The best brawls were the ones that didn’t involve dwarves. This was not one of Ondernifam’s better brawls.
“Say that again!” The short, obviously inferior dwarf bellowed at the top of his lungs. “Say what you just told me!”
“I said…” Ondernifam paused, trying to remember exactly what it was he had said that had inspired the impending conflict. His brain, fogged with the exceptionally potent ale that the bar served, didn’t particularly want to recall information. “Wanna fight?”
“That’s what I thought you said!” Spit flew from the pepper-colored beard, and the dwarf charged across the barroom floor. Ondernifam grinned, his tusks spreading his lips even wider. He was an orc, born of a proud warrior line that stretched back countless generations! He wasn’t going to be taken down by a four foot tall dwarf that…
The miner slammed into Ondernifam’s stomach and knocked him backwards, throwing him across the room. He came down on a table, and he felt wood splinter under his thick, bare skin. The dwarf jumped up on top of him, cracking what remained of the table’s legs and sending them both crashing to the ground.
Something landed next to Ondernifam’s head. A mug of ale, fallen from the table, thankfully still with a small amount of amber liquid inside. He grabbed it, dumped the remaining contents into his mouth, and smashed the clay container over the dwarf’s head.
The action caused the creature to fall off him and roll across the floor, coming up against the bar. Ondernifam jumped to his feet and raised his fists… Only to see something most curious. The dwarf froze, then, slowly, began rolling back across the floor.
When he reached Ondernifam’s feet, the dwarf climbed back to his feet and simply… Stared at the orc. The shattered remnants of the mug flashed up off the ground, circling the dwarf’s head before reforming in Ondernifam’s hand. His eyes opened wide as the ale trickled back up out of his stomach, pouring itself back into the mug. That was, by far, the saddest thing he had seen all day. Ale should never be able to leave a person’s body before thoroughly intoxicating them.
With a click, the mug jumped out of Ondernifam’s hand and landed back on the floor. It then proceeded to float back up into the air as the bits and pieces of the table reformed. The mug settled back down, and the original owner of the liquid, a girl in a short brown dress, walked back to her seat. Unbidden, Ondernifam’s legs twisted around and carried him back to the bar, next to the hapless dwarf that seemed to be in the same position he was in.
“And now for the finale.” A female voice, taunting and high-pitched, spoke up behind him. Around him, the bar seemed to grow sharply clearer, as if… As if every last drop of alcohol in his system had suddenly left him.
“You, my good lady, will always be welcome in my bar.” The bartender, a rather burly man that had certainly seen his share of brawls, flipped a piece of gold over Ondernifam’s head. “Keep it as a token of my affection.”
Ondernifam turned to glare at whoever had just ruined his perfectly good fight. He found himself staring into the only non-orc he had ever really seen that was close to being as tall as he was. A high elf, clothed in long, golden robes that only the most prestigious beings on the continent would wear. She stared down at him, her silver eyes piercing into his own.
“Why would you do that?” Ondernifam snarled. “You ruined it!”
“No.” The elf held up a single finger. “I believe that I just fixed it. A feat that you seemed incapable of.”
Ondernifam snarled at her, then glanced at her hands. He caught a single glimpse of something soft and silvery in her palms before she folded it into her robes.
“I said that the good lady was welcome in my bar.” The bartender tapped Ondernifam on the shoulder. “You, I want out.” Ondernifam snorted as hard as he could, sending puffs of steam out his unusually large nostrils. He turned to leave, only to hear the dwarf chuckling behind him.
“Much appreciated, good sir. Now, if I could order…”
“I don’t think I made myself clear.” The bartender’s voice was hard. “I want you out, too.”
The dwarf protested. “But…”
Ondernifam just laughed and slowly walked across the barroom floor. Dozens of eyes followed him, and he let them. He was used to stares. This far out of orc country, simply existing was a abnormality.
He walked out onto the street, under the awning that protected the storefront from the rains that blew in from the Great Inland Ocean, only a few miles away. Two humans, a male and a female, sat lounging on a small bench just next to the door. Ondernifam snorted loudly again, and they both stood up and hurried away. Ondernifam just chuckled and sat down in their place, enjoying the fact that the seat was still warm.
The dwarf followed him only moments later, tripping and falling onto the small wooden platform that stood just above the cobblestone street. He climbed to his feet and brushed his miner’s rags off, trying to look dignified.
“If you’re a dwarf in human country, you can throw your pride out the window.” Ondernifam chuckled and rubbed one of his tusks. Protruding from his lower jaw, they extended several inches up the side of his blackish-green face. “Just saying.”
The dwarf turned and glared at him. “And just who do you presume to be, then?”
Ondernifam just shook his head and looked out across the street. Between the two storefronts across the way, he could see the vast, open plains of Donisil, stretching out towards the mountains. Behind him, just audible above the rushing wind, was the lapping sound of waves. The Great Inland Ocean. Or so he was told. There was nothing that great about it, as far as he could tell.
“I’m no one.” He finally shrugged. “You?”
“Just a dwarf that got thrown out of a bar because of an orc.” The dwarf muttered. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go find a reputable establishment. Somewhere that keeps the riff raff out.”
“You’re in a human country!” Ondernifam called after the receding back as the dwarf walked away. “You are the riff raff!”
The dwarf paid him no mind. Frankly, Ondernifam couldn’t blame him. Had the situation been reversed, he would have ignored himself as well. Either that, or he wouldn’t have stopped fighting until his attacker’s blood was spread across the stars.
“You’ve made an enemy.” The high elf walked out of the bar as well, hands still folded in her robes. She looked down at him, eyes piercing. “One does not do well to make enemies.”
