“You’re going to take the word of an ork over the word of a human?” Maya protested, “A horrible human, sure, but a human!”
Leondrea squinted at the young-looking girl, “We have three choices here: do nothing and let these people die; try to take on the orks and probably fail, getting ourselves and the people killed; or kill Alonzo, bring the orks his head, and save all these people. Which do you think is best?”
“Why wouldn’t the orks be able to just kill Alonzo themselves? And why wouldn’t we be able to take on the orks? We massacred a cave full of them!”
“Those were runts; the ogre that led them kept them weak, likely only to fuel his own perceived superiority,” Soren replied, eyeing Karkog suspiciously. “Even this one here is far stronger than any of those.”
“And Skullcrusher was the only reason we made it out of there alive,” Leondrea added. “He’d barely be able to fit through the halls of an orkish castle. They’d probably come up from behind, he wouldn’t be able to turn around, and then we’d all, along with these prisoners, be dead.”
“Alonzo is no king, milady,” one of the prisoners said, staring at Maya with one eye, while the other pointed to the floor. He was a frail old man, who’d been leaning against the bars of the cell, his scraggly hair reaching down to the floor from his seated position. “He is an usurper, an outlaw, and a sorcerer of the greatest of evils. He contends with devils and gains his power not by his own merit or grit, but by selling his own followers to the whims of monsters and demons. Orks may seem monsters to you or I; but, alongside him, they are just as you or I.”
Maya’s eyebrows drooped as her lips down-turned. She looked to Leondrea and Soren with worry in her eyes before she gained an all-new conviction. “All the more reason to leave it alone!”
“It does not matter how far you run, girl,” the prisoner continued. “The man who claims to be Alonzo will not stop until all of the world is under his rule. The man who claims to be Alonzo will one day find you, and you will meet the same fate as us. He makes no distinction between friend and foe, for he has neither. He has only himself and only for himself does he care.”
Maya bit the inside of her cheek. “Fine.”
“That’s settled, then,” Leondrea said with a pained smile on her face. She turned to Karkog. “Can you stand?”
“Barely,” he grunted as he pushed himself off the ground. He’d have fallen right back over again had Soren not caught him.
They hid the dead guard in the secret passage before closing up the entrance and making their way back to Aryia.
On the way, Soren noticed a grotesque thing moving in the grass – a fleshy tube, covered in hair, eye-like spots, and finger-like protrusions. Assuming it was just another odd creature of the island – though he hadn’t seen anything quite so strange – he decided to ignore it.
Skullcrusher growled as the trio returned with the ork, while Aryia stared in wonder and confusion. She’d never seen an ork up close before. They looked far more human than she’d often heard described, and she’d never heard of one interacting positively with humans. Now her friends were helping an injured one.
Leondrea took the orks hand in hers and held it in the air so that her mutt would stop growling. “Change of plans,” she said, “we’re not going to take the castle back because it already was taken back. Instead, we’re going to kill Alonzo so that the subjects he left for dead may live.”
Aryia’s confusion transitioned into concern. “What?”
Soren cleared his throat as he released Karkog to recline against the tree. “The orks owned the castle first – Alonzo took it from then, they took it back. They gave Alonzo a deal – he dies and his subjects go free.” He shrugged as he walked over to the circle the other three were now standing in. “So, Leondrea has decided we’re going to kill Alonzo. And Maya and I agreed.”
Aryia raised her brows and let out a huff before shrugging. “Okay.”
The group waited a couple hours for Karkog’s ankles to finish healing before making their way back in the direction of Alonzo’s farmhouse.
When they arrived, Alonzo was nowhere to be seen. His plants were completely wilted – they’d been completely healthy and nearly ready to harvest when they’d been there only a few hours prior.
As they searched, they found very little. Scattered supplies here and there throughout the garden. Finally, they decided to enter the house. The front door was locked, but a solid kick from Karkog sent it flying into the room. On the floor was a body – or perhaps what would more aptly be called a skin suit.
It looked like Alonzo, but was limp – as if without bones – and the skin was like that of a whale. When Soren flipped the body over, they saw that the eyes had rolled back into its head, and blood had trickled from the mouth, pooling on the floor.
Karkog growled before cursing in his native tongue. “Is snake he.”
Soren let out a sigh. “So he’s not dead?”
“No. Not dead he.”
“How do you know he turned into a snake?”
“Seen sorcery me. How escaped before he.”
“Do any of your old clansmen know of this sorcery?” Leondrea asked.
Soren huffed as he stood. “Great, so we can’t just take the body and say he’s dead.”
“Well, we just need to find a snake, then,” Maya offered. “Problem solved.”
“Not easy. Specific snake.”
Leondrea asked a question in Karkog’s native tongue and he replied in kind. He spoke for quite some time, explaining something in great detail.
