“It really is the worst, isn’t it?” Arquin asked him in a low voice half an hour later.
Aresk turned to him, grunting with an upward inflection.
“Being useless,” the human said dryly, tilting his head at the two shaman at work. “There’s not a lot I hate more than standing around, watching people do the work. Not being able to contribute.”
“You keep blurting out things that make you sound almost like an orc,” Aresk grumbled. “It’s…disorienting. Anyway, this is a time for shaman magic, so…the shaman have to do it, and we have to watch. Shou ga nai.”
“C’est la vie,” Arquin replied lightly, and Aresk shot him an irritated look. He didn’t speak any Tanglish, and didn’t understand why the magic sword hadn’t translated that piece.
Raghann and Gairan were on their knees on the path to the shrine, facing it, with a cleared space around them laid out for their ritual purposes. Arquin had been intrigued that they had used chalk and dust to draw lines radiating from their position to various totems laid out around them, rather than defining a boundary circle. Talk of magic went over Aresk’s head, not to mention boring him, but fortunately and Raghann had peremptorily instructed Arquin to hush. At least the two of them were not alone in being excluded; the pair of robed death priests now lurked by the archway and the stairs, and the Battle Sisters had been called up to the shrine grounds to stand in a horseshoe formation around the ongoing magic.
Kyomi had her own respectful bubble of space off to the side, and simply stood in serene quiet. Aresk noted, now, that her black kimono and the katana she carried were both reminiscent of Battle Sister attire, though hers of course had no Avenic sigil. He wondered at the significance of that; it seemed impossible that there was none.
So they all stood, Aresk feeling chiefly conscious of his own impatience. Almost no one else present revealed any discomfort with being made to wait. The death priests were inscrutable as always, the Battle Sisters a very picture of discipline, and of course Kyomi was functionally older than time and without doubt could occupy herself with her own thoughts for far longer than this. That Arquin was the only person here with whom he felt any kinship was as amusing as it was annoying. Aresk hadn’t gotten over his antipathy toward the human, but he was beginning to appreciate the irony of it.
“Someone answers,” Raghann whispered suddenly, and there was a flicker of motion at the shrine.
Aresk snapped his attention to it, narrowing his eyes. Nothing was there, still, but for just a moment he thought he could see the outline of the doorway Kyomi had opened. By instinct, he lifted his hand ax from its loop at his belt. Foolish, of course; he was probably the least physically dangerous person here, even with the valkyries having been sent away at Raghann’s insistence. But still, if there was danger, an orc should have a weapon in hand.
A second flicker, a flat piece of space in front of the shrine rippling like a puddle touched by a leaf.
Then, without further warning, the thing burst out.
The creature was nothing created by nature; it was lopsided, one of its arms overly long and with fingers extending back upward like the bones of a bat’s wing. It supported itself on the knuckles of that hand and the mass of writhing tentacles it had instead of legs. The other arm was of more proportional length, but ended in a thick paw with seven fingers of mismatched size, each tipped by a disproportionately large, serrated claw. The top of its head was apparently missing, leaving only a flat surface above its slavering mouth—which had upthrust lower tusks, just like an orc.
Then the second mass of tentacles atop its stunted head rose up and shifted forward from having been flattened back against its skull, revealing that they were tipped in eyeballs.
Gairan made a little sound for which Aresk wouldn’t have condemned her even had he not been so fond of her. Arquin pulled a wand from the deep pocket of his coat.
“Brother!” Raghann declaimed, spreading her arms wide as though to embrace the monstrosity. “…or sister. This is a safe place. Be welcome here.”
The creature surged forward a few feet, and Aresk instinctively did likewise. It moved with a strange gait, tugging itself along on that one overlong arm while its mess of tendrils supported it, but even so it moved fast for such an ungainly creature.
All around them came the avid hiss of steel as the Battle Sisters unsheathed their swords in unison.
The monster stopped, however, its eyeballs pivoting to take them all in, its head pointing at Raghann. It opened its jaws to extend a wide, flat tongue, with which it appeared to taste the air.