“You’re not exactly doing too hot in that regard, either, sister.” Ondernifam chuckled, eyeballing the creature. She was so tall… The only part of her that he could truly see was her face, where her skin appeared to be a deep golden color. Her hair was completely invisible under the golden robes, wrapped up in a head covering. He rather wondered what her hair looked like without the robe on.
“I am not your sister.” The elf held up a finger again. This time, he got a closer look at it. A slim, spidery appendage, long and pointy. “Nor do I care if I make enemies with your type.” She shrugged and walked out. “My time here will not be long.”
“Then why are you still talking to me?” Ondernifam crossed his arms.
The elf cocked her head to the side. “I suppose I don’t know.”
Ondernifam just smirked and sighed, leaning back against the wooden wall. The sun was high in the sky, if he just allowed himself to rest for a few minutes…
“Hey!” The door to the shop swung open, revealing the shop owner. “I said out! That means the porch!”
“And what are you going to do about it?” Ondernifam balled his fists. The bartender pointed across the street, where two town soldiers had just walked out of a small pub and were wandering down the street.
Ondernifam sighed and climbed back to his feet. He enjoyed a lot of things, but he rather hated spending time in jail. There was no one to fight, you just… Sat. It was boring.
Slowly, he walked out onto the street and started walking back towards the city gates. Being an orc, he had been required to check all his weapons at the town entrance. Given that he had spent all his gold in the bar, and subsequently had all his alcohol stolen from his body, he wasn’t going to be able to spend the night in the town of… Well, whatever town he was in. Gor-something. His best chance was to get his weapons out of storage and head out into the plains, towards the mountains. See if he could catch some small mammals before dark fell.
It didn’t take him long to reach the city gates. Four iron-plated soldiers stood in front of the guard post, hands on their sword hilts. They tensed up as he walked closer, but made no move to do anything.
“I’d like my weapons back.” Ondernifam finally spoke up. “I’m heading out.”
“Right.” Two of the soldiers turned to glance at each other, then turned back, smirks on their face. “We’ll need the fee. Four gold.”
“There’s no fee.” Ondernifam shook his head. “I’ve been through plenty of these cities, and they never have a fee to take weapons out of lockup.”
The soldiers laughed heartily. One of them punched one of his friends in the arm and leaned forward. “Looks like we’ve got another slow one.”
The second soldier chuckled. “Course, he’s an orc. What do you expect?”
Ondernifam nodded as it finally started to register. “You’re asking for a bribe.”
“Not a bribe.” The soldier shook his head. “That would be illegal. We’re just enforcing a new fee.”
Ondernifam growled. “I don’t have the money.”
“Then I guess your weapons stay where they are.” The soldier crossed his arms.
“I could take them by force.” Ondernifam snarled.
Four swords appeared out of their scabbards. “Is that a threat?”
Ondernifam chomped his jaw several times, snarling at the puny creatures. Even standing almost six feet tall, they were at least two feet shorter than he was. His thick hide was at least as strong as their standard leather armor, which meant… Well, it didn’t mean a whole great deal at all. Not against iron armor.
Ondernifam just snorted and turned away, stalking back down the street. The soldiers called after him, cheering and jeering. Nearby, another door burst open as the dwarf from earlier was thrown out onto his heels. The creature landed on his back, snarling up at the sky.
“I told you, you won’t find rest in a human city.” Ondernifam shrugged. “But you didn’t listen.”
“This is Gorktindin!” The dwarf held up his hands. “They had such praise of it back in the home country.”
“They did?” Ondernifam laughed. “Let me guess. They told you it was the most welcoming city on the continent, that you just had to make the trip.”
The dwarf climbed back to his feet and glared at the orc. “And how would you know about that?”
Ondernifam sighed. “Because I had the same thing happen to me. Except it was Ritovam.”
The dwarf blinked for a moment. “That’s… That’s two countries over.”
“When you’re not wanted anywhere, you tend to keep walking.” Ondernifam shook his head. He had been on the road for a long time. Longer than he cared to think about. “I don’t suppose you’d have any gold on you?”
“None.” The dwarf muttered. “They took it all.”
There went that plan. Granted, it was a pretty poor plan, but he had fought the dwarf once. Sure, he hadn’t exactly won, but if he could just wrestle a few spare coins out of the creature’s grasp…
“Someone!” Shrieks rose through the air, and both Ondernifam and the dwarf turned as a woman tore through the gates of the city, legs pumping.
“Hey!” Three of the soldiers jogged away from the gate, intercepting the woman in the middle of the street. “Stop!”
The woman drew to a stop and turned to them. Her face was wild, streaked with dirt and tears. Her hair was ragged and frizzled, as if it hadn’t been washed in a week. Finally, a human that Ondernifam could deal with.
“Please.” The woman fell to her knees. “I need help!”
“First, you have to pay an entrance fee to the city.” The soldiers held out their hands. “Four coins.”
The woman reached into her pockets. Ondernifam felt something come over him. He was relatively certain that it wasn’t compassion in any form. More of a realization that if she had money, there was a chance she would give some to him.
“Stop that.” Ondernifam snarled and stalked towards the guards. “There’s no entry fee and you know it.”
The head soldier looked up and grinned. “We can do whatever we feel like doing. If we decide to make a law…”
The soldier glanced to the side. Ondernifam smiled as the human caught a glimpse of someone standing in the shadows nearby. Tall, golden robes. Perhaps the only thing in a human country that held more credibility than a human. What was it with humans and finding elves attractive?
The soldier snorted and nodded shortly. They all turned and stomped back to the gate, leaving only the woman remaining.
“Hey.” Ondernifam walked up to her. “What’s wrong?”
She looked up at him, eyes wide. “You’re an orc!”
“And you’re incredible about stating the obvious.” Ondernifam snorted and crossed his arms. “Now, what’s wrong? Can I help you?”