Leondrea clicked her tongue before letting out a sigh. “So, we’re not actually looking for a snake. It’s more like a tube of flesh. On the bright side, he can’t take a human form unless he finds a body big enough to twist into the form he desires.”
“Anything else we ought to know?” Soren asked before shock spread across his face. “You said a tube of flesh?”
Leondrea furrowed her brow and craned her head. “Yes… with fur, and eyes, and little tentacles.”
Soren tightened his grip on the sword around his belt before bending down to take the silver sword from Alonzo’s belt. “I saw him at the castle, we need to go. Now!”
Despite his massive size, Skullcrusher struggled to run all the way to the castle with the five of them on his back. Nevertheless, he still managed to make it, although very winded when they reached the gate.
Leondrea quickly jumped off, shouting to the orkish archers that sat upon the gate. They quickly lowered their bows and the gate opened. The five of them were rushed to the throne room, where they met the lord of the ork clan – along with the guard they’d killed in the dungeon.
The un-dead guard wore a sinister smile as he turned back toward the group.
Soren couldn’t understand what he said, but he understood his pointing well enough – the ork was accusing them of something.
Karkog immediately protested, barking several orkish curses that Soren recognized before speaking more calmly.
The orkish lord looked thoughtfully between the two before his eyes fell on the silver sword fastened to Soren’s side.
“Tell me, human: where did you get that sword?”
Soren looked down at it, unfastening it before holding it out in front of him – as would have been courteous in his old life. “We got it off the body of the man we knew as Alonzo. Or, rather, the body he’d made for himself.”
“I see.” The ork lord rubbed the grey hairs on his chin as he looked back and forth between Soren and the dead guard. “And where do you suppose this Alonzo is now?”
Soren looked to the guard. “Standing right in front of you, my lord.” He nodded at the guard, who feigned shock at such a wild accusation.
“Preposterous, this!” The guard shrieked. “Not Alonzo, I! Him! Alonzo him! Karkog!”
Karkog replied in his native tongue and the ork lord rubbed his chin again. He waved to Soren. “Bring the blade.”
Soren knelt down before the ork, keeping his head down and holding the blade in front of him.
“Arise and unsheathe the blade.”
“Press it to the arm skin of this one,” the ork lord commanded, pointing to the guard who should have been dead.
Soren once again complied. Nothing happened.
“And now this one.” He pointed to Karkog.
Karkog seemed to be bracing himself as the blade drew near. When it touched his skin, he cried out in pain and steam arose from it. As Soren took the blade away, a burn mark had been left on Karkog’s skin.
Soren turned back to the lord, eyes wide in horror. The dead guard was already being set upon by multiple in the room.
The orkish lord was shouting something as he stood from his throne.
Soren backed up to the rest of his group and asked Leondrea what was going on.
“From what I gather, the sword is magical and burns the blood of giants. Because the body that Alonzo took on is no longer orkish, it didn’t burn him, proving he wasn’t who he said he was.”
Soren put the sword back on his hip as the ork lord drew his own – a blade that looked more decorative than practical, and that fit Alonzo’s description of the ceremonial blade they were originally sent to retrieve perfectly.
“Hashlakos,” Karkog muttered under his breath.
“God-killer,” Leondrea translated.
Alonzo looked to Soren pleadingly.
“Please, my child,” he begged. “You prayed to me when you first came to this island. You’ve prayed to me with every meal you’ve eaten. You know me. You saw my garden and what came of it when I abandoned it. If I die, this whole island will wither away. The whole world, every green thing will wither and die. I am the Cultivator, Soren. Save-“
Alonzo let out a shriek as the ork lord’s blade plunged through his chest. It sounded as nails on a chalkboard.
The room grew dark as the shrieking continued. Alonzo began to writhe as he fell from the blade, continuing to shriek. The stench of death filled the room as the orks that had been holding him backed away.
His skin began to bubble and burst, spewing pus that singed the stone floor. The body eventually exploded with a burst of light, and only a shadow remained hovering in the air in its place.
An ominous voice echoed through the room. “I see now you seek the end of this world. No new seed shall spring forth, nor new flower bloom. As seasons pass, plants will die, and no more shall take their place. This is the fate that you have wrought. In time, all things will die, and the only one who can reverse this curse is the one more powerful than I. But, unfortunately for you, he slumbers. And he will slumber until the end of time.
“But now, it is my time. For now I shall depart from this realm of hatred and selfishness. This realm that does not recognize the power of those above. This realm that seeks only worldly gains and does not favor the gods who maintain it.
“Farewell, oh rotten ones. For you have doomed all.”
With that, the shadow faded and light shone back into the room, leaving Soren and his party – including Karkog, the traitorous ork – surrounded by an ork clan.
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