Leondrea stalked ahead along the trail of orkish footprints and a streak through the underbrush indicating something massive being dragged behind – her mutt.
They’d been on the trail for nearly an hour now and were growing close to the temple where Soren had encountered the Naga. The madam continued with the same amount of rage and fervor she had when they first began.
Based on the spacing of the tracks, the orks had been moving quickly – how they could accomplish such a feat while dragging a dog as big as a wagon was beyond any of the three currently seeking them out. Even more perplexing was how they managed to break the mutt’s chain in the first place, given that it was a chain designed to hold an anchor. And yet, they managed to cut through it without anyone noticing before they were already making their getaway. It should have taken hours – instead, it took them minutes. And, in those minutes, the dog didn’t make a sound.
The more they discussed the circumstances of the dog-napping, the more worried Leondrea became. The dog’s silence would indicate that it was somehow knocked unconscious – not an easy thing to do to a dire wolf – or worse. The fact that the chain broke so easily and the fact that they were running while dragging the dog indicated that they had use of either elven witchcraft or one of their number was far stronger than the average ork. Given that one ork generally counted for two men in terms of odds on the battlefield, this was a harrowing thought for the trio.
Nevertheless, they pressed on. Leondrea wanted her dog back. Soren wanted Leondrea’s help in finding his friend Tyrell, who was hopefully in the village of Zapad, clear on the other side of the island; a journey that would not only be treacherous, but would take several days. Maya- well, Maya maybe just had a death-wish; she always loved doing things just for the thrill of it.
They came up to the temple of the Naga. The statue had been crumbled – Leondrea noted that it looked not as if it had been smashed, but instead as if it had been squeezed to the point of shattering. Whatever was leading the orks seemed to only be getting more and more dangerous.
As Leondrea studied the surroundings in an effort to find out anything more about what was leading the orks, Soren attempted to find the small snake that had helped him when he’d been here before. He looked at the top of the stairs, where it had first greeted him, then down into the entrance chamber. Still nothing.
He took out the instrument he’d found there and played a few notes, but still no snake. He let out a sigh as he returned to the others.
“Still no sign of what’s with them,” Leondrea noted, “Whatever it is, it’s smart. It’s covering its footprints with… my mutt.”
“We’ll find the mutt,” Soren reassured her, “I’m sure of it.”
Leondrea let out a sigh before they continued on the trail.
It was wordless for almost half an hour before a rattle sounded from the undergrowth.
Leondrea stopped in her tracks and dropped her bow down her arm, while nocking an arrow in one fluid movement. She looked around before her eyes landed on a black and brown snake, nearly two people long, with its hood flared as it stared right at her. She pulled back on the bow string.
Soren ran forward and tackled her to the ground as the snake launched from the shrubs and into a tree, latching on to a humanoid figure.
An ork fell to the ground, the snake latched to its arm, with a thud and a deep growl. It managed to shake the snake off, but not before Soren could get to his feet and draw his sword. He held the point to the ork’s neck.
The ork dropped the mace it carried to the ground and held its hands in the air. It spoke in Giant, imitating the grunts, clicks, and growls that Arakim had spoken in when he and Soren first met.
Leondrea kept her eyes fixed on the snake, though she wasn’t sure where to point her arrow.
Soren nodded at the snake as he held out his free hand.
The snake nicked his palm with its fang and Soren winced as excruciating pain coursed through his veins. The venom was certainly more potent before. As his brain began to burn, he spoke to the ork.
The ork gave him a crooked smile. “No need to get violent, now, is there?”
“You were waiting to ambush us.”
“Hm.” The ork let out a sigh as he looked to Leondrea. “Maybe I defected. Decided kidnappin’ puppies wasn’t the way I wanted to live my life.”
“What’s he saying?” Maya asked.
“Claims he defected.”
“Now, I never said that. I just said maybe.” The ork smiled as it looked to Maya, eyeing her up and down. “Maybe I was just looking for something so I could pass the time. Leader doesn’t like giving us play things – likes keeping them to himself.”
Soren grabbed the ork by the back of the head and shoved the blade right up to its throat. A faint trickle of blood began creating a small pool on the blade.
“You’re wasting your time, you know,” the ork laughed. “My groups just getting further and further away. Picked up you smell a little while back, I did. Decided I might stay back and distract you.” The ork leaned forward, bringing its mouth close to Soren’s ear as its neck pressed harder against the blade and the trickle of blood began to accelerate. “And I just might have succeeded.”
The snake next to Soren let out a hiss. “Would you like to do the honors, or may I?”
Soren raised a brow. “Tell me, giant-blood, would you prefer I cut off your head…”
“Mm.” The ork smiled.
“… or this snake swallow you?”
The ork’s smile dropped.
Soren forced a toothless smile. “He’s all yours.”
He turned and walked away as the Naga unhooked its jaw and placed its mouth over the ork’s head. He did what he could to ignore the ork’s muffled cries as he directed Maya and Leondrea’s gaze further up the path.