She nodded frantically. “My husband! He… Came back!”
Ondernifam nodded slowly. While orc relationships were often strained, from what he knew, humans tended to actually mate for life. Of course, orcs always promised to mate for life, but it was often simply in the knowledge that both spouses would be trying to win the race to pick up a mistress or lover. Humans tended to actually mean the promises.
“Did he leave you?” The dwarf walked up, once again sticking his all-too-pudgy nose into Ondernifam’s business. “He sounds…”
“You want to help too?” The woman threw her arms around the dwarf, then turned and gave Ondernifam a hug as well. “Thank you!”
Ondernifam nodded slowly. “So… You just want us to get rid of your husband for you?”
“Please!” She nodded. “He was just outside my house when I left. He’s probably inside by now. Get him away, for good!”
“I’d be glad to help!” The dwarf held out his hand. “Please, show me the way.”
“Hey!” Ondernifam held out his own hand. “I offered, too!”
“Please.” The woman shuddered. “You can both help, and you’ll both be rewarded. I just want him gone, and… The more people helping, the better chance you have of getting him out.”
Ondernifam nodded slowly. Was her husband a troll? Or something equally large and disgusting? It was the only thing he could think of that would be that hard to get rid of.
“If you could do me just one favor first?” Ondernifam glanced back towards the high elf, only to find that she had since vanished again. “My weapons are in lockup. I’d appreciate an advance on…”
“I’ll get them out.” The woman turned and scrambled for the guard post. Her hands shook as she reached into her robes, pulling out bags of money. “You’ll need your weapons, I’m sure of it.”
“Why exactly would you say that?” Ondernifam frowned as the woman threw the coins at the guards. The gold landed at their feet, and one of them slowly bent down to pick them up as another grudgingly went into the back room to retrieve Ondernifam’s weapons of war. “Is he a monster? Why do you want him gone? Is he mean to you?”
“Oh, no!” The woman’s eyes teared up. “He was the kindest person I knew. So gentle, and yet so firm when he needed to be. He could plow an acre of ground all by himself, he could…”
“So what happened?” The dwarf cut in. “What did he do?”
“Got bucked off a horse.” The woman twisted her hair around her spindly finger. “Hit his head on a rock. He was dead before we got him into town. That was two weeks ago.” She bent over double, heaving violently. “And now… Now he’s back from the dead!”
Ondernifam was feeling significantly less confident in his plan as they trudged out across the plains towards the farm. The woman swore that it was only a few miles away from the city, but she had also sworn that it was close to the paved road that crossed the country, and they had been walking through prairie grass for at least three miles by Ondernifam’s guess. In the distance, the mountainous border of Donisil and Tornor was just visible on the horizon. Somehow, he wouldn’t have been surprised if the woman had lived in the foothills, even in the mountain range itself.
Settled firmly on his back was his massive battle axe, its weight a comfort that he didn’t care to give up anytime soon. The blade, nearly three feet across, could cleave through a horse in one blow. Beside him, the dwarf sported a warhammer that looked more suited for mining than combat.
“I didn’t catch your names.” The woman turned to Ondernifam. “My name is Willa.”
“Ondernifam.” Ondernifam muttered. “This husband of yours…”
“And you?” She turned to the dwarf. “What about you?”
“Garnisic.” The dwarf sighed. “Garn for short.”
“Garn.” The woman turned back to the orc. “Can I call you Ondi for short?”
“No.” Ondernifam shook his head. “You may not.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes while Ondernifam just tried to think about everything. He had fought the undead, nearly everyone had at one point or another. It was one of the worst parts of living in a world populated by wizards and magic. When things died, they had a tendency to not stay nearly as dead as whoever killed them would have liked. One of the many reasons that magic had been abolished in all three orc countries.
Generally speaking, fighting the undead wasn’t an issue. The magic storms that ravaged the land would charge corpses with energy, giving them a bit of extra life. Or a wizard would bind a few bones together to make a skeleton. Or a ghost would pop back for a quick visit, say hello, haunt the person that killed them. Nothing major. The problem was that it was almost impossible to know for sure if that’s actually what you would be facing. The same spell that would turn one body into a simple, walking corpse would transform another into a monster with a dozen limbs and a hunger that an entire country wouldn’t satisfy. It was one of the many reasons that Ondernifam tended to stay well enough away from the creatures, as much as he could.
And now he was walking straight up to one. What could go wrong?
“I can think of a handful of things that can go wrong here.” Garn hefted his hammer. “You said he came back. Can you tell us…”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” The woman shook her head violently. “Please. Don’t make me.”
“We need to know what kind of undead we’re dealing with.” Garn pressed forward. “If you can’t tell us, I can’t help.”
Ondernifam snorted and gnashed his jaws. He agreed with the dwarf, but he couldn’t very well say that. “Just let the woman grieve. We’ll take care of it.”
“You orcs.” Garn muttered. “Always just wanting to charge into battle without so much as a plan.”
“I have a plan.” Ondernifam flexed his muscles. “Win.”
“That’s a terrible…”
The woman bent over double, heaving and gasping. Her arm shot out, and she collapsed, her cries rising in the air. Garn bent down next to her as she screamed, and Ondernifam started pacing. Cries were a call to predators. It meant that something was hurt, in pain, and unable to fight back. Which could easily mean predators.
“Ondi?” Garn’s voice was filled with concern. Not the type that meant that he actually cared about something, but the type that meant danger. Orcs were very good about picking out the difference. “Something’s wrong.”
“You’re calling me Ondi.” Ondernifam snarled, reached behind his back, and unclipped his battle axe. “That’s what’s wrong.”
“I think she’s turning.” Garn climbed to his feet and backpedaled. “She’s… Dying.”
