulled it out of his pack and retrieved the elements. Val, watching him the entire time, leaned over and summoned fire from her fingers and lit the wick. Kador froze, immediately annoyed. Fantastic, an orc with a sense of humor; just what he was missing, he thought to himself.
“Yoor too slow,” Val said as she pushed by him, still wearing her annoyed expression.
Kador threw his kit back into the pack in protest and picked up the lamp. Val didn’t seem to need it as she traveled ahead deeper into the cave. Getting farther away from the entrance, both began to hear faint sounds from inside the cave, yelling and some kind of cracking sound.
Val kept her hand on her dagger as she moved through the twisting turns of the tunnel. Looking around, it was obvious that this wasn’t all natural. It wasn’t all fashioned, more of an expanded track that followed a natural opening. It meandered like a slow river at a slight downward grade, getting cooler as they continued down. The voices were getting louder with each bend until you could make out three distinct voices. Val recognized the language.
“Dvwarfs,” Val whispered over her shoulder. She began retrieving her dagger from its sheath.
“Whoa,” Kador shispered back, blocking her arm from pulling it out. “Maybe you should let me lead now. How about that?” He pushed himself in front of her. “Trying to get everyone killed all the time…,” he muttered under his breath.
The tunnel widened after one sharp turn and the downward grade increased. In front of Kador was a large cave, thirty cubits across, and the bottom was still hidden from his view. The room was lit up by some fire down below the tunnel and it made the whole cave glow a dull amber color. But something else was glowing much brighter. There were veins of some mineral that was reflecting the light source much more brilliantly that just the cavern walls.
Kador stepped closer to the dropoff, looking down so not to come into full view of whoever was in the cave. He finally saw a fire built on the floor of the cavern and immediately slid up against the wall of the tunnel. The voices were loud now, but he did not understand what they were saying. He looked back at Val who was waiting behind him with her hand still on her dagger. He motioned to her to get against the other wall and listen. Val braced herself up against the opposite tunnel wall and leaned forward to get as much sound as she could without being in view. Her dwarven language was not the best, but she could make out most of it.
“So I says to ze girl, ‘How can it be zat one’s skin is so radiantly blue as ice and can still melt my heart at ze same time?’”
“Bahaha! You used zat on a girl. Vere did you pick up such a ridiculous line?”
“My muzzer used to tell me zat!”
Then there was a great deal of laughing. Val slid back and over beside Kador and whispered to him.
“Deh say nothing imporrtant.”
“Well,” Kador said irritated, “are they dangerous? Go listen!” He tried not to make too much sound. He was more frustrated that he knows less about the allies of men than their enemy does. Val went back to the side. She crouched low to the ground and leaned farther in.
“Ah, Solan, you are very terrible viz ze ladies!”
“Yes, and your face doesn’t help!”
“Hey! I am not too bad looking.”
“Yes, vis a bag over your head.”
“Now, that’s probably something his muzzer said!”
And the laughing resumed. Val stood back up and made her way again to Kador’s side.
“Well,” Kador said in a very serious tone.
“Deh are…” Val tried thinking of the right words.
“Stupid,” Val said.
Kador hung his head. This had to be the worst reconnaissance ever conducted, he thought to himself. Val obviously thought they were no threat but he still wanted to proceed with caution. He looked down at Val and motioned with his hand for them to climb down the entrance and stay to the back wall.
Val led the way, her long arms dropping her body slowly from one outcropping to the next. The floor of the cavern was only about two heights of a man and was very hard rock that did not give easy. She made it down without any gravel breaking loose from the walls. She walked carefully against the farthers wall away from the blue-hued dwarves, never making a sound.
Kador watched as the dwarves mined a vein, their backs to them. He waited to get the cadence of their swings and lept from the entrance to the cavern floor all at once, landing as a pick met stone. His leather soles deadened his arrival and he slinked over beside Val.
The cavern was lit by a small fire from which twinkles of light bounced off the shiny ore mixed in the slurry that formed the walls. It almost appeared as if they were surrounded by stars in the poorly lit room. It was very hard for Kador to get his eyes adjusted to the relative darkness with a glowing fire between him and the strangers. But if he couldn’t see them well, it should be the same in reverse. He motioned for Val to take it easy as he took a step forward and opened his mouth.
“Excuse me, friends,” Kador let out, the sound echoing around the room.