“We feel your pain,” Raghann said, gazing up at the beast without fear. “We feel your anger. We offer you respite, and the hope of healing. Let go of—”
It screamed at her—or roared, it was hard to tell as it had three distinct voices making different noises simultaneously. Then it charged. Not at Raghann, this time, but to her left, at Gairan.
Aresk crossed the ground in three rapid strides, planting himself between the shaman and the monster, and roared a wordless challenge back at it.
Rather to his surprise, the thing stopped its advance, close enough it could have reached out to grab him with its longer arm. It flexed its jaws, screaming right back at him. He braced his feet and lifted his axe, leaning toward it and baring all his teeth in a bellow of pure fury.
The monster stopped, tilting its head inquisitively. Aresk couldn’t guess which eyeball to look at, so he stared at a point right above its mouth.
“Boy, get out of the way,” Raghann ordered from behind him.
Aresk ignored her apparently suicidal demand, not taking his attention off the monster. It swayed slowly from side to side, and he tracked it with his eyes. The beast bared fangs, growling at him, and he did the same right back.
Then it actually settled backward slightly, seeming to consider him in earnest.
“Move!” Raghann snapped, prodding him from behind with her staff.
“Mother Raghann,” Gairan began, “maybe he—”
“Trust your elders, both of you,” she said curtly. “I know what I’m doing.”
Aresk didn’t see how she could possibly know what she was doing, since what they were all doing had no precedent in the history of the world. Still, rather than try to fight on two fronts, he began easing to the side. Keeping his pace carefully slow but his steps firm, not showing weakness by signaling a retreat, but deliberately not making aggressive moves. He had done this dance many a time with other orcs; it was all part of getting to know a stranger in any circumstance when it was not certain who was dominant. This was how matters were first settled whenever he encountered orcs from other clans while away from Camp Khashrek on a hunt.
The monster mirrored his movements in its weird shuffling gait, circling around slowly in the other direction. He might have suspected it was going around him to get at the shaman, but it kept its focus firmly on him, right where he wanted it. The movements were all so bizarrely familiar.
“Lost one,” Raghann said earnestly once she had a clear line of sight to the creature, “we implore you to be at peace.”
Aresk didn’t risk taking his eyes off the beast, but narrowed them in disapproval. Something in this twisted abomination still thought like an orc, that much he could tell from the way it acted. Orcs did not implore each other. She was treating it like one of the human spirits or yokai that sometimes went wandering on Tsurikura and had to be coaxed back to rest. That was a big part of a shaman’s role in their society, now. But here…
“This is a place of safety,” Raghann continued in a soothing voice. “A place of rest. We are your kin, long lost but not forgotten. Please find—”
The monster abruptly rounded on her with a truly horrific scream, raising its many-clawed hand to strike the old shaman. Aresk lunged at it, drawing back his own axe to attack.
Arquin was faster and, having circled around the shaman during the confrontation, closer. He was also no longer holding a wand, somehow, but a scythe of gnarled, blackened wood, whose gleaming blade he planted right in the center of the monstrosity’s chest.
It collapsed in on itself like a rotting mushroom, its bulk crumpling, disintegrating into dust, and emitting a cloud of mist which seemed made more of light than particulate matter. It swirled away back toward the portal, though some seemed to be sucked in by the scythe.
Aresk stared fixedly until the last of it had vanished. It was for the most fleeting moment, so briefly he was half-convinced he had imagined it, but for just that instant he had been certain he’d seen the shape of an orc in the swirling vapor. Nodding to him, one hunter acknowledging another.
“What have you done?” Raghann demanded furiously, rising to her feet.
“He saved our lives, that’s what,” Gairan snapped. “That thing was not going to listen to you, elder.”
“That thing was one of our people!”
“And now they’re at peace,” Arquin said calmly, planting the butt of his scythe on the ground, “for the first time in a century. But that still wasn’t the outcome we’re looking for, here. What went wrong?”
The old shaman drew in a deep breath, then let it out slowly, mastering her anger. “It was the first try. We cannot expect everything to go our way all at once, not with something like this. Well. Now we know we can reach them across the gateway. We must figure out how to calm them enough that they will listen. That lost spirit was utterly maddened with rage and grief, trapped in a twisted form it hated. It had forgotten how to be an orc.”