Ondernifam snorted and walked up to the woman. She was facedown on the ground now, still crying, and did seem to be changing. Black lines spread across her exposed skin, crawling across her neck and down her arms. Even her hair seemed to be affected, as it turned white and began to fall out. Ondernifam shrugged, hefted his axe, and brought it down onto the woman’s neck.
“Why would you do that?” Garn looked away as her head rolled across the ground. “Why?”
“She was turning into an undead.” Ondernifam bent down and started frisking through the woman’s clothes. It didn’t take long to find a small coin pouch, though it took even less time to dump out the three small coins that the pouch contained. She had obviously spent most of her coinage on getting Ondernifam’s weapon back. “I stopped it.”
Garn sighed as Ondernifam climbed back to his feet. Slowly, Ondernifam twirled the axe a few times, then slung it back over his shoulder and started walking in the direction the woman had been taking them.
“What are you doing now?” Garn snarled and ran up to the orc. Now free of the woman’s tiny legs, Ondernifam could take much longer strides through the grass, forcing the dwarf to run to keep up. “You’re still going to take care of the husband?”
Ondernifam turned and stared at the dwarf. In reality, he was planning on simply looting the house and walking away with as much gold as he could carry. “Yes. I’m a good guy like that.” Knowing that Garn was unlikely to believe such a story, Ondernifam decided to make it a bit more believable. “If her husband really did come back from the dead, it means that he could be roaming this part of the land. I’d rather not meet him in the middle of the night while I’m sleeping.”
“You just want whatever gold the woman had at her home!” Garn pointed a finger at Ondernifam. “Am I right?”
“And if you want any of it, you’re going to have to fight me for it.” Ondernifam turned back and started walking again. “And I don’t think you’re exactly capable of winning that fight, dwarf.”
There was no response. Ondernifam sighed and turned around, only to find the prairie empty. There was only grass, as far as he could see. He sighed, then kept moving towards the home. At least, in the direction he hoped was the home. Whatever the dwarf was pulling, it was of no consequence to the orc. He had probably just shrunk up and disappeared. Dwarves did that, right?
It didn’t take long, perhaps another half hour, before something appeared on the horizon. A small blot, a blemish on the plains. Ondernifam smiled and started to run, leaping through the grass as fast as he could move. The homestead quickly came into view, a small home in the middle of an endless sea of grass. A small field, perhaps an acre, sat in front of the home, a break in the grass filled with what appeared to be vegetables. Disgusting. Behind that, though, Ondernifam could see several fences, perhaps animal corrals? That was more like it.
Ondernifam slowed as he reached the home. Despite his desire to clear the house of valuables, there was still the matter of the undead husband that he was going to have to deal with. Slowly, he took a deep breath and hefted his battle axe. With a mighty roar, he slammed the blade into the door of the home, tearing through it in an instant. Wood shattered into splinters, bits and pieces of the door flew everywhere. As the remnants of the door settled, a shape loomed out of the darkness of the home. A human-sized figure, reaching out its hands. Ondernifam smiled and took a step back, planning on beheading the monster as it ran from the home.
“What are you doing?” A man ran from the home, a scowl on his face. He held a shortsword in his right hand, a pathetic weapon to face an orc with. “Why would you do that?”
Ondernifam snarled. “You’re not dead.”
“Not yet.” The man held up his sword. “You could be in a few minutes, though.”
“Please.” Ondernifam snorted, then frowned. “Your wife told us you had come back from the dead, and you needed killed!”
The man lowered his sword, then turned around and yelled back into the dwelling. “You put a hit on me?”
“I did no such thing!” Another woman, one who was clearly not the woman they had been traveling with, ran into view. “I don’t know who you are, but…”
“Oh, don’t pull that with me!” The man twirled his sword. “You’ve been trying to get rid of me for…”
Ondernifam coughed. The couple stopped arguing and slowly turned to face him.
“Yes?” The man finally held up his hands. “Are you finished here?”
Ondernifam shook his head. “There was a woman who came into town. Said her husband had been killed a few weeks back, and…”
“Oh!” The man sheathed his sword and pointed out across the plains. “The homestead you’re looking for is about two miles that way. You can’t miss it. Terrible accident, that was.”
Ondernifam groaned and turned to head in that direction. The wind even seemed to sigh around him, as if the environment itself was disappointed that he would now have to traverse even more land just to get some loot. After a moment, he frowned and turned back to the man and his wife. They didn’t exactly look difficult to defeat, and he was certain that they would have good loot as well.
Something seemed to tap his shoulder, and he turned back to the prairie again. Oh, well. He had a home that he could take without killing anyone, and that was probably best. With a groan, he set off across the plains, though he made certain to step on a tomato plant as he jogged out of the garden. Undead were annoying, but tomatoes were a true abomination, an affront to nature. Nothing should look that good, even be filled with a substance that looked like blood, and still taste like… That.
By the time the second house rose in the distance, Ondernifam was starting to feel winded. Had he still been a young orc, in battle training, he could have ran the length of the country without ever stopping to take a breath. Now, though he was certainly still in his prime, jogging a great distance was a good bit harder than it had once been.
He reached the home a few moments later, drawing up to the door. Slowly, he glanced back and forth. There was no one around to see him, so there couldn’t be any harm in taking a short breather. He unclipped his battle axe, but proceeded to slowly walk around the farmstead, taking in the sights while his rapid breathing slowed.
It was incredibly similar to the previous homestead. A small plot of land, tilled and planted to vegetables and vined fruits. In the back of the home, there were several small pens that looked like they had once held animals. The main difference between the homes, was the fact that everything seemed to be in ruins. Weeds and shrubs grew up around the plants in the garden, choking them out in many places. Whatever animals had once lived in the pens were long gone, having seemingly broken through rotting posts that had decayed over time. Decayed wooden rails lay strewn across the interior of the pens, a testament to how long the farm had gone without any real maintenance. The only blemish in the weeds seemed to be a large burn mark in the grass, next to the home.
