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Xenolith Cache

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

See this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

Riaag wasn’t certain what sort of person you’d have to be to try and restrain a potentially dangerous stranger with shitty, half-rotten rope, but that was certainly the sort of person who was overseeing his escort. Having ripped a great many things apart in his time—his deed name of Bough-Breaker had become increasingly apt over the years—he had little doubt he could have shredded his bonds with barely any effort; as the current step of his grand plan required him to get inside unfamiliar territory without raising the hue and cry of every single warrior encamped there, he instead opted to keep his mouth shut and his head down. For as big a man as he was, Riaag had a lot of experience with being inconspicuous. It gave him plenty of time to think.

At the top of his mind was the concept of words. Whatever tongue his captors insisted on speaking was nothing like anything in his broad and varied lexicon. Like most orcs, Riaag had an ear for speech and a tongue for mimicry, being able to pick up a handful of useful words and phrases with minimal effort. Being a herald by trade meant he needed to be able to communicate with strangers in as clear a manner as possible, so above and beyond his natural ability his was a brain stuffed with language upon dialect upon affectation, and yet not so much as a single syllable matched anything he’d heard before. It made sense that people this far south spoke differently, of course, since all you needed for a new language to spring up was two thinking people who wanted to convey ideas without pointing at things. The problem was how they spoke. Every sound felt like it was in an arbitrary place, with minimal unification of syllabary, tone, or word order. Entire sentences somehow sounded only part ways finished. Over half an hour of being escorted by some very chatty guards had exposed Riaag to quite a bit of mystery language and the fact he’d yet to puzzle out any meaning not conveyed purely by tone of voice grated on him far worse than the bonds around his wrists.

Sometimes one of the throng of guards walking with him would say something as they gave him a nudge with the tip of their spear. As so far all the spears were in similar condition as the rope, this never hurt very much; Riaag still made a great show of it each time a chunk of dull metal prodded him in the side. He might not understand what they said when they goaded him, but Riaag had far too much personal experience with the mean little laughs that sometimes accompanied the jabbing. If his expression turned darker than strictly necessary, hopefully it just made his performance that much more verisimilitudinous. He reminded himself to bide his time as he committed each pairing of face and deed to memory. Lore-keepers like Riaag trained tirelessly to recall events of historical and cultural import with precision. Turning that skill towards holding grudges was easy.

He tried not to wonder what they thought of him, though based on the lazily fearful glances he caught some of them stealing he suspected they assumed things of him. Riaag had a great deal of experience in letting people assume things about him of variable veracity. He was a big man in just about any dimension one could name, with broad shoulders and a fat belly set upon a frame that towered over most of his already tall kind, and over the years he’d come to realize that if one were very large but didn’t make an equally large amount of noise, people tended to start underestimating. Being unable to get the gist of what people tried to say to him beyond a vague sense of frustration or anger meant he stayed quiet, which itself meant that strangers more likely than not saw him as a lumbering oaf. Riaag could play the part of the oaf very well.

The inglorious march led from the woods where they’d first found him to the borders of the settlement he’d been scouting as part of his current mission. Riaag had never actually been in a town before (one city, one village, and plenty of strongholds, yes, but not a town as he’d heard it defined) and this one was not doing the concept any favors. The whole place was dirty. It wasn’t dirty the way a mining town was dirty, or even the way a shepherd who’d had to wrestle a wayward nanny in the mud was dirty, but a sort of ongoing, bone-deep neglect that implied whoever lived there simply didn’t give a shit about what became of their shit. Garbage littered the muddy thoroughfares. There wasn’t a lot of embellishment to go around, either, be it painted, carved, or worked directly into the buildings’ composition, furthering that peculiar sense of structural dispassion; Riaag had personally helped build outhouses that had a greater sense of style than most anything he saw. Whatever this place called itself, it was a morass of filth, decay, and questionable understanding of soap.

An exception to the rule was the gleaming tower that rose impossibly tall and improbably smooth from the town’s center. It was dazzling white and shone like a well-kept tusk, adorned not with carvings but with subtle differences in the texture of its stone that made it shimmer in the winter sun like a length of patterned silk. Its majesty consequentially made the rude little buildings surrounding it look that much worse off. The town had surely been built all around the tower, perhaps to house whatever throngs of workers it had taken to raise something to enormous, yet Riaag couldn’t quite shake the feeling that part of the reason the tower looked as lovely as it did was to shame its neighbors below. Something about the place oozed presence. Rivers could have gods, and so could hills, and if Riaag hadn’t come out all this way in search of the monster the Usoans called a wizard he could have believed that somewhere inside the spire was a capricious Tower God that laughed at having a girdle of squalor all about Their heavily-hallowed feet. It would hardly be the weirdest thing he’d encountered during his travels.

The procession navigated the streets with minimal loss of boots and ultimately arrived at a large, boxy edifice that loomed at the tower’s base. This, unlike everything else in town that wasn’t tall and spindly, actually bore some amount of ornamentation, and rather conspicuously, with carved beasts that leered from the rooftop and mosaic tilework that spread across the walls in a monsoon of color. The building as a whole was surrounded on all sides by ironwork as elaborate as it was pointy. What caught Riaag’s attention more than its décor was how it felt like the only structure in the whole of the settlement—again, save for the tower—that was actually clean. Given the milieu of very bad smells he had already experienced this carried the same sense of impending relief as spying a distant shade tree at the height of a summer’s day. As the guards hustled him through the great double doors he hoped for an immediate future that didn’t leave a nasty film on his skin.

Inside was grander than out, and had he been a few years younger he might have been quite impressed at the worked marble, shimmering tapestries, and proliferation of gem-studded golden knick-knacks cluttering up the place. The modern Riaag had slept in palaces that, while made from more commonplace materials, were vastly more tasteful in design, and therefore he simply found himself annoyed at the excess. Just because he’d been kept as a diplomatic hostage at the time didn’t mean he hadn’t appreciated what the island palace of the River People had done with the woodwork. Trying to compare this place to the Palace of Concordance itself was just demeaning to everyone involved. As an obligate nomad until relatively recently Riaag was surprised to find he already had so many opinions about tacky-ass architecture.

If the guards had similar thoughts on gilded lilies they showed no sign of them, instead wrangling Riaag towards what looked to be a throne room at the end of the entrance hall. The skull of something large and toothy leered down at him as the doors opened; it was fastened to a sort of decorative housing set high into the wall, and if Riaag had to guess what it was he would’ve said it had been assembled from a few different animals to create a more impressive-looking chimera. A throne-bearing dais sat beneath it. The throne proper was a massive mess of gold, velvet, and faceted gems, with a little carpet leading from the chamber threshold all the way up to the steps ascending the dais to reach it; a suite of braziers sat cold at either side of the throne, the lip of each encircled by sharpened metal spikes forged by some asshole who clearly didn’t think too hard about how difficult putting spikes on things all willy-nilly made life for everyone else. The same asshole had given a similar treatment to the fanciful metal candle holder (what was the term he’d heard used for those before? chandelier?) that hung from the ceiling. If the unknown decorator had simply kept with the horned skull motif said braziers also bore Riaag might have accepted it. As it was, he couldn’t stop worrying over whether or not people gouged themselves on the damn things when simply trying to stoke their fires.

A skald such as himself was well-versed in all manner of story and song, so when the lights blazed to life with no brand-bearing attendants nearby Riaag couldn’t find it in himself to be surprised by such a dramatic gesture. When a cloud of black and purple shadow bubbled up from the ground to solidify into a robed figure Riaag was more concerned than awed. Lights gleamed in the trophy skull’s sockets as the figure took a seat in the throne, their flames churning with strange colors mirrored by those of the braziers and chandelier alike, and a similar nimbus settled around the robed figure’s cowl. The guards took this as the signal to haul on Riaag’s fetters. He collapsed theatrically to his knees, careful not to let his weight fall at such an angle that he risked spraining anything; an injury so early in the game could be disastrous. Only the fall of his long, dark hair across his face concealed his reaction when one of the crew spoke in a tongue Riaag actually recognized.

“My lord, we do bring the intruder,” said the speaker. It was nothing like the language the guards had used while they’d escorted Riaag, nor one he could name off the top of his head. Their accent was strange. He’d probably heard it from some merchants; it was a safe enough bet, given how far from home some merchants could find themselves, and this awful place had to be far from home for just about everyone. It felt critical to not to let on that he could tell what was being said.

“Have you, now?” asked the robed figure. They sat still as one of the grotesques outside. None of their skin showed, being either kept beneath a set of velvet gloves, hidden by their robe, or concealed within the deep shadows beneath their hood. The halo of lights did nothing to reveal their features. Their accent was different from the leader’s, Riaag noted, and their words less stilted. Perhaps they were a more fluent speaker. Either way, their voice was higher than he’d expected while still having enough force behind it to make his sinuses hum.

“A scout did spot him in the far trees. They say he hid a wolfskin under a stone. We saw it not.”

Riaag had not been in possession of any furs not already worked into winter clothing at the time of his capture, so it took him a moment to realize that “hiding a wolfskin” could refer to him putting away his armor before a charm against perception could be properly set over the hiding spot. The coat of metal scales he wore into battle was difficult to mistake for anything else, but his helmet was made from the skull and pelt of an avatar of Wolf Wolfself, and since wolves as a rule tended not to grow to such a grand size it made enough sense that it’d been mistaken for something else. Did whatever scout had seen him then remember where the cache was? How well did that kind of charm work if someone saw what you were hiding before you set it? He tried not to think about what they might do to such a prized possession if they knew how much it meant to him.

The robed figure remained motionless. “Why mention this to me, Toadspit?”

Toadspit? Riaag had yet to meet anyone with a name like that before; if it had been a Rhoanish deed name there’d be enough subtle inflection to recognize them as one Toad-Spit, which off the top of his head he would assume meant they a cook with an amphibian specialty, or possibly someone who’d had some memorably great misfortune while expectorating. He could see a toxin-master using such a name, too. Surely there was a good reason for it. Toadspit themselves seemed to have other things on their mind: “He speaks not in words. We think maybe there is a spell inside his ears, and the wolfskin is a part. His Majesty—”

“His Majesty will hear about it once there’s anything to hear about,” snapped the robed figure.

Toadspit quailed. “Forgive me, my lord seneschal.” Riaag didn’t hear that word used very much, no matter the language used, though it was nice having some sort of title to give to the mysterious throne-sitter. The way they were talking, it seemed that they and the mysterious lord of the tower were two different people, which made things more complicated. “We did capture him and bring him here as was decree. He did struggle somely. Mostly he is docile. Why is he not fierce like the others that go untalking, my lord? Is he really an orc?”

The seneschal hummed in thought. They shifted their weight, causing their robes to distort just so; Riaag recognized the shuffle of someone crossing one leg up over another beneath draped fabric, the sort of thing he’d seen his oathbound do countless times back home. He wasn’t sure if an angry reception or a curious one was more dangerous.

“You say he doesn’t talk despite clearly being civilized?”

Toadspit nodded. “He has no Orcspeak. First of our kind I have met who does lack it.”

What in the absolute fuck was “Orcspeak”? That was like claiming all River People spoke Riverpeoplish, something that was patently untrue to anyone who’d met River People from more than a single village. More concerning was the way that Toadspit enunciated our implied that the person beneath those robes was not another orc. Riaag’s skin prickled. He’d known coming in that this was supposedly a place where orcs and other blood-kinds lived harmoniously, but save for the seneschal he’d yet to see anyone whose skin wasn’t obviously some shade of green. Who, exactly, was sitting on that throne?

“No Orcspeak, ah? How very interesting.” A bead of sweat rolled down the back of Riaag’s neck as the seneschal swung their head his way. He didn’t like how he could feel their eyes roam across him like questing fingers from beneath that heavy cowl. “Looking at how big he is, he might be an orc-blooded lycanthrope,” they said.

“A man-wolf?” asked Toadspit.

“It would make sense,” said the seneschal. “Look at how big he is, all bearded, scarred, and hairy. His teeth are snaggled like an animal’s, too. Definitely not enough clothes on for how cold it is this time of year. But that wouldn’t be a problem for him if he could just sprout a coat of fur, would it?”

“It might not, my lord.”

Riaag chose not to mention that he usually wore more layers than he was at the moment in weather like this and that the main reason he wasn’t shivering himself to death was because of the thick layer of fat he had on most parts of his body. Wearing his nicest winter coat (specifically, the one with the fluffy rabbit-fur lining and all the pretty bird embroidery along the hemming) into a hostile situation had seemed like a bad idea at the time, since who knew what indignities they’d inflict upon his wardrobe; once his half-frozen fingers had started crying out for mittens during the trip out of the woods he’d started to question his original line of thinking. Ugly as the throne room was, at least he felt like he was starting to thaw.

“Whatever he is, my lord, we do know he is an outsider, and no outsiders come so far this way without the blessing of the tower unless they do carry strangeness inside them. A man-wolf is a strangeness, yes.”

“I’m glad you agree.” The seneschal gestured at the strip of exposed green skin where Riaag’s layers had loosened from all the manhandling. “You see the scar on his shoulder? Only a changing beast would get so large as to leave such a thing. Clearly he’s fought with his own kind before.”

It was hard to keep quiet. Riaag wanted very badly to clear the air, to let them know he was no shapeshifter of any sort, thank you very much, but that he was Chosen of Wolf, marked by Wolf Wolfself’s own fangs as a champion, and of course it was a big-ass scar, avatars of the Great Animals didn’t dick around when they wanted you to prove yourself in single combat. He’d won that fight and made the avatar’s earthly remains into soup as well as his prized helm. He could speak at length about what it meant to his people and what it meant to himself, especially given his ignoble origins, and of what Wolf meant to him and his, and of how his heart leapt with delight that a being so grand would find him so worthy, and a great many other subjects that held his passions. Instead he let Toadspit prod him in the face some more.

“He does stay quiet more than I’d expect,” Toadspit said, likely half to himself.

“Even a raging beast can be quiet in the dead of the snow season, though all should flee its cave come the spring,” said the seneschal. Where had Riaag heard that proverb before? Maybe there was a clue to the nature of who, or what, he was dealing with if he could just place the source.

“Oh,” said Toadspit. “Have we served His Majesty’s will, then?” Riaag, determined to prove how non-lycanthropic he was in nature, refused the urge to snap at the finger they kept mashing into his cheek. He tried pretending he was babysitting a particularly fussy charge who needed to burn off some energy by playing with his beard. It helped, slightly.

The seneschal shrugged. “Perhaps. Congratulations on taking him alive. I understand that’s not an easy feat with his kind.”

Toadspit gave Riaag another poke before straightening up, one hand on the jagged blade tucked into their grease-stained sash. “Is he to now be a pet for His Majesty, or is it finer if we do cut his throat to be done and finished?”

Riaag forced himself not to tense up. If he tensed they’d know he understood them, and if they knew he understood them then they’d start asking questions about what he was doing there, and whatever plans they had for him now would be nothing compared to what they might do if he blew his cover. If he let himself be killed before anything else could be done, what would they do without him back home? He covered his worry by growling a bit and tugging his ropes from side to side, earning another few spear-nudges for his trouble. Nobody seemed to pay him more mind than that.

“The first one, for now,” said the seneschal. Riaag tried not to let his relief show, either. “The old ones are starting to wear out their welcome. His Majesty does not like to be bored.”

Toadspit nodded crisply. “Where do we put him?”

“Lock him up in one of the holding cells. I’ll inspect him myself and figure out the rest from there.” The seneschal gestured casually with one of their maroon-clad hands. “Be sure to put a food dish in with him. I’m sure His Majesty wouldn’t approve of me being savaged by something you forgot to feed, hm?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“You’re dismissed, Toadspit,” said the seneschal, who proceeded to vanish in another vortex of whirling darkness. The braziers, chandelier, and the lights in the trophy skull’s eyes went with them.

Toadspit and company barked at each other in the tongue they’d used before, presumably Orcspeak. Knowing its name did not help its sounds make any more sense in Riaag’s head; it was like there was some grand key element required to understand its sounds and syllables that was completely lacking from his own experience, and without that piece he’d never complete the puzzle no matter how hard he tried. Having his knack for words taken from him was more upsetting than he expected.

After hauling Riaag to his feet—which he was convinced they would not have been able to do if he hadn’t gone along with it, as none of them seemed to know how to make the best use of their strength or mass—the guards led him down a hallway and up a flight of stairs to a room half taken up by an iron-barred cell. The ironwork matched the fencing outside. A padded chair stood on the unlocked side of the cell bars, presumably anticipating the posterior of the seneschal or some other future interrogator, while the cell itself was furnished with a simple cot. There were no manacles or any other forms of restraint that Riaag could see, nor did anyone try to put new ones on him. Instead he found himself shoved through the cell door, still bound hand and foot in the terrible rope. Once they’d brought down a bowl of water and a bowl of something that may or may not have been porridge, most of the guards were happy to leave him to his fate. Toadspit stayed behind the others to look Riaag in the eye and say a lot of words that still meant nothing. Riaag focused on sampling the bland porridge instead of frustrating himself over trying and failing to translate what he was being told; he reminded himself that just internalizing what he heard would make it easier to understand the language in the future. Eventually Toadspit tired of their monologue and left, the hallway door’s bolt closing behind them with a clack. Riaag was alone.

He casually snapped his bonds and took a moment to review his general well-being. Save for a few bruises from overenthusiastic spear-pokes he was unharmed, and save for giving him some dubious food and questioning whether he should be taken out back and murdered the locals had yet to really do much to him in terms of antagonism. Despite being above ground the air was curiously stale; stale was better than stinking, which was the state of the rest of the town beneath the tower, so Riaag considered this a welcome trade. His cell was cool, dry, big enough to pace around in, and the little cot in the corner would be better than sleeping on the floor, even if he broke it as soon as he sat down. There was no obvious pot or bucket for relieving himself, though, which was concerning. He was not about to use his water bowl! Maybe he’d need to make something suitable himself, such as from wood scavenged from a broken cot. It’d give him something to do with his hands if nothing else. There were certainly worse ways to be taken captive.

More than anything else Riaag couldn’t shake the feeling of wrongness that hung heavy in the air like moisture on a humid summer’s day. He couldn’t describe it in words that made sense. The air tasted too loud, maybe, or the sounds were too sharp; it felt like everything was tinged with bits of delirium, as though he was not quite over a bout of drinking too much with a high fever. It had been faint at first, growing in intensity the closer he came to the tower. It pressed in against him but couldn’t get at him. Every time things seemed right on the cusp of turning serious the amulet wrapped around his left bicep would sizzle with cold, which would both snap him back to reality and wave away the unseen miasma like so many flies. Had the others here succumbed to that same weird feeling? Was that what this Orcspeak thing was? Riaag was not eager to find out the answer for himself.

The sensation rippled over him again like a terrible tide. Once more Riaag felt like his soul was dizzy, and once more his amulet eased him back to reality in its wake. He would need to be careful. He didn’t know if the seneschal was the cause, or the mysterious His Majesty, or something else, but Riaag was certain of one thing, and one thing only.

This was definitely the work of the wizard.

§

Over the next hour spent in his cell Riaag was relieved to find the water they’d given him was fresh, and while there was so little flavor to the porridge he suspected it was making him forget how past meals had tasted it at least had the decency to be filling without making him feel sick and greasy. The room was lit by torch sconces on the walls adorned with the same annoying spikes as the downstairs braziers; they didn’t smell like tallow or pitch, so who knew what was in them, but their light was remarkably warm and cheery given his surroundings. His cot groaned in complaint the first time he sat on it but otherwise held. It was a comfortably boring environment. Riaag figured he could probably last for quite some time in such a place, as even with no chores to do or bandits to murder the ever-living shit out of he could keep himself occupied with the contents of his active imagination. He’d always been good at waiting.

Of significance was the room’s sole window. It was tall, narrow, and set with criss-crossing bars whose overcomplicated design matched the cell’s, and even if it hadn’t been barred it was so small Riaag would have needed to dismantle a good deal of the wall around it to fit his shoulders through. The bars were neither so close together nor decorated that he couldn’t see out of them, which meant he could gather some reconnaissance in the dead time between then and whenever the seneschal felt like returning.

He couldn’t see the tower from that vantage, which had to mean it had to be somewhere behind him, which was unfortunate as it would’ve been useful if he could figure out where and how people entered and left that majestic eyesore of a thing. Instead he had a view of the buildings below, which was significant in and of itself. Riaag being who he was, he suspected his knowledge of the local citizenry would be much more useful to the sort of investigation he planned to do than whatever he’d glean from a direct eyeline to their master.

It was some time in the afternoon, though the sky was so cloudy he couldn’t easily place the position of the sun, and as people bustled through the muddy passages between buildings Riaag started to pick out trends among the locals. Nobody here wore clan patterns, he noted, nor did he see any children below the age of adolescence; the few times he saw more than two people walking in the same direction they were always armed. If people sang they did so where he couldn’t hear it, and if people played they did so well out of sight. He couldn’t spot any animals not already prepped for slaughter. It was as though orcs were the only thing that actually lived in town.