“Then how do we remind them?” Gairan asked.
“That is what we must figure out, isn’t it?” Raghann replied. “When in doubt, a shaman always has ways of seeking answers. We must consult the spirits for advice. Familiar spirits, known to us already. They do not often provide answers outright, but they will point us in the right direction to begin asking.” While Gairan nodded agreement, the older shaman turned a baleful look on Aresk, followed by a pointing finger. “And you will refrain from interfering next time, young man.”
“The creature you summoned was going to kill you, Mother Raghann,” he retorted. “I stopped it. You’re welcome. Listen, the way you were going about trying to calm it—”
“Ahp!” She held up a hand, turning her face away from him in one of those exceedingly rude gestures for which she was known that would get anyone but the eldest of his clan summarily punched in the eye. “I do you the courtesy of not telling you how to trap and skin beasts. The difference between us is that I know my limitations and respect them, boy. Don’t lecture me about calming agitated spirits!”
“That thing was well beyond agitated,” he insisted, “and calming it was exactly the wrong thing to do!”
“Now, you listen to me,” Raghann began in a dangerous tone.
“Excuse me?” Arquin interrupted, frowning. “I don’t know that I agree with Aresk, either, but Kyomi-sama herself chose him for this task. I’m pretty sure that summarily brushing him off is not called for.”
“That’s right,” Gairan agreed, nodding in approval at Aresk.
Once again, Raghann’s shoulders lifted with a slow inhalation, and once again she repressed whatever she’d been about to erupt with. The contrast between her and Arkhosh had never been more striking, even with one of them miles away.
“First, we seek wisdom,” she grunted at last, turning her back on Aresk and kneeling again in her ritual diagram. “Perhaps the spirits’ advice will shed some light on the young hunter’s. Come, Gairan, I will need your focus.”
Aresk snorted, but quietly, and fortunately neither shaman reacted to him. He retreated a few steps to the edge of the nearest row of graves, turning a thoughtful stare upon the inconspicuous spot where that terrible gate lay invisible.
Arquin circled around the shaman back the other way, approaching him. At some point while Aresk’s eyes were off him he’d made that scythe disappear. All this magic was enough to give a man a headache…
“What do you think?” the human asked very quietly, coming to stand next to Aresk.
He hesitated before answering, gathering his thoughts and turning a pensive stare on Gairan and Raghann.
“I don’t blindly do whatever my father says, you know.” he murmured at last. “It’s not just love that makes me favor him and his views over Mother Raghann’s. I remember growing up in a clan where they were both authority figures. I remember her always trying to…calm me down. Lecturing about the hot blood of youth, telling me to take long walks or forcing me into lessons on meditating, of all the boring claptrap.”
“Mm,” Arquin grunted. “The condescension of smart old people is universal across cultures, I guess.”
Aresk nodded. “My father taught me how to cope like an orc. He gave me work to do, to tire me out. Or deliberately set me up to brawl with other young people till we worked it out of our systems. He’d even fight me himself when he found it necessary.”
Arquin was giving him a strange look, as if to say that clearly not everything was universal across cultures. Aresk was familiar enough with the Sifanese not to need that explained.
“Raghann is right about one thing,” he said softly. “If that monster is what’s left in Athan’Khar now, they have forgotten how to be orcs. She was wrong about what to do, though. You don’t calm that kind of anger. Especially not when it’s justified. That just makes it worse.”
“I’m pretty sure you don’t get in punching matches with it, either,” Arquin said.
“Only the young among us fight over every little thing,” Aresk mused, his eyes distant. “We’re not savages, Arquin, nor are we monsters. We feel and express things more acutely than your kind, but we do have a society, which wouldn’t function if everyone was always lashing out. We have our ways. Ways to express, to cope, to get along. Ways that are not what she was trying to do with that beast. Raghann has the same problem. She’s forgotten how to be an orc. She’s the heir of a hundred years of Sifanese influence. The spirits of Athan’Khar are the remains of a hundred years of rage. Her ways will never make them listen.”
Arquin turned a speculative look on Raghann. Both shaman had their backs to them and were chanting over a burning pile of something that smelled acridly herbal.