Slowly, Ondernifam walked up to the home and hefted his axe. If he was going to do this, he was going to do it right. Carefully, he walked up to the back door and smiled. It was time to actually clear out a house. It was just him and an undead husband. No surprises, no…
A loud crash echoed through the air from the other side of the home. Ondernifam groaned and ran around the wooden structure to find Garn flying back into the garden, having apparently been knocked aside by something. The dwarf landed on a section of cucumbers, crushing the repulsive green tubes. Ondernifam smirked, then turned to face the now-open doorway.
His smirk vanished as he saw the monstrosity standing in the entrance to the home, roaring and snarling at the orc. It was still vaguely human, but whatever magic had brought it back to life had severely distorted its features. Bones seemed to have grown from its rotting flesh, covering the creature in natural armor plates that Ondernifam suspected wasn’t going to be particularly easy to break through. Its arms and legs were substantially longer than an average human’s, though it was still shorter than Ondernifam himself.
The zombie turned and roared at Ondernifam. Acting on instinct, Ondernifam roared back. The creature dropped to all fours, then jumped at his face, arms outstretched. Ondernifam smiled and swung his axe, catching the monster mid-air. Rather than slicing the zombie in half, the blade simply batted the creature aside, tossing it into the garden with Garn. “Hey!” Garn leapt to his feet and hefted his hammer as the zombie scrambled to its feet. “Why…”
The creature leapt at Garn, mouth wide open, revealing rows of rotting teeth. Garn swung his warhammer in a downward arc, catching the monster behind the head and smashing it into the soft ground. The limbs of the creature flailed while Garn tried to hold it down.
“Quick!” Garn snarled. “Cut off its head! The back of its neck is weak.”
Ondernifam snarled and swung his axe down at the middle of the zombie’s back. His blade stopped short as it crashed into solid bone. The impact was worse than almost any he had experienced before, so much that the blade was jared from his hands.
“You!” Garn sputtered as the creature managed to pull its head out from under the warhammer. It snapped its jaw once before leaping at the dwarf. Up close, Garn could do little with his hammer, and was forced to turn and run as the zombie chased him back into the house.
Ondernifam laughed for a moment, then decided to chase after them. He found Garn running in circles around the room, trying to put furniture between himself and the zombie. Ondernifam smirked, and reached for his battle axe. He then remembered that it had been dropped, only moments before. His eyes went wide as Garn dove past him into the garden again, leading the zombie straight to him.
The creature jumped upwards, snapping at Ondernifam’s arms. Ondernifam sighed and grabbed one of the zombie’s armored arms. Before it could bite him, he twisted the limb deftly, ripping the rotting flesh clean out of the socket. He then smashed the zombie in the head with its own arm, knocking it off-balance and into a nearby wall.
Before it could recover, Ondernifam stepped forward and grabbed the back of its skull with his right hand. He then grabbed the armored spine with his other, and pulled with all his might. In what must have been an epic show of force, he ripped the head clean off the body, then left them both drop to the ground. The jaw of the monster continued to snap for a few moments, then slowly stilled.
Ondernifam chuckled and turned to the nearby cabinet, opening the doors with a small creak. Behind him, the floor gave an ancient groan as Garn walked back into the room.
“No.” Ondernifam turned around. After a moment of thought, he ran his hand through the cabinet, knocking dozens of ceramic bowls and plates onto the floor. “I killed it. I get the loot.”
“I used an invisibility charm to follow you.” Garn crossed his arms. “Most people would have at least noticed the grass moving as I walked through it. Since you didn’t notice a thing, I get some of the loot.”
Ondernifam didn’t think that was how that should have worked at all, but it took him several seconds too long to think about what the dwarf was saying. By the time he had came to his senses, Garn had already torn into a small bed stand. Ondernifam sighed and simply kept looking. If he could find the gold first…
The distinctive clink of gold sounded behind him. Ondernifam turned around to see a single gold piece rolling across the floor. He bent down and picked it up before the dwarf could, then looked up to see a guilty-faced Garn peering up from a small safe in the corner.
“What did you find?” Ondernifam pocketed the gold piece and stalked forward. “How much was in there?”
“The piece that you picked up, and this one.” Garn held up one other coin. “Nothing else.”
Ondernifam gnashed his teeth, then turned and started smashing his way through the rest of the cabinets. He didn’t even bother opening them, he simply smashed the wood and let the contents drop down onto the ground.
“You boys have certainly done well here.” A feminine and rather familiar voice echoed through the air. Ondernifam spun to see the high elf female from the town standing in the doorway. She knelt down, holding her right hand over the fallen zombie. Her left hand was hidden in her robes, and seemed to be clutching something. A weapon? She frowned for a moment, then stood back up.
“You just killed a koncher. I imagine you feel quite proud of yourself, Ondi.”
“Ondernifam.” Ondernifam snarled, then nodded. “And yes. It was a glorious battle.”
“Konchers are the weakest of the more advanced species of zombies that can be brought back to this world.” The elf glided across the room, her golden robes seeming to trail just a fraction of an inch above the dusty floor. “That said, they must be brought back, formed. Magical storms can conjure a few minor species of zombie, but nothing like this.”
“So someone did this.” Garn crossed his arms. Two gold pieces fell from his short, plump robes, and he grabbed for them. Ondernifam scowled, trying to remember just how many pieces of gold Garn had told him he had found. “What’s that to us?”
“They could do it again.” Ondernifam smashed another cabinet. “We could face another glorious battle.”
