The Seven Cities
A quiet, gangly orc wizard determined to overcome her heritage of brutishness.
Actor: Mary Lynn Rajskub
Theme song: Sour Times – Portishead
Mharrat and Us-iu looked at their ugly daughter with dismay. The sap-complexioned child had once been their great pride, their hopeful bid for standing, but now her 4th birthday loomed and there had been no sign of the change. Her ears were too narrow, almost elfishly so, and her orange eyes too large—did they blink? There was no way to know. The child was odd in other ways too. She spent hours upon hours drawing shapes in the mud outside their hut, and preferred squeezing squirrels to combat training. She neither shouted nor spoke.
It was no matter, they told themselves. She would come around. Both of their Krimp-buurz had been late, after all.
But her 4th birthday passed, and her 5th, with no sign of the transformation that would make her one of her people, the Orcs of the low mountain village of Ghaa. They called her Tug, a placeholder name for children until the changing ceremony of Krimp-buur granted her a real name. The diminutive took on a sinister tone as she aged and the Gha’ans became increasingly uncomfortable around her. Rumors began.
Ghaa was the most permanent settlement in the territory controlled by the orcs, whom most races call Dark Orcs. Generally a nomadic people, the orcs used Ghaa as a base of mining and military operations. There were 3 squares and a small number of permanent wooden buildings in addition to the many mud and straw homes radiating haphazardly around them. Many orcs moved in and out of Ghaa seasonally, but some lived there year-round. Tug’s family were among the poorest of these.
Tug spent as much time as she could away from this village with its hostile eyes and whisper-shouts. She preferred to play in the nearby forest, setting elaborate traps for unfortunate creatures of all sizes. It was the one way she could be useful to her family, and she enjoyed it.
Halfway through the year, disapproval and discomfort had turned to outright contempt. Us-iu was now the only one who spoke to her in anything but epithets, and not frequently at that. Mharrat had given up on her daughter entirely. Now when her eyes fell on Tug it was with an unsettling alloy of hunger and hate. The rumors were right. This child was guund-hai, the Unchanged.
Tug began planning her escape. She built small shelters in the nearby woods she knew so well, and stored traps and dried meat nearby. She had only one set of clothes, and of course had no need of shoes. Soon she was ready. Before the next sunrise, she would be gone.
But the next morning, she woke not to the first bird but to Mharrat’s strong olive hand clenched so tight around her neck it almost made a fist. She was scraped from her bed and dragged circuitously through the streets of Ghaa, that everyone might see her shameful face and form. Spit and rocks and shit fell on her like rain. The shouts of “Guund-hai!” soon melded together, an aharmonic chorus of vengeance.
Her mother threw her, hard, into a cage in the southern square. Slowly it was hoisted up. Here, she knew, she was to await ritual and death, to be consumed by the villagers before she could bring about their ruin. She checked the cage desperately for weaknesses. It was her 6th birthday. She did not have long.
Moments later a crash and voices unfamiliar shrieked from several blocks away. Voices so high-pitched and trilling, like screaming birds. They were human voices, a sound thus far unknown to Tug’s large ears. Within minutes, an orderly knot of Achellaens blasted into the square. Orcs scrambled for their houses and weapons, losing all interest in their small cursed prisoner. One fleeing Gha’an tripped over the line holding the cage and it crashed to the ground. The dark metal bars neither bent nor broke, but a tiny fitting in the corner popped off from the force of the fall. Things are often weakest at the seams. Now Tug kicked at it for her life. Three hard jabs, and it gave way.
She bent the bar forward and scrambled through the opening at the top. The sharp metal dragged deep across her belly, and dark, unctuous blood tumbled down her leg. She ran.
Despite her cleverness, Tug had always been ungainly, gangly and large at the joints. As she clumsily dodged battles, barreling for the east gate and the safety of the forest beyond, her hurry overtook her coordination and she tumbled over her own feet into a pile of shovel heads outside a smelters’ shop. The clatter would usually have been deafening, but fortunately, the din of battle was loud enough that only one took notice of her spill—the Achellaen battlemage called Malthus. He had no time to trouble with her however; though Achaellans have no qualms about dispatching orc children, they are hardly worth interrupting one’s concentration to chase down. Not to mention he was already suspected of cowardice by his fellow warriors…yes, best not to be seen leaving a battle. He smirked mildly, turned his back and resumed raining fire upon Ghaa.