That last one was of particular concern. He’d seen plenty of wildlife on the trek out to the forest beyond the tower, and up until he’d met his escort and permitted them to haul him from the trees there had been the occasional twitter of a bird or chitter of insects that hadn’t yet succumbed to torpor. Riaag hadn’t had any trouble hunting to stretch out the food he’d packed for his trip this far south. Here, though? He hadn’t seen so much as a single dog the entire time, and while the mud paths were thick with footprints none of them looked to be from food animals. There hadn’t been any fields or paddocks on the outskirts of the place. How did so many people have enough to eat in the dead of winter?

Also of concern was how…ramshackle the place felt. The orcs of the valley tended not to build permanent structures that weren’t strongholds, and said strongholds were heavily skewed towards groups making their own little camps within their walls when they weren’t incorporated into existing cave systems, but there was still rhyme and reason to them no matter how infrequently they bothered to put a roof on anything. Here there were no right angles. This was not to say that everything was made from pleasingly organic curves, either, but that it was all dashed together haphazardly from whatever materials happened to be convenient, like a bivouac pressed into extended service. Nothing looked like it was maintained regularly, with bad patch jobs and stacked-up scrap taking the place of involved repairs. It was just as dirty from above as it had been on ground level.

Riaag couldn’t tell where people actually cleaned their clothes, cooked their meals, practiced their trades, or did much of anything other than existing and maybe marching around with an axe in hand. Save for more useless spikes on things and the odd animal skin pulled across gaps there wasn’t so much as a lick of decorative paint anywhere. He might’ve understood this sort of thing from a military encampment—not approved of, but at least understood—but to Riaag’s knowledge the town beneath the tower had been there for years, long enough for whatever went on there to catch the attention of foreign interests like the ones who’d first brought it to his own. Not that the place did a good job of being a military hub, either, as there were no fortifications to speak of nor anywhere for warriors to practice their skills. There weren’t even any trophies piked up for visitors to admire! Riaag allowed that maybe all the important places were kept somewhere the window couldn’t see; even if everything he saw was housing, he still couldn’t figure out how such a rag-tag clump of shoddy architecture kept itself running in the condition that it was.

The wind picked up and blew the smell of the settlement into his face. Riaag’s eyes stung with the reek of stale piss and untended middens for several unpleasant seconds before he heard the torch sconces crackle loudly behind him, the sound heralding a breeze that pushed the stink back out. He looked around in surprise. Had it been some sort of trick? There was nobody else in the room to fan the smells away, nor did the sconces still smell like anything. They smelled like less than nothing, actually, and while he had merely suspected the porridge had stolen the tastes off his tongue here was proof that there was some strangeness knitted into the sconces’ fires that removed scent entirely. It sounded like a good idea until he realized he couldn’t smell himself on his clothes anymore. He couldn’t smell his oathbound on his clothes anymore, either. That realization hit him hardest of all.

What sort of person didn’t want to smell their band nearby when they rested for the day? What criminal ran from the familiar scents of family? Riaag had expected to be able to nose at his tunic to remind himself of past cuddles if he ever felt lonely during his mission. Now that chance was gone. People who passed him by would no longer catch the ghost of someone else lingering on him, couldn’t notice the subtle notes of incense and oracle-smoke that a man of Riaag’s occupation typically did not accrue naturally. For all intents and purposes the torches had erased his connection to Sarouth White-Hair, mostly-mortal avatar of Agritakh the Hill God, god-speaker, stronghold-founder, field-sower, peace-broker, ghost-sender, oath-swearer, immensely frustrating person, and the man Riaag loved above all else. Now more than ever he had nothing to his name.

He recognized the signs of his thoughts beginning to tangle and willed himself calm. Perhaps the erasure was a temporary thing, done only in reaction to the weather outside. Perhaps once he left the building and returned to the foul streets he’d find those oathbound traces returning. Even if the scent was gone for good, that didn’t mean Sarouth had stopped loving him back; when planning how to approach the situation Sarouth had even explicitly stated he expected there to be many lies looped about both their shoulders before their work was done, and claiming he had no one was a lie of the highest order. It wasn’t like he couldn’t get his oathbound’s smell on him again once they reunited. Riaag still had memories of Sarouth’s brilliant, small-tusked smile safely tucked away in his heart, nestled among thoughts of the sweet sound of Sarouth’s voice and the way Sarouth’s soft hand with its fine and tidy claws would cup his cheek in fondness. Riaag was doing important work. He had survived far worse. He would get through this or die trying, and no matter what happened Sarouth would be proud of him.

Oh, Sarouth. Wonderful, obnoxious, danger-prone Sarouth. It took a certain kind of personality to talk back against a god, especially when you were their own fleshly incarnation, and he had rarely stayed from unleashing that stubborn, hot-headed nature of his on other people when the time came or tempers flared. He would’ve fought the sun itself if he thought it’d make a point. If the ground shook when he walked then it was not just because the earth underfoot heeded his beck and call. A person like that had no choice but to pack up his oathbound and head out from home when peril came a-knocking, and so he and Riaag had ridden out to this strange place with a slew of scores to settle. One just didn’t make a stronghold’s allies disappear and expect to get away with it! Riaag hated every minute they’d spent on this side of the river and sometimes it felt like only his oath of love and loyalty kept him from kicking out the window, finding his awful horse wherever it was hitched, and riding back home to apologize to everyone. It was a good thing that he was on his almost tenth year straight of being hopelessly smitten or things might have gone badly.

Smitten was perhaps too dismissive a way to describe the way Riaag felt towards Agritakh’s chosen prophet. His was an affection that ran deep and furiously, sown in a field of devotion and awe. It was Riaag who had first witnessed the greater truth of Sarouth’s divinity, Riaag who hurled himself into the fray time and time again to keep Sarouth’s holy blood from spattering the ground before its time, Riaag who sang his praises and cooked his meals and vainly insisted he please put some damned socks on in colder weather to keep the bite at bay. Riaag did all this and more, and would do so until he no longer drew breath; his love had a strong back, and so he would carry the weight of the world if it meant gracing Sarouth with even a sliver of added comfort. If he could no longer walk in Sarouth’s shadow as herald, champion, and friend, he would scarcely be himself anymore. So it had been since Sarouth first pulled his broken body from the dust all those seasons ago.

That, too, wasn’t quite all of it, since it made Riaag sound more enthralled than oathbound. The sounds of joy were just as much a part of their lives as the crash of a weapon against his shield. They would joke together, groom one another, and play games together, the latter ranging from simple riddles and wordplay all the way up to involved things with dice and tiles. Sarouth’s sense of humor was absolutely abominable, where he regularly laughed at his own jokes, and if called on it would only laugh harder. Riaag had come to find it endearing. Something about knowing all the flaws of Agritakh’s chosen Faaroug—a title that often went unused for generations, something no right-thinking god-speaker would choose for themselves without the Hill God forcing their hand—made it that much easier to love him. Sarouth was an instrument of godly change who couldn’t cook, couldn’t sing, and snored like an avalanche, and it was hard to imagine him as anything else.

With the days subtly growing longer since the passing of the solstice it had been a cold, dark trip to the tower, and yet Sarouth had made even the most bitter nights a little warmer just by being himself. That warmth had been vital. Sometimes, after sundown, Riaag had fallen into despair, his usually-iron will faltering as he yet again imagined some new dreadful end that awaited them in the wizard‘s lair. Sarouth rode out those bleak hours with him. Riaag’s childhood had taught him a lot about how to weep silently, if not necessarily how to hold back his tears in the first place, but Sarouth was only troubled by his constant crying out of genuine sympathy. If Riaag had a reason, then Sarouth would comfort him or give him space as needed, and if there was no reason to be found, then Sarouth would see if Riaag’s amulet needed replacing again. That Sarouth still saw him as strong and brave in spite of it all was just one of many miracles to his name.

Riaag strained his ears to see if he could pick out any hints of laughter drifting through the town, proof that others out there had their own special people who enriched their lives. He caught snatches of Orcspeak of varying inflection. Both joy and sorrow alike were kept behind closed doors, it seemed, assuming they weren’t entirely alien emotions. What a miserable way to live if that was so! Riaag still held out hope that there was some secret way that these people expressed themselves, one that they could hide safely inside their dirty homes to share with one another. Riaag was a private person, himself, and judging others for not wanting the world to know what they held in their hearts would be quite a hypocrisy coming from him. He still wished he could somehow confront his younger self and say how much better everything would be if he would only realize he was, indeed, worthy of someone else’s love. Even in a quiet place where everything smelled wrong it was no less true.

He fidgeted. The worst part of his current uncertain situation was the impending threat of boredom. If he had any guarantee of his privacy he could’ve passed a little time wandering through the hallways of his mind to see what scenarios he found; long years of self-imposed celibacy had done wonders for his fantasy life, and just because he had full access to his favorite person these days (current incarceration notwithstanding) didn’t mean he didn’t still sometimes daydream about long, elaborate encounters dripping with romance, passion, and probably a little pre-come. That was probably not the best subject matter to dwell upon when a mysterious stranger was due to appear at some unknown time in the near future! Instead Riaag guided his thoughts towards chaster plots, ones featuring a different kind of teamwork and fewer love bites. This sort of thinking was nice in its own way, after all. It wasn’t like it was difficult to build a foundation around the wonder that was his oathbound.

What would he do if Sarouth was there? It would’ve been part of the plan, of course, so they’d no doubt had to be very clever to end up in the same cell, being dangerous alone and ferociously so when paired. Perhaps their captors would assume them to be part of a larger man-wolf pack, assuming man-wolves ran in those. They’d wait until nightfall. Sarouth would wait for Riaag’s signal before commanding the stones to make way for his passage, which they would, since his word carried the Hill God’s own will behind it, and with the outside wall suitably dismantled Riaag would clamber down first before holding out his arms to catch Sarouth. Sarouth being Sarouth, he’d likely jump down to land daintily next to Riaag while wearing a big, ridiculous grin. He’d likely have a quip of some sort to go with it. Inappropriate quips were another of those annoying idiosyncrasies of his that Riaag had grown to love. They’d be stealthy as rats in the long grass as they slipped towards the tower, which would have a door even bigger and stupider-looking than the one adorning Riaag’s current locale, so to avoid detection they’d need to go around the side to find a servants’ portal of some sort. Once inside they’d need to raid the first armory they found, as while improvisation was well and good this was a wizard‘s turf on which they trod, so they’d need to evade the guards while scouting out the lay of the—

The latch on the hallway door clacked behind him. Keeping his cock in his trousers had definitely been the right idea. Riaag kept his attention focused on the people going to and fro in the mud below, as that seemed more in character for a man-wolf than startling at every little noise, and only turned around when he heard something ring against the bars of his cell like a striker against a bell. He sniffed at the air to find it still lifelessly empty. With boldness he definitely didn’t feel on the inside, Riaag turned to meet whoever had come to visit.

The seneschal, it turned out, was not any easier to make out up close than at a distance, as their gloves concealed their skin far up into their sleeves and the depths of their hood were impossibly dark, which was a touch disconcerting when paired with their absolute lack of scent. They carried a slender wand of silvery material, not unlike the bright metal the River People preferred, and had presumably used it to get his attention. Riaag grunted noncommittally. His amulet wasn’t yet ablaze so this was unlikely to be a ghost or a heretic before him. With those two taken out of the equation, what all was left?

They spoke to him in that same nonsense language the guards had used. Riaag tilted his head and knitted his brow in genuine confusion; the syllables still didn’t make any sense. His face-pulling got a frustrated groan out of them. That, he decided, was the most relatable sight he’d seen in hours.

“I know you’re not really an animal,” they said, this time in the more intelligible of the unfamiliar tongues he’d heard that day. “Your eyes are too clear for it and you know how to put pants on. You don’t understand Orcspeak, though, which is a problem. Orcs are meant to understand it by nature. You’re clearly an orc, and yet here we are.

“I wonder, though: Do you know what I’m saying to you now?”

Riaag paused, then nodded once in affirmation.

“Fascinating,” said the seneschal. They sat in the fancy chair with one leg up across the other, or at least that’s how their robes made it look. Once again, the more comfortable they made themselves the more concerned Riaag became. “Now, let’s see if you’re responding to more than just the sound of my voice. Can you tell me how much is two plus two?”

Riaag held up four fingers.

The seneschal hummed in approval. “Capable of sums, are you? Well then, can you give me the total of twelve sets of seven, plus twenty-seven more, minus fourteen less?”

Riaag glanced down at his fingers, glanced back at the seneschal incredulously, then wrenched off a vestigial part of the cot to carefully scratch out ninety-seven tally marks with one of his claws before he flipped the wood back around for inspection.

Very clever! Never would have guessed it from one of your lot. Now for a harder question: Why aren’t you talking?”

Riaag shrugged. “I do not know this language well,” he said. It was a true enough statement. Riaag tended not to consider himself fluent in anything until he could properly bend it to his varied whims of wordplay. A good herald understood the importance of nuance when dealing with unfamiliar phrasing.

The seneschal laughed. Somewhere up in their vocal range echoed the shrill call of a cricket, which only reminded Riaag of how few bugs he’d heard lately. It gave their voice a sort of ethereal vibration not unlike someone throat singing. “Now we’re actually getting somewhere! Please don’t sell yourself short, either, compared to mumblers like Toadspit all you have is a slight drawl.” Only a slight one? Riaag would need to work on that. “I don’t suppose you feel like telling me what you’re doing out here all alone with no weapons? Orcs that come all this way usually think to bring them. You things are always itching for a fight and it’s surprising to see one who isn’t. I thought violence kept you alive.”

He wasn’t sure how to take that sort of talk. On the one hand, his axe was hidden back in the woods along with his armor, his shield, lots of warm blankets, and the three purified bandit skulls he usually wore on his belt as trophies. Riaag loved that axe whether it was splitting logs or splitting heads and spent rather a lot of time keeping its edge honed. Not bringing it across the river was tantamount to surrender; that its baldric didn’t hang at his hip kept making him feel naked, even though he’d been in plenty of situations before where he’d willingly left it behind to keep from giving anyone the wrong impression. On the other hand, just because he didn’t have any steel on him didn’t mean he was unarmed. Keeping his hair brushed and his beard oiled didn’t mean he’d forgotten how to use his claws, nor did fancy grooming impair his ability to throw a punch. People never expected a man as fat as he was to be faster than they were, either, and his grappling record skewed overwhelmingly in his favor. On yet a third hand, which the seneschal may well have had under all that fabric, what were they getting at by saying his blood-kind were violent? It sounded like a casual insult. He had his aggressive urges, same as anyone else, but even the gentlest souls had those, and part of growing up was figuring out proper ways to sublimate that scrappy scavenger’s instinct into more useful tasks or properly negotiated play-fights. Riaag didn’t mope around his tent back home when there weren’t any new bandits to pulp. The stronghold wall would get new corpses to pike up in its own time; until then there were always countless chores to do. He tried and failed to fathom someone who shied away from down time.

This was a lot of complex ideas at once, so Riaag boiled it down as best he could. “I can fight. I choose not to.”

“Is that so?”

Riaag nodded.

“So am I to believe you just happened to find your way out here, to His Majesty’s own lands, underequipped and without any companions to take up the slack, in this time of year and in this weather, yet clearly neither starving nor succumbing to the cold? And you’re simply ‘choosing not to’ defend yourself in spite of everything? Don’t insult me, you bear of a boar. Just because I’m more civilized than you doesn’t mean I don’t understand the basic requirements of living off the land.”

He’d prepared for someone to notice the thin spots in his story. Riaag’s face fell and he looked at the floor with his most stoically lonesome expression. “I was with others. Not anymore. I miss the fire, and cooking nice things for the camp,” he said, letting his genuine longing for Sarouth (and maybe, just maybe, the horrible horses) add a bit of extra credibility to his practiced tone of not-quite-restrained sorrow. That he was homesick instead of disowned was not a detail he needed to clarify. “I want to wear a warm coat again,” he added, since that was also true.

The seneschal might or might not have bought his answer; he still couldn’t read their body language very well. They didn’t push the question, however, instead opting to change the subject. “You’ll notice you aren’t cold in here, by His Majesty’s grace.”

Riaag nodded and adjusted his clothes where they hadn’t quite covered up his shoulder scar again. His extremities were grateful to be out of the icy wind. He could’ve done with a few more layers and a quilt (or oathbound) to round things out, as the cell was not exactly warm, but he figured he could last indefinitely, if not fully comfortably, in the dry cavern-coolness of the cell. That they’d managed it without obvious fires or hidden hot springs really was quite something.

“The food and water are also gifts from him to you. You’ll never have need of either so long as you’re a welcome guest. His Majesty is very thoughtful in caring for his orcs.”

His orcs? Was the wizard a warlord of sorts as well as a spinner of mystical nightmares? Was that talk of Riaag being a pet more literal than he’d first assumed? Thoughts of the stink that clung to the dreary town exterior came to mind again, as did the way the sconce flames had banished every hint of smell whatsoever. If the wizard was bothered by the filth, why did he let things get so bad in the first place? Did it have anything to do with the peculiar feeling that his amulet fought to keep at bay? Riaag was learning a lot of new information that had yet to make much sense when lined up side-by-side.

As if sensing Riaag was thinking about it the unknown unnatural sensation started ramping up again, and this time it brought a wave of queasiness with it that forced Riaag to sit down with his head in one hand. It felt like his entire body was tense as a harp string in want of a plectrum. He wondered if the food they’d given him was poisoned. Amulets could help with toxins in the blood if they were made for it; Riaag’s was designed solely to ease toxins in the soul, so it wouldn’t be much help here. The unseen wrongness built to a crescendo before he felt the familiar flare-up against his skin, at which the feeling broke like a wave against the shore of a storm-churned lake and slithered back into the corners of reality from whence it came, taking the unbidden tension with it. Riaag shuddered miserably as the last hints of metaphorical foam sizzled away. The nausea took longer to pass. When he was able to look up again without vertigo he found the seneschal had scooted their chair closer to study him.

“How very interesting,” they said. “That’s not something I’ve seen before.”

Did they mean the activation of his amulet? Or did they mean the sensation itself? Maybe they didn’t know the latter was happening. Maybe they were immune to it. Maybe everyone was, and Riaag was having to deal with a demon that chose to torment him and him alone. Asking more specific questions didn’t seem wise. “My stomach felt wrong,” he said, instead. “I ate the porridge. Was it bad?” The seneschal had to be shown he would be forthcoming with answers without too much prompting. Properly gathering information when he couldn’t rely on just standing in the background with his ears open to gossip meant getting people to want to say things to him in the first place. His was a different kind of stealth than that of a hunter or forest-walker; years of work as a drudge had given Riaag quite a lot of experience with hiding in plain sight.

The seneschal shrugged. “His Majesty doesn’t make a habit of poisoning people without telling me. You probably just aren’t used to what’s in it, since it’s not full of goat guts or rotten marrow or whatever it is you things eat when left to your own devices.” The thought of a big, oven-hot pie stuffed with well-aged offal and just the right mix of seasonings, vegetables, and carrion ripened to delectable softness made Riaag’s mouth water. How long had it been since he’d crunched into a good pork bone at suppertime? Too long, that was for sure. The seneschal’s tone implied there was something gross about tucking into ripe meat, which definitely ruled out them being an orc under there. The urge to clean the land by filling their bellies was just as powerful and natural an orcish instinct as picking fights for fun. It was a scavenger thing. Even if they’d turned his back on their ancestors’ diet they would have at least understood the cloying call of a carcass.

“Is there a place to cook here? I can help make food,” said Riaag, still imagining all the lovely ways he could prepare a flank of horsemeat. His hands itched to return to the kitchen even if, given the state of the rest of the place, he would probably need to spend several hours cleaning it first.

“You’re a guest of His Majesty,” said the seneschal.

Riaag raised his eyebrows. “Guests do not cook?”

“His Majesty does not want for meals, and so by his grace neither does anyone else. Maintaining the facilities for such would just make for wasted effort.”

“Are cleaning clothes also wasted effort?” asked Riaag, unable to hide his disapproval. “I want to wash things, too, but maybe His Majesty does not have dirt cling to him. It would be a good trick if so.” This earned him a long, presumably thoughtful look from the seneschal as they twiddled with the silvery wand they carried. Riaag, still seated in case the nausea returned, squared his shoulders with a snort. He could and would suffer many an indignity in the name of the mission but unwashed underclothes was not one of them.

“You are interesting,” said the seneschal after a long pause.

Riaag kept his back as straight as he was able. It was time to make the conversation a little more involved. “You keep saying ‘interesting, interesting.’ I say nothing interesting. You have seen orcs before, so you know what we are like. Why am I a surprise when I want to do useful things?”