“Or, they could do something even more deadly.” The elf spread her arms. “I believe that the woman told you that her husband had been dead for two weeks, yes?”
“Have you been following us?” Garn gestured at the elf with a pathetically small fist. “You…”
“I used a perception disperser.” The woman smiled at the diminutive dwarf. “Not even you noticed.” Garn snorted and crossed his arms, and the elf smirked. “Her husband died, at which point, she probably stopped taking care of the animals and the garden. However, this place appears to have been abandoned for far longer. Perhaps two or three months.”
“What are you saying?” Ondernifam snapped his jaw, trying to make his tusks look intimidating. “What…”
“Something had speed up the process of time here.” The elf bent down and placed her hands on the floor. “Either that, or speed up the process of decay. Two very different spells with very similar effects. I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s more going on here.”
“That sounds like I need to leave.” Garn turned and walked out the door. “If time is going off, I don’t want to stick around.”
The elf turned to Ondernifam and held up her hands. “There could be danger.”
Ondernifam snorted and smashed another cabinet. More dishes. He was beginning to suspect that the dwarf had simply taken all the gold and then left.
“I don’t like danger.” Ondernifam snorted and walked past the elf, out into the open air. She followed him as he walked back into the garden and picked up his axe. His eyes narrowed at the flecks of rust that seemed to have appeared on the polished metal. That never happened! He took very good care of his weapons. “I like combat.”
“There will be plenty of that, too.” The elf’s voice was sounding desperate. Garn had already walked out of the far side of the garden, striding back towards town. “There will be gold!”
“You’re a high elf!” Garn turned and yelled back. “You don’t like gold!”
“Not true.” The elf smiled coyly. “We know how to transform any basic metal into gold. As such, we have no need for greed, since we know we can always make whatever we need.”
Ondernifam had never seen a dwarf move quite so quickly. Garn dropped to his knees at the elf’s feet and held up his warhammer. “My steel is yours to command.”
The elf smirked and slid her hands back into her robes. “And what about you? I have great power. Anything you desire.”
Ondernifam just smiled softly. His tusks chafed against his skin, and he reversed his mouth into a scowl again. “I desire nothing.”
He turned to walk away, only to be stopped by her voice.
“I can give you a home.”
Ondernifam turned around slowly. “My home is in Ondrinor.”
“No.” The elf wagged a finger. “I think you got thrown out of your home. I think you’ve been wandering for a long time, and I think you’re looking for a place to settle down.”
“Orcs never settle down.” Ondernifam snapped.
“No, I suppose they don’t.” The elf finally sighed. “But… Wouldn’t it be nice to live in one place? Not have to worry about getting thrown out of a bar because you were an orc? You could throw other people out of the bar. Or you could live in a lake home that people would attack on a weekly basis because they wanted you out. Whatever you wanted.”
Ondernifam smiled again. He regretted the decision as his tusks pricked his skin, but… That did sound nice. A home so grand that people would try to take it from him by force!
“And you can do that?” Ondernifam brandished his axe and stalked towards the elf. “You can give me that?”
The elf held out her hand. In a moment, Ondernifam’s axe became ten times heavier than it had been. His eyes opened wide as the blade became a sparkling gold, a metal more pure than he had ever seen before. In the blink of an eye, it was back to normal, and he was left gaping.
“I can give you whatever you want.” The elf smiled. “My name is Hesione. And you two are my new army.”
Ondernifam held his axe tightly as they wandered back into the home. Now that Hesione had said something, he was quite certain that there was something wrong with the house. It just seemed… Dark. Spooky. Like one of those places where large monsters hide right before they jumped on you.
Hesione walked to the middle of the room and held out her hands. After a few moments of concentration, she opened her eyes and nodded.
“The epicenter of the disturbance is right here. I think there’s something under us.”
Ondernifam snorted. “What does that mean?”
Hesione sighed and pointed at her feet. “Dig here.”
Garn stepped forward, and Hesione swept out of the way. Garn patted his warhammer, running his fingers along a series of runes cut into the handle. The weapon lit up with a greenish glow, then transformed from a five-foot long hammer into a three-foot long pickaxe. He gestured at the wooden floor, and Ondernifam frowned.
“Break the floor, get past the wood, and I’ll dig down through the ground itself.” Garn finally sighed and tapped the floor with his foot. “Hurry, now.”
Garn took a deep breath and slammed the axe into the wooden floor. It only took him three hacks before he had ripped clean through the wood, revealing a hard, rocky surface below. Garn stepped up and went to work with his pickaxe, smashing through rock and soil with a flurry.
“Did his weapon just change?” Ondernifam finally turned to Hesione. “It changed.”
“It’s an enchantment.” Hesione smiled. “Dwarves are said to be quite good at applying magical effects to items.”
“Better than any other!” Garn hacked at the ground. He had already created a good two-foot hole, and was moving downward quickly. “Better yet, we can apply elven magic, human magic, even your orcish blood magic.”
Ondernifam frowned. “Blood magic?”
“Soothe.” Hesione held up a hand. A calm, like a river on a peaceful day, flowed through Ondernifam’s mind. After a moment, it cleared, and he was left staring at a much larger hole in the ground.
“And we’re through!” Garn stuck his head up out of the hole. “Looks like you were right. There’s a tunnel down here.”
“Excellent.” Hesione stepped down into the hole. “Ondernifam? Are you coming?”
“Yeah.” Ondernifam shook his head. It felt like an army of blood spiders had crawled in his ears and made a nest in his brain. Of course, it was impossible for that to have happened… The only orc that Ondernifam had ever known it to happen to had died as a result of the infestation. Plus there were no blood spiders here.
“And we’re sure he doesn’t remember?” Garn’s voice echoed from in the hole.
“He will if you don’t stop talking.”