“There is absolutely no way,” the human said thoughtfully, “anything useful would result from trying to explain that to her.”
“The condescension of smart old people,” Aresk agreed, then took a deep breath. “Arquin. Man to man, if I was to do something that seemed crazy, maybe even suicidal, could I count on you not to interfere?”
The human gave him a sidelong look, his expression unreadable. “That depends on what crazy thing we’re talking about, and more importantly, why you’re doing it.”
Aresk chanced a glance at Kyomi, and found her watching him with a faint little smile. Catching his eye, she winked.
“I feel I know what to do,” he said softly. “And nobody’s going to like it. Especially not me.”
“That’s it? You feel?”
“This is about feelings. Every part of it. It’s about anger, and hate, and grief, and hope. How to deal with them. Raghann can’t do it.”
“But you can.” Aresk couldn’t fault him for the skepticism in his voice.
“I don’t know, Arquin. But I know what to try.”
He sighed. “Gairan’s going to kick my ass if you get yourself killed.”
“Yes, she will,” Aresk said, grinning a grin that was at least as much repressed terror as amusement. He had to deny the fear welling up or it would paralyze him. “Listen, it’s like you showed me last night. Sometimes you can’t fight head on. But you have to be willing to stand and let your enemy come to grips before you can…push them aside.”
“I’m gonna regret this, I know it,” Arquin muttered. “Look, whatever madness you’re thinking of, do it as carefully as you can. Take it slow and think it over.”
Aresk clapped him on the shoulder, almost hard enough to knock him over. “Not a chance.”
Then he burst into a sprint, even though it was sure to draw the attention of the shaman and risk them stopping him somehow. There was no way around it; if he tried to approach this slowly, he would never be able to see it through.
Sure enough, they noticed.
“Aresk!” Gairan shouted in horror, and then he plunged through the gate.
Suddenly it was dark, and it took Aresk an embarrassing few moments to realize that that was because he’d just traveled a significant distance around the planet, and not due to any magic. It was a forgivable mistake, though, as everything else within his view bore the taint of magic in the worst possible way.
The darkness was not absolute; that might have been preferable. Athan’Khar’s very atmosphere seemed to have a sulfurous glow, hanging over the horizon and casting shifting patterns of inexplicable shadow all around. Aresk’s immediate environment was clearly a shrine—an orcish shrine, not the Sifanese Vidian holy ground he’d just left. Behind him stood a gateway, a physical one in which Kyomi had clearly positioned her magic portal. Massive stone pillars towered over twenty feet, with another laid atop them, all square-carved and deeply engraved with intricate knotwork. In fact, when he looked closer, the lines seemed to be filled with a dark glassy material like obsidian.
Boundaries and gateways were important in the Kharsa people’s traditional shamanism, setting aside areas like the ceremonial grounds back in Camp Khashrek where specific codes of behavior applied. A free-standing ceremonial gate not part of a boundary was used for rituals of transition—namings, rites of adulthood, marriages, funerals, the elevation of shaman, and so on. This one had clearly served a sizable community, to judge by the baskets of offerings laid around its base. After a hundred years they were all rotted to barely-identifiable scraps. It was unsettling that the ancient grains, hides, trinkets and weapons had all rotted and dried up to virtually residue, but nothing had been tampered with by scavengers. All of it lay shriveled up exactly where it had been placed.
At least the gate and its grounds were clear. It was positioned in a hollow surrounded by forested hills, with a road leading out of the space between two hills just in front of him. The trees, though… They were twisted. Their shapes rose up from the ground like grasping fingers, coiled around themselves with leafless branches clutching at each other, or reaching skyward. In fact, he realized with horror as his eyed adjusted to the low light, it wasn’t his mind playing tricks: those branches ended in the actual shapes of hands. Long and skeletal, but unmistakable.
There was a patch of nearly-dead yellowish grass around the ancient gateway, but beyond that, the ground cover looked more like patches of mold whose color he couldn’t make out in the dimness, interspersed with spiky little bushes that bristled with thorns, and stands of mushrooms taller than his waist, with fat round caps too big for their scrawny stalks, causing them to list drunkenly in all directions.
Aresk had the grace of just a few moments to slowly turn around, getting his bearings and taking in the sights, such as they were. Then it started.