Kador saw the three dwarves spin in an instant, quickly turning their banter into low roars. One dwarf flailed his arms from what Kador could tell, and before he could focus, the pick the dwarf had been using some 20 cubits away sped past his face and stuck in the side of the wall beside him, sticking so hard, he could heard the hum of the vibrations in the handle.
Val drew her dagger, making no sound. Her other hand began glowing with an amber aura. She crouched low and began strafing around the back of the cave.
“Wait!” Kador yelled, throwing his hands toward the dwarves. He had to deescalate this. There was no reason to fight if there was no reason to fight. At least he wanted a reason.
“Do you speak Demithian,” Kador pleaded, hoping one of them did.
“Yas, I do,” replied the one who had thrown his pick and already replaced it with a sword in his hand. He never dropped his guard but clusterd the three of them together, weapons out, ready to settle their dispute either way.
“I am Kador, of the small village of South Ridge in the plains, far to the east of here,” he said, waving furiously at Val to stop moving and wait. Val saw him out of the corner of her eye, but she was noticeably less trusting of dialogue and more interested in controlling the problem. “This is my partner, Val. We have been traveling for a couple days and only sought refuge from the storm in here, nothing more.” He was hoping they were not outlaws, fleeing from something or someone, like was often the case with wandering migrants.
The three dwarves whispered to each other, not moving for a moment. They were slightly shorter than him, being particularly short for a human, and they looked about as thick as him, although he couldn’t imagine them being as agile. They would be formidable if this came to a fight, Kador thought.
Then one spoke up, “Zen tell your friend to return to you and ve may talk a little, yas?”
Kador looked over at Val. He knew she heard. He didn’t need to repeat it, but he wasn’t sure how she would respond to the request. Val did not move, watching them, the small flames licking off of her hand. Kador saw her unease.
Val had not been in many altercations with other races that were not decided with bloodshed. It seemed to the way of life she was meant to know. Why should hers be any different than her kin who spilled their blood at the hands of anyone who would come against them, even each other. The male population of orcs lived to fight, completely devoted to clan and their own reputations to the death. They were not calculating, not conniving, just single minded in pursuit of respect in life or in death. It made them dangerous and foolish. The female orcs were different, very calculating, making them the natural leaders of the population. As much as the males chased respect, the females chased honor, to be the best, the most vicious or the most cunning, but always aware that death holds less honor than a later victory, often sending males to do their bidding to keep themselves safe in case things didn’t work out in their favor.
Val had not had the luxury of an army of male orcs to do her bidding so her judgments in battle meant much more than they otherwise would for her own safety. She had been blessed with a rather high intelligence and she was aware of this, seeing most other female orcs as inferior to her. The only orcs that were close to her were the other Kaa’ruks but she still felt she was the most cunning of all she had met. Her living the life of an outcast gave her a sense of tension anytime she felt she didn’t have the upper hand in a situation. Backing down in a room with strangers, as an orc, was nothing she would ever consider doing.
“Val,” Kador quietly said to her, “I have this. Just come over here.”
“I no trust dis blue mans, dis dvwarfs,” she said, not minding her volume. She did not care if they heard.
“Your friend has quite ze accent, yas” the dwarf said. They could not see her face across the poorly lit room with her hood down low over her face. “I am not familiar vis such an accent.”
Kador immediately put it all together. Val had not lowered her hood once since she had been in the cave, out of the rain. She must live her whole life hiding her identity, he thought. He thought about her constantly needing to be on guard, hated by her own and most everyone else. He had never thought about how her life had been on her own and the interactions he took for granted in his day to day living.
“Yes, uh,” Kador spoke up for her. “Yes, she is from a different town, very remote. It is a small group of humans from our home world. But she is fine, just jittery when meeting new people is all. Let me just go over by her.” Kador slid over near her and whispered to her.
“I have not hurt you in any way, have I,” he said very lowly. “You can trust me, Val. I won’t tell them you are orc. We will be fine. I just need you to lower your weapon.”
Kador glanced back and forth between the three dwarves and her eyes, recessed into the darkness of her hooded cloak. His eyes pleaded with hers and he just hoped she could read his emotions.
Val did not move. Her instinct was to never let your guard down until you controlled the situation. Trust was something she knew nothing about. She grunted quietly but lound enough to where Kador could hear her and she shook her head lightly in protest.