Ondernifam snorted and jumped into the opening. Whatever they were talking about, it couldn’t be that important. He slid down into the hole as fast as he could, traveling down the sloped surface and coming out in a small tunnel that had been paved with cobblestone. The walls were lined with a greenish stone, while the arched ceiling was bone-white.
“What is this?” Ondernifam hefted his axe as Hesione sent small orbs of light out of her hands, up and down the corridor in either direction.
“I don’t know.” Hesione sighed after a few moments. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“It’s not Dwarven.” Garn glanced at Ondernifam. “Do orcs dig?”
“No.” Ondernifam snorted. “We do not.”
That actually wasn’t entirely true. The orcs were known to build crypts that they would use for trapping explorers trying to sneak into their country. After all, what explorer could resist the draw of a potentially ancient ruin filled with bones of a forgotten era? That said, the few that Ondernifam had helped build had looked substantially different.
“Then we need to head out.” Hesione started walking down the passage, to Ondernifam’s right. “Come. Stay close.”
Ondernifam spun his axe once and held it at the ready. Slowly, the trio set out, moving through the tunnel with care. Thankfully, the tunnel was tall, at least two feet higher than Ondernifam’s eight-foot span. It began to curve as they walked, leading… Somewhere. Hesione continued to produce balls of light, but they failed to illuminate anything more than simple walls. Occasionally there would be a design or two, but nothing that Ondernifam would have considered exciting.
“At the ready.” Hesione stopped and motioned the two warriors ahead of her. “We have… There’s something here.”
Ondernifam and Garn glanced at each other. Garn took a step forward, and Ondernifam quickly stepped out in front of him. If there was a monster to be killed, Ondernifam was going to be the one to kill it. No questions about that!
Garn snorted and transformed his pickaxe back into a hammer, and Ondernifam ran forward. A dozen lights zoomed past him, lighting the way as he ran through a doorway and into a large, domed room that looked entirely too massive to be under a prairie.
It was huge, the ceiling was dozens of feet off the ground. The edges of the room had dozens of tunnels leading off in different directions, winding through the ground. The exact center of the room held a small pedestal, upon which sat a small book. A book that seemed to be reading itself. Pages flipped back and forth of their own accord, flapping in an unseen wind. The text itself seemed to move, and Ondernifam blinked a few times.
Ondernifam kept his axe raised for a few long moments as he and the dwarf walked around the perimeter of the room. Hesione’s lights continued to float through the air, filling the room with light. And yet, nothing materialized to kill them. Nothing was happening.
“All clear.” Garn finally yelled. “We’re safe.”
Hesione walked out of the tunnel a few moments later. A string of lights trailed behind her, hanging in the tunnel. Ondernifam made a mental note of the fact that some of the lights weren’t moving. If they needed to escape, the lights were in the same tunnel they had just come from.
Hesione walked up to the book, eyes narrowing at the pages. Ondernifam stepped up next to her, squinting down at the tiny text. Hesione turned and stepped in front of him, eyes narrow.
“Don’t read this.” She slowly turned to peer at the book. “It might be magic.”
“If you think that might be magic, you need better vision.” Garn laughed. “That’s one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen.”
Ondernifam snorted, and Hesione pointed towards the wall. Ondernifam sighed, turned, and walked away. He resumed patrolling around the outside, glancing into the tunnels. Nothing showed its face, but he was fairly certain that he could hear scratching in at least one of the directions. He knew that the other two probably couldn’t, though, and decided not to inform them.
He was distracted from his patrol as Hesione screamed. Not a scream of excitement, not even a scream of fear. A scream of terror. He spun and ran up to the platform as she stared down at the pages of the book, eyes wide. Lights flashed inside her eyes, and Ondernifam groaned. Without a thought, he swung his axe and smashed the pedestal into a thousand pieces. The book dissolved into dust, and Hesione snapped back to reality.
“What did you do?” She pointed a finger at Ondernifam. “I was learning!”
“You were screaming.” Garn muttered. “He did the right thing.”
“Zombies. Time.” Ondernifam held up his hands. “You were trying to learn something.”
“Something that you aren’t going to understand.” Hesione sighed and walked back towards the lights. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
“Not yet.” Ondernifam put a hand on her shoulder. “We don’t want to be in the tunnel when they attack.”
Hesione frowned. “When who attacks?”
Ondernifam shrugged. “I just destroyed a magic book. Something is bound to attack.”
Hesione opened her mouth to reply. Whatever she was about to say was cut off by a loud crack. Ondernifam looked up as the ceiling began to break apart, allowing streams of dust to drift down through the air.
“Cave-in!” Garn turned and ran back into the tunnel. “Run!”
Hesione cocked an eyebrow at Ondernifam, and followed the dwarf. Ondernifam growled, but followed as the roof began to crack and split. A large chunk of stone came crashing down in the spot where the pedestal had been, and he snarled and ran faster. Dust billowed up behind him, and something began to scrape his shoulder.
Ahead of him, the dwarf and the elf raced down the tunnel, back towards the exit. Hesione’s lights led the way, though, and Ondernifam began to notice something. A subtle change ahead of them, flickers in the magical torchlight.
“Let me past!” He roared and pushed past Hesione and Garn. His mouth opened wide, and he roared at the top of his lungs. With that, he charged around the final corner before the escape tunnel. Sure enough, the soft flickers that he had noticed were, indeed, shadows. Three zombies, normal zombies, stood just in front of the hole that Garn had carved into the tunnel wall only minutes earlier. They all three turned as Ondernifam charged at them.
