Clan of Embers
Fire was the tool Kylorin used to cleanse the rot from Patria, for Bhall had given her righteous followers gifts to rival those sorcerous powers gained first from Ceridwen. The passionate fire goddess was a force for good. Those who loved justice and mercy could use her power to counter the wicked mages Kylorin had trained. But she fell to the wily whispers of Agares, god of despair, raining fire on the just and unjust alike in a terrible day heralding the end of the Age of Magic.
Once devout men of many nations, the orcs were transformed, cursed and enraged when Bhall fell. The goddess passed through the holy city of Braduk as she fell from the Heavens, taking many of those who loved goodness and trapping them in Hell. Half the city was rendered a flaming pit, but those people who remained, in touch with the fiery spirit of Bhall, were twisted into the orcs. Mulcarn, Bhall’s former nemesis, took this chance to claim dominion over Erebus, and the orcs, along with the rest of the world, were ushered into the Age of Ice.
They survived, huddled around the fires of Braduk the Burning, and developed barbarous rituals and a savage warrior culture, raiding struggling human settlements. The holy scepter of the High Priest of Bhall was affixed with a brutal axe head by the orc warlord Orthus, and many nascent tribes fell to its power. One people stood up to the orcs. Those who had been taken to Hell with Bhall were freed by Sabathiel, the archangel of Junil late in the Age of Ice, as Mulcarn’s contest with Kylorin drew near. These battle-hardened warriors were a true test for the savage orcs, but the orcs were too numerous for the Bannor to defeat, living in the relative luxury amidst the fires of Braduk. Jonas was a fierce warlord of great renown among the orcs, who resented being subordinate to the matriarchal priesthood of Bhall. He staged a coup against the high priestess, but Bhall took notice of her people again, and humbled Jonas, making him her priest.
Captured as a babe, the orc Sheelba was raised among the Bannor as a human girl but was spurned and taken in by the orc clans, united under Jonas’s Ember banner. Her insights into civilization have the potential to allow these clans to rise above the petty barbarous orc tribes led by the likes of Orthus, even as their sheer strength and Jonas’s cunning allows them to tear down the human civilizations.
< 1% Other
80% Chaotic Evil
15% Neutral Evil
3% Lawful Evil
2% Chaotic Neutral
< 1% Other
Adult population Lvl 1 or higher: 2%
Other: < 1%
The population of Braduk the Burning had swelled to ten times normal. Orcs were here that Pugg hadn’t seen in the last year. They gathered around the Sacred Flame, more for shelter from the raging blizzard than as worship. Pugg squeezed in between two burly orcs in front of him, who grunted but let the goblin pass. Finally he was warm enough, and could hear the priestess as well.
“Oh great Bhall, Goddess of Fire, shield us and guide us! Listen to your daughters! Give strength to our spear-arms, and let our enemies feel the searing heat of our hate!” The orcs and goblins hushed their rowdy conversations, leaning closer to participate in the ritual. “Let your fire follow in our wake!” they intoned, rattling their spears.
The priestess continued her petition, with the orcs repeating their part as prompted, awaiting the climax of the ritual. Soon it came, as the priestess called out, “Bring forth the sacrifice!” The crowd around the fire parted, allowing the priestess’s servants entrance. Grown male orcs, they were nearly naked despite the unending winter and painted from head to toe in mystic symbols. Between the three pairs they carried the sacrifice: three human soldiers. Stripped of any valuables, their tattered rags still showed bits and pieces of the Bannor emblem. Despite the constant conflict, it was rare for their hated foes to be taken alive.
Pugg jeered and yelled along with the rest, tossing a clod of dirt at one human. His aim was off, and he hit one of the Bhall-orcs instead, who looked down at him as he passed and hissed at him, showing off his tongueless mouth. Pugg recoiled.
“Here, Oh Goddess, taste our devotion!” One by one the human captives were thrown into the large fire-pit, started by the sacred flame itself. They writhed as they cooked, shouting muffled screams until their gags burned away. Then their screams drowned out even the orcs’ raucous cheering. “Oh great goddess, show us your wishes!” shouted the priestess, bowing low before the flames. The assembled crowd did likewise.
As had happened at the previous sacrifice, and the one before that, they waited and watched. Finally, the priestess stood and turned to the assembly. “Bhall has given us a sign, in gratitude for our sacrifice of the hated humans. She blesses our plans, and gives consent to the will of her priestesses.”
“That’s not what I see, hag.” Orcs gasped to hear such a word used here, at the sacred circle. A heavily armored and battle-scarred orc approached the priestess while the rest bowed. Or most of the rest, as here and there in the crowd, and especially around the Bhall-orcs, a few hearty orcs stood with spear in hand. They wore deerskin cloaks matching the speaker’s. “I see the old Crone giving no signs. I see a people full of courage and fury being led by an old woman, who sacrifices the spoils of others.”