Once in the forest, Tug slowed to a trot, panting and wheezing. She found one of her shelters and climbed inside. Slowly her good fortune dawned upon her. Achaellans or no, she had ended up exactly where she wanted to. And soon most of Ghaa would be dead. She smiled. Over the next few days she moved from shelter to shelter, occasionally climbing trees to peer at the Achellaen encampments surrounding the ruined village. She knew she had to leave or risk death at their hands, but she knew nothing of the lands beyond these woods. She was scared and utterly alone.
One night, she heard the high-pitched screams of humans again, emanating from the encampments. They were having an argument—she was no stranger to that sound at least. She saw light bursts in the distance and the voices grew closer. Far too close. She scrambled out of her shelter and climbed the nearest tree just as Malthus ran full-bore into the clearing, shooting behind him at unseen pursuers. Then he disappeared completely. Two other Achaellans soon stood just below her, near her shelter.
“This is probably where he’s been sneaking off to at night! Look, a bed.”
The Achaellan was interrupted by his own death as violent green flames enveloped and consumed him. Terrified, the other one turned and ran back towards the camp. Malthus reappeared, breathing heavily.
Tug held perfectly still, hoping that humans, like orcs, generally forget to look up. She barely exhaled as Malthus surveyed her rough bed and sharpened sticks. He rummaged through her packet of dried meat, eventually pocketing all of it. Tug’s muscles were strained. She wished desperately that he would move on—wouldn’t the other Achaellan send more humans after him? Sweat rolled down her stomach along the crusted scab of her injury from the cage. Orc blood congeals quickly but scabs are long-healing. Her mind wandered for a moment, thinking about the eventual scar and trying to suppress her instinctive pride in it. Now a thick drop of sweat dripped from this scab directly onto Malthus’ hairless head. He looked up.
He recognized her immediately, the odd little orc that had run past him in the battle. The one he had let go. But what reason did he have to kill her now? He could never go back to Achell, and all her kinsfolk were dead—he had seen to many of them personally. They were the same, he reasoned. He had no idea how similar they truly were.
“What is your name?” he asked.
Tug spoke no human language, let alone any Achaellan dialect. She stared at him, sensing that his question was not a threat but having no idea whether to respond or flee. He repeated himself more slowly, as though that would make any difference.
She supposed he was asking what she was doing here. Before even realizing it, Tug replied “Fauth tala.”—orcish for “hiding above.” It seemed as good an answer as any.
“Well Fauthala, we have to get out of here. Now they are after us both.”
Thala focused her mind on the small bloodstone orb hovering above her left palm. Inside it, whorls of green and red-orange bursts swirled around each other, getting closer and closer as she concentrated them inward. A few seconds later, they condensed into a single point of light and all sound was pulled out of the training hall, draining down into the earth. The silence sat thick and stifling—it had weight. But the effect didn’t last long, perhaps not even a second. It its place rose a wave of thunder from the ground, as though the earth had shouted all their sounds back at her at once.
The training golem flew backwards with such force that it nearly split in two. That was the best one yet! Thala beamed, her jutting canines widening into a huge grin, then composed herself.
“Silence can be more frightening than any sound, can it not?” said Malthus behind her. “Maybe that’s why you’re so scary.” He winked at her. He had a way of taking the teeth out of her problems.
The orb still hovering in the magic field above her palm, Thala began concentrating again. Again the swirling green and red flecks tightened towards each other, but faster this time. More wildly. Their orbits expanded and contracted…oh fuck, she’d lost it. The orb was yanked out of her hand by an invisible force and bounded to the other side of the hall in a clanking wave of failure. She tried to conjure a hand to retrieve it, but in her frustration got only a puff of useless blue smoke. She walked to the end of the hall amidst racist snickering from her classmates, unflappable, and tried again.
After the Achaellan raid on Ghaa, Malthus and Fauthala had skirted the Shieldlands and crossed the Forest of Mists to New Cormorell. With its cosmopolitan populace and complex culture, this city was by far the safest choice for an unusual pair such as they. There were some districts where a human traveling with a young orc was even a common sight—though, unlike most of those people, Malthus had no sinister intentions. He was a good and gentle soul, which is of course what got him in to trouble with his countryfolk in the first place.
[Malthus’ story here, when I get around to it :)]
Malthus was able to secure a job teaching destruction magic at the New Cormorell College of Wizardry and Arcane Arts, and he had encouraged Thala to apply after he noticed her impressive skill with language. Specifically, he noticed that she was writing perfect Western mere months after they arrived in town. What kind of orc is that interested in words? Her aptitude tests had confirmed her to be blindingly intelligent and the college had no choice but to admit her. They had been here 10 years now, and Malthus had long ceased worrying about his fellow Achellans hunting them down. What was one mediocre battlemage to them, and a cowardly one at that? No, he felt certain they had given up the search for him years ago. He was even using his real name these days.