Kador regained focus on the antsy dwarves and did the only thing he knew to do to keep this from escalating. He stepped in front of Val with his back to her and spoke to the dwarves.
“Forgive my friend. She’s not as trusting as I am. But I know you three are stand up lads, loyal to the ways of Khazas, am I right? Long live Father Khazas, yeah?”
The three dwarves shot glances back and forth at each other. Then, out of nowhere, they dropped their guards.
“Zis one must be stupid,” one of them said, starting to chuckle. “Ve do not treat Fazza Khazas as you vould a mere mortal king such as you, human, haha. Fazza Khazas lives forever as he has done since before ze God Var. Tell your friend she has no need to fear us. Ve are brozzas from Khadassa, moved here to search for treasures to take back to our homes. Ve are adventuring in ze plains ven ve found zis cave. Zis vas three days ago.”
Val wasn’t sure what to do. She had never traveled with a human. It appeared they got special treatment when engaging other strangers, courtesies she was never afforded. She saw Kador’s hand waving her down behind his back. Reluctantly, she slowly let down her weapon but kept it in her hand.
“We are adventuring as well. We have been sent on behalf of our employer to find a certain giant that wanders this way. He is know to have a cave in this area. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about this, would you?”
“Yas,” the third dwarf finally spoke up. “Ve found some tools down a corridor zere zat look to be for giants. He must crawl through ze tunnel to get here. Zere vas also some pelts and some berries.
“Vwat berries,” Val spoke up for the first time. Kador noticed immediately that she had tried to hide her noticeably gravely voice and sound more human like. She was still doing her best to hide her identity. That was probably smart, even now.
“Vell, ze appeared to be medicinal. Most vere crushed up, but some vere still zere. Zey vere light blue, almost ze color of Zadik zere,” he said, pointing to the dwarf to the right. “Most unusual, large berries vis four clustered togezza.”
Val whispered to Kador, still in front of her, “I know dis berry. It grow in Vrona mountain and make de skin fix.”
Kador looked back and saw her cupping her side as if to nurse a wound. Was the giant hurt and looking for supplies? The Old One had sent them to get an artifact from the giant who was said to be holding it. He did not say what it was; just that the giant would know when they mentioned it and that he would most likely not attack them. The giants that roamed the plains and the mountains were not aggressive, as Kador had been told, but more liked to keep to themselves and were often aggravated when bothered, sometimes enraged if not handled carefully.
“You lads have helped us a great deal. Thank you,” Kador said, still trying to keep everyone civil. “There is one more thing I would ask if I could be so bold…”
Val laid awake on a bed of large pelts that had been procured by Kador and set up for her near the entrance of the cave. The rain and wind had finally ceased and she had no intention of staying down in the cave with strangers. Kador had set up a place for her to rest near the exit and he had set up a place to sleep between her and the dwarves whose snoring filled the cavern and tunnels. She most likely would not sleep, but having Kador between her and them did give her some ease. It was a feeling she was not used to having, if ever. She guessed the closest thing would be when she was a child as a student to the last Oosharuuk. She knew she was safe whenever she was in the sacred place in the mountain. It was the last time she knew peace, before the humans invaded their lands, before the never-ending wars.
Kador laid in his bed thinking of the life that Val had lived. She grew up depending on herself for everything, not having any to lean on, to trust. They had more in common than he would have guessed. But he could not relate to being in a land where you were hunted and distrusted merely by your looks. Even without his home and people who cared for him, he never lived under a constant fear. It would take a strong person to take that kind of treatment and survive for fifty years or so. It was pretty remarkable, he thought.
The Roan mountains were another four days north, then Val had said the place where these grow were high in the mountains near a place that was sacred to giants. She had been taken there during her training as a child and offered an offering to the ancestors of the giants to help keep the peace between the orc and the giants. It was one of the only long lasting truces the orc had kept near their homeland. The had no need for giant land as the giants had no interest in theirs.
Leaving the Plains, the place he had called home for years, made him realize how disconnected from this place his life had become. He had a home here, twice, and both times it had been taken away inauspiciously, through no fault of his own. He did not care if he came back. He was on a new path now. He just hoped it was the right one. He laid down to the sound of distant snoring dwarves on one side with a magic wielding orc warrior at the other end and, against his better judgment, fell asleep in the dark underground tunnel.