“Jonas of Three-Spear tribe,” hissed the old woman. There was no need to shout now. The crowd, hundreds strong, uttered not a word. “How dare you blaspheme at this—”
“At this what? Sacred Fire? Braduk is not the sign of Bhall’s power, it is her pyre. And you, witch woman, can join her in her death.” A quick shove and the ancient orc was in the fire-pit by the remains of the war captives. She died quickly and silently. At the same time, Jonas’s allies quickly dispatched the Bhall-orcs. “You see? It was not blessings that gave the women authority over the warriors, but lies!” As he was speaking, a tremendous thunderclap was heard from far to the north, and the blizzard ended suddenly. “See? Bhall resented having her voice only spoken by weak women.” He grabbed the arm of a small girl huddled wide-eyed by the fire. “The priestess’s apprentice. Being trained to dominate the strong orcs with women’s lies. What do you say?”
Caught up in the revolution, the crowd chanted “Give her to Bhall!” And Jonas did. Into the flame went the girl with a scream. Unlike the human soldiers, her scream did not quiet as her flesh was consumed, but intensified, shrieking ever louder. Her thrashing slowed as her body burned, and her voice grew deeper. Finally, her eyes, rolled back in pain, turned to face Jonas even as the flames licked them.
“Jonas Endain!” She roared. The feared warrior went pale and sank to his knees. “My daughters have made their sacrifices… but what of you?”
“My… my Goddess…”
“Take me from the flames, Jonas.”
The orc chieftain stepped into the fire with teeth clenched, and took the girl’s head in his hands. Her body, nearly ashes, fell away. His cloak caught on fire, and his skin began to darken and blister, but he walked back out slowly, holding the head with both hands. “I have been… inattentive to my people in the mortal realm, Jonas. But this does not excuse your blasphemy.”
“Take my life, Bhall,” whispered Jonas.
“I shall,” spoke the head. The flames continued, but the head was not consumed. “But not to bring to me. You shall be my instrument, Jonas. My first Priest. You will lead my people as you intended, but your glory shall fall to me alone. Lest you forget that your life is my tool, this head, and this girl’s scream, will follow you to your death. Now prepare, my people. My foe is gone, and winter is over. It is time for the new age to begin. And to begin in flames.”
Five thousand orcs raised their spears and roared.
The battle was fierce, but the Bannor men proved true. Turin was called up from the reserves, and he gathered his relics and poultices assuming he was needed to tend the wounded. Alas, the body they presented to him was beyond his or his god’s help.
“Turin…” Aethil begin, “we found it in the fire-pit. I’m sorry, my friend.” The guardsman held out his hand, displaying the tiny bracelet with the Acolyte’s family crest. Turin grabbed it and pushed past him, kneeling before the fire-pit. The blood of orcs and men, mingled with the melting snow soaked though his pants as he cradled the tiny skull he found there in his hands.
“My Jessua…” he murmured. The hope had been small, but it had been, and now it died at the sight of his daughter’s ashes.
“At least these orcs will take no more sacrifices,” Aethil said, wiping his saber and surveying the wasted camp. “Though we’re likely to find another camp here as soon as we turn our back.”
“Lieutenant!” A warrior approached them, a bundle in his arms. “This one’s still alive.”
Aethil grabbed the orc child by the leg, holding it up to examine as the wrappings fell to the trampled earth. “A girl. Damned ugly, but definitely a girl. Turin, take it. Kill it, you’ll feel better.”
Turin took the child from his friend, cradling it in his arms as he had his own. “This girl did not kill my own. No justice is served by her death.”
“It is a corruption, a blight. You’ll be saving someone else’s child from the ravages of the beasts she’ll spawn.”
“Aethil, she’s a baby!”
“Fine, leave it here to die by the wind and the wolves. Or were you planning on raising it yourself?”
The priest had already wrapped the child his own fur cloak. “I shall, then Aethil. And we’ll see how she takes to civilization. If law and goodness can be taught, maybe our relentless war could end.”
“Confessor Turin! Come in, come in. I was so sorry to hear about your wife.”
Turin ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “Yes. We had dreamed of living to see the end of winter together… I guess she gets to see green pastures… before I do.” Turin let the adept lead him to a chair by the fireplace, and they sat for a moment in silence. “How go your studies, Pharsalus?”
“Good news at last. Official sanction from Torrolerial and Sabathiel himself, so they say. We may continue our studies on the mana we have uncovered as long as it aids the war and contributes to the land’s law and peace.”
