Image credit to Andre Yamaguchi: https://andreyamaguchi.cgsociety.org/

RAGNAR, THE WRETCHED

“Ashdautus Gruumsh vrasubatlat uk,” Ragnar muttered into his half-empty mug, for no reason other than that the words felt at home on top of the pleasant fire of the black grog burning its way down his throat.

If only those words still rang true.

For half a second, he nearly gave into the feral urge to slam the mug down and throw the entire damn table at the two halfling pixies who hadn’t stopped eying him since he’d walked into this flower-blooded tavern… what had it been, six drinks ago?

He hadn’t been paying particularly close attention.

Perhaps he should’ve paid closer attention to his choice of watering hole, at least. This town was new to him, and for a lone orc to stroll casually into any establishment…

Even in Thoaq-Avid, such cavalier carelessness was as likely as not to end in bloodshed, be it his own or that of whatever bold fool decided to make a point of picking a fight with the big ugly orc. But perhaps a fight was exactly what Ragnar was looking for today, even if he couldn’t have said why.

And besides, they did serve grog here, even if it did taste like industrial oil spiked with grain alcohol—which, on second thought, might well have been exactly what that trembling serving girl had been bringing him each time he beckoned.

It mattered not.

If anyone had a problem, Ragnar would delight in ending it for them. And it was to a thought like that, he wagered, that any orc worth their salt would’ve downed their drink on the spot and sent for another. Yet he found himself setting his mug gently on the table, scowling down at its dark contents, still undeniably on edge.

Why?

He took a more deliberate sniff of the greasy tavern air and caught it there, faint beneath the bite of pipe smoke and stale ale, but unmistakable even after all these years.

Orcs.

Gruumsh’s blackened taint…

Even after his exile, there’d been a time when the scent would’ve hit him like a welcome breath of home, and of the endless spoils of war he’d once known in his days in Tel’Durro. But years of chance encounters—or chance bloodbaths, as it were—had taught him that no amount of longing bull-headed posturing could change the truth.

His people were no longer his people. Those cursed priests and their divine demoness Eldath had seen to that.

Oh, his “kin” might take him for any other orc at first—another one of Gruumsh’s loyal warriors on the righteous path to blood and riches and the blissful transcendence of pure, unadulterated battle. They might take him for one of their own. But without fail, they’d eventually sense it, as if the truth of the matter had permeated his very scent.

Gruumsh, god of orcs and everything pure in this blackened world, had abandoned Ragnar long ago. And in the eyes of most orcs, that made him something lesser than even the most pathetic of the humans, or the elves, or anyone else. It made him something vile.

Something to be destroyed without question.

Ragnar could hear the guttural voices of his approaching kin now, as could several of the tavern’s denizens, judging by the nervous glances that flitted toward the door. For a second, he thought about seeking a back exit. Then they were there in the tavern doorway, and it was too late. Three hulking bulls in their prime, dressed in light leather armor and clearly still spattered in the day’s brutal spoils.

The biggest bull, the clear leader of this merry band, scanned the tavern like a noble would scan the butcher’s wares—scanning, scanning until his bloodthirsty gaze fell, as Ragnar knew it would, straight on him.

“Mirdautas vras, my friend,” their leader called in a thick, ugly voice. It is a good day to kill.

Every head in the tavern turned to Ragnar in dead silence.

“Ambor mabas lufut,” Ragnar replied in a bored tone, brandishing his mug. Liquor after war.

Let that be the end of it, he prayed to no one in particular, knowing full well that Gruumsh would not hear, and refusing on pain of torn tongues and crushed manhoods to degrade himself by appealing to that cursed sorceress, Eldath—the one they called the goddess of peace. Still, he prayed. Let them move on and have done with him. Leave him to drown his cursed woes in peace. Let him die alone.

But the leader reared his head back, roared with laughter, and came to plunk his stinking mass down on the bench opposite Ragnar. “Come, lads,” he called to his two followers. Then, in the general direction of the bar, he added, “Wench! Grog!”

Ragnar sighed internally and settled in for the inevitable.

For the next quarter-bell or so, he couldn’t have said of what they spoke. All he knew was that his kin asked questions of him, and he gave the same tired, vague answers he’d given so many times he no longer had to think about them—all the while eying the door, waiting for some opening to make his leave.

The crash of clay on wood jerked his attention back to the big brute of a leader, who was paying no attention to the mug he’d just shattered in celebration of his third rapid-fire grog.

“There’s something familiar about you, my friend,” the brute growled, his eyes searching Ragnar a little too curiously.