At first he thought it was the wind, but the sound kept rising, and became impossible to misinterpret: it was moaning. It came from the woods all around, undulating gently and shifting this way and that. No sooner had he begun to make sense of the noise than a glow followed it, an eerie pale illumination which seemed out of the trees at irregular intervals, casting a foggy light across the clearing.
And, incidentally, revealing that the spiky bushes were covered with tiny skulls. Aresk couldn’t tell if they grew that way or were impaled on the spines.
The gate was right there, behind him. He could step back through. Gairan and Raghann would berate him to no end for his stupidity, and worse, he would look like a coward… But he would be alive and not turned into another undead horror.
Aresk, son of Arkhosh of the High Wind clan, was an orc. He would retreat when it was wise, but not when pushed by fear. Not without at least trying what he had come here to do.
He raised his ax high, threw back his head, and roared a long, ululating challenge at the nightmares all around him.
Screams, howls, and unearthly cacophony of all sorts immediately answered him, accompanied by movement among the lights in the trees. And then they came forth.
After the first glance he stopped trying to make sense of the misshapen limbs, tentacles, impossible claws and hideously warped biology of the beasts that emerged from the forest. None of them belonged in this world, that much was plain. By and large they were pale like cave salamanders, as if even the sun did not bother to touch Athan’Khar anymore.
At least they didn’t keep him waiting.
The shapes approached in no hurry, shuffling and loping with a variety of lopsided gaits, closing in from all sides on the patch of clear space around the gateway.
Aresk brandished his ax and bellowed a challenge at them.
From every direction, howling answered him. He was surrounded utterly by death and its uglier cousins, fixed on adding him to their ranks. The terror of it alone was enough to crush the spirit.
He pushed aside terror, embracing rage.
And then the whispers began.
They were beyond the edge of hearing, not intelligible, but more the sense of voices in his ears. Even without discerning words, he felt the message. Senseless fury, unrelenting agony, grief and hatred. Entreaties—demands—that he join them. Intentions to make him do so. The monsters came, one step and slither and stumble at a time, their voices worming deep into his mind, voices of their twisted spirits rather than their twisted bodies.
In those voices, he found what he needed. Shaman had come here and been swept up by these abominations, and though Aresk did not know exactly what they had tried, he suspected the shape of it from having watched Raghann. That would never work. This rage could not be calmed. It could not be resisted.
So, instead of resisting, he opened himself to it. Aresk drank in their pain and fury, feeling the stab of its agony in his own heart. Then, he added to it, calling up every memory of his father’s speeches about their people’s lost past, about the importance of the old ways. About their eternal hatred of the Tiraan.
The howling and snarling rose, all around and within him. Aresk did not deny them their rage; he joined them in it.
Raising his face to the yellowish sky, he roared again, a long and wild exhalation of pure ferocity. The fury pounding in him was more than his mere body could expel, but he tried anyway. He wrapped the bottomless well of rage around himself like a river in which he swam, drew it through his own spirit, and poured it out with his voice, howling and roaring until his throat ached.
And they joined him in turn. The creatures stopped advancing, halting where they were, and raised their voices higher.
Aresk was no longer afraid of them. He was one with them. A living part of the anguish and anger that animated this land and its denizens.
They screamed at the sky, pouring forth their fury at what they had lost. At the pain that wracked them still. Their helplessness, their betrayal.
Then he took it a step further, adding the anger and humiliation of their living cousins in Sifan. Every memory he could conjure—not the recollections of events, but the emotions of it. The reality of living at the indulgence of a greater nation, in the shadow of their own destruction. The helpless humiliation that was the existence of the last of the Kharsa.
The roaring around him rose further. It spread outward, now. The noise was already more than his mere ears could make sense of, but Aresk was linked now to this land and these voices in a way he didn’t quite understand, and he could feel them rippling across all of Athan’Khar, a million broken horrors screaming in unison. They would hear this in Viridill and N’Jendo.
He had dropped his ax, raising his arms to the heavens and howling at them. And as Aresk taught these lost ancestors the feelings of their people now, the temper of their screaming changed. Pain rose up through the anger, grief and loss, until it fully covered their fury.