“I’m interested because you’re interesting,” the seneschal replied, their words so profoundly circular Riaag knew he’d have to try that pattern out himself in the future. “You no doubt recall that His Majesty is always looking for new pets, and you seem…better suited to taking care of them than our current arrangement. I have too many duties to look after them all myself and could use the assistance. What do you say to that?”

With the possible exception of knowing how to ride a horse—not a common skill among the Rhoanish, given that horses were usually raised for food in the valley—Riaag would hardly consider himself a beastmaster, but if the wizard‘s pets were kept in conditions anything like those outside then he could not in good conscience leave the poor creatures to wallow in their own mess. Even if there wasn’t a single cake of soap in town (though surely there had to be, these were civilized people they were talking about) there was plenty of burnable wood and scrap fat to make a crude batch of it. He’d feed them and clean their cages and make their lives a little more comfortable as long as he still drew breath. These poor creatures (whatever they were) clearly needed a loving touch. More importantly, caring for the lord of the tower’s pets meant Riaag had a higher chance of getting into useful places without anyone making a fuss about it, which meant he’d learn much more than he ever would simply sitting on his ass in a cell. Espionage and caretaking, all in one package! Sarouth would be so proud.

“I would like to help the pets,” Riaag said.

The seneschal chuckled. “Good for you. We have a rather fussy one you’ll be looking at tomorrow. I’ll tell Toadspit he’ll need to escort you, so do as he says and don’t make trouble. We’ll decide what to do with you after seeing how you handle your first simple task.” They stood up, smoothed out their robes, and turned to leave.

Riaag still had no idea how to refer to the seneschal, so he opted for just making a purposeful “Ay?” to try and catch their attention. This worked.

“What?”

He pointed. “What does the silver thing do?”

“This?” asked the seneschal with a twirl of their wand. They chuckled again, this time less pleasantly than before. Riaag fought not to wince when they pointed it at him. “It’s in case you make trouble. I suggest not learning how it does that.”

The bars between them felt like they came just a little more into focus for Riaag. He was clever, yes, and had let himself be taken into custody willingly, yes, and was likely a mere few feats of drudgery away from being able to sneak into some inner sanctum or another; none of these changed the fact that he was still very much a prisoner and it was the seneschal (and their unseen master) who called the shots. He watched the wand as it passed from hand to gloved hand before the seneschal tucked it up one voluminous sleeve. He could have sworn he heard the air hum in the wand’s argent wake. The seneschal waited a beat more, likely to see if Riaag had anything more to say, and when he remained quiet they spun on their heel and locked up behind themselves. Riaag was once again left alone with his thoughts.

Maybe the seneschal had honest intentions. Maybe they were making the best of a bad situation. Riaag had grown up learning to spot which smiles hid venom behind them, though, and the hard-earned knowledge of who to avoid and who he had to distract to keep other children safe kept whispering not to trust them. The guards who’d taken him at spearpoint had worn their nastiness on the outside and let it bubble up with every laugh and insult. The seneschal, however, had a more subtle streak of cruelty that comprehensively permeated what they did like a few drops of aniseed oil in bread dough, that unkindness reflected in everything from the casual way they belittled his entire blood-kind all the way up to practically daring him to see what the silver wand could do to troublemakers. They clearly knew something Riaag did not and seemed downright eager to see what he’d do when pushed. When Riaag was much younger he’d known another of his unloved band made a habit of throwing beetles together to make them fight, solely for the sake of watching the poor things suffer; the seneschal’s manner struck him as uncannily similar. Riaag could handle being a beetle for a while. He was good at being patient. He would watch, and he would wait, and if the situation called for it he wouldn’t hesitate to wring the first cowl-covered neck he found.

§

Riaag must have dozed off at some point because the next thing he knew he was lying on the cot in the dark with fresh food and water in the little bowls they’d given him. The porridge still didn’t taste like anything. The air didn’t smell like anything, either, and he frowned. If he couldn’t catch his own scent, how would he know his attempts at hygiene with his water dish were doing anything? Just because the rest of town lived in simply inhumane conditions didn’t mean he was about to give up. Maybe he could be the good example they clearly needed. It seemed to work well enough back home, so why not here?

He stared out the window at the night sky. One day down, who knew how many to go? Somewhere out there Sarouth waited beneath that same moon; on a night as cloudy as this he was unlikely to be counting the stars, though Riaag could still imagine the clicking of Sarouth’s abacus as he tallied the heavens in the name of a god that no more could see them. Even in the dimmest of moonlight Sarouth’s hair would shine like snow as he worked. The moon itself was a lot higher in the sky than Riaag expected. With horror he realized he’d missed his sundown prayers; he scrubbed his face as best he could, finger-combed his mane until it felt a little smoother than before, swished out his mouth with water, and settled into a proper position of reverence.

The floor tiles felt weird on his face as he pressed it to the ground. You were supposed to pray in contact with the earth, and there were some schools of thought that felt that if there was even so much as a layer of wood or carpet between yourself and Agritakh’s sacred surface then it didn’t count. Sarouth argued against this. The point is that we’re showing Him our faces, he had said during a debate over whether it counted if you prayed on a boat. The action and the intent matters more than the specifics. It’s not like He’ll think you’ve renounced Him because you needed to sleep in an Usoan stilt-leg house for a night. It made enough sense to Riaag. Even if he hadn’t had that conversation he would’ve still strove to show his face to Agritakh with love and gratitude. How couldn’t he? Sarouth had cleaned Riaag’s cheeks of the paint they made the unclean wear, and even before that the Hill God had still answered the prayers of a sad little thing born unwanted and untouchable by sending His very avatar to deliver him; Riaag had found much of himself challenged over the years, rightly or wrongly, but his piety had always been as steady as the highland rocks themselves.

Oh He who thirsts but not for water

Oh He who hungers but not for food

I have walked this day above You

I have lived a life that knows goodness and joy

And cherished the world that thrives by Your sacrifice

He always started with something traditional. Those customs the Rhoanish gladly kept were important to strengthen the new ones that replaced the old, hurtful ones. Others in the valley heard that the stronghold of Naar Rhoan tended fields and got all sorts of weird ideas about what all actually went on there. They ate bread made from the grasses of the ground, that was true, and it had felt a little weird at first to not roam in time with the wheel of the seasons, but it wasn’t like either of those were a slippery slope towards breaking the kinslaying taboo. You’d think people would realize that with a dedicated Agritakh-ruhd running the place in His name there would be more focus on proper blood offerings, not less.

As Your dreams give shape to the land

So too I tend it in gratitude

As You once culled the endless stars

So too I take away the old growth

I feast upon that which has fallen

And remember that someday it will be my turn to fall

In theory only god-speakers had to keep to every single prayer, and most people did just fine by saving their daily blessings for meals and before bed with a few extra rites every week. Riaag was not most people. Even before he’d started traveling with Sarouth—back when he’d been untouchable, passing as one merely unclean, and hating himself every minute for it—he’d done his best to regularly show his devotion whenever he could hide long enough to try. For all those years he had only ever asked one thing of the Hill God. That wish had been granted in the guise of the Faaroug himself. Riaag was an anxious man and a sorrowful one, his rational mind forever shackled to a burden of great despair that threatened to crush him at times, and yet between his amulets and the constant talking he did with Sarouth when things got bad his life was richer than ever. He loved, and was loved in return. He could sing praises to his ever-slumbering deity and know they were heard. With no band, no clan, and until very recently not even any family, Riaag had been a man without a home, so Agritakh decreed he (and Sarouth) build one with his own (and Sarouth’s) hands to live a life of new ideas on his own (and especially Sarouth’s) fierce terms. Who wouldn’t be thankful for that?

I am worthy of Your love because You love me

I am worthy of Your grace because You have laid it upon me

I am worthy of Your blessing because You wish good things for all Your chosen

I spill my blood across the soil in offering to You

I will be sweet upon Your tongue when I no more draw breath

And lie down at Your side with my ancestors’ songs

Riaag was still unconvinced that the last part of that prayer was true for him; being born unclean meant you didn’t have ancestors, not in a way that counted, so he had no proof that things wouldn’t go very badly whenever he finally expired. He’d seen too many frenzied ghosts in his day to hope that he’d simply fall quietly into oblivion. Some days he could handle the thought better than others. On his worse days Sarouth would soothe him—assuming Riaag was in a state to be soothed—and speak kindly of how of course he’d have someone to sing him home in his final hour. You’re mine now, Sarouth would say, generally while petting Riaag’s hair as he cried. No matter what happens, no matter who goes first, I will take care of you. I promise. Being oathbound to an exorcist had its perks, as if he came back he knew someone would be able to take care of him before he hurt anyone; that unquiet orcs came first and fiercest for what they loved was one of life’s cruelest jokes, so god-speakers put a good deal of stock into laying their kin and kind to rest. Sarouth was the best person for the job, and since Riaag loved him more than anything upon the earth there would be no question how the love of the dead would steer him. Sarouth had saved him the first time and he would save him the last. It would be such a poetic way to end things.

That was, of course, assuming Sarouth outlived him. Riaag didn’t have the heart to ask what happened when one’s sole waiting family member couldn’t sing at all.

Having finished his more general devotions it was time for a personal touch.

You who heard me when I was nothing

You who listened when I was no one

You who answered even when I had nothing to offer in return

Know that I shall love You always as You have loved me

I swear this truly, by blood and steel and fire

I treasure that of Yourself entrusted to Your messiah

I treasure Your Faaroug, sent to me in mercy

I treasure the ground that rises beneath my feet

And I treasure You, Star-Eater, Drinker of Blood

I am Riaag, called Bough-Breaker, Chosen of Wolf

Broken by hardship and reborn by Your grace

I delight in the chance to promote Your works better

Blessings upon the First Scavenger’s name!

With that, he pressed his lips to the floor in a kiss of benediction before he sat back up. He didn’t feel like anything had kept his devotions from getting to where, and to Whom, they needed. How he wished he could ask someone to check for him! Part of why he’d learned how to officiate as many rituals as he was physically and spiritually able was for the sake of security; if he did everything the right way, at the right time, and in the right order, it was easier to convince himself he hadn’t made Agritakh sad through neglect. It was harder not to regard one’s relationship with a god on an intimate level when one was intimately involved with one of Their clergy and kept experiencing new miracles with every passing year.

Riaag slumped against the wall beneath the window. He’d said his prayers, had a nap, and eaten, so what else was he expected to do? Without any actual information to share there was no use in trying to get a message to Sarouth. Given how suspicious the seneschal had been he probably needed more sleep than he’d gotten to prepare for the coming day. The problem was that without someone to cuddle him back into slumber, that aforementioned nap was likely to keep him up for hours. He glanced up at the hallway door; it remained securely closed, keeping him properly concealed from anyone who might be on patrol that evening. They’d already fed him and he hadn’t been told to expect any visitors until the next day, so why not make use of his privacy while he still had the luxury to do so? If nothing else it would pass the time. Time was something of which he definitely had an abundance.

In spite of the dark hour his cell was still temperate on the side of being cool. It reminded him of the cusp of autumn, not quite at the point where everyone was preparing for Harvest but still safe from the summer swelter, and while the only crickets here were the echoes in the seneschal’s laughter he could easily remember their calls. Autumn weather meant the chance to relax in as many—or as few—layers as he chose, so Riaag decided to imagine himself in his usual shirt and caftan, his hair neatly tied back with a ribbon to keep it out of whatever chores he’d been up to during daylight hours. Perhaps he’d been preparing a fancier dinner than usual? That would mean a sated appetite and a very happy Sarouth. Grass grew, rivers flowed, and Sarouth practically unhinged his jaws to devour Riaag’s cooking.

What would a happy Sarouth be up to? If the night was still young he’d likely be working his loom, or perhaps practicing his harp. It was also possible he and Riaag would be engaged in a pitched game of something or another. Riaag considered this, then discarded it; games were delightful, especially with a friend, but he was in the mood for his little tableau to start without them already engaged with one another. Instead he placed Sarouth at his harp and himself working on some embroidery. The dishes from their meal would long since have been cleaned and put away. If they’d both had a little wine already it would make for a lovely evening. A god-speaker belonged to the entirety of their flock, so sometimes that meant letting Sarouth spend the evening standing vigil at the healer’s tent or helping soothe a grieving family instead of staying in to relax. An evening guaranteed not to be interrupted by anything not willfully worked into the narrative sounded very lovely, indeed.

Riaag closed his eyes and imagined. The pleasant harp music would still itself and not become a new tune, which would mean he wouldn’t be surprised to hear a familiar someone settle on one of the cushions behind him to rest a hand on his shoulder. Hello there, Sarouth would purr into his ear. Would you like someone to brush your hair out while you work? Riaag would nod and pull loose the length of ribbon to let his hair fall down his back like a diving murder of crows. He’d keep at his embroidery, of course; maybe it would be a sash for the god-speaker who watched over the stronghold in their absence (as she did so much for Naar Rhoan despite remaining on the move) or a little set of ear cozies for the Usoan spymaster who’d cleared their route to the river (as his were exceptionally long, and had always seemed chapped by the wind when it got colder). Perhaps it would even be a carrying pouch for the eldest of the merchants they’d come to rescue, big enough to cushion her beloved scrying orb and keep it clean when it wasn’t busy showing her secrets from afar. Whatever it was he was working on Riaag knew it would be a gift. Living among so many people to share the work of a stronghold meant he knew plenty of people who deserved tokens of his esteem.

One such person was Sarouth, of course. In the back half of their tent, past the hanging partition, a well-carved chest held some of the many gifts Riaag had made for him, from a simple bracelet of woven cord all the way up to a shawl made from a saber-tooth whose pelt was as soft and white as Sarouth’s own hair. Sarouth needed to be wearing one such gift, Riaag decided; he settled on the gray robes he’d spent months adorning with needlework to make into the perfect Year’s End offering. The golden threads would shimmer in the firepots’ light. Sarouth could wear a grain sack with holes in it and look good, but in something actually tailored for him he was simply radiant. Riaag could think of worse things to do with himself than bask in that radiance. He’d seen it enough in person that he could summon forth the memory as naturally as breathing.

Sarouth, now properly clad, would take a jade comb to the tips of Riaag’s mane first. There were few snarls because Riaag needed to make up for lost time by being meticulous with his appearance; still, Sarouth’s hands would be gentle any time they met so much as a hint of resistance. Those few tangles that had crept their way in would melt like beeswax in the sun. A brush would inevitably follow the passage of the comb. Riaag—the actual one stuck in a small, scentless room, not the one in his mind—ran his claws through his own hair absently. Maybe on a different day he would have first imagined Sarouth playfully ruffling the cowlick that sprung up from Riaag’s widow’s peak, cheerily giving himself an excuse to offer a little social grooming if anyone asked. It had taken Riaag years to figure out why Sarouth did that.

This Sarouth, Riaag decided, should be focused on different things than everyday play, even as his weaver’s hands would plait Riaag’s locks into an ever-lengthening braid. Have you already prayed this evening? he’d murmur. I don’t want to keep you from anything. Riaag’s exact words didn’t need determining for the purposes of this exercise. He would have kept a pleasantly normal schedule for that day, which meant regular breaks for meals, rest, and prayer; that latter task, Riaag was gradually less hesitant to admit to himself, dovetailed with intimate moments more easily than it should have. Perhaps an uncharitable soul would say he lacked proper boundaries between the spiritual and the sexual, that he risked cheapening his faith by connecting it to affairs of the physical ward. He invited such an uncharitable soul to find themselves in an intensely reciprocal relationship with a priest they’d pined over for years and get back to him on that one. If it was anything to worry about, the avatar of Riaag’s own god probably would have said something about it ages ago, and he definitely wouldn’t have worked so many blessings and rituals into their sex life. Riaag would commune with and without pants on until the ground itself swallowed him up, after which he’d have more important things to worry about; the innermost whims of Agritakh were vast and unknowable, but one benefit of venerating a blood-starved god was it was pretty easy to tell if He was legitimately mad at you.

He was losing the thread of his idea. The problem with having a mind that could juggle several ideas at once was that it took a lot of effort to make it not do so. Concentrating, Riaag once more returned to the thought of sitting before his oathbound, his mood agreeable and his pulse ever-quickening. Oh, good, Sarouth would say upon being told there were no more duties to complete that day. He’d tuck a few silken flowers from Riaag’s collection of said into the creases of the braid before replacing the ribbon its end, tied in a pretty bow. I was thinking we might collaborate on something, assuming you have the time…. Riaag would have the time. Are you in good spirits today? He would be, indeed. Has your amulet has been serving you well? Naturally, this would be so. Do you wish to receive the blessing of He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth? And how!

The blessings in Riaag’s thoughts were the same as the ones Sarouth shared with him in private, which were the same as the blessings anyone might receive from a god-speaker who chose to grant them, identical both in goal and execution. If they weren’t, what would be the point? The holy words would wash over him as they always did, full of the promise of prosperity and the affirmation of love. He would be safe beneath a veil of protection, even if only for a little while. Any Agritakh-ruhd worth the salt of their sweat could bless someone without a lot of pomp and circumstance; Riaag himself had accepted his share of practical consecrations while halfway to a fight or plumbing the depths of some cave or forest. These had kept him alive, well, and safe from sin, even the time Sarouth had had to use his own spit in place of sacred oil, so it wasn’t unlike he was ungrateful for them. A really good blessing, though, took care to reinforce the sacred bond between cleric, believer, and god, with emphasis on the joy of both giving and receiving the boon. It carried the weight of the whole of the Chant behind it. He could humble himself—confidently and without deprecation, as what was a man to a being who’d roamed the void before gods were gods?—and show his devotion to those who deserved it, and in response he would both reaffirm his oath to Sarouth and bear the fleeting favor of the ever-dreaming presence in the heart of the world. When done right his skin would pleasantly tingle for hours after the anointment faded. To be born untouchable, yet granted the bounty of the Hill God’s touch through the medium of Sarouth’s short-clawed hand, not once but endlessly, so long as his oath and his faith remained? Riaag was surely the luckiest soul alive!

It was right for Riaag to kneel before the one he loved, and so he would settle himself down on carpet and cushions to look up at Sarouth with adoration. Sarouth had once admitted to how much he liked when they turned the tables this way, claiming how the position made Riaag’s eyes all the more brilliantly luminous, and if Riaag hadn’t already been predisposed towards obeisance that would’ve been enough to change his mind. It afforded him a different view, as well; Sarouth was not a small man by any means but when they stood side by side the top of his head was unable to clear the level of Riaag’s brow. Riaag was a fierce warrior of Naar Rhoan, his many victories writ in scars across his skin and his frame a solid slab of fat and labor-hardened muscle, his grand tusks framing a gap-toothed snarl that had accompanied countless war cries. He was a head-taker, a wall-smasher, a beast-slayer, a Bough-Breaker. When alone with Sarouth he was still all these things, but it was easier to remember he was pretty.

His jaw itched with longing for the feeling of Sarouth’s fingers stroking his beard. Those same fingers would touch beneath his chin and gently tilt it upwards. Half of Sarouth’s face stayed covered by his namesake hair, just as any god-speaker concealed the seat of their divine ember, but even one eye was enough to keep Riaag pinned in place from beneath its long, pearl-colored lashes. Look at you, my wolf. My champion, Sarouth would say. You have been judged and found worthy of the Hill God’s love, as you always have been and always will be. Will you accept His blessing? Of course Riaag would, but it was important to Sarouth that there was always that choice. Riaag would silently nod. Pressure built in the center of his forehead as he remembered the sensation of oil on skin, which in his thoughts was accompanied by soft chanting. No sinful thing could abide the touch of holy unguent, and yet in spite of who he had once been he would remain unburned; it was such an elegant way to remind him of his own purity in a way even the most broken shard of his heart couldn’t deny. If he started to weep again neither of them would pay it any mind. His many tears sprang not just from sorrow.

Riaag Bough-Breaker, Chosen of Wolf, Sarouth would intone, know that you are beloved of the Hill God, Agritakh, He who was once the Star-Eater, now the Voice in the Labyrinth, now He Who Sleeps. He has known the taste of your blood and the sweetness of your hymns. He sees your face and hears your oath. In His name I bless you, in His name I keep you, in His name you are guarded, in His name you shall be strong. We are all born of stars in the wake of His sacrifice. Rise, and know you are as dear to Him as every point in the sparkling sky.

As told, Riaag would rise, once more towering over (and, technically, to either side of; his were some very broad shoulders) Sarouth, though this would not diminish Sarouth’s grandeur. Riaag would fold his hands in front of himself and wait for Sarouth’s next command. He would allow himself to be admired. Sometimes Sarouth liked to draw this part out and sometimes they’d switch to the next step nigh on instantly, mood depending, and other times still they folded it into something else. Riaag debated which fit the scene he was creating best. In the end he decided to cut things shorter, as there would be a question in need of an answer.