That alone was enough to pull Ragnar out of the haze of his customary evasive routine and straight into battle-ready territory.

“You hail from Tel’Durro?”

Cautiously, Ragnar nodded.

Stupid.

He’d been stupid not to notice the telltale signs that these orcs had come from his own motherland. Hadn’t paid attention to the slant of their brows, the slightly darker hue of their skin. One of the western clans if he had to guess, though it was impossible to say for sure. He’d been gone for decades now, and the only stable constant with orc clans was that they rose and fell like a farmer’s crops.

Not since his own clan had dominated the sweet mires of Tel’Durro for nearly a decade did Ragnar expect any one of those bumbling fools had managed to hold the land for more than a handful of seasons. There’d been a time when he’d sought news of the land, desperate to know what had become of the power void left behind by the destruction of his loyal Fireborn. But the years had continued creeping by, and eventually he’d found himself caring less and less.

His clan was dead, and the Mighty Dhuzog Fireborn with them.

“You have an air about you, stranger,” the orc said, shifting his weight on the groaning wooden bench.

The burly bull might as well have reached for his club. One way or another, this was already over.

“Mabaj nar armauk, my friend,” Ragnar said. I have no enemies.

He started to stand.

The head orc’s hand struck out and caught Ragnar’s wrist like a striking viper. He was fast, and strong.

“Mabaj bot ob armauk,” the orc growled, twisting Ragnar’s wrist. I have a world of enemies. Then he took in the cursed brand on Ragnar’s forearm—the looping sigil of Eldath—and he looked up with a victorious sneer. “Dhuzog Fireborn.”

His two followers straightened at the name, shifting immediately from amused onlookers to ready combatants.

“My name,” Ragnar said calmly, not struggling, “is Ragnar.”

“Ragnar,” the orc repeated in a mocking tone. “Ragnar the Wretched Runt. You smell of piss and magic.”

Well, at least that answered that question.

Ragnar had always had a talent for destruction and the arcane. It was what had earned him the name of Fireborn and seen him rise to clan leader back when he’d been Dhuzog. But his kin had never seemed to mind the scent back when it’d been Gruumsh’s fire he’d been channeling.

It was the wretched magics of Eldath that stuck in these orcs’ sharp noses like sickening sweet flowers—the very same magic that had struck him down the day he’d led his unstoppable war party to that cursed monastery on the southern borders of Uvereon. The very same magic that had taken him like a helpless puppet, driven its stinking fingers through his every fiber of being, and purged him of Gruumsh’s fire once and for all, unleashing it on his own orcs like a raging hellstorm.

Ragnar had not expected to wake again after the darkness had taken him that day. But awaken he had, some days later, in the still-smoldering ash of his broken clan. It had taken him weeks to recover enough to find the nearest village—weeks in which he knew he should have died for lack of food and water alone. But he hadn’t understood then, the extent of what Eldath’s divine power had done to him. The curse it had left upon his soul.

For years, he’d tried to convince himself that it had been a single freak act. One of the early spikes of those unruly forces that’d swept the land since that fool Kelsoris’ Great Cleanse. Wild Magic, as many now called it.

But that taint had clung to him. For decades, he’d wandered the lands of Drustvein and Uvereon, ridden by Eldath’s lingering presence well beyond his expected years. Why he hadn’t simply allowed himself to starve, or pitched himself off of a high mountain, he couldn’t say. Perhaps he feared his new foul goddess would somehow succeed at sustaining him even then, confirming once and for all that his separation from his beloved Gruumsh was to be eternal.

Even Ragnar, who had once been the Mighty Dhuzog Fireborn, Scourge of the South, dared not find the answer to that question. And so he’d wandered on, doing what he must to survive, resisting the ever present whisper of Eldath’s curse, fluttering through his heart and his every breath. He wandered until he’d come to Thoaq-Avid, where no one seemed to mind if one’s sole occupation was in seeking grog.

Why Ragnar had elected to survive as long as he had, he couldn’t say.

But certainly, it had not been to bandy words with hot-headed young bulls, looking to prove themselves for glory or coin.

“Release me,” Ragnar said, drifting from the memories of Dhuzog back to the dead silent tavern where his snarling kin was still gripping his wrist like he intended to break it.

Ragnar didn’t threaten or plead. Either would’ve been a mistake. And he wasn’t particularly in the mood to spare words, besides.

The snarling orc leader said nothing—just gave the signal to his two followers.