“Well, then, I have a favor to ask you. My…. The orc child—”
“Yes, how is she?”
“I fear I was overly optimistic. She has grown demanding and selfish, barely able to toddle around, just learning our speech, and it’s ‘no’ this and ‘no’ that. It seems her chaotic nature asserts herself. With the passing of my wife, it is becoming so difficult to raise her, between that and my duties. But I’d hate to have to send her out.”
“Jessua… she died at what age?”
“She’d been just weaned when they took her. What are you implying?”
“Simply that perhaps you don’t have the experience to judge this orc child. Many children are—”
“No. My sweet Jessua would not do the things this child does!”
“Very well, my friend, what is the favor?”
“I heard rumors of a spell you have uncovered. One that can touch minds and bind loyalties. Cast this on my child.”
Pharsalus sighed. “I should protest that it is extremely experimental, but I know better than to try to dissuade you. I could do it here and now, if you had a clump of hair or some other part of her.”
Turin pulled out a small fang and held it up. “She just lost a tooth.”
The adept took it and walked to the next room, bare of furniture except for shelves of reagents and a perfectly round fire pit carved out of the stone floor. He picked a few ingredients out, added the tooth, and started the fire. In went an item now and then as he intoned words, some in the common language, some in a more ancient tongue, ending with, “Qualum en noctum et solum nivum Sheelba!”
Turin watched from the doorway, uncertain that the ritual was over until Pharsalus turned to him. “It is done. The spell will be strengthened whenever you repeat that last word in her presence.”
“Yes. It is from her native tongue. Forsaken. ‘Whether in night or day, never to be forsaken.’”
“Thank you my friend. I shudder to think what would become of me if I raised a wild orc in the heart of the Tor Elyr.”
Wild celebration was occurring throughout the civilized world, and the home of the High Priest of Tor Elyr was no exception. “To those that didn’t make it to this day,” Turin toasted his friends with the finest wine. The windows had been thrown wide open, letting in not the chill winds of winter but the gentle breezes of spring, at last. The city guard Captain chugged his down in one swig.
“More! Might as well finish this vintage Turin, the coming harvest is sure to make a much better wine.”
“Indeed, my friend.” Turin rose to satisfy Aethil’s request.
“Sit, sit. Why do you bother to get up when you have this orc here to do your chores?”
“It isn’t…” Turin sat. “Sheelba, get some more wine for our friend.”
“Yes father.” As she left, Turin drained his own glass, adding it to the pile of empties.
“You let her call you that? ‘Father!’” Aethil spat the word. “You’re not her father. I know, I probably killed him myself, 12, 13 years ago was it now?”
“Aethil! Please, this is a happy time,” Pharsalus interrupted, spilling wine down the front of his robes.
“I suppose you dress her up in Kiradia’s clothing? Call her little Sheelba Jessua Stonelaw do you? It’s vulgar, I tell you.”
“It isn’t… she’s not… She’s not my daughter, Aethil, I know that. Keeping her here amuses me, alright? Better than out pillaging isn’t it?” Turin averted his gaze from his friend’s eyes when he said it.
“It is if she ever manages to bring back that wine.” Aethil got up and staggered towards that kitchen. “Girl! The men are thirsty here!” Turin and Pharsalus followed him. They found the wine sitting on the kitchen counter and the back door wide open. A quick search showed the girl missing.
“Where is she?” Turin asked.
“I think… I think she heard us talking, Turin,” Pharsalus said. “I think she heard you and ran off…”
“She can’t leave me! She’s all I have!” He turned to the mage. “Pharsalus, I said your word every day, so much so she thought it was her name! Where’s your Loyalty spell now?”
“My what? You mean… way back then? That was ten years ago! I was but an adept then, and I told you the spell was still experimental!”
“So it wore off?”
“No, it never took effect. I had the reagents wrong. I thought I told you…”
“Of course it took effect! From that day on she never left my side! She became the most true and loyal daughter I’d ever seen.”
Aethil saw that anguish in his friend’s eyes, and it momentarily overcame his hate for the people he had fought against all his life. “Turin, don’t you see? See wasn’t loyal because she was ensorcelled! She grew up! She became your daughter once you began treating her like she was going to stay with you, rather than always looking for some glimmer of rebellion in her.”
The confessor fell to his knees, grasping his graying hair. “Good gods, what have I done?”
She ran out of the village, tearing away the trappings of civilization. Words escaped her, and she let out a roar, rushing through the dense woods. She was nearly naked by the time he grabbed her.
“Gotcha! Hey, you aren’t human,” the huge orc said.
“No, no I’m not, am I?” Sheelba shook herself free. “I’m not, and he’s not my father, and they mean nothing to me, they can burn they can all burn!” She beat the chest of the orc in front of her with each word. Out of breath, she finally collapsed at his feet. He lifted her up.