They screamed at the night. Sobbed and wailed, expelling the agony of history’s greatest atrocity, and the century of pain which had followed. It poured out without cease, an entire shattered nation crying as one voice.
He couldn’t have said how long it went on. At one point, he fell to his knees. At another, he became conscious of tears gushing down his face. Aresk topped forward, clawing at the earth of Athan’Khar, pounding his fists against it in helplessness.
And slowly, eventually, it came to a stop. First with him, as his voice eventually gave out from sheer physical strain. And then, spreading outward, quiet rippled from that one forgotten gateway shrine to the farthest reaches of the lost country.
The pain was not gone. That pain would never be gone. That anger could not be washed away. It was there…but it had been given the chance to express itself, and somehow, Aresk and his undead nation had exhausted themselves until they couldn’t scream any more, not even within.
There was quiet. All the agony and fury lay there, not lost, but dormant for the moment. For a while, he and they simply…were. Together.
And Aresk found other memories.
The stories told of Athan’Khar, of its great heroes and wild rituals. Of the land—a good, rich land, rugged and dangerous but vibrantly alive. Its ridges and hills carpeted with pines, brushed by cold winds and harsh winters. The elk and goats and wolves and beavers and cougars and all the living things among whom the Kharsa lived, taking what they needed with appreciation and respect, accepting it with honor when nature took from them in turn.
Towering, craggy mountains, the southernmost arm of the Wyrnrange extending down from the human lands almost to the tundra in the deep south. Glaciers tracking their infinitesimal progress across the southern reaches. Mighty waterfalls and gushing rivers, fed by countless living streams. The rocky cliffs of the western coast and the smoother shores of the east, where the Cold Spray clan had fished and traded with visitors from the world over.
The auroras dancing in the night sky, a sight Aresk had never seen and could scarcely imagine. Stories of the lights last glimpsed generations ago could not possibly capture their wonder or beauty. But at the thought of them, he was shown. All around him were spirits who had seen those lights, and their clarity exploded into his mind, memories adding to his own. They were more glorious than he could have imagined.
He wept anew for the lost beauty of his land, kneeling and pressing his forehead into the dirt. Soft keening rose around him, but it was only from a few points, now, and far gentler in tone.
Athan’Khar, their beautiful country. It was not forgotten.
Aresk had the strangest sensation for just a moment, as if the world moved under him. As though he stood not upon solid ground, but on the back of some great turtle which had just taken a ponderous step.
And before he could process that, another memory came to him. A memory of humans.
He saw women of every color in which they came, dark Westerners, pale Stalweiss, tawny Tiraan, many others, the Sisters of Viridill. And in those memories of the horror that came with the Enchanter’s Bane, they were joined.
He heard cries of shock and grief in thin human voices, dainty little faces with expressions twisted with rage. Hands extended with compassion.
Hands taking up weapons.
The Sisterhood turning around in the middle of war, closing ranks with their enemies and turning the force of their fury upon the Imperial Army. The broken Kharsa armies and Silver Legionnaires slamming into the Tiraan and sweeping them aside, till not a one darkened Viridill’s borders.
Aresk understood, and reciprocated.
He called up images of the Sifanese, the polite and distant people so different from the rough and vibrant orcs. The boisterous and cheerful Punaji who came to trade with them, both goods and stories, and who never looked down on orcs, or even askance at them. The creepy Vidian priests and serene Battle Sisters who joined them from time to time on Tsurikura. The various Sifanese outcasts who came to spend time among the Kharsa, learning their ways and teaching them what they knew in turn.
Gabriel Arquin, the strangely orc-like young man, with his valkyries and his dark two-faced god, determined not to leave the crimes of the past where they lay.
Humanity in all its complexity, and the truth that there were friends out there in the world. Souls who would stand shoulder to shoulder with the orcs against true evil. Who did not judge or reject, even when the great powers among them demanded that they should.
Not to try to calm away the rage like Raghann wanted, but to fight together.
Slowly, they slunk away. The hivemind of broken spirits was not a thing which could make decisions, and certainly not change its ways; Aresk had not healed anything. But he had added to it. There was something new coursing through the veins of Athan’Khar’s warped collective psyche now: hope.