Do you wish to receive the blessing of Sarouth White-Hair?

Riaag would make a grand show of acting demure and ask what the Faaroug himself would want with a simple man such as himself. He would smile, perhaps with a hint of a blush, and glance askance, then slowly, shyly reestablish eye contact. Just because it was his own little fantasy didn’t mean he’d forget the sorts of things Sarouth ate up with a spoon.

Know that he’s got a raging hard-on and thinks you’re looking very cute this evening. So says the Chant, handed down by our ancestors.

How could anyone argue with that? Riaag certainly wouldn’t, and so he would formally request such a blessing, since Sarouth was keen on having Riaag clearly voice his wants and needs. He could have anything in the world so long as he would ask. The more he practiced the easier it had to get, he was sure of it. His appetite would have been well-whetted by the bliss of supplication, which would make things easier still. So he would ask.

Then be blessed, brave warrior.

Sarouth would then pop up on tiptoe to kiss him. It would start out a sweeter one, Riaag decided, that only changed in intensity as Riaag reciprocated, and Sarouth would lean in with increasing insistence until there was scarcely room to pass a strand of Riaag’s embroidery floss between them. They would manage to keep their tusks from locking against one another only by sheer fortune, as by the time Riaag worked up the nerve to lay a hesitant hand against Sarouth’s waist they would already have added teeth and tongue to the proceedings. Sarouth was an excellent kisser and Riaag was a fast learner; once they decided to practice with one another they’d scarcely looked back. Once you learned how to not accidentally rasp someone’s mouth with your tongue like they were a half-picked poultry bone and remembered to regularly swish with ash-water to keep your saliva gentle it was absolutely worth the trouble. Hints of the evening’s wine would keep things sweet long after they fell to passion. They would part, eventually, but until then they would share a breath between them, each hum or sigh a soft prayer of its own.

Sometimes when they were together that was where things ended. Sometimes there were chores that needed doing or sleep that needed chasing, as even though their unity was forged from the strongest of alloys they were but two men in charge of hundreds of other lives, and lives were prone to becoming complicated in the time it took for a single leaf to fall from a tree. Sometimes they’d get one another off quickly before promising to be together at a later date, when they both could take as long as they liked to enjoy themselves. Sometimes it didn’t matter how much they wanted one another, there just weren’t enough hours in a single day. This would not be one of those times.

He would loosen his skull-hung belt and the sashes upon which it rested and lay them to the side. This was not the only signal he used for encounters such as this but it was a useful one; with his caftan no longer held in place it meant Sarouth could begin peeling away his layers like the shell of a boiled egg. Sarouth did so love eggs.

Removing Riaag’s tunic meant that Sarouth could stroke the patch of dark hair this revealed. Removing his gloves meant they could touch with nothing between them. In time the only things left would be the amulet on his arm and the flowers in his hair. An autumn night was a fine time to be in the altogether; such nights were warm enough to still be comfortable without trousers, yet cool enough to welcome the closeness of another, and so it would be inside his thoughts. He wouldn’t even feel the need to shiver. To be willingly nude in front of someone else without the excuse of swimming had yet to lose its mystique for Riaag. In his better times he could appreciate how that intimacy burrowed down to his core, opening the path for physical and emotional closeness that matched their ever-present spiritual bond, so naturally he would feel that way in his thoughts. Why shouldn’t he? Sarouth thought he was worth cherishing, and he loved Sarouth, and so he would allow himself to be cherished.

Perhaps some might have disagreed with the way Sarouth chose to cherish the one who bore his oath, but their opinions were thoroughly unimportant. What actually was important was the way Sarouth would knead at Riaag like a milk-treading cat, praise flowing from his well-kissed lips as he found endless things to compliment. Such a strong man Riaag was. Such a big one. So handsome. So pretty. Perhaps Sarouth might let his hands linger along some battle scar or another (always only the battle scars, not the faded ones Riaag carried from before) and regale him with a tale of how he’d gotten it. The answers were always correct, if told with more enthusiasm than elegance, and perhaps embellished a bit in Riaag’s favor. Or maybe they weren’t and he simply wasn’t used to hearing them from someone else’s mouth. Walking the line between humility and deprecation was an uneven path. Sometimes he suspected he’d forget he’d slain as many bandits as he had if he didn’t wear tangible proof of one such encounter every day.

Blessed and undressed, Riaag would be rendered so much clay before the wheel well before Sarouth would have to do anything. This was always dangerous. His thought-made self would fight not to tremble as Sarouth breathed warm air against the parts of his neck his hair, when unbound, usually covered; his actual self wet his lips and loosened his belt in expectation. Riaag tended to bide his time when establishing a scene for himself, but now that the pieces were all in place there was work to be done. He shifted his weight, warmed his hand against his leg, and decided that Sarouth would drag a fingertip along the underside of his shaft and chuckle over the whine he wouldn’t be able to bite back. Oh? Is something wrong? Sarouth would ask with a sly smile. Do you need to be held more firmly to keep from worrying? He would cup Riaag’s balls in one ring-clad hand and let them settle against his palm, and such a configuration meant he could heft or squeeze as he desired, with Riaag unable to do anything but whimper. Pressure would rise and fall against his tender parts as Sarouth investigated. A voice, soft and malevolent, would whisper in his ear: It seems you’ve been caught, my little bird. What do you think about that?

He thought quite a lot about that, as evidenced by the thoughts he was quite actively enjoying at the time; actually being caught and held somewhere wasn’t much fun, also evidenced by his current situation, but that wasn’t what Sarouth was asking him, was it? He’d been holding on to the perfect answer just in case something like this ever came up in real life. With a shakily confident voice he would assure Sarouth he’d been caught since the first day, helplessly so, and that he wouldn’t want it any other way. This would earn him another smoky laugh and a hand motion that, since it was based on yet another actual trick of Sarouth’s, would stop just short of Riaag’s pain threshold before going back to calmly hefting him. Is that so? Sarouth would say. Then I suppose we have some catching up to do, don’t we?

Sarouth would shed his robes, though not without some intentionally agonizing slowness, and not until he shucked the black wool of his undermost garment would his many pieces of jewelry quite literally shine. The bright metal would seem to glow against his dark green skin, each golden band or string of quartzes brilliant in the light as they’d break up the countless lines of red that raced up the flesh of Sarouth’s arms, across his back, and around his neck. Riaag’s hands, even now, longed to trace those tattoos; he would never have to walk the Labyrinth himself, Hill God willing, but each time he had the opportunity to follow that maze of scarlet lines with his fingers—never quite the same pattern twice, he’d found, but never entirely new—he felt like he could understand Sarouth the tiniest bit better. Even at a distance the gleam of precious metals against skin could captivate him. Sarouth surrounded himself with such lovely things. In the right frame of mind, such as while dwelling on a pitch-perfect recreation of an intimate encounter steeped in just the right blend of sex and sanctity, Riaag counted himself among those lovely things, too.

Not being the only one in the room who enjoyed looking at their beloved, Sarouth would oblige Riaag with a toss of his hair and the sight of one hand propped against his hip. He would beckon, palm outstretched, with his free hand, his visible eye shining like the bracelets adorning his slender wrists.

Take me in your arms, my wolf, and tell me what you want.

It would be a moment of truth, of sorts. As this was a daydream (technically a some-vague-point-after-sundowndream, but the point was that Riaag was awake for it) everything was in a controlled state. Everything was fine and would happen just the way he wanted it to. Everything could feel good. Because he didn’t have to worry about anything, Riaag could ask for something he knew Sarouth wanted, too. Sarouth would laugh with delight and ask if he was certain, which because everything was fine would be more because he wanted to be sure it would best bring pleasure than because he was concerned about Riaag’s well-being, and Riaag would agree, which would earn him more laughter and another excited kiss before he picked Sarouth up and carried him behind the partition to the bed they now shared.

Theirs was a very large bed because it needed to fit a very large man with enough room left over for a not-exactly-small friend, and it needed to do this without its legs buckling if they chose to express that friendship and with enough room for them to roll away from each other when the weather got hot. This meant Riaag could reasonably lay Sarouth at the head of it before sitting himself down at the foot, his weight propped up on one elbow and his flower-dotted braid draped across the opposite shoulder. Sarouth would reach out to scratch him under the chin. They’d discuss what would happen and how it would work. Sarouth would rummage around in his potion collection—also kept in the back, as potions of any stripe were difficult to come by reliably—to produce a corked clay vial with whose shape Riaag was quite familiar. Inside the vial, same as always, would be something thin and clear that went on slick when poured or daubed somewhere, and so he’d get to enjoy the sight of Sarouth tipping a little into the palm of his hand. Normally Sarouth wore rings as part of his clerical garb, and they’d even stay on more than occasionally if he was planning on touching Riaag (or himself and Riaag simultaneously) until someone came. When the potion collection was involved, however, the rings on his dominant hand stayed off, the glint of metal replaced by the glint of a layer of god-given lubricant. Riaag, who had no desire to accidentally kidnap a cabochon in the heat of the moment, never had a problem with this, and so it was trivial to imagine how Sarouth would oil up his fingers until they could glide over most any flesh with the confidence of a water strider. All Riaag would have to do was prop up one leg and Sarouth could do the rest.

The last time they’d had time for something as involved as this had been in the days following First Dawn, which temporally speaking had only been a week and a half ago but emotionally speaking might as well have been another world away. Given how saddle-sore Riaag could get they’d chosen to abstain until they were on the return trip. The sooner they took care of this wizard asshole making trouble for everyone the sooner they’d be able to spend time together again. He longed to feel Sarouth’s front snuggled up against his thigh, his calf folded loosely over Sarouth’s shoulder as Sarouth knelt before him. Preparation for this sort of thing could take any amount of time, or even be a goal in and of itself; even though Riaag had a particular goal in mind for his scenario of choice he still lingered on thoughts of manual dexterity applied in creative ways.

Soon, though, Sarouth would need to ask the most important of questions.

Are you ready?

It was no secret that Riaag liked getting fingered by his favorite demigod. It’d been a little strange at first (in no small part because he hadn’t realized the true reason Sarouth kept his claws filed down until then, as he’d previously assumed it was to appear more kind and welcoming) but once he got over the admittedly terrifying hurdle of having someone touch anything even near his asshole he was able to enjoy Sarouth’s attentions. Logically, this same enjoyment should apply to other things Sarouth was interested in putting in him, as after all it was Sarouth himself, his best friend and confidant, at the reins. Logically, even if it turned out it wasn’t his cup of tea, he’d either have an okay time or he could ask Sarouth to stop, and they’d talk about it, and move on to something else instead, and it’d be fine. It wasn’t like Sarouth had ever hinted he needed more than what they had; if they’d never moved beyond jerking each other off Sarouth probably would have been fine with it. He knew Riaag. They’d loved each other for so long before actually swearing their oath it had felt like an inevitability when said oath finally happened (had it already been a year and a half since then?), and no longer forcing themselves to orbit one another at arm’s length had been worth it all its own. Even during those days when Riaag had to step away from an embrace to let his panicked heart heal itself he could still take comfort that he would not be alone when he returned to the world. Sarouth would have him as long as Riaag still wanted what they had, no matter the scope of it.

Riaag was determined to challenge the limits of that scope until he could challenge them no more. Too many times in his life he’d had all manner of despair befall him for no other reason than being unable to stop it. Now if things happened they would be because Riaag had wanted them to happen and no other reason. He would take a deep breath, let it out again, then nod wordlessly to Sarouth. In a daydream, he could be as brave as he wanted to be.

What would it actually feel like to have Sarouth inside him? Fingers, no matter how many one bunched together, were hardly the same thing as a cock. The latter probably didn’t move around as deftly. He’d be warm, of course, and very firm, and there’d be more length to work with than the space between claw-tip and major knuckle that Riaag was already used to. Sarouth being Sarouth he would go slowly, regularly glancing down at Riaag to see how he was doing and flashing a smile any time their eyes met. Riaag had given thought to how someone significantly smaller than him was meant to do this while still being able to look him in the face; barring contortion, the perpendicular-pelvis arrangement he imagined seemed the most efficient without having to make a big pile of pillows to prop up any portion of his anatomy. The thought of Sarouth straddling one of his massive thighs, knees pressed into the quilt on either side and balls rubbing against Riaag’s flesh with each resolute thrust, was a nice one to linger on as Riaag—the actual one, not his flushed and breathless idea-self—worked his hand up and down his length in approximate time with his little creation. This he had plenty of experience doing. He had no potion collection available to him so the pre-come that beaded at his tip would have to do. For however long he had until the braziers scolded him for it and stripped the air again, the cell would smell a little happier.

He felt his climax building and nudged the scene along. Sarouth would use Riaag’s leg as a brace to plunge ever-deeper, and he would struggle to keep his eyes from squeezing closed. Unintelligible praise spilled from his lips. Riaag wouldn’t make the mistake of bracing too much, or be startled by a memory served up in the wrong order, or any other error that could befall someone being ridden hard by a loved one, instead remaining a perfect vessel for Sarouth’s affections. He’d look so pretty doing it. It wouldn’t matter that Sarouth would be the only one who’d see him this way. That arguably made it better.

I’m close, Sarouth would say as his tempo increased. Where shall I finish, Riaag-my-love?

The answer was obvious. Riaag would make his desires clearly known and earn another delighted laugh. He could already see the grimace of pleasure on Sarouth’s face and hear his name breathed through Sarouth’s gritted teeth, and then he’d be blessed in a way more internal, but no less intimate, than the one lingering upon his forehead. Riaag would pant in pleasure as Sarouth emptied himself with a series of ecstatic shudders. A vessel for affections could be a vessel for a lot more than that if they had the right attitude.

Sarouth would catch his breath with a weary smile and take Riaag’s still-stiffened cock in hand. His palms were always so soft. Riaag thought of being touched while Sarouth remained inside him; in his thoughts he would come dramatically, his cock painting a brilliant pearly stripe up the swell of his stomach, and in reality he was careful to keep things contained in his free hand for the sake of keeping things tidy. This, too, was something he’d practiced a lot. As he licked his palm clean he imagined how they would kiss one another, logistics of the flesh be damned, and settle together, still entwined, to talk until they were ready for whatever, or whoever, came next.

Riaag growled happily to himself and tucked his softening cock back into his trousers. He’d need to remember the details of this one, as it seemed like something Sarouth would enjoy having narrated later. It only made sense that a god-speaker, whose very blood ran red with words, would enjoy hearing sweet things said by his herald, and over the smattering of months they’d shared a fire he’d apparently given Sarouth quite a taste for this kind of storytelling. There were worse influences one could have on a man.

He peeked through the window and was rewarded with another view of nondescript darkness. Who knew what time it was, but he’d managed to kill a few minutes of however much night remained, which had to be good for something. He rinsed his hands with the dregs of his water bowl and wiped them dry on the corner of his coat. The sooner they found this wizard asshole, wrenched his head off, and dunked it into a cistern, the sooner they could get back to trying out his daydreams face to face. It wouldn’t be long now, he promised himself. So long as he remained careful and patient, and Sarouth kept to his part of the plan, they were bound to be reunited in no time. For Sarouth White-Hair, the Faaroug himself, Riaag would wait forever.

§

A halfway familiar voice bellowed at Riaag and an unseen figure rang something metal against the cell bars. Riaag went from fast asleep to alert and ready to defend himself in the space of a heartbeat; the scrap wood he’d used for math problems yesterday found its way into his hand as he spun from prone into a half-crouch, having slept facing the door as a matter of habit. The source of the noise revealed itself to be Toadspit, flanked by a little platoon of orcs that looked different from the entourage that had escorted him before, while Toadspit himself was armed with one of the ill-maintained spears and a key on a sort of ring-charm that struck Riaag as comically oversized. The latter seemed to be what had rung against the iron. Toadspit jabbered at Riaag in several meaningless syllables before one of his fellows nudged him in the side.

“Lord does say he has no Orcspeak,” said the nameless guard. “You want him to know what you tell him, you do have to talk using lordly speech.”

Toadspit growled an unintelligible reply.

The guard sighed the sigh of someone doomed to repeat themselves until the end of time. “Because if he is a man-wolf, he does have great strength, and our lord does say he is cunning. He understands this, yes?” Riaag realized this latter query was directed at him. He straightened up with a wary nod, though he didn’t yet feel like putting down his makeshift club. The guard gestured at him with a didn’t I tell you? expression as they looked back at Toadspit. Riaag liked this one better already.

“Feh,” said Toadspit. “Man-wolf, you come with us. My lord does want you to see a thing.” He narrowed his eyes. “No weapons or we do bring pain to you, eh?”

Riaag reluctantly set the wood aside. He’d handled bigger groups than this with less, and even unarmored he suspected he had little to fear from the guards’ weapons; the problem was that threat of pain. He thought back to the silver wand the seneschal had carried and how he’d been assured he didn’t want to know what it did. The two concepts had to be related. He didn’t see any such devices in the guards’ hands, but given how simple it would be to hide such a thing in a sleeve or pant leg this didn’t mean there weren’t any there. Playing nice seemed like the wisest move.

Clearly pleased with himself, Toadspit unlocked the cell with the preposterous key and gestured at Riaag to fall into step. The other guards surrounded him in a circle of spears. It seemed like a lot of effort to go to just to take someone to handle a misbehaving animal; logically, as he was an as-yet unknown element, the seneschal probably didn’t want him wandering off somewhere unsupervised. Also logically, as Riaag’s sources had sworn to him that this place was built on a foundation of lies, he had to assume there was more to this first assignment than the seneschal had let on. Did the wizard keep people as pets? The thought alone was barbaric. If merely living in the shadow of the tower did something to the way people (or orcs, anyway, though aside from the seneschal themselves he had yet to see anyone who wasn’t one) thought, then maybe it was possible to focus that nebulous something to break someone’s mind until all that was left was a helpless husk who’d sit and wait for someone to pet them. As someone who understood the value of sitting and being petted while still keeping his wits about him, Riaag suspected he’d still have some complaints regarding the methods used.

The moment they stepped outside the cold hit Riaag like a salvage hammer. The inoffensive coolness indoors made it easy to forget how bitter the weather truly was, and he once again found himself longing for warmer clothes. What he wouldn’t give for one of the ratty cloaks the guards wore! Said guards didn’t look like they were that much better off beneath their layers of ill-kept furs and fabric, to be fair, but anything to trap a little extra heat had to help. Freezing mud sucked at his feet as they steadily shuffled towards wherever the wizard kept his more troublesome pets. Riaag had to place each step carefully to keep from sliding in the muck, which was slick enough on its own before taking into account the patches of ice and trash-clogged slush thrown into the mix. The only thing between himself and landing ass-first in a pile of something unmentionable was his own sense of balance. Thank goodness he’d thought to wear good boots before letting himself be captured.

Now shivering and disconsolate, Riaag regretted not bolting a mouthful or two of breakfast gruel before leaving his cell that morning. He hoped he wouldn’t be too irritable to do his job properly; the tasteless stuff from last night had been remarkably filling, and he hadn’t woken up hungry, but his stomach knew it was empty no matter how much supper had stuck to his ribs. It was a bit disorienting having his head tell him he didn’t need to eat anything despite knowing he was past due for a little nourishment.

When they arrived at their destination—itself another building of a similar style, if not scale, to the one in which he’d spent the night—it was not a moment too soon, as snow blew in after them on a bitter, noisome wind. Riaag’s new environment had the same conveniences as the other one, being less cold (but not exactly warm) on the inside with air that was far less foul (but not exactly pleasing) to the nose. The unknown architect’s fondness for putting spikes on things that had no business being spiked had also returned, much to Riaag’s dismay. Footprints marred the decorative tilework all around the entrance, though a casual glance at the countless dried tracks told him that this was neither a new nor unusual event. He tried not to judge his escort too badly for neglecting to take the time to scrape their boots at the threshold. Given how the prints suddenly vanished a dozen or so feet in from the door, why did they have any reason to? A self-cleaning floor didn’t exactly encourage anyone to be mindful of their surroundings.

They marched him through a curving hallway and down a flight of stairs into a sunken room with rows of tiered wooden seating all around the edges. It reminded Riaag of some of the debate halls he’d seen at Concordance, though those hadn’t had sand tossed across the ground nor portcullises in the walls; given the distance between the seats and the central floor, he suspected it was a fighting pit of some sort. Merchants sometimes spoke of people who collected beasts and pit them against each other for sport, which had always sounded like the highest form of heresy to him, so was that what this was? He felt his features crease into a deepening scowl of disgust and made no attempt to hide it. What would the lord of the tower do next, steal food from the creatures of the wild places? Dig up a few graves? Maybe lead the whole town in a round of kinfeasting? The possibilities were endless. No matter how outlandish the claim of blasphemy, in his current state Riaag would have believed it.