He returned his sword to its sheath as they marched away from the horrific sight. “The ork was only here to distract us – they know we’re coming.”
At some point, the snake caught up to them, its body bulging from the dead ork now stuffed inside it. It evidently wasn’t too full, as it kept slithering along as if it hadn’t a morsel of food in its system.
Finally, the trail ended, at the mouth of a cave. From the foliage they were hiding in, the four could make out a detail of four orks out front, all doing something, where they stood in a circle and shook their hands. Perhaps a way to pass the time, maybe some form of orkish gambling. Regardless, they were distracted, so disposing of them wouldn’t be too difficult assuming they weren’t able to pick up their scents.
As Leondrea and Soren stood in the bushes, strategizing how they were going to attack, Maya wandered off without the other two noticing. She came back shortly, covered in mud.
Leondrea stared at her pensively for a few moments before nodding. “Of course, cover up the scent.”
Leondrea and Soren followed suit, and, soon enough, they were all covered in mud, save for the snake.
Maya then motioned for the group to huddle before explaining her plan. There was a ledge on the rock face just above the cave – it looked like it would be one she could get to easily and jump down from above to grab the far-most ork. Meanwhile, Soren would give a more head-on approach while Leondrea backed them up from afar. She wasn’t sure what to do with the snake.
Soren gave an alternative plan, which involved the snake going up on the ledge and falling down, attempting to swallow the far-most ork whole. Meanwhile, the three of them would sneak up, ready to take out the orks in the ensuing chaos.
Leondrea elected they go with a mixture of the two plans – the snake would still be on the ledge, but it would be a coordinated assault like in Maya’s.
Once they were all in position, they looked to the girl, who’d climbed a tree and was waiting to pounce on one of the orks. She counted down on her fingers and they all struck at the same time, taking down all four orks without a sound. Instead of swallow the ork, however, the snake elected to instead simply stab him in the chest with its fangs, killing him rather quickly, before letting his body slide free from its mouth.
They snuck inside the cave to see many orks sleeping on the stone floor – evidently, they decided to send their best sniffer as a decoy.
They crept through the cave, Maya disabling each of the orks they passed as best she could so that they wouldn’t run into any trouble later. They continued through until they reached a wide passage, from which a rumbling voice echoed. It spoke Giant, but Soren could still understand it, albeit not quite as well as if he’d been freshly bitten – apparently, the Naga venom was wearing off.
“To tame the wolf, you must break the wolf. But not its body, its will. You break its body, I’ll break yours. Anyone ready to accept the challenge?”
A few light grunts answered back before another voice yelled, “I accept the challenge, Leader!”
“Ah!” Leader answered back, “There’s a mighty fine Runt!”
A few scattered cries of either encouragement or annoyance (or both) replied.
Leader’s voice echoed through the passage in a hoarse whisper, “Now, you be good there, wolf, and there won’t be any trouble.” He spoke aloud once again, “You ready, Runt?”
“Yeah!” Runt replied.
Soren motioned for the others to follow him down the passage. It was dark for the most of the way, and they stopped just at the edge of light peaking in from another, larger, chamber. The mutt was chained in the middle while orks circled around. And then there it was. The giant, foreboding Leader stood tall, almost twice the height of the rest.
Soren had only heard legends – myths – of ogres. Giant, hulking beasts that were like a mutated version of an ork to be stronger, smarter, and more ruthless. Everyone knew the origins of the orks – humans magically infused with giant blood to make them stronger and tougher. But no one knew the origin of ogres. Some theories existed, the most popular of which was that ogres were the children of giants and orks. Other theories included the idea that ogres were made in the same way as orks, just better – and sterile. Still another was that ogres were giants that just simply hadn’t grown right – born without magic and ostracized from giant society. But the legends always had them in the presence of orks as ruthless leaders. Always, whenever an ogre was present in an ork army, the orks were more vicious, more bloodthirsty. More deadly. But there was always only ever one ogre in a clan of orks.
And this ork warband had one.
They watched as the ogre cut the ropes that bound the mutt, and cut the muzzle they’d placed around its mouth.
It leapt to its feet and gnashed at the orks, which all leapt out of the way. It looked at the passage the four of them were in, but only for a moment, before focusing on the smallest of the orks present. From the looks of it, the one they called ‘Runt’ was worthy of the name.
Runt stepped forward, pulling a chain from his waist and wrapping it around one hand. “There, there, little doggy,” he said in a sing-song kind of voice, “I’ll be nice if you are.”
The mutt bared its teeth and growled. It wasn’t the same as when it growled and barked at passing villagers. When it did that, there was some sense of holding back, like it wasn’t giving its all. This time it was different. Saliva splattered on the ground in front of it as its claws dug into the ground. It waited, patiently.
Runt dove forward as the mutt’s teeth snapped. The ork only barely managed to avoid the sharp teeth as he rolled across the ground to the mutt and attempted climbing on its back.