“I am Rantine of the Ember Clans. Who are you?”
“I am Sheelba.”
“Come, Sheelba, I will take you home.”
He would not wait much longer. If the men here caught him, they would kill him. Just for who he was, though if they knew what he had done, they would make it slow and painful. He didn’t blame them, Rantine was not ready to die by the Bannor-men’s hands, not just yet. But he could not leave until he met his queen, or the dreams would continue.
Dreams! He scoffed at himself. Being led so many leagues through the bitter cold, alone, by dreams. He was letting her control him, manipulate him again, and he knew it. But there was a line. He was not the orc he had been in his youth, rabid and bloodthirsty, eager for the excuse to rend flesh. Even an orc can tire of bathing in the blood of children, or at least this orc did. He had told her that many times as he traveled here, the last few months. There was a line he would not cross again, not even for her. Bhall did not answer him, except to continue the dreams.
He became aware of sound, coming closer. Someone was running through the underbrush. Noisy, and right towards him. He sighed, and poised himself to strike. Not to kill. He knew how to take down a lone man without killing him, and the fool should expect worse from the rest of the forest.
It was not a human, rushing out of the Bannor village. It was an orc; a half naked orc girl. It was his queen, he knew at once, as the dread he had been feeling for so long vanished.
Braduk the Burning was as easy to find as ever, no matter how long he had been away. The unnatural fire showed the way, day or night. And now, for some reason, no blizzards obscured his sight. His journey had been fraught with the perils of winter, perils he had known all his life. The short trip from the outlying Bannor holdings to the sacred city of the orcs bore him no such hardships. The air was warm. No rain fell, let alone snow. He actually felt warm, even without his furs, which Sheelba now wrapped around herself.
“The men were celebrating the end of winter,” she told him. Rantine nodded. Conversation was foreign to him, and this girl had no end of words. She made liberal use of them as they neared the city, telling bits and pieces of her life. But she was stunned into silence when they entered Braduk. Hundreds of orcs were arrayed before the flames, preparing for war.
Sharpening spears, applying war paint, carving shields, harnessing wargs—everywhere was a flurry of activity. Rantine noticed the orcs arrayed around the banners of their clans. The Reindeer, the Forked Spear, the Bear… even two companies of lizard men. But above them all flew the banner of Embers. And that meant one thing to Rantine.
“What?” Sheelba clutched tightly to his arm as they began to be noticed.
“Jonas Endain will be here. When I left, he vowed to kill me.”
“I was once a hero among our people. But I tried to stop the war, to lead a clan of orcs into treaties with men and against the savagery of Orthus.”
Sheelba stared at him, confused.
“The men never intended to make peace. The elders were slaughtered. I was… thanked and released.”
Rantine looked away, unable to meet Sheelba’s gaze, but before she could question him further, an enormous orc entered the village followed by a lizardman scouting party. An orc with a girl’s head attached to the shaft of a thick mace.
“Hello Jonas. What’s happening?”
“I have united the Clans, Rantine. We are marching on the humans. Going to revenge your folly. Bhall has chosen me to lead. Stay out of my way.” The orcs’ Priest-King pushed past Rantine.
“Wait—you can’t do that!” Jonas turned to give Sheelba a contemptuous glare. “Every time you attack the Bannor, you die! I’ve seen it from their side. They win because they have bronze, they have iron, they have magics, and they have training! Throwing away orc lives in mindless raids will get you… will get us nothing! We need civilization to defeat men on their terms!”
“Who is she?” Jonas asked.
“She is your queen. And I… I will be your protector, Jonas, if you heed her. Otherwise, our people are doomed. I have seen it.”
Rantine expected to die. Any other Clan might have listened. The Jonas he knew would not take such provocation.
Jonas seethed. He gripped the mace tighter. Then, “Come, the two of you. We will speak of this alone.”
When we finally conquered their city, we were not prepared to face what was hidden in these strange, ruined buildings. I was chosen to be part of an exploration team sent inside what we thought to be a shabby warehouse, but once inside the stench of rotting flesh almost stunned me. In the dim light of our lantern we saw thousand of little shiny eyes, belonging to countless baby orcs fighting one another or feasting on rats and other vermin. Here and there my eyes caught the shapes of pregnant orc females, their swelled wombs forcing them to sit helplessly in the dirt. We all knew war too well and knew what had to be done, but in my heart I felt like the monsters I sworn to fight, as killing children was horrible for me, regardless of their race. Our commander ordered to set fire to these warrens, and I think I will never forget their screams… that day I paid with my own humanity the price of joining the crusade…
—Jarn, Bannor soldier