The “name” Fauthala had given Malthus as a child turned out to be exceptionally appropriate. Determined to defy expectations based on her origins, Thala had tamped down any traces of temper or physical violence. She poured herself into books and cultivated her intuition and skill with nature. She chose her words carefully, deployed them sparingly, and never raised her voice. The horrors of her childhood, she decided, could only be escaped by rising above them.
Perhaps it was this tendency to loftiness that made her so unlikable. Or perhaps it was her inability to have fun of any sort, ever. Thala was never exactly sure what about her others found offputting, but she did know what about her they found scary, and it had little to do with her taciturn demeanor. Despite the diversity of New Cormorell, orcs were still generally regarded with suspicion. Particularly orcs in student robes, of which there had been perhaps five in the entire history of the college. It bothered her, but she told herself her life’s purpose was to prove them wrong. She had Malthus, the safety of her books and the quiet of the forest. And this predjudice was mild compared to her early life. At least the Cormorellans probably weren’t going to eat her.
In this city, Thala had also learned that she was not actually unusual in appearance. Here lived many Hackolou, who called themselves True Orcs, from whom she was indistinguishable. From Malthus she learned that the Dark Orcs and Hackolou were genetically identical, but that her people traditionally accepted the will of the great dark energy, the Nemesis, as very young children—it whispers to their minds until they open to it. She heard these whispers too, but her mind never seemed to accept them. This is why her people called her, and those like her, the Unchanged.
Among her people, refusal of the Nemesis was the greatest shame possible. Here it gave her access to a different world, and she was determined to embrace it. Still, the whispers were always there, a background din, like those who once stand too near a loud sound and forever hear ringing.
Wizarding school final exams are varied, but all are rigorous. Two months after her orb skittered painfully across the training hall, Thala was the master of not only thunder, but fire and frost as well. She practiced ceaselessly, propelled by pride and shame at once. She had always made a point of doing every assigned exercise twice. After the orb incident, she did them three times.
It was now very early morning, still several hours before her exam. Sleep was impossible. She lay in bed listening to the far away rain and thunder. Slowly she became aware of human shouting amid the thunderclaps. Suddenly, flickering torches moved past the small window above her bed. She threw the worn blankets off her and looked out the window at the feet of the humans gathered outside. Soldiers’ boots.
Soldiers before dawn could mean nothing good. But New Cormorell was the least likely military target imaginable. Sure, there had been strife with the Achellaens over tariffs lately, but invasion was not their style. Assassins were far more likely.
Thala intuitively grabbed her orb ran into Malthus’ room to wake him. Books lined every surface in their small home and she took pains not to trip over them. She tripped anyway, and fell nose-first onto Malthus’ sleeping shins.
“Soldiers.” Thala said. “They’re right outside.”
Malthus composed himself and went to open the door. Just as he reached for the knob it flew backwards, knocking him to the ground with supernatural force. Into the room came a huge Achaellan and with her the first streaks of daylight. Her billowing red robes only added to her imposing stature. She strode across their hallway reading a memorized proclamation of Achell’s claim to this home and property as rightful rulers of New Cormorell, unifiers of the realm. When she caught Malthus’ eye, however, she stopped abruptly.
“So this is where you slunk off to. I never thought I’d see your craven face again.”
Another soldier entered the hall. “What is happening here?”
“This man is known to me. He is a defector, a traitor to Achell. We must show him justice.”
There was no getting around it now. Malthus reached into his robe for his wand, but realized with an ache that he was wearing only his sleep clothes. The wand was on its stand in the other room. It may as well have been in Idaar.
Adrippe laughed cruelly and drew her staff in front of her. A sliver of force shot from it directly into Malthus’ torso. He crumpled, glancing up at Thala just long enough to give a barely-perceptible wink, and was gone.
Rage and hatred roiled within her, every semblance of stoicism obliterated by grief. Though it would have been wiser to stay hidden—the Achaellans had not noticed her yet—she stepped out from the bedroom with frost crackling from her tiny orb.
Completely taken by surprise, the two Achaellans were hit full force by the teenager’s spell, and fell frozen in the hall. But they would not stay that way very long.
She clattered over them and into the streets, around the corner of their house and out of sight of the main road. She gathered herself up, doing everything she could to look like a compliant citizen instead of a raging orc who had just lost the only person who had ever show her kindness. She mastered her nerves and walked steadily towards the sewer portal at the end of the alley. All sewers led to the river eventually. She climbed inside and followed the water’s flow.
And so New Cormorell was taken with hardly a whisper, and Thala was again alone.