Toadspit led him out into the pit. Riaag’s eyes scanned the seats and found no crowd to watch him, so when the seneschal appeared in another gout of purple darkness he was not as startled as he otherwise might have been; they seemed to have a fondness for making dramatic entrances in front of bigger groups. That they were the only one other than the guards present was a comfort in and of itself. The wizard probably wouldn’t have him fight for anyone’s amusement with no one to watch, would he? He was here to take care of a misbehaving pet, no doubt some poor creature forced to defend itself against whatever they threw at it, and if it was half feral from pain or hunger he would probably need the whole pit to have enough room try to quiet it down without killing it. Riaag didn’t know much about caring for animals outside of respectfully harvesting them for food and, by very loose technicality, how to get on a horse without falling immediately off again, but if he’d learned how to deal with Stupid Horse without it biting his fingers when he fed it a carrot, he could learn how to deal with whatever they wanted him to meet.

“We do bring the man-wolf, my lord,” said Toadspit to the seneschal.

“I can see that, Toadspit,” said the seneschal. “Did he give you any trouble?”

Toadspit eyed Riaag. “I do not think he tried,” he said, much to Riaag’s surprise. “He did make to protect himself when first waking, and he does have no Orcspeak, still. But we did see nothing else.”

The seneschal hummed thoughtfully. “Good enough. Take your men and go take care of your other duties for today. I’ll handle this.”

“Will you be safe, my lord?”

Riaag was unsurprised to see the silver wand appear in the seneschal’s hand through a bit of prestidigitation. “If he knows what he’s good for him, I will be,” they said, and he could tell they were staring at him even without being able to see their eyes. Was there any problem they didn’t try to solve by brandishing that thing? Riaag couldn’t help but think of an Usoan idiom: one who only has a hammer will make the whole world into nails. He hadn’t ever expected to meet someone who embodied that phrase so literally.

Toadspit saluted, barked some orders at the rest of the guards, then herded them back off of the pit floor to leave Riaag alone with the seneschal again.

“You said there was a fussy pet?” asked Riaag.

“I did, didn’t I?”

Riaag didn’t respond to that. Even with a limited familiarity with the language he knew a trap when he heard one. Instead he brushed a few drops of melted snow from his coat and folded his hands in front of himself neatly. He kept one eye on the silver rod; he couldn’t trust the seneschal not to introduce him to it without so much as a word of warning, as he was rapidly suspecting that there was no code of courtesy kept in the town beneath the tower, much less a sense of personal honor. If he couldn’t take someone at their word, he definitely wouldn’t take them at their wand.

After waiting a few beats without Riaag saying anything, the seneschal continued. “His Majesty has created a magnificent new thing to amaze and delight, but it refuses to be tamed. A pet that doesn’t behave is less than useless to him. Your job is to do something about it.”

“What if I cannot do this?” He’d already explained he wasn’t much of a tamer of beasts, hadn’t he? Riaag’s strengths lay with babysitting, not herding sheep or teaching dogs how to be friendly. He was also uncomfortable about the way the seneschal had phrased things. You could breed an animal. You could raise one from birth. Nobody created a living creature unless they simply duplicated its form as part of something else, and he was fairly certain the seneschal wasn’t talking about anything as mundane as a sculpture that wasn’t working out as intended.

They shrugged at Riaag’s question. “Then I guess we’ll just throw more orcs at it until either it finally quiets or it gets so full it pops.”

There were a lot of reasons Riaag could have refused, ranging from the reasonable to the petulant and stubborn, but he only needed one reason to attempt even the most foolhardy of tasks. “If it means no one else will be risked, then I will do this thing.”

“Lovely. Let’s see how you do.” They fell apart into mist that swirled away to reform among the seats. The seneschal made a gesture with their hand which caused one of the portcullises to crank open, followed by a matching mechanical boom from deeper in the building. The torches flared dramatically. With a truly horrible noise, the wizard‘s pet rushed out to meet Riaag.

Riaag had seen tigers a time or two before. When it came to felines in the valley you were more likely to see leopards or wildcats, or maybe a lynx or a saber-tooth or two; tigers you only really saw far up north or outside the valley proper. Unlike valley cats tigers could get as big as some herd animals. He was more familiar with their furs than the beasts themselves, and those furs tended to be owned by people who came across the mountains to visit. What fearsome beasts they were! Even with his limited personal exposure his brain understood tigers. Whatever this was was not that.

It had four legs, striped fur, and claws, but that was where its similarity to a normal animal ended. Its mouth did not open correctly. It wasn’t that it yawned sideways like a beetle, or simply very wide like a snake, but that there were hinges to its jaw that did not go in the directions Riaag expected, resulting in something not unlike a flower with teeth. A smaller set of teeth gnashed further back in its throat. In place of a tiger’s striped tail it had a long, tapering length of barbed muscle that glistened with moisture and curled over its back like a scorpion’s stinger. Riaag had heard stories of manticores before, those strange foreign monsters with their many teeth and terrible tails, but Sarouth had told him those didn’t exist. What was this, then?

“His Majesty calls it a goblin tiger,” said the seneschal, as though reading his mind.

Riaag hustled out of the way of a pounce that left deep furrows in the ground. “How am I to care for it?” he shouted over its ululations. Would it even let him care for it in the first place? He reminded himself that first impressions were not always correct. Stupid Horse was a bastard animal with evil lurking behind its eyes, but Stupid Horse still let Riaag brush its coat and put ribbons in its mane, and even though his every instinct wanted nothing to do with its crushing hooves or snapping teeth he could now stay in the saddle while riding at a pretty decent clip. The goblin tiger didn’t smell nearly as delicious as horseflesh did. Maybe that would help him concentrate.

“Oh, your job isn’t to care for it. Your job is to take care of it. It’s not my fault if you didn’t understand what I was asking of you before you agreed.”

He was fairly certain that the original agreement had been worded differently. In a place made out of lies, there was no use trying to argue truth; it seemed like his best option was to do the best possible job he could in order to wipe the smug look off of the seneschal’s still thoroughly hidden face. The hard part would be figuring out how to actually do that.

The goblin tiger was nearly the size of a steppe wisent and far faster on its feet. Riaag had no spears or skewers to set against a charge, and he suspected monsters were not subject to concepts like exhaustion; even if they were, he would be trying to outlast it on a skipped breakfast, while the goblin tiger had untold stores of stamina and no doubt thought he looked soft and tasty. Until proven otherwise he had to assume every part of it was brimming with toxins. The only way to formulate a plan was to observe it, and since he’d need to be running away the entire time it was going to require one hell of a balancing act between paying attention to what it was doing and paying attention to where he was going. If he stunned himself by slamming into one of the pit walls, even for just a few seconds, it would all be over. He crouched down in the sand and launched himself in the opposite direction of the goblin tiger. A warrior’s work was never done.

One benefit of wearing heavy armor all the time meant that when all he had to do was move his own cloth-clad weight around, Riaag had little trouble keeping his speed high and his breathing steady. His legs were glad for the chance to stretch after an overnight stay in a cell. The sand was surprisingly well-suited for physical activity, since it gave just enough to keep from straining his joints but wasn’t impossibly slick, and the prints left by the goblin tiger’s outsized paws made it easier to judge its gait without letting it charge right towards him. In the space of a few passes he was able to spot what he needed. The creature was big and scary the way any large thing with fangs and claws could be, Riaag himself included, but what it had that he did not was a subtle limp. When the wizard had built it, assuming the seneschal wasn’t just using evocative language about a breeding program, he hadn’t quite put the legs together as they ought to be. That it was one of the back legs, near the slimy part, as opposed to the front legs, by the bitey part, was a stroke of good fortune Riaag was determined to make clever use of.

It was harder to trip an animal than it looked. With people you just had to knock out one out of probably only two legs and they’d topple over no problem, but if an animal didn’t swim, fly, or slither, it likely had four or more limbs to balance itself. Grazing beasts would stay down once they went down if you were quick about it; hunters like wolves and bears (and, apparently, goblin tigers) were built to get back up again and keep chasing. Riaag didn’t have any pits he could lure the creature into nor snares he could spring to wrench it into the air, which further complicated things. In the end he could only think of one thing that was likely to work. Personal endangerment in the name of keeping something bad from happening to people he barely knew was old news to Riaag, so without a moment’s hesitation he spun on his heel and ran straight at the thing.

Certain foreign cultures of which Riaag had heard mention made much ado about sacred rites where people had to jump over animals. He’d listened, enthralled, to a visiting merchant’s poem about bull-dancing, and for weeks afterward imagined the skill it must take to perform acrobatic wonders on and around a cranky creature that probably didn’t want much to do with the rite in the first place. He spread his hands and prepared to brace them against the goblin tiger’s shoulders as it and he hurtled towards one another; if he used his speed and leverage just right he’d be able to flip it beneath himself and let his mass do the rest. This plan neglected to take into account something cats of all sizes were known to do; Riaag suddenly found himself staring down a pouncing monstrosity dead set on crunching every one of its jointed jaws down around his head.

He ducked in the nick of time—that bad leg of its meant that it couldn’t get quite the rush of power it needed to outmaneuver him—but Riaag didn’t wait for the goblin tiger to pass completely over him before hurling himself back upright with one arm wrapped around its torso. His shoulder collided with the hard plating of the goblin tiger’s ribs; it hurt, but he’d endured worse injuries without breaking anything, and from the sound of the monster’s scream he’d given much more than he’d gotten. Momentum carried him upwards even as the thing wriggled for freedom, and the scratches he got from its lashing tail didn’t dissuade him from wrenching it to the side to slam it into the ground beneath the full force of a very large man with very strong opinions about whether his opponent should still be able to walk.

Riaag would have broken its neck, assuming it had a neck that could be broken, if it hadn’t slapped the ground with its spiny tail so hard it pushed its body up against his hard enough to knock the wind out of him. He released it and scooted away just in time to avoid the tail crashing down where he’d been only a few moments before; it caught itself with some of its own spines, causing it to scream even more awfully as a deep blue-black ichor oozed from the wounds to trace new stripes into its auburn fur. Something about its hide reminded Riaag of a piece of tatty fabric waiting to unravel. He felt bad for it, then, as its true state came into focus. It wasn’t plump with muscle but lean and wasted, not a king of wood and mountain but a delirious wreck that could barely coordinate itself when it shifted even the slightest bit off-balance. The poor thing was dying. The goblin tiger was a monster, and a monster that would gladly try to kill whatever was thrown to it, at that, but all the same it hadn’t asked to have been made by an uncaring hand and left to fend for itself in a world it didn’t understand. Riaag could relate to that. He owed it as quick a finish as he could give it.

The beast would be wise to another frontal attack, and even now it tried to circle him to charge from a more strategic angle, so Riaag resigned himself to running and dodging a while longer. Its self-inflicted wounds did its bad leg no favors and the tracks it left grew increasingly sloppy as it faltered in its pursuit. All it took was one misstep for the thing to stagger, which was Riaag’s cue to take the offensive again. He taunted it with shouts and wildly waving arms. It snapped at him and lashed out with its tail, which he grabbed, grateful for his gloves as they skidded for purchase across the slug-wet skin between its spines. He pulled sharply and was met with the sound of its tattered skin ripping further, and only by luck did the tail not detach like a lizard’s as he used it to wrench the goblin tiger up over his head and down into the pit floor. It collapsed in pain. Curled up as it was, trembling and whimpering, the creature almost looked like a person to him. Perhaps there was a thing as too much empathy. Better too much than too little, he supposed.

If he was going to be compassionate then he would need to finish the job. Riaag released the goblin tiger’s tail, backed up a few paces, then ran at it with what speed he still had in him. He used the momentum to kick it as hard as he could in its gradually sundering side.

Its body split open with remarkable violence, the goblin tiger’s flesh splattering like rotten fruit when it struck the ground and leaving an indigo stain both on the sand and up Riaag’s trouser leg. Bones and chunks of viscera were all that remained of its once-mighty frame. A few attendants materialized from hidden nooks all around the pit to take the mess away; before they shooed him away from the beast’s resting place, Riaag could have sworn he saw a different skeleton half-tangled with the thing’s own. The bones looked smaller and more delicate than a typical person’s, and even if Riaag hadn’t been familiar with the workings of the orcish body he would’ve known they weren’t an animal’s thanks to the grace of the remaining finger bones and the angle of the ribs. If he had somehow thought the goblin tiger was a mortal beast based on its outside, one look at the inside would have been enough to change his mind for good.

Riaag heaved several deep breaths as he wiped the denser bits of gore from his clothes. The creature had been an abomination, a puppet of meat with sinews for strings, but he still felt like it had been a mercy killing. Nothing that tore apart as easily as a pillow in a dog’s mouth could have been very healthy. Had it lived its last days in similar conditions to the orcs outside, its proud stripes growing dull beneath a thickening layer of filth? Had someone ever fed it nice food and stroked it lovingly? To raise a goblin tiger from (presumably) a goblin tiger cub and have it so out of control when fully-grown smacked of negligence of the highest order. He didn’t know which of the great Animals would oversee something forged outside of the natural order; Saber-Tooth seemed mean enough to welcome the thing among Saber-Tooth’s own, so he prayed that it might find peace among whatever kin it could find before its soul dissolved away to become a new creature.

A slow, muffled clap of velvet against velvet rang out from the seats. Riaag had nearly forgotten about the seneschal; they stood from where they sat to applaud him mockingly. “Oh, well done,” they said, and he could hear the sneer in their voice. “It seems we’ll have some use for you after all.”

Stray strands of hair stuck to the sweat on Riaag’s forehead. Without a helmet or proper styling to keep it in place it felt like his hair had gone everywhere, and a spot of combing it back with his fingers wasn’t going to do the trick. He felt like he was expected to say something. “It will not hurt people anymore.”

“Not unless it gets up and starts walking again, no,” said the seneschal. “I’ll report your success to His Majesty posthaste. Later on we’ll look into getting you some new duties, provided you continue to behave yourself, and you can become a useful little member of the family. I think that sounds nice, don’t you?”

Riaag already had a family and he was not interested in swapping. The seneschal didn’t need to know that, and the wizard most definitely didn’t, so he simply ducked his head in acknowledgment. Just because he wasn’t making new bonds of kin and kind didn’t mean he couldn’t make a few friends out of the mess. Given the assortment of weird people already in his life that he would gladly block a javelin for (despite some of them having held a knife to his throat on more than one occasion), now that he was primed to meet more weird people he was probably due to expand the roster.

The seneschal tilted their head backwards and muttered something under their breath. It sounded like a one-sided conversation. Being the acolyte of a god-speaker meant Riaag had been witness to his fair share of one-sided conversations, but this also raised a few new concerns of its own. Did you have to be a god to talk to people without standing next to them? Did this mean the wizard was a divine being in and of itself? If the latter was true it was just as well Sarouth had come along. You didn’t bring a knife to a god fight.

“Today’s very lucky for you!” said the seneschal. Sarouth was also fond of calling half of everything he saw lucky, though that was probably because the shepherd stock he came from all did that and not strictly a god-speaker thing. Riaag’s adrenaline-addled mind found itself wondering how Sarouth’s sheep-herding cousin was doing, what lucky things she herself had pointed out to others lately, and whether she’d ever be able to visit the stronghold to say hello. She was still Sarouth’s cousin, being one of the few exceptions to him fiercely rejecting his old family, wasn’t she? Did cousins still count through an oathbond if you had no claim to whatever aunt or uncle raised them? He tried not to focus on people he wasn’t sure if he was related to or not since the seneschal was still talking.

“Starting very soon, you will officially be responsible for tending to His Majesty’s pets. Should he choose to host guests, you will be expected to care for them, as well. Don’t worry, most of your time will be spent well away from this godawful place, but His Majesty wanted to be sure you could handle yourself should a charge get a little…rowdy.” They chuckled. “Doesn’t that sound nice, Hogfoot?”

That was not a form of address he recognized. “Who is that?” he asked.

“I thought it was obvious. His Majesty, in his infinite wisdom, has advised we call you Hogfoot. Fitting for an orc, I’d say.”

Orcspeak, Toadspit, and now Hogfoot? Riaag frowned. At this rate they’d learn the true name of the lord of the tower was Evildark and everyone would be convinced it was a title of elegant power. He rankled at the thought of going by anything other than Riaag Bough-Breaker; even if they’d picked a better one than Hogfoot it still had nothing on the sole thing his forebears had given him before passing his newborn self off to”That is not my name.”

“Isn’t it?” asked the seneschal. A hint of silver glinted against their palm.

Riaag weighed his options. He had the right to be proud and to introduce himself by the name he’d made his own, but that could prove disastrous if the wizard had agents who’d been at Concordance or who just kept track of what happened north of the river. There was a broken spy back in Usoa who’d barely escaped this place with her life; she’d originally had comrades with her, none of whom had returned, and who knew what any of them had said before they met their ends. What if the owner of the scrying ball, or one of her friends, had named him or Sarouth somewhere it could be heard? He couldn’t reveal himself just yet if he still wanted to get anything done. A complicated plan like this one needed him to keep thinking multiple moves ahead, and if that meant enduring an irritating name for a while to let the pieces shuffle across the board the way he wanted, so be it. He’d been called worse.

“…I will answer to it,” he said after making sure his expression was suitably grudging. “But you must remember that is not my name.”

“Be glad His Majesty gave you a nice one. If you impress him enough, maybe he’ll give you more nice things. I seem to recall you saying you wanted to wear a winter coat again…?”

That was valuable information. Could Riaag manage to get closer to his goal by keeping his head down and sweeping enough floors? It sounded like a perfect fit for someone of his temperament. He didn’t fully trust it—if there were winter coats to go around, wouldn’t the orcs of the town be wearing something better than layers of scrap cloth?—and so it was with caution in his voice that he continued. “How do I impress him enough?”

“Truth be told, I don’t know if you’re capable of it. Then again, maybe you will be. Stranger things have happened. You’ll either figure it out or you won’t.”

Riaag sighed. “That does not help very much.”

Another bright gleam accompanied the wand as it slid fully from the seneschal’s sleeve to be flourished with meaning. “What was that?”

“I said it does not help very much, my lord.”

He could feel them squinting at him from beneath their hood. How much would it hurt him if the tip of that little length of silver touched him? Would it be pain of the body, or pain of the mind? His amulets could keep spirits from harming him and held nightmares at bay, but they’d never been much for making it any less awful when he’d had to jump in front of a streak of some heretic’s conjured spellfire. Sarouth wasn’t here to ease his suffering with his bountiful supply of kind words and miracles. What happened here would happen with lingering consequences.

“I liked you better when you were meek. Keep that in mind, Hogfoot.” They turned to address someone Riaag couldn’t see on the opposite side of the room. “Toadspit, take him back to his cell. If His Majesty wants to keep him somewhere else it can wait until tomorrow.”

“Yes, my lord,” came Toadspit’s voice, followed by the sound of him descending the stairs from the gallery.

The guards from before filed out onto the sandy floor at Toadspit’s command, their spears held at the ready. Riaag wondered how many had watched the fight, and if they looked at him differently now; would his obnoxious new moniker make them see him as a potential ally, or would his position as caretaker make him even more loathed since he wouldn’t be one of the rank and file? They were all very calm for having taken a man to handle a goblin tiger and finding need to escort him again, slightly bloodier but still alive. Then again, they were very calm for people who possibly still assumed he was a werewolf. His stomach gurgled. Would there be any food waiting for him in his cell? Would whoever brought him his meals hear what had happened? Would people start to gawk as he walked past? For having been asleep a few hours ago a lot had happened to him that day.

Then there was the goblin tiger itself. Were there more of them? Was its blood going to make him sick if he didn’t wash it away? What about its slimy tail, or the spines that jutted from it, would there be trouble because he’d handled either of those? How did you even get monsters like that, anyway? Its insides hadn’t smelled like any meat he’d encountered, be it fresh, fermented, or fell. He thought back to the sight of the creature’s remains and how it seemed to have two skeletons braided into a single malformed whole. He thought of how it had such an awkward gait for a predator, and how much like a person it looked during its final moments before it was unmade. A few details clicked into place to reveal a horrifying reality: Either the goblin tiger had somehow absorbed one of the Usoan scouts that had met their end here, or it had been one.

A spear nudged Riaag in the side and spurred him into a steady trudge back outside and towards the building at the tower’s base. Toadspit tried to bluster at him a few times, but Riaag had nothing to say. If his suspicions were correct—and maybe they were and maybe they weren’t—then there was going to be a lot more to his mission than previously established. They had known coming in that at least one of the people they’d come to rescue still drew breath, but whether her lungs were her own or sculpted into some dreadful new shape they hadn’t thought to ask. If there were more monsters here, then they might have once been people, too. Could the process be reversed? Could they go back to living normal lives? Or would the right thing to do be to repeat what he’d done with the goblin tiger and give them as swift an end as he could?