Monsters retreated back through the trees, leaving him untouched upon the ground before the shrine. Gradually, the awareness of their thought, their inner voices, ebbed away as well.
Behind them they left exhaustion like nothing Aresk had ever felt. He slumped over onto his side, lacking even the energy to support himself.
And there, lying stretched out upon the ground as if to embrace it, he felt it again. That great, subtle shifting. Something colossal beneath the tortured spirit of the land which began to stir at his touch.
The words were Kharsa, whispering through his mind like the voices of the damned, but much clearer. The intelligence behind them strained and wounded, but not so badly distorted.
You are an orc. You know how we must heal. Not through rest, but through battle.
Aresk drew in a breath, rasping around his painfully strained vocal cords. “Who are you?”
Anything that lives may die, son of the Kharsa. But for gods, even death is a different thing.
“Khar,” he whispered into the very dirt, too wrung out even to feel as awed as this situation called for.
Light rose around him—warm and gentle light. Aresk found the energy to push himself up to his hands and knees, weakly raising his head to behold the gate.
The lines of Kharsa knotwork inscribed on the shrine were no longer dormant black glass, but glowing softly with pale golden light. The touch of divine magic, no longer tainted by the Enchanter’s Bane, had returned to Athan’Khar. At least to this one tiny spot.
And where it could touch once, it could spread.
Our people have remembered their ways as best they can, I see it in your mind. We have still our shaman. But there have been no priests of Khar. There can be no priests of a dead god.
Unless the god of death extends a hand to help.
“What must I do?” he asked hoarsely.
The ways which have been lost must be found again. New ways must be walked in a new world. It begins with you: the first to understand how the lost souls of the Kharsa can be spoken with. Teach others. Continue to meet with them. Take from them the pain they offer. Give to them the healing you must gather into yourself. Be one with them—as orcs. Let them remember who they are, Deathspeaker.
You must find peace, in order to give peace.
We must have peace, in order to fight the battles that will come.
Aresk gathered his strength, rising unsteadily to his feet. Around him, bathed in the divine glow of the shrine, the green grass had rejuvenated itself in just minutes, forming a lush carpet of life. At the very edges of the glow, spikes and skulls began to melt from a few bushes like frost under the sun. Giant mushrooms were slowly shrinking, revealing hints of the mundane toadstools nature had meant for them to be.
“I will,” he vowed, pounding a fist into his heart. “I…do not know the way. But I will find it. We will find it.”
Above him, the moon broke through the haze, and the yellowish cast of the light gently faded. In that one place, there was the first touch of healing.
Gairan hugged him first. Then she punched him. Aresk let her do it three times before catching her fist.
“I truly did not think we would ever see you again, boy,” Raghann said unsteadily, approaching. He was surprised to see her face hollowed and tear-streaked; it was a reminder that for all his points of disagreement with the old shaman, she cared for him as she did for any of their clan.
“God damn I’m glad you’re back,” Arquin added fervently. “And…what’s all this, then?”
He gestured, and Aresk straightened his back, burying self-consciousness beneath pride, as was the way of the Kharsa. He couldn’t quite explain the origin of his clothes; he’d just been wearing them when he turned to step back through the gate. Instead of his simple hunter’s garb, he was dressed in a coarse robe draped with a mantle of raven feathers, a crown of horns and antlers lying atop his head. Regalia of a kind the orcs had not seen in a century: that of their long-broken priesthood.
Wrapping an arm around Gairan’s shoulders as she pressed herself into his side, Aresk closed his eyes, concentrating. He found it within, the soft glow accompanied by the sluggish, almost-lost sense of a dead god just beginning to remember life. And the sharp pain of the countless shattered spirits of their homeland, inextricably bound with the power.
But it came, nonetheless, and a glow rose around him, the pale golden-white aura of divine magic.
Raghann’s gasp of shock was deeply gratifying. Kyomi’s knowing chuckle less so, but he knew better than to give the kitsune a reaction.
“Well, blow me down,” Arquin breathed. “You found a way.”
“Not yet.” Aresk shook his head, and then smiled. “But we’ve found a way to begin.”