In some ways, Ragnar reflected, the fighting had become even more dispassionately mundane than the tired game of evasion. Perhaps it was the years that’d taken the glorious rush of combat away from him. Perhaps it was the ever-present whispers of Eldath, goddess of piss and flower magic. Or perhaps it was just another reminder that Gruumsh had truly abandoned him.

Whatever the reason, Ragnar took little pleasure in smashing his mug in the snarling orc leader’s face. Just as little pleasure as he took in toppling the heavy wooden table onto two of them with a hard kick, or in catching the third orc and breaking his young neck before he could ready his weapon.

The remaining two orcs bellowed their challenges, and Ragnar allowed his hands and body to do as they would.

The fight was over almost before it began—the bold leader dead by his own club next to the young bull with the broken neck, the third crawling desperately across the bloody straw floor for the axe Ragnar had clubbed from his grasp, just before he’d broken the orc’s leg at the shin with a hard stomp.

Ragnar bent down, caught the last bull by the throat, and slammed him into the overturned table, yanking the dagger free from his belt and placing the blade’s tip indelicately to the orc’s throat. The orc only spat and bucked against Ragnar’s grip—not so much in an effort to break free as to merely show that he would not be made to fear death at the hands of one so low as Ragnar.

Ragnar flipped the dagger in his palm and smashed the pommel against the orc’s head, leaving the young bull dazed and half-limp. He straightened and looked around, allowing himself a deep breath.

The tavern crowd had unsurprisingly thinned out. Most who still remained, those two halfling pixies among them, watched with a kind of enthralled terror, their mouths hanging open like dead weights. A few others were still too occupied with their drinks to care what one orc did to another. Behind the gnarled bar, the barkeep didn’t look all that much more interested himself, fingering a ready crossbow with a tired expression that said he’d prefer Ragnar just kill the last one and have done with it already.

Ragnar bent down, dagger in hand, thinking to do just that.

The bull stared up at him, his eyes beginning to clear from the heavy blow to the head.

And Ragnar stared back. Too long. The dagger poised in his hand.

“What?” he whispered, caught on the edge of something he didn’t understand, something he’d never once felt in all his years. Something stirring in him, staying his hand.

“Lulgijak,” the orc groaned before he spat on the bloodied straw. “Coward. You cannot even bring yourself to—”

Ragnar had dropped to his knees and grabbed the orc’s mangled leg before he rightly knew what he was doing. With a sharp jerk, he forced the exposed bones back into alignment, ignoring the shouts and curses and weak kicks as the orc tried to fight him off.

“Shut up,” Ragnar growled, clamping his hands over the bloody mess of the orc’s leg, panting now. Feeling sick. Like something vile was about to come pouring out of him.

He squeezed harder. The orc screamed.

“I said shut up!” Ragnar roared.

And then he let the sickness out.

Light poured from his hands, the air humming with the old familiar crackle of the arcane, and for a second—just a second—Ragnar felt something. Something more than the dreary march of nothingness his life had become. Something like the thrill he’d once felt, raining fire down upon his foes, reveling in his own power even as he’d reveled in the rushing mortality of the arrows and swords and spears screaming for his exposed flesh.

The orc screamed on the floor. His broken bones creaked like age-worn hardwood underfoot—mending themselves together, some corner of Ragnar’s mind realized. He didn’t understand. He just held on until the thing—whatever it was—had drained from his body, and the light had died from his palms. Then he removed his hands from the orc’s leg.

It was whole again.

Bloodied and bruised. But no longer broken.

“Nar udautus,” Ragnar heard himself whisper to the orc’s dumbfounded stare. Not today.

He stood, head spinning, and almost keeled back over.

What in Gruumsh’s blackened manhood had he just done?

He had to leave. Word of this would spread, and someone would come looking. Maybe not the Quellers. Maybe not this far north. But someone. He had to leave this town immediately. Leave Thoaq-Avid, even.

And for what? For a random ball-brained bull who’d just tried to kill him?

What in all the heavens and hells had he just done?

“Ashdautas vrasubatlat,” the orc snarled from the ground. Someday, I will kill you.

Once upon a time, Ragnar might’ve smiled at that—at the audacity of the statement, and the burning ferocity of the warrior’s pride. He might’ve reared his head and roared with blood-lusting laughter at the fact that his words might well even prove themselves true, albeit in an indirect fashion.

But Ragnar did not smile that day. Only turned to leave, muttering softly under his breath. “Ashdautus Gruumsh vrasubatlat uk.”

One day, Gruumsh will kill us all.