The snow was back and the wind cut like a razor from the moment they stepped out into the weather, but Riaag barely noticed. He had a lot of thinking to do.

§

A long day of sitting on his ass while having the odd bite of bland food and staring at the wall had left Riaag mentally exhausted but physically alert. Normally in such a situation he’d have something useful to do, even if he had to invent new chores to keep himself busy, but he had no such opportunity in his cell. Did they really expect him to just stay here? Riaag had always valued his solitude, so not seeing anyone except in passing through the window hadn’t been as hard on him as it might’ve been for someone who needed to constantly be around other people to feel their best; the fact that he wasn’t actually doing anything was far more of a concern. Maybe if he was lucky they’d start him cleaning cages the next day so he could at least fill his waking hours with skilled and helpful labor. It would certainly beat doing nothing but worry about things he was in no position to amend. What was the use of fretting over the potential fate of hypothetical creatures if he wasn’t going to see any in the first place?

He sorely needed to move around. There was enough room in the cell for him to pace and stretch, which helped some, and if he was careful with how he moved his legs he could manage some simpler exercises without banging into anything; while these were better than being chained up to a post somewhere, he longed for the chance to go on a jog, or swing his axe, or (especially) swim in a bathing lake to wash off some of his day. He’d yet to be given clean clothes or a dedicated place to wash his existing set, and was starting to suspect neither would be an option. No wonder the townspeople wore cloaks if it was easier for them to just layer on a new swatch of fabric than try to scrub out the stains on what they wore the previous day!

There was something off about the people here that went beyond their habit of using a common language that made as much sense as a square grape, though that was certainly a part of it. Riaag sprawled on his cot with his back pressed against the wall and thought about what he’d seen. Those orcs he’d encountered were not unlike those who populated Naar Rhoan, in that they came in all different colors and shapes, so the tower town was likely made up of more than just a single group that happened to sprout a wizard in the middle of it. Lots of different people would certainly have a reason to share a common language, since the Rhoanish dialect itself was something of a hybrid of elements from all around the valley, but that would still lend itself to different accents, turns of phrase, or something. Orcs were prone to sing the way wolves were prone to howl, and yet he hadn’t heard a single song his entire time in town. From what he’d encountered of Orcspeak it felt designed to be as brutish and artless as possible; a charitable soul might guess this was to preserve their ties to their original tongues by encouraging them to sing in the languages they’d spoken before, but Riaag suspected there was something more sinister at work. He just had to figure out what.

What made someone not care about themselves to the degree he’d seen? The people here might not worship the Hill God, but surely there were reasons to keep clean that even the unfaithful could enjoy. One didn’t need a divine mandate to enjoy looking nice! That was another thing: Riaag had yet to witness any proof that the people in town groomed one another. Clothes were rumpled, hair was ratty. Nobody wore the paint of the unclean so it wasn’t like they were culturally bound to a state of filth, and even if they had been it wasn’t much of an excuse, given that back in the day Riaag and his fellow not-quite-foundlings had still tried to care for one another during rare moments of vulnerability. There weren’t any children about so the town couldn’t have been here that long, which ruled out it being a settlement turned strange from generations of isolation. Toadspit and his guards hadn’t been welcoming, but that didn’t mean anything, since one didn’t need any fell outside influence to be a shithead. Even jackal bands that preyed on travelers had some sense of camaraderie, though, and if the guards shared any they hid it well. Activities as simple as walking down the same street as someone else struck Riaag as fraught with restrained loathing. How could you get enough people together to form a cohesive society when everyone seemed to resent the presence of everyone else? No singing, no sparring, no grooming, no companionship. No wonder everyone looked miserable.

He wondered how he would get what he’d seen to Sarouth. They hadn’t agreed on any meeting times, since there was no telling how closely the wizard‘s servants would keep an eye on anyone in town. Riaag didn’t know bead code, and even if he did he had no beads to string together or cord on which to string them, and even if he had those he had no idea where he’d leave a coded message so Sarouth could find it. Sarouth’s plans had a habit of working out in the end, though, so Riaag would trust that he’d get an opportunity to share what he’d observed sooner or later. All he had to do was be patient and wait for the hour to arrive.

Passing the time until then was going to be a problem. He liked jerking off and he liked praying, but he could only do so much of either in a day. Working on a new poem wasn’t much of an option, either, as he found it harder than usual to string words together in an appealing order, and without something useful to do with his hands he didn’t have anything to help occupy him while chewing on the tougher parts of a piece; the calisthenics he was able to perform in his cell were no replacement for actually carrying water or pulling weeds. His usual steady stream of creativity felt clogged and here he was, stuck without so much as a pointy stick to jimmy things loose again. He hated skald’s block. It could have been stress or it could have been the fault of the weird feeling in the air, which chose that time to once again rise until his amulet sent it skittering away, but whatever it was it was welcome to fuck off as soon as possible.

Maybe a good night’s sleep would help his current dilemma. Riaag let his eyes drift closed and tried to will himself to be comfortable. He longed for a proper blanket—the cot they’d given him was little more than a thin mattress resting atop a piece of taut-pulled canvas, bereft of sheets or pillows—and tried to make do by taking off his coat to drape over himself. It was a poor substitute. He thought of the quilts they had back home with their bold colors and soft, thick batting. Sometimes he’d stop by their tent in the middle of the day to check on something and find Sarouth napping atop them, the black of his everyday robes in stark contrast to the rich hues around him. Once they were finished here Riaag hoped for an uneventful remainder of the season, one he could spend warm and cozy under quilts like that once his daily work was done, with no rampaging warbands or bloodthirsty diplomats or feisty ghosts ruining a blissfully everyday routine. This was unlikely thanks to how interesting his life had been since falling in step with Sarouth, but a man could always dream.

Something tapped against the bars on the window. Riaag cracked an eye and turned towards the sound, hoping for a bird, but nothing was there. The tap came again. He righted himself with a grumble. He didn’t trust the cot to support his weight if he propped himself up on his knees, which meant having to scoot it back to where he left it during the day before he could peek outside. The town was quiet, the day’s snowfall having covered up the worst of its ugliness, and save for the light of distant torches he didn’t see much of anyone outside. He saw no trees to rattle their branches against the bars nor any signs of failing stonework anywhere around the window. Riaag swore to himself and prepared to replace the cot again when he thought to look down.

Clinging to the wall below was Sarouth, his shoes tied together and tossed over one shoulder to let him better grip the brickwork with the claws on his toes. The mace he usually carried with him was missing, likely left back with the rest of their things so he could keep his profile low; it probably wasn’t a good idea to bring an artifact of such power this close to the wizard‘s inner sanctum if one wanted to go unnoticed. He grinned up at Riaag. “Hi.”

Riaag pressed up against the window to whisper back. “Holy One,” he said, as softly as he was able without losing the clarity of his voice, “I’s pleased as a peafowl ter meet you well this night, but if’n you don’t take cover soon they is gonna fucken see you.” It was uncanny how much he’d missed speaking Rhoanish in the space of a mere two days or so. There was a musicality to it that was markedly lacking from the borrowed phrases he’d been using.

Sarouth grabbed the bars with both hands and hauled himself up, his bare feet still bracing his weight against the wall. “That’ll be my problem, won’t it?” he whispered back. He leaned in to kiss the tip of Riaag’s nose through the window. “You’re doing great so far, brave warrior. Learn anything interesting?”

There had been a lot of interesting things happening over the past few days. Riaag decided to start small: “They thinks I’s a werewolf.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“Cain’t possibly say. I’s been lettin’ ’em interpret as they pleases fer now.” He stroked his beard and scanned the ground (at least that which he could see around Sarouth’s head) for patrols. Seeing none, he continued. “When it comes ter things ‘a more substance, though, I’s found some shit what might be ‘a interest ter you. Somethin’s in the air here, somethin’ bad, what my amulet keeps havin’ ter chase away. Pretty sure it’s the work ‘a this wizard fucker but I cain’t say much more’n that with certainty at this juncture. The whole fucken place’s full ‘a ideas what seem like too-complex solutions ter problems what can easily be solved with some elbow grease.

“Dunno how much you’s been keepin’ an ear up ter how folks talk here, but it don’t make any fucken sense on a linguistic level. They calls it ‘Orcspeak.’ I know this ’cause there’s this creep in a big robe what covers up all theyself, a seneschal ‘a some variety, what speaks somethin’ I can understand, some merchant tongue or another, ‘n this’s how I’s gleaned several specifics. This Orcspeak thing, it don’t keep ’em from speakin’ other tongues or that shithead what carted me off yesterday’d be unable ter converse with the seneschal, so it ain’t like it’s full o’erwhelmed what they came here knowin’. Feels like it might do somethin’ more subtle? I think it might be tied inter that icky feelin’ in the air, too, but I cain’t be sure until I’s in a position ter evaluate it further.

“Also through this seneschal figure, I learned the wizard has him a nasty habit ‘a mixin’ up poor little animals inter new things ter make ’em fight, one ‘a which I had ter render inter so much coolin’ meat earlier terday lest it be turned on others what ain’t got the means ter handle such a situation. T’were pretty gross, but kinda sad in its own way. Ask me once we’s done with our business here ‘n I’ll sing about it proper fer you.”

Sarouth’s smile became a small, concerned frown as he tried to push himself further through the bars. That he was still dangling a fair distance off the ground without any outward signs of strain was quite a feat. “Are you hurt? I’d assume you won your fight, brave warrior, but from what I’ve seen and what you’ve told me this is a bad place for assumptions.”

“I’s fine. Little dinged up, but nothin’ that won’t heal up natural with a li’l time ‘n rest. Right appreciative ‘a yer concern all the same, Holy One.”

“If you say so, my love,” said Sarouth. He didn’t look convinced.

“Yeah, I says so, truly,” said Riaag with a nod. In truth he would have loved the gift of healing touch right about then, as even taking the sting off of his scrapes or easing the ache in his battered muscles would’ve made him feel like a new man, and he nearly had second thoughts about refusing the offer before he remembered that he was in a place that dealt in all manner of strangeness. They’d know something was wrong if he wasn’t injured tomorrow, and for all he knew they could tease out the lingering tells of a miracle to track it back to Sarouth. Riaag’s current amulet was a potent one because it contained a strand of Sarouth’s own hair, taken directly from his forelock, so even if nobody could find the man himself they’d be able to find his work; if they took Riaag’s amulet away as an attempt to find or repel Sarouth, things were prone to go very badly, very quickly. He could live with a little hurting if it kept them both safer. Unlike when he’d first learned what he was willing to do to protect someone else, this time around he knew there could still be bright, sunny days on the other side of his current pain.

“How’re you holding up, aside from the critter nibbles?”

“I’s been better, I’s been worse. Mostly I’s bored. T’were a good idea ter not wear my finest things when I set myself out as bait, ’cause they don’t seem ter know what laundry is ’round these parts. I’s doin’ my best with what I got, but what I got is a little pallet fer sleepin’, a li’l bowl fer food, ‘n a li’l bowl fer water. Been tryin’ ter keep nice as best I can, but a man’s gotta comprehend his limits.”

Sarouth frowned again. “Did they seriously not even give you a pot to piss in?”

“That’s the damnedest thing, Holy One. Since they’s had me locked away I ain’t had ter, not once. It’s like the shit they’s claimin’ is food just poofs away once I ain’t actively thinkin’ ter digest it no more. Certainly don’t feel backed up ter any degree. Don’t seem to be a universal problem given how bad it stinks outside. Right fucken weird, ain’t it?”

“What are they feeding you?”

Riaag shrugged. “I think it’s porridge, but it’s like if you took out all the taste ‘n left just the texture in its stead, ‘n even that were underwhelmin’. Keeps me from feelin’ hungry ‘n fuck-all else. You been okay out there in them trees with the horses?”

“I’ve been doing well enough. I’ve been sure to have something thrice daily, since I know you’d worry if I didn’t.” They’d made sure to pack plenty of provisions that didn’t require cooking just in case they couldn’t build a fire, and Riaag had taken great care to go over the stocks of rice, jarred meat, tea, and eggplant jerky before they’d last parted. Sarouth had a history of bringing disaster into a kitchen if he tried so much as roasting a mushroom; if all he had to do was put prepared things into a bowl, though, he managed to do all right for himself. Usually Riaag handled their cooking. It was remarkable just how much of their everyday lives had been disrupted by one man in a tower.

Another question weighed on Riaag’s mind. “How’d you know I’d be here? It’s a big place, both town ‘n fortress, ‘n they’s been shufflin’ me all hither ‘n yon terday besides.”

“I asked the ball,” said Sarouth with all the gravity of someone saying they entered a tent by using the front flap. “The ball,” in this case, referred to a scrying orb they’d escorted from the stronghold (it having literally just shown up one day with portents in tow) and which Sarouth was supposedly looking after while Riaag scouted; it was the size of a melon and made from flawless glass, both elements conspicuously absent from Sarouth’s current visible inventory. Sarouth had been entirely too blasé about using someone else’s soothsaying tools as a reason to risk life and limb. At least he’d had the presence of mind to leave it back with his mace before coming to pay a visit.

“Did it say anythin’ else whilst pointin’ you ter me?”

Sarouth blew a raspberry that felt as loud as a thunderclap in the still night air. Riaag couldn’t help but scan the moonlit town below to see if anyone else had heard it. “Don’t worry about it,” said Sarouth, as carefree as ever. “You keep with your half of the job and I’ll take care of mine.”

Riaag had entirely too much experience with this sort of non-answer. “T’were spooky shit, weren’t it.”

“Just your everyday garden-variety spooky shit. Like I said, don’t worry, it’s fine.”

He sighed. “Was there anythin’ ’bout him what raised the tower in there, too?”

Sarouth pressed his lips together and flared his nostrils. That expression alone spoke verses, and even then it couldn’t compare to what he said next. “Riaag, listen to me. This is important. If anyone asks, I’m just some god-speaker you followed for a while and then left, just like anyone else who used to be in an entourage but isn’t anymore. We can’t let the wizard suspect there’s anything more between us. If he knows you’re mine, he’ll hurt you to get to me.”

“Why would he think ter get ter you? Don’t he only just barely know ’bout the stronghold? Weren’t we goin’ through all this bullshit ter be preemptive…?”

“Promise me you’ll say we aren’t together if you’re asked, Riaag. I need to know you’ll do this.”

“I…,” said Riaag. He was not a liar, but he could be an actor. Surely playing a role in the name of keeping Sarouth—the Faaroug himself!—safe wouldn’t dishonor their oath. He could pray about it just to be sure, as he had yet to figure out how much of what he told Sarouth went straight to the Hill God’s ears and how much needed to be pushed through by intermediary action. Riaag knew Sarouth better than himself, sometimes, but Hogfoot probably couldn’t tell god-speakers apart if he wasn’t actively serving one. If they weren’t going to call him by his name then they were going to get whoever he decided Hogfoot would be when he answered. “I promise I can pretend.”

At that exact moment a shout came up from nearby, which became a chorus of shouts from varying distances. Sarouth peered over his shoulder. “Well, shit,” he said. “Looks like I really did get spotted. You can say you told me so later.”

Riaag immediately wondered if anyone other than the seneschal had a silver wand at their disposal. “Sarouth, you gotta be careful, these people ain’t right—”

Sarouth blew another raspberry. “Don’t worry about me,” he said. He leaned in to rub his nose against Riaag’s, presumably since there wasn’t enough space for them to properly kiss. “Be brave, my wolf, and remember that I love you.” He then kicked off the wall and landed as casually as a cat on the ground below. Not a moment later he was off and sprinting with an increasing number of patrollers in hot pursuit.

He practically danced over the mud, leaving nary a print behind him; the soles of his feet, same as those of his shoes, remained clean of even the slightest smear of freezing slurry no matter where he trod. The roads were a mess and in his wake they only got worse as they churned themselves into new, more treacherous configurations. He led the guards on a merry chase, nimble as a snake even as his pursuers slipped and slid across the ever-changing ground. The uneven buildings were as much of an obstacle to him as stones before a goat. Sarouth easily bounded over piles of garbage, half-ran up walls to leap in a different direction, and sometimes even scaled a sturdier-looking building to run across its roof before landing, his clothes still pristine, in the mud again. He cackled wildly as his shoes bounced against his back with each stride. It was remarkable how much mobility a god-speaker of Agritakh could muster when he had the allegiance of the ground itself on his side.

Riaag knew where his things were hidden, but there was no guarantee Sarouth had made his camp there. It made sense to cause confusion before slipping away; if the guards didn’t know where to start looking it gave Sarouth all the more time to sneak back to the safety of a lean-to or cave. Their entire plan was built on diversion after diversion, so what was one more? It was impressive how much of a view Riaag had of the chase. Maybe Sarouth had even planned things that way, in as much as he could plan being surprised by guards and chased hither and yon. So much of his time these days was spent overseeing fields and people alike it was easy to forget that he was still a man who knew how to chase down highwaymen with his mace in his hand when the time called for it. He was grace itself as he evaded each sling bullet hurled his way as he progressed, ever-gradually, towards the edge of town.

And then he tripped.

Riaag clapped his hands over his mouth to keep from crying out and sank to his knees, his forehead against the wall. He couldn’t let them know he’d been watching the chase or they’d suspect he had something to do with it. It was hard to keep quiet while his every instinct wailed in his head: Sarouth was hurt, Sarouth was in danger, and here Riaag was, Sarouth’s own bodyguard, locked up and unable to do anything to help. He couldn’t blow their cover or they were both doomed, but the sounds from outside (he couldn’t bear to make himself look) were horrible. Sarouth could hold his own in a fair fight, and even an unfair fight skewed in his favor if he rolled the dice right, and the cries of pain were mostly uttered by unfamiliar voices as he no doubt lashed out with knees, fists, and elbows in a mad frenzy of violence, but before they reached a resolution, time stopped.

It was difficult to say how Riaag knew what had happened, as logically it was the same thing as blinking, or perhaps falling asleep in a sunbeam before startling awake, but some part of him felt that there was something missing between a guard’s yelp of pain and the sudden silence that blanketed the settlement even more than the snow had. He chanced a look. The ground still showed signs of struggle—was that evidence of someone being pinned to the mud he saw? whose blood was that on the ice?—but the guards were gone save for a few torch-bearing patrols walking in the opposite direction of the fight. Sarouth was nowhere to be seen.

Don’t worry about it, Sarouth had said. Had he known this would happen, or was something worse on the way? Would Riaag be able to help? Would they even see each other again? Logically Sarouth wouldn’t have prepared him to claim they were strangers if they weren’t likely to cross paths in the future, but logic also dictated that Sarouth was exactly the kind of person to get his fool self martyred if it was for the good of Naar Rhoan, especially if he let his temper get the better of him again. Who would be there to fix things when he inevitably bit off more than he could chew?

Too many ideas kept swirling in Riaag’s head, each bringing its own awful scenario to the fore and all of them eager to remind him he was both helpless and useless. If it had been him out there they would have simply thought he was a normal man making trouble, or perhaps a werewolf making trouble, and while that might have prompted a report to the seneschal it wouldn’t have been important enough to go higher than that. Sarouth, though, could be mistaken for nothing but a god-speaker, as aside from his namesake hair and the tattoos he wore proudly, he radiated the kind of authority that could easily overawe those who encountered him for the first time. There was no doubt he’d be taken to the wizard for questioning, or worse. Who knew what kind of example they’d make of him?

Left with nothing else to do, Riaag curled up to cry himself to exhaustion.

§

Dreams of despair gave way to those of daring rescue. When the first fingers of dawn crept through the window Riaag awoke with tears drying on his cheeks and a fire blazing in his belly; a night’s sleep had done wonders for processing what all had happened. Sarouth was too Sarouth to be dead, and given how close he was to He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth there would surely be a dramatic earthquake or something if that actually managed to happen, and there had been a decided dearth of seismic activity overnight, which meant he was very likely merely captured the night before, not anything worse, and that meant there was potential for a jailbreak. Riaag’s furious stampede of thoughts was eager to barrel towards that goal, as just because he was currently stuck in a cell of his own didn’t mean he couldn’t plan a fitting rescue. Not even the weird ache pulsing in the wounds left by the goblin tiger could stop him. Thusly determined, he began to take stock of the situation.

Whoever had been refilling his food and water had yet to attend to them that morning. Good; that meant Riaag would be able to see someone face-to-face, and with any luck they’d speak at least one of the languages he did. If Riaag could just have a reasonable conversation with someone he could start making a move on getting closer to Sarouth. He hoped they’d bring him something to swish with, too, since he’d gone long enough without his last mouthful of ash-water he suspected his breath was starting to sport faint traces of vinegar on it. If he was to care for unnatural creatures, even if only as a front, he needed to show he could care for himself as well.