The mutt grabbed him by the leg and threw him to the ground. A crack sounded through the chamber. It put its jaw around Runt’s head and held it there. It was going to show mercy.
Then, Runt pulled a knife from his boot.
“No!” Leader cried as the mutt’s jaws clamped down.
Kkkkk. A nasty bone-shattering noise echoed before the mutt released Runt’s now deformed and bleeding head. The mutt turned and growled at the rest of the orks, who each backed away slowly.
Leader stood up straight as he sneered at the mutt. “You’re all useless.” He stepped forward, rope in hand, and grabbed the dog, tying it up once more before binding it to a thick column near the wall. “Go back to sleep!”
The four there to rescue the dog squeezed against the passage wall as the orks jogged past and back into the main chamber.
Leader stared down the dog, currently unable to move before looking to the passage. “You’re here to take the wolf back, aren’t you?” he asked in Shelezar. “I should have known Nostril wouldn’t be able to hold you back too long. He always prided himself on his nose. Too bad he was useless otherwise.”
The four stepped out from the passage into the light of the room.
“So, how do you want to do this? One-on-one combat to the death?”
The three humans looked at each other.
“We were thinking more along the lines of we all fight you at the same time,” Soren answered.
“Or you just give my mutt back and we leave peacefully,” Leondrea offered.
Leader let out a low growl. “A likely finale to this futile vendetta of yours,” he snarked.
Maya responded in kind, “Ooh, he knows big words; he must be big smart.”
“Give us the dog, and everyone walks out of here alive,” Soren said, “except Runt there, I guess.” He shuddered at the body on the floor. Dying always seemed more brutal when orks were around, even when they were on the receiving end.
Leader put his hand to his chin, as if considering the thought, before leaping forward. His hand only narrowly missed Leondrea, who was pulled out of the way by the snake’s tail.
Soren only barely managed to leap backwards to avoid Leader’s fist barreling toward his head.
Leondrea jumped to her feet and danced around the ogre with Soren, just barely dodging his blows. Between his rapid attacks, they didn’t have a single moment to strike.
While they occupied the ogre, Maya darted over to the dog, cutting its ropes. Based on the rate that was working, it would take several minutes.
Leader’s fist brushed across Soren’s sleeve as he threw himself out of the way. He was beginning to get better at predicting how they were going to avoid his attacks.
But, as he managed to snatch Leondrea up in his fist, the snake dropped from the ceiling and wrapped around Leader’s neck. Everyone in the room had been too busy to notice the snake creeping along the wall and seeming to defy gravity as it crept along the ceiling to wait just above the ogre.
Leader dropped Leondrea to grab at the snake now constricting its neck. It let out a silent scream as its eyes widened in horror before the snake took away his sight. He writhed before falling onto the floor as the snake tightened more and more around his neck. Soon enough, Leader stopped moving.
After a few more moments, the snake released its grip and slithered onto the floor.
Leondrea ran over to mutt to help Maya cut its bonds as Soren strolled over to where the ogre’s body lay. He put his hand up to its purple-tinted neck. It was dead.
A guttural scream sounded from the passage.
Soren looked over just in time to see an ork running back toward the main chamber.
As orks ran into the room, the mutt jumped up, ripping what remained of its bonds. It charged forward, tossing orks to and fro, the sound of snapping bone echoing again and again through the cavern. Ork ragdolls were used against their comrades as the mutt pressed its way to the main chamber. It wasn’t until they reached it that the humans could join in the fight, while the snake stayed back, with little to offer in terms of straight-forward battle.
As they found themselves cornered at the entrance to the main chamber, the mutt let out a howl. The orks stopped and stared in terror as Leondrea climbed up onto the wolf’s back.
“Let us leave in peace,” she declared, “or Skullcrusher will end every last one of you.”
The orks shouted back in Giant. Then, the Naga slithered forward. It hissed in their language and they began backing away, parting like water to let the group through. Leondrea motioned for Soren and Maya to climb on the wolf’s back before it strode out of the cave, the snake in tow.
“Finally named him, ma’am?” Maya asked as they rode.
“That I did.”
They rode back to the village, a several-hour-long journey. On the outskirts, the Naga got their attention before bowing to Soren, hissing, “Until we meet again,” and slithering in the direction of the temple.
They made their way into the village, where Leondrea and Maya returned Skullcrusher to his shed, and Soren went to eat with Aryia and Rolph. He told them of what had happened – though he inflated his role in the defeat of the ogre – before telling them he was going to Zapad.
“I’m hoping to find my friend Tyrell there – he’s the one other member of my crew that might’ve survived.”
“I hope you do, too,” Rolph said. Then, he turned to Aryia, whose face was a bit twisted in a thoughtful sort of look. “Something bothering you, dear.”
“If you wouldn’t mind,” she said, her gaze shifting from her soup to Soren, “I’d like to go with you.”