Technically, only one of the zombies was human. One of them was an elf, and one was a satyr. Each species had its own strength and weakness in life, and most of them had their own set of strengths and weaknesses in death. Ondernifam ignored all of that, and simply swung his axe at the trio. The first two zombies collapsed in multiple pieces, and he kicked the third in the chest. His foot sank straight through the rotting flesh and bone, snapping the spine of the being. It collapsed, and he smashed its skull with his second foot.
Hesione nodded in thanks as she ran past him and climbed up out of the tunnel. Garn followed her a moment later, and Ondernifam scrambled up the rear. The trio burst up into the cabin… Or, at least, what remained of it. Ondernifam took a deep breath as he stared at his surroundings. The home was technically still there, but the roof had caved in, and only one of the walls was still standing. This allowed for an excellent view of the prairie, but a rather poor shelter from any sort of storm that may have happened to blow through. The garden was now completely indistinguishable from the rest of the grassland, while the pens behind the home had completely fallen.
“This place has aged a bit.” Garn grunted and climbed over the rotting remainders of the roof to stand outside the ruins of the home. “You think it was the aging magic you were talking about?”
Hesione bit her lip and glided past Ondernifam. He followed her as they walked off the home and started circling the homestead. Slowly, the elf held up her hand, frowning as her robes blew in the wind.
“How long would you say we were down there?” Hesione turned to them. “Five minutes? Maybe ten?”
“Maybe.” Ondernifam nodded slowly. “Why? You already said that this would age fast.”
“Right.” Hesione nodded back. “It took two weeks for a garden to grow weeds and for a fence to rot. It then took ten minutes for the house to fall down? I don’t think so.” She twisted her hand back and forth in the breeze. “It’s cold. The air, I mean.” She sighed. “It was spring when we went down. I think it’s fall now.”
Garn walked up to her and held up a finger. “You mean we’ve been down there for six months?”
“We won’t know until we get back to town, but…” Hesione sighed. “Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Ondernifam blinked several times, trying to make it all work out in his head. It hadn’t been six months, it had been ten minutes! Maybe the weather had just changed. He had seen snowstorms in summer before. That was probably what had happened.
“I think we need to get back to town.” Hesione sighed. She started to walk across the plains, then slowly turned back to face the home. “I don’t know what we’re dealing with, but I’d rather like to investigate it.” Her mouth twitched upward in a smile. “Wouldn’t you?”
Ondernifam sat down at the table as the bartender brought them several mugs of cider. Steam rolled off the liquid, warm in the frigid air. Hesione tossed the man a coin, and he walked behind the bar to begin preparing more. The elf and the dwarf sat down as well, slowly drinking their own cider. Ondernifam hefted the drink to his lips, feeling the alcohol as it poured down his throat. Hesione snapped her fingers, and the bartender returned with a shot of blood. Ondernifam happily poured it into his liquid, savoring the now much-improved flavor.
“Well, if there’s one thing to be said for skipping six months, it’s nice that no one remembers us.” Garn muttered and sat his mug down. “That would have been embarrassing.”
“I could have made it work.” Hesione sighed and added a shot of nectar to her drink. “That said, I’m glad I don’t have to.”
“So what’s going on?” Garn finally sighed and crossed his arms. “What happened there? What magic was that?”
“A magic I’ve never seen before.” Hesione sighed. “And I’ve seen a lot of magic. It wasn’t elven, it wasn’t dwarven. It wasn’t orcish, it wasn’t human, it wasn’t even fairy magic. It was something new.”
With a loud crash, the front door of the bar burst open, allowing a bitter cold air to flood the room. Ondernifam shivered as a man in tattered rags tripped and fell on his face. Hesione jumped to her feet, but a traveling trader in the corner reached the man’s side first. He unclipped a lamp from his pack and held it to the man’s side. From where Ondernifam sat, he could see the small light in the lamp bouncing around, trying to escape. It was a fairy, trapped for whatever use the owner intended. As he watched, the healing energies from the fairy began to rejuvenate the fallen messenger. Hesione continued to watch for a few seconds before apparently deciding that the man had enough help.
“Well, then.” Ondernifam gnashed his teeth and brought the conversation back to the mysterious magic. “How do we kill it?” Hesione and Garn both turned to look at the orc.
“I thought you didn’t like danger.” Hesione finally spoke up. “We don’t even know what we might be fighting. There’s plenty of danger in that.”
Ondernifam shook his head. There was no danger as far as he could see. If they failed, they got thrown into the future. That was far from the worst idea Ondernifam had ever heard. If anything, if they got thrown far enough forward, he would outlive everyone in his empire. He could go home!
“No danger.” He forced a small smile, though he stopped immediately. “Just conflict. The greatest enemy that no one can beat.”
“Then it’s settled.” Hesione smiled. “I’ll pay you for each adventure we go on. You help me, and believe me, I will help you.” Behind them, the messenger finally climbed back to his feet. The lantern had gone dark, but the trader seemed not to care. The messenger cleared his throat and called out at the top of his lungs.
“Aldorash the Sorcerer has returned from the dead! He plans to open the Gates of Balsar, unleashing darkness on the world! Please, I know where to find him! If someone could…”
An arrow flashed out of the darkness, through the slightly open door, and hit the messenger between the shoulder. So much for using an entire fairy’s energy to heal him. As the man’s blood slowly spread across the barroom floor, another man in a long, black coat leapt to his feet. He tore out onto the street, and loud screams began to echo through the air. A few minutes later, he came back in and started searching the messenger’s body.
“Right.” Ondernifam shook his head and nodded at his new employer. Whoever was investigating the mysterious sorcerer had likely just graduated from whatever academy he had chosen to study at. Sorcerers came back from the dead every other week or so, it was nothing to be concerned about. Instead, thoughts of peace swirled through his mind. The image of a home… Even better, the image of a mountain fortress, it was right in front of him. He could reclaim what was rightfully his. “Where do we start?”