The sun continued to rise and Riaag waited patiently for someone to come check on him. An hour passed and so did people, both at the door and below his window. It felt like he endured a dozen separate instances of perking up at the sound of approaching footsteps only for them to fade away as their unseen creators hustled towards tasks of their own. He filled the time as best he could with tidying himself, but the ebb and flow of activity happening around, but not actually to, him was starting to wear on his nerves. Couldn’t they at least bring him some breakfast? Then again, if they’d captured Sarouth, Riaag would understand if it took half the entire town to keep him in check. Sarouth was about as manageable as a thunderbolt when he had a point he wanted to make. Riaag had always admired that about him.

Eventually he heard the latch clack open. He’d expected a nameless dogsbody, or maybe Toadspit and a few spare spear-bearers, to be on the other side of the door. Instead he found himself face to faceless void with the seneschal again.

“It seems there was an altercation outside your cell last night,” they said upon seating themselves in the room’s sole chair again. “Do you know anything about that, Hogfoot?” Their tone was the kind a frazzled parent might adopt upon catching a pigment-covered child in the aftermath of an incident with a paint pot. Riaag, being a grown-ass man, did not appreciate the implications. If the seneschal saw themselves as a glorified babysitter, just how self-sufficient were the people here? Did Orcspeak somehow make someone forget how to function in a productive adult society? Even if he was reading too much into things, what kind of person did you have to be to talk about so many others with such broad condescension?

Implications or not, he needed to show he could be forthcoming with information, at least for certain values of forthcoming. He rummaged for the appropriate handful of words as his brain eagerly offered him phrases in every language but the one he wanted. Being a functioning polyglot was work. “A man came to my window,” Riaag said once he figured out which phrase would sound right. “He talked to me differently than other people here do. I think he wanted to get in, but he was not able to do that. I heard some guards shout from outside and he left. There was a lot of noise and then something strange happened, maybe like a blink that lasted too long, and time vanished. It was quiet after that. I did not see the man again.” He paused. “What was that strange thing?”

The seneschal didn’t seem interested in answering questions. “You’re not on the ground floor. How did this stranger ‘come to’ your window, exactly?”

“He climbed, my lord.”

“It’s a sheer drop with no handholds. How would he do that?”

Riaag didn’t vocalize an answer, instead choosing to hold up his hands and flex them to show off their claws. When this didn’t get an answer he mimed scurrying up a wall. He wasn’t sure how much clearer he could be without duplicating the feat himself, which given his current environs and his general tendency to keep both feet on the ground probably wouldn’t demonstrate very much.

“Is that what they’re meant for? Interesting.”

Claws weren’t for anything so much as hands and feet were for anything; you certainly could use them to climb but they were also handy for digging, fighting, and scratching itches. While he hadn’t wanted to make assumptions without solid proof, now more than ever Riaag knew those weren’t an orc’s hands beneath those red gloves. Was there a merchant hiding under there? One of the River People? Was it just a pile of clothes that spoke and moved around at the wizard‘s bidding? Given the events of the day prior that last option was feeling more and more likely.

The seneschal had neither food nor further questions for him, so Riaag decided to take the initiative. “I am ready to start working today,” he said. A mere two nights in prison had given him a fierce need to do something—anything—more productive with his time. “Did anyone say what I am to do first?”

“Unusual to see an orc eager for anything that isn’t food or violence,” said the seneschal. Riaag could have done with a spot of either of those, truthfully, though since that was clearly not an offer he kept it to himself. The seneschal stood from their seat and smoothed out their robes primly. “You’ll be escorted to your new quarters once Toadspit has assembled a morning crew. Don’t expect things to be easy. You might have handled the first little test, but His Majesty wants to see proof you know what you’re doing before diverting any of his precious time from his great work.”

“That is fine. I am sure he is busy.”

This earned him a chuckle. “Took yesterday’s words to mind, did you? Keep that up and maybe you’ll actually last a while.” The seneschal uncrossed their legs and crossed them again. It was uncanny how much like Sarouth that tic made them look. “Breakfast will be waiting for you in your new quarters. Finish quickly. The chief of the tower’s staff will show you where you’ll be working, and she does not tolerate lazy eaters.”

“You are not the chief?”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have a lot of responsibilities here,” said the seneschal. “The last thing I need to be doing is making sure everyone is cleaning up the right amount of animal shit. You’ll answer to Plum unless you do something terribly wrong.”

Riaag nodded. Plum was still not the kind of name he’d expect a person to have, but it was head and shoulders above nonsense like Hogfoot and Toadspit. He could actually understand why someone would want to be associated with a flowering tree. “I will do as Chief Plum tells me,” he said.

Chief Plum? Oh, she’ll like that. Just don’t think this means you can sweet-talk her into anything. She has a nose for bullshit like you wouldn’t believe.”

“I promise to be on my best behavior,” said Riaag. Hogfoot’s best behavior seemed like the kind of thing that was sure to please these horrible people; if Plum was a decent sort, she deserved having a worker who knew his ass from a hole in the ground, and if she wasn’t, it wasn’t like he didn’t have experience acquiescing to someone terrible in order to achieve something greater. He’d rather deal with a clever opponent in familiar circumstances than one wrapped up in mysterious methods whose nature he barely understood.

The seneschal stood up and brushed themselves off. They seemed unable to change posture without having to shoo away invisible crumbs. “It sounds like we’re done here, then. Keep in mind that we may need to talk to you about last night’s disturbance if anything…unusual…comes to light. Do you have any more questions?”

“Will I be able to wash soon?” asked Riaag. “I must prove I know how to clean things so Chief Plum knows I am a good choice to clean the pens. I want to keep clean all over. I will do laundry for many people if it needs doing. Before I was on my own I could spend all day making things nice.”

“That seems a little unnecessary, doesn’t it? You’re just going to get dirty again.”

Riaag shrugged. “All things fall apart. It is the choice of thinking folk to make what ruins itself into a good thing once more. I will wash as much as it takes to stay nice.” If the seneschal was unfamiliar with the Rhoanish attitude towards entropy, then they and their unseen master likely didn’t have much connection to the people of the valley. Then again, maybe they had half a dozen entire clans under their sway and just hadn’t bothered to talk to any of them. Knowing just enough to know he barely knew anything was not Riaag’s favorite place to be.

“Fine. Talk to Plum about that if you care about it so much, I don’t care. His Majesty just needs you to do your job.” They flicked their wrist to flash a hint of argent metal and stowed it back up their sleeve as quickly as it had appeared. They waited a beat, their opposite hand propped up on one hip, and almost seemed disappointed when Riaag didn’t rise to the challenge. “We’ll have our eye on you. Hopefully this will be the last time we need to keep you behind bars, Hogfoot.” When they left for the hall the door slammed shut behind them without them actually touching it. Riaag felt himself relax once they left; the last thing he needed to deal with in an already stressful situation was the ire of a cranky being of untold power and unknown ability. He’d caught too many conjured bolts with his center mass to not be a little skittish around people who wielded miracles without the oversight of a god behind them.

He might not have been aware of the time, but his stomach was. It gurgled at him with the sorrowful intensity of a hungry puppy. Riaag gritted his teeth. He hadn’t gone soft, he reminded himself, as there was nothing soft about having enough food on hand for regular meals, and just because he used to be able to get by on tree bark and tea made from boiled tree bark didn’t mean he’d been thriving then. Had Sarouth had dinner before he’d come to pay a visit? Surely he would have, since Sarouth oscillated between having barely any appetite and being a yawning chasm of hunger as the shadow of the Hill God guided him, and since Riaag hadn’t been around to cook breakfast he could already imagine Sarouth scraping the bottom of a carrion jar with his bare hands to get at the last fermented morsel. If the wizard truly knew as little about orcs as Riaag suspected, maybe he’d consider rotten meat a demeaning meal, and choose to give Sarouth nothing but in an attempt to break his spirit? Riaag liked to think so.

The light through the window had traveled from the top of the wall to halfway down it by the time someone came to collect him, at which point Riaag was actually starting to miss the tasteless glop he’d tolerated the past two days. Save for Toadspit, who once again had the whimsically outsized key in hand, it was another set of unfamiliar faces that greeted him. He tried to stand as alert as he could. Hogfoot needed to be a name they associated with an affable mood and a desire to do as he was told, whether or not they thought he was a werewolf in the process.

“My lord does say you are to go to the tower,” said Toadspit, who had yet to unlock the cell door. “A thousand eyes do watch you, Hogfoot. Do not cause trouble.”

One could define trouble in many different ways. Riaag chose to interpret this as intentionally making a fuss in such a manner that he would be causing more discomfort to the people of the town and tower than to its dreadful masters, and that such fuss would by nature not be directly tied to furthering his goals of rescuing Sarouth, giving the merchant woman back her scrying orb, recovering the Usoan spies’ remains, or any of the other pressing tasks woven into the mission like threads through a tapestry. Put like that, he had no desire to cause any trouble, at least not yet. He nodded and folded his hands against the front of his stomach meaningfully.

Toadspit eyed him with suspicion as he manipulated the lock. Riaag ignored the sour look, instead fascinated by the very notion of the key. Who would make one of such dimensions? Perhaps it was to keep it from being easily hidden up a sleeve or tucked in a belt pouch, or perhaps it was so it was harder to lose were it to fall from a storage peg. Did that mean it was important, or did it mean the opposite, in that such a graceless device was meant to reflect the bearer’s lack of manual dexterity—like how children’s tools would lack the precision of adults’ until they learned to better train their little fingers—as well as their low standing? There were charms hung from it, too. What purpose might those have, if they were meant as anything other than decoration? Thinking about tiny details such as this helped keep himself calm, and keeping calm was important when there was work to do. Once the cell door opened he quietly put himself in the middle of the ring of guards with his hands still clasped in front of him. It was time to take one step closer to the winning move on the living gameboard on which he had found himself.

Riaag didn’t recall ever leaving the same hallway that connected to his cell, as they’d taken no stairs nor passed through any doors during their trip; this did not change the fact that suddenly the walls were very different and the ambiance, already oppressive, had turned far more unsettling. Pillars lined the corridor like trees in a bone-white orchard. Shadows didn’t fall the way they were supposed to. The pattern of tiles on the floor had a matching twin on the ceiling, making it look as though the corridor could be turned upside down with a visitor being none the wiser. Save for regular reappearances of the spiked and fiery sconces Riaag was learning to loathe, everything else was seamless, colorless, and sterile. This definitely didn’t fit the dimensions of what the building had looked like on the outside, and it was not until he recognized the faintest of inclines beneath his feet that he realized the truth.

They were inside the tower.

It made sense, he supposed. It didn’t matter if there was an entrance gate—how naive of him to assume this place would even need one—or if the tacky building where they processed prisoners was physically touching any part of the tower proper. If someone could have something built to be as tall as a mountain, they could certainly have it built to connect wherever they pleased. There were no windows. There weren’t even any ventilation holes. Riaag had yet to see so much as a single planter of air-gill fungi, especially not the big, cheerful kind that mines used to keep their deeper tunnels from getting stale, so maybe the sconces kept the air breathable in addition to scentless. Had they been made part of the design before or after the tower’s construction? It seemed like a lot of trouble to go to in lieu of actually planning ahead a little bit.

What also bothered him was the emptiness. When Riaag had walked through cave networks with Sarouth there had usually been a lot of open space in the larger chambers, that was true, but there had also been rock formations to see, and subterranean creatures, and glittering organic shapes all along the walls, floor, and ceiling that caught the light of his lantern in fascinating ways; the earth opened up as though it had exhaled all the stone it no longer needed to leave a hollow behind, sometimes with a waterfall hidden somewhere in it. When Riaag had explored the Palace of Concordance it had been equally vast, perhaps moreso, but for all its high ceilings and winding passages there was a sense that every part of it existed for a reason, from the sand gardens in the courtyards to the rooms dedicated to appreciating the play of light through pieces of colored glass. Naar Rhoan itself had walls that encircled more ground than any other stronghold in the valley, but they spread wide to ensure they had enough room for throngs of people and animals with plenty of space left over for visitors, and they rose tall to ensure that any attacking bands would have trouble breaching them. The tower was simply…big. Big for the sake of being big. It held no bats, or art, or holy ground. Why not let any of the people in the town move into the unused parts? Riaag was vaguely familiar with the concept of conspicuous excess and he was pretty certain he didn’t like it.

They ascended for a long time, the hall never once turning or even curving, until they finally arrived at a door. Toadspit once again made use of the charm-hung key to open up each of the door’s three locks. Inside was a simple room with a larger window than before—still securely barred with the ornate metalwork, but larger all the same—and furnishings that, while shabby, were head and shoulders above the ones he’d had in jail. There were even sheets on the bed! It wasn’t as big as his tent back home, but since it only needed to house a single person and little more than the clothes on his back it didn’t need to be. He suspected he could even manage more than the most cramped of stretches while inside. As far as temporary bases of operations went, he’d slept in worse.

A commotion came up from the guards at the rear of the formation and Riaag instinctively scooted into the room before whirling about. This turned out to be the arrival of a severe-looking woman with a brass cap over the remaining stump of her broken right tusk. Her hair was pulled back beneath a kerchief made from the same dingy brown fabric as the rest of her many layers; like everyone else in this awful place, she displayed no clan patterns on her clothing. Given the five-petaled shape of the painted wooden pendant she wore around her neck, Riaag assumed that this was Plum.

She gabbled at him in the local patter. Riaag stared back at her helplessly.

“He does have no Orcspeak,” said Toadspit.

Plum rolled her eyes. “He does speak the masters’ tongue, then?” she asked.

Riaag nodded.

“So the lord does say,” said Toadspit. “I never hear him do this, but I am told he does make sound, and he does gesture answers if you ask him things. Shy, maybe. Big and shy.” Well, he wasn’t wrong.

“Good enough,” said Plum. “Go away, Toadspit. I must show Hogfoot how the tower does as it does.”

Toadspit sneered. “You do that, Plum. See how well he does. They say he did kill His Majesty’s wrong creature when told, and was all covered up in its bad blood when he did, so be ready when he does change into a mad beast when you tell him to carry water.”

“You think I am not used to handling what His Majesty does give to me? Go, Toadspit. You waste your time here, and your spearmen’s.”

Sparks practically crackled between them until Toadspit had to look away from her withering stare. He grumbled and closed the door, then twiddled with its three interior locks with the key in what looked like a focused order. When he opened the door again it emptied out into the familiar brickwork of the prison. The hallway they’d spent ages traversing was nowhere to be seen.

“How does that work?” Riaag was so surprised he couldn’t help but ask his question out loud.

A glower clouded Toadspit’s face that overwrote his own clear surprise at the sound of Riaag’s own voice. “Shut up, man-wolf. You do not need to know.” Riaag recognized that tone. It was the sort that often used anger to cover up embarrassment at not knowing something, he’d found, and was a favored way of certain personalities to keep people in line. He and Toadspit would need to have a discussion should their paths cross again. Plum didn’t look too approving, either, as she shooed Toadspit and his spear-toting minions out with the bristling energy of a cat that didn’t want to be petted.

Soon Plum was the only other person left in Riaag’s new room. She closed the door behind her. “Drown my daughters if this isn’t going to be a day,” she muttered to herself as she leaned against its timbers. It was decidedly not in the masters’ tongue, as Toadspit had called the language the seneschal used.

Riaag brightened. “Oh! Y’know Kaziric? I does alright with such speech.” Kaziric was a neighbor dialect to Rhoanish, and came in handy when dealing with people from the eastern side of the valley, the ones who sometimes crossed over the mountains and back as their needs decreed. More importantly, he knew how to be halfway eloquent in it.

Plum looked taken aback. “They let you keep it?” she asked.

“Keep what?”

She glanced about and checked the door’s locks as though they might have spiders hidden inside them. When she continued, it was in a conspiratorial whisper. “Most of the others here only have Orcspeak and a bit of the masters’ tongue. Everything else was cleared away so we’d not be distracted. I don’t know why I’m different.” Her claws tapped absently at her blossom-shaped pendant. Riaag, ever skilled at doing sums, put two and two together.

“Your flower’s an amulet?”

“It’s a memento,” she said, the inflection in her words verifying that yes, it was very much what he’d asked, and no, she’d never admit to it aloud.

Riaag could understand why one might need to surreptitiously hold on to a protective trinket in this uneasy environment. He patted his bicep. “I wears a memento, too,” he said. “Keeps my head from getting too sick, keeps evil things away. I guess it keeps ever’thing else from getting out, too.”

Plum’s expression softened the tiniest bit at this news. “Well, make sure they don’t see it, and if they do, make sure they think it’s jewelry. His Majesty thinks mementos are without worth if you say they are anything but a pretty decoration. He lets me keep mine because he thinks it’s a reward for me to hold on to something I already had before I came here. If I can’t have my name I can at least have this.” She glanced at the door again, straightened up, and returned to using the other language.

“So let us start where we start: you promise to act well while you are here?” she said, her voice a bit louder than it needed to be for conversation. If there was a potential audience outside, they did not make themselves known. Then again, who knew where it would open to next?

“I will be good,” said Riaag, who had every plan to be.

“Did the seneschal say who I am?”

“You are Chief Plum, of the tower. I am to do as you say.”

She huffed a quiet laugh and cracked a smile around her tusks at the title. The seneschal, for all their serpentine talk, had been right about that much. “Chief? You can keep calling me that, Hogfoot. It suits me.” She stroked her chin. “Each day you will do what I told you the day before, and I will tell you if there are new tasks that must be finished. You will care for His Majesty’s pets. You will not trouble His Majesty. If His Majesty or his seneschal tell you to do a thing, you do it, even if it goes against what I have said. Remember that if you act badly, many times it is not just you that will be punished. His Majesty likes to make examples. I do not want to be one. Neither do you.”

“I understand.”

“Toadspit says you are a man-wolf, caught in the woods.”

“That is where he found me,” said Riaag with a nod.

Plum raised her eyebrows. “He says only a man-wolf is fierce enough to kill a goblin tiger, which you have done,” she said.

“That is a thing I did.”

“He says only a man-wolf is so tall.”

“I have not met many taller,” agreed Riaag. He wasn’t sure if he’d met anyone bigger than himself in recent years, and even while he was still a child he’d often stood half a head or more over those of a similar age once his body decided to actually grow. While it had made it difficult to hide back then, these days his abundance of size came in handy when he needed to distract others from something, such as trying to stick a sword through a certain mouthy god-speaker’s unarmed flesh.

“He says only a man-wolf would intrigue His Majesty so.”

Riaag shrugged. “That I could not say.”

Are you a man-wolf?”

Riaag shrugged again. “Ask two others, get two answers. I am a man who some say is like a wolf in some ways. I do not change my skin, though. Just my clothes.” He paused. “Where do I clean things? I feel dirty. I do not want to be. Especially not if I do dirty work.”

Plum gestured at herself and her layers. “You had better prepare to look this way soon. His Majesty’s wiles keep the air from stinking and burn away foulness inside the tower. The rest is left to us, and while in his kindness we are granted food and drink” —when properly engaged in conversation Riaag could spot someone covering their ass a mile away, and this situation was no different— “we do not receive soaps as a part of it. You will do your cleaning work with different methods.”

No soap at all? Not even for servants? That wouldn’t do, mission or no mission. “Bring me fat and bring me ashes. I will make it if I must.” Thank goodness he’d long since grown comfortable with a little light saponification. He didn’t plan on being there for the several weeks a batch would need to cure, but why be careless with his own future? His stomach, having woken up again at Plum’s mention of food and drink, made an unpleasant noise. Riaag winced. “But maybe first I should eat. I have not done this since yesterday.”

He must not have been paying as much attention as he’d thought when they first took him to his new room, as it turned out there was a tray on the room’s single-seated table that held bowls of water and the same sludgy, unflavored porridge he’d had in his cell. It felt like a big thing to overlook; in his defense, there had been a lot of people all crammed into the space at once, and after spending so long walking through a single straight hallway that somehow curled up into a vertical tower no wonder he’d been discombobulated. Much like his cot, the stool at the table supported his weight when he sat on it with only the slightest of creaks. That was already a good sign.

Riaag ate eagerly while Plum explained more of his duties to him. The wizard kept a variety of pets that all had different needs. Riaag would begin his work looking after a small number of them; as he continued to prove himself he’d be given more responsibility. Sometimes he’d need to spread straw, sometimes he’d need to fill troughs, and no matter what he did he was not to touch them. If he wanted to clean things more thoroughly then he would be allowed to do so, but only after the rest of his duties were complete. After a few days of supervision he would be given his own door key so he could come and go as he wished, having access to anywhere in the tower that the wizard felt he needed to go. The keys, he was told, were clever things, and would make sure he didn’t go anywhere unfortunate. They’d also keep him from leaving his chamber after curfew. Plum assured him this latter point was for his own safety. That anywhere inside a tower woven from broken logic and terrible design sense could be considered safe struck Riaag as humor of the darkest variety.

When Plum made mention of the wizard burning away foulness, it turned out she wasn’t using descriptive language, as every night a terrible fire roared through the tower’s halls to consume that which remained within them until not even ash remained. Certain rooms, such as those places into which he was expected to empty the pens’ refuse, saw a similar regular conflagration. Curfew was a matter of life and limb. Riaag resented how much this scuttled his initial plans of sneaking around after hours with an excuse already perched on his lips, though he didn’t say as much to Plum; just because they both wore amulets and shared a few phrases in common didn’t mean he could trust her yet. He instead kept quiet and listened to her explain how the tower worked.

The tower, so she said, had seemingly appeared one night out of nowhere, and while her band had not been the first to visit it had certainly been intrigued by the sight of that distant spire. Rumor said that there had one been a ring of stones where it now stood, a place of ancient holy ground; Plum herself didn’t believe this, as her god—she didn’t say which, and Riaag tried not to assume—was one that dwelled where the rocks naturally gathered in rings and rounds, and He would not abide such a thing as this in His sacred spaces. No one knew where the wizard had come from before he came to raise his tower, nor where he found the materials to build it. He certainly hadn’t called for builders, since who among the nomads would know how to stack up more than a simple cairn? No hands could build something so tall, and with such smoothness, even if they had years upon years to do it. It was wickedness that set those white walls as a needle against the sky.

Because it was fell blasphemies that rose the tower it did not function the way a normal structure did. Plum and her own did not usually visit strongholds save when one of them was sick beyond their healer’s medicine but she still understood the concept: hallways connected rooms to one another, there was never more room on the inside than there was on the outside, and doors always led to the same places even if they were closed at any point. The tower disagreed. If the wizard wished it one could spiral forever through its corridors, never once seeing a window, until finding a door at the end of an ascending staircase that opened back out onto ground level. It could be a single hallway or it could be a maze of big, immaculate passages, all alike. There was no clear way to lay siege to something that didn’t even have a front gate most of the time. What entered the tower only came there at the wizard‘s behest.

Not that Plum had known this at first. Like many others, she and her band saw the shape from afar and came to investigate. The strange feeling in the air, which even as they spoke pressed in against Riaag like a smothering blanket, had yet to settle, so with hesitant curiosity they pitched their tents nearby to see what they could make of it. They slept, and when they awoke, everyone but Plum had changed. Her band followed orders she could not hear to begin construction of their rude settlement, speaking words of which she could make no sense. Plum wandered in fear and confusion until the wizard found her. She was given the gift of Orcspeak by his decree and taken into the tower. She had scarcely seen her band for years. They still lived, she said, as she’d seen them from afar through windows or off of an ephemeral balcony that manifested close enough to the ground to let her see faces. Riaag could hear the pain in her voice. Would this be him in another handful of years? Not if he had anything to fucking say about it.

“Now that you’re one of the tower’s,” said Plum, “you should live every day assuming His Majesty might call for your presence.”

“That is why I want to wash my clothes,” said Riaag with a nod. “I must look proper.”

“He does not expect us to. So we don’t.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s best for us if we do what he thinks is right. He is…an idealist. If those ideals are proven wrong to him, things go very badly for everyone.”

Riaag wrinkled his nose. “Then I will be a man-wolf to him, not an orc. Maybe they can be cleaner.”

“If you can make him believe anything other than what he already thinks is truth, Hogfoot, then I wish you all the best with it.” She sighed, tucked a stray lock of hair back under her kerchief, and crossed her arms over her chest. “Finish the rest of your food and I will show you where you are to work. Be prepared. His Majesty is busy with his own affairs, but he still might decide to come meet you early.”

“I will be ready for it, Chief Plum.”

Having a face to go with the vague idea of the wizard sounded appealing. Riaag wasn’t used to being antagonized by someone he’d not encountered in person and he was finding he didn’t much care for it. If there weren’t so many moving parts involved in the plan he might have started plotting an assassination on the spot; too many people had been taken captive to aim for the direct approach. There was also the matter of what could be done with the town once they knocked out its keystone. What about Plum’s family? What about Toadspit, for all his faults? It was downright irresponsible to do anything until Riaag knew where they actually stored enough food and water for so many people, and if the populace had been sourced from all over, what would happen to them once they no longer had a common banner under which to unite? A power vacuum of that magnitude would breed utter chaos if left untended. No, he would bide his time, and while he bided said time he’d do what he could to find out what had become of Sarouth.

§

“This is a pet?” asked Riaag as he peered into the cage.

“His Majesty says it is, so it is,” said Plum, who didn’t sound like she agreed with that decision.

The idea of pets covered a lot of ground in Riaag’s mind. He knew of beastmasters who kept animals for no reason other than companionship, ones who spent their time enjoying the presence of a dog or a cat or a raven. He knew the River People of Usoa walked with wolves—normal ones, if on the bigger side, not avatars or monsters or werewolves by any other name—though that was more of a working partnership than a pet and owner situation. He’d seen colorful birds in pretty cages held by merchants’ hands. He’d heard of hermits who could wander into the wild places and have creatures both great and small run up to greet them. There were no doubt all sorts of wonderful animals in the world who could be equally wonderful parts of someone else’s life.

None of them were haggard merchant-kind who’d been, for lack of a better term, remade.

From the waist up they were normal the way merchants were normal, with brown skin and round ears and eyes that were white all around the iris like an egg cradling its yolk. From the waist down was another story. It was as though their legs had been crimped together like clay, their body melded into a single long tube of flesh dotted with patches of peeling scales the same ruddy orange-pink as the insides of certain fruits. A fin, not unlike an eel’s but made from clearly stitched-on skin, ran most of the length of the awful tail. Something like oil oozed from the many cracks in their scales. They were clad in the same rags as Plum and her fellows save for a necklace of shells around their neck. At a distance his eyes saw a curious but otherwise natural creature, yet the instant he drew close enough to the cage to touch the bars he realized he was mistaken. Nature’s innate cruelty did not, in his experience, work in such a way. Were they half snake? Half fish? Riaag had never seen anything like it. He remembered the bones hidden inside the goblin tiger and felt a shudder roll through him. How many people had it taken to make this poor thing?

“What do I call them?” he asked, unsure how else he was meant to talk about someone who had been through such a horrifying ordeal. They were asleep or he would’ve asked them directly, though that assumed they would’ve been able to answer him. They slumbered with their eyes open save for a filmy lens that clouded their twitching, unseeing gaze. Even in their dreams they looked to be in pain.

“This one?” Plum cocked a thumb at the poor thing. “Call him Coral. His Majesty likes simple names.”

“Coral. Coral. I will remember that.” He took a moment to steel himself. “How do I care for him?”

Plum didn’t seem fazed by the horror before her, disapproving as her tone was. “You see the stuff that comes out of him? Clear it away. Make sure there is clean water in his tub, since he must soak some of the time or he begins to bleed. If he’s shit somewhere, take it to a burning chamber so he won’t roll in it. I already showed you where to find his food. He has trouble sleeping, so try not to wake him if he’s like this. If he’s awake, though, the master likes it if he’s been made to look fetching for visitors.”

“How do I make flaps of cloth fetching?”

She shrugged. “Wash his face. Comb his hair. See that his jewelry is nice. Coral is meant to be pretty, and His Majesty is upset if that isn’t so.”

Riaag wasn’t sure how he felt about something like Coral being thought of as pretty. Then again, maybe Coral needed that word as badly as Riaag did, since if his suspicions were correct there was no place in the world where creatures that looked like Coral would naturally gambol. It probably wasn’t his fault he looked like a big slug. The least Riaag could do was braid his hair so it wouldn’t stick to his body so often.

“Should I talk to him?”

“If he’s awake? You can try. He speaks these words, I think,” she said, gesturing at her mouth to try to clarify her point, “but I do not think he will have much kindness to offer you. Often he does not speak at all. Having a voice is difficult for him.”

Maybe there was a lovely conversationalist hiding under that layer of oily mucus. Riaag would certainly never know until he tried. “Do you need to show me other pets first, Chief Plum, or should I start my work now?”

“His last caretaker is not with us anymore,” said Plum. “I have tried to do what I can for him, but His Majesty keeps me busy, and when he does not, his aide does. These smaller duties have backed up because of that. You can see how dirty Coral’s cage is, and it has been this way for a time. There is work to do.” She handed him a broom and a bucket. “You should start before His Majesty arrives and accuses you of laziness. Hurry, now.”

Coral did not wake up the entire time Riaag was cleaning his cage. A statue set in the wall shaped like an open-mouthed fish spat clean water into a basin behind the bars; even without soap Riaag made judicious use of its contents. Wherever there was something that had caked up, he was there. He swept straw, he scrubbed at stains, and all the while he labored under the assumption that the next time he looked up from a spot of grime he’d discover the wizard standing there and judging him. This did not come to pass. Its lack of actually happening did nothing to make Riaag grit his teeth any less, which meant that by the time it came to clean Coral himself Riaag had managed to give himself a fierce tension headache.

A large drain in the middle of the cage floor came in handy for dumping out the scummy water in the tub. Plum had said she’d been trying to clean some herself, but she either had been light on time or light on effort recently given how much crap clung to the tub’s edges. Riaag scrubbed the inside of the tub as fiercely as he could without a burr-brush to help scrape away at the worst of it. It felt like it took the better part of an hour before it was clean enough for him to drag it over to the fish-fountain spout to refill with painful slowness. He cleaned the stalactites of hardened Coral-stuff from the floor drain while he waited. If it could make such a mess just by dribbling at its current rate, no wonder it needed special attention!

He scrubbed the floor, the drains, the cracks in the tower’s not-quite-right masonry, and eventually he had to address that which he’d been avoiding. It was time to address Coral himself. Staring down at the pitiable pet as he slept fitfully on his tarp, Riaag had to admit to himself he had no idea where to start with that one.

Riaag’s knowledge of medicine was primarily derived from being patched up so many times over the years, being less of a skill and more of a vague knowledge of what hurt when you did it to someone and which of those hurts was the prelude to healing. He was intimately aware of the various things the orcish body could endure, with a passing understanding of how that extended to River People and certain animals. Coral didn’t qualify for any of those categories. Would wiping away the oil he leaked cause him pain? More distressingly, would it cause him pleasure? Coral deserved joy in his life as much as any thinking creature did, eel-assed or otherwise, and the dispensing of said joy would need to come from some other hands than Riaag’s, which were reserved for a very limited clientele, one-half of which was himself. Fretting over a sickly thing’s erogenous zones would get him nowhere, however, so he looked to the best resource he had: Plum.

“The oil, when I clean it,” he asked. “What tool do I use?”

“A rag first. Then this.” She pressed at parts of the wall just so to make it shudder and slide apart to reveal what looked like a broom, except instead of a normal whisk it had a mop of little cords tied to one end. She mimed swiping at Coral’s sore-dappled sides with the floppy end of the cord broom and dunking its end in the bucket. It was like someone using a very large paintbrush, except this brush’s goal was to take something away instead of spreading it about a piece of wood or pottery. “Try not to press down on his wounds or where his fin touches his body. They hurt him.”

“I will try to be kind,” said Riaag, who meant it.

Once he acclimated to the fact that Coral existed and was not merely a hallucination brought on by the pain in his head reacting to the most recent swell and fall of background weird, Riaag didn’t mind the task. It was quite literally a shitty job. Shitty jobs Riaag could do, having plentiful experience with changing diaper cloths and cleaning wriggly little babies that had managed to befoul themselves to nigh unto supernatural levels; if you were still squeamish about hauling other people’s night-soil after dedicating yourself to life as a drudge, something had gone terribly wrong along the way. Bits of caked-on cage grime vanished from Coral’s body with each swipe of Riaag’s rag. His evolution from mere menial laborer to factotum and stronghold servant had thankfully done nothing to shake his ability to throw himself into a nasty task with nary a thought but finishing the job.

The weirdest part about cleaning Coral was how the torch sconces—of which the room had its own set—kept the smell at bay. Normally the olfactory element was important in gauging just how done a cleaning session was; without his nose to guide him, Riaag had to guess whether or not he was making progress. How he missed the astringency of soap! At least if any foul scents from the wizard‘s pets clung to Riaag’s clothes, he was secure in the knowledge nobody would actually notice.

As for the oil itself, it was quite unlike anything Riaag had handled before. He’d assisted chandlers as they rendered fat into tallow. He’d fried things in grease. He’d pressed oils from nuts and seeds on occasion. He’d interacted with all manner of goop the healers kept on hand. He’d washed hair that hadn’t had that luxury in too long and he’d worked oil back into that which was getting too dry. He’d sneezed violently into his hands. He’d done quite a lot with his hands, some of which he did not want to think about while trying to avoid feeling up a living meat-statue. The stuff that leaked out of Coral felt like it shared the worst properties of all these things. With luck, having less of it clinging to him would buy him a modicum of relief.

Riaag was making decent progress with the string broom when he accidentally brushed its slime-laden head a little too close to one of Coral’s sores. Coral’s lids snapped back into their sockets as he keened. He struggled away from Riaag. With the desperation of a salamander in the hand of a child he thrashed his way to his tub and splashed around in it until his legless lower portion was fully submerged save for the very tip of his, for lack of a better term, tail. His hands gripped the wood fiercely. Nothing about the way he moved looked either comfortable or right. Riaag waved awkwardly. Things were not looking good about his chances of being able to comb out some of the rats in Coral’s hair.

Coral swung his head about drunkenly until he spotted Plum. “Plum…,” he croaked. It barely sounded like a name.

“Coral,” she said with a curt nod. That didn’t seem necessary. Why be cold to someone already clearly suffering?

His eyes did not move at the same time as they focused on Riaag. It was like being studied by a lizard. “Who is this?” he asked. His voice sounded like a handful of gravel muddled with whispering sibilants. The sides of his throat trembled and bulged outwards when he spoke, a horrid combination of fish gills and a frog’s song-sac, though Riaag had the distinct impression he shouldn’t have been seeing the inside of those moist red gashes. Even breathing seemed to be a challenge for Coral.

Plum pointed at Riaag with her chin. “Meet Hogfoot, your new keeper. He will be able to spend more time cleaning for you than I can.”

Coral sneered. A few bubbles of froth gathered in the corners of his mouth. “He hurt me. I hate him.”

“I did not mean to,” said Riaag, miserably. Nothing stung quite like the rejection of someone he was trying to help. He felt fresh tears brewing and forced himself to choke them back; he had no way of knowing whether or not the salt would harm Coral if it touched him. The last thing he needed to do was risk maiming a favored pet of someone who could to…that…to another person.

“Hate him or not, you’re going to have to learn to live with him,” said Plum. She crossed her arms over her breasts. Her counter-sneer pulled itself into shape around her tusks, slightly favoring her broken one. “You could at least thank him for getting your tub so nice.”

“You stupid orcs, you think this is clean?” said Coral, his voice as dripping with contempt as the rest of him was with mucus. “You think this is how someone should live? You think this is acceptable? My family’s very important. We have trade routes that reach to the end of the world and back. When they hear about this, they’ll be furious! They—”

“Not my problem,” said Plum, cutting him off. “You’re Hogfoot’s, now, so be good when he tries to make you presentable.”

“What would one of you things know about that? Look at yourselves! If you had any idea what being presentable meant, you wouldn’t choose to live this way.” He paused to cough. Something red and slimy came up when he did so; Plum didn’t look worried, but Riaag couldn’t help but fret. It felt like every few seconds Coral did something to swing the pendulum from hateful to pitiable or back again and it did nothing to ease Riaag’s aching head. And what was that about the people here having a choice? If Plum’s account held even the meanest scrap of truth in it, many of the orcs who settled below had been deprived of the will to go anywhere else. A reasonable person would assume that if everything they had was provided by the wizard, and said provisions were nowhere near enough for people to live full lives, this was more the fault of their blasphemous sponsor than those who received them. Given how Coral, who was some sort of fish thing with open lesions all over his body, was judging Riaag, who was still in more or less nice clothing aside from the new set of stains he’d started racking up, reason did not seem to be present in the room that day.

Riaag cleared his throat. He couldn’t blame someone for being upset if they woke from uneasy sleep to the sensation of someone jamming a handle into a sore spot, even if their words were needlessly vicious. Maybe a peace offering would help clear the air. “I hope to start curing some soap soon,” he said. “Once it is done I will be able to help everyone look nicer. If it will not hurt your skin, I can bring you some? It will be better than just water.”

“Soap? You, a hulking thing, think you can offer me anything worth my time? Don’t bother. Don’t bother! I see the beast blood still smeared on you. I bet I could smell you from here if His Majesty hadn’t fixed that. That was my idea, you know. Otherwise we’d all be sick to death from—”

“Hogfoot!” barked Plum, once more cutting Coral off. Her voice was like a knife. “We’re done here. You did better than I expected,” she added, this last line in muttered Kaziric. She uncrossed her arms and beckoned to him to follow. Coral hurled insults after her, which she ignored in favor of talking to Riaag and pointing out what needed to go where. “Still a lot to do. I cannot do my work until you prove to me you can do yours, so finish your chores and follow me. Be fast about it.”

Plum leaving meant Coral was free to speak unkindly to Riaag. Every step of the procedure Plum had described needed to be done properly, no matter what was being said to him, so Riaag willed his ears to close themselves as he double-checked the lock, replaced the tools that had been stored in the room, and scooped up those they’d brought with them. By the time he hurried after Plum into the corridor he could feel his nerves fray until they were barely more than the rope he’d been bound with what felt like years ago.

Once they were out of Coral’s room Plum clapped Riaag on the shoulder with a sympathetic hand. “You cannot let him get to you,” she said. “He’s so hurt he doesn’t know how to feel anything else anymore. That’s just how he is.”

“I just wanted to make him look nice, so he could feel nice. Why did he say all that?”

“Because he blames you.”

Riaag had had enough of being blamed for things he didn’t do to last several lifetimes. “I was not even here until recently. I did not make him into what he is now,” he said, his worried frown deepening into a scowl.

“Neither did any of us but His Majesty. Get used to it, Hogfoot. It’s how things work here.”

He didn’t like that answer, but he didn’t like many things about the tower. He was here to observe and to rescue; surely somewhere among the wizard‘s pets and guests and who knew what else would be a cell with a tattooed man inside who was raising twelve colors of hell, and if Riaag could just keep paying attention while keeping out of anyone’s immediate notice he was sure to find his way to Sarouth. They’d waited before, they could wait again. They’d known the risks when they came here, ones practically roared by the glass scrying orb every time Sarouth had consulted it. No matter how long it took, no matter the cost, and no matter how many foul-mouthed monsters’ company he had to endure, they would leave this terrible place in shambles, and they’d get out of there alive.

§

A week and a half passed, by Riaag’s reckoning, and at no point did he see hide nor namesake hair of Sarouth. It was bound to be a lengthy process, this whole rescue plan, and surely the horses had been left somewhere where they’d be safe, but still he worried. He couldn’t exactly walk back home, not with how much they’d packed between them. It was tempting to imagine that he was stuck there. Riaag’s active mind was fantastic for concocting poetry, solving problems, and clinging to details of things he experienced; when it came to not worrying himself sick over unlikely scenarios, it wasn’t nearly as helpful.

What had been helpful was learning how best to clean whatever environment Plum set him upon. It’d only taken him two days to prove he didn’t need supervision. His first night alone he’d spent leaching water through the remains of some burnt wood he found in one of the creature cages, which had given him plenty of materials to both mix with the fats and oils Plum brought him (from whence, he opted not to ask) as well as keep his mouth from turning entirely to acid. With no bones or even chalk to dissolve in it he needed to be more conscious of his stomach than ever before. The porridge, while nourishing, was no substitute for his usual diet. Riaag vowed to himself that the first thing he’d do when he got home was crunch a fresh ox bone all the way down to the marrow and refuse to move until he’d eaten the whole thing.

At times it would snow outside. This wasn’t anything new to Riaag, since the valley got plenty of snow in the colder months and the mountains were simply choked with it before the first thaw arrived; what was strange was that he’d often only know it was happening because he’d pass by a window. He was used to snowstorms wailing outside, their fury shaking the thick woolen walls of the tent and trying to sneak frigid breezes in through the ventilation gaps, and some primal part of himself felt the change in pressure the same way a bird could feel which way was north. In the tower, he heard nothing and felt nothing. Was this what it was like to be a merchant? That couldn’t be so, since he’d once sat in on a group of travelers to Naar Rhoan talking about the smell of the earth after a long rain, so clearly their noses did something. The disconnect from the cycle of the weather still made him feel unstuck in time no matter how often he checked the position of the sun and counted days against his mental calendar.

The issue of time was a worry in and of itself; Sarouth could very easily lose track of when it was if Agritakh pulled him into the Labyrinth while he was awake, and that was with the sun and the firmament behaving normally. If he was somewhere in the tower, and why wouldn’t he be, he could swoon for five minutes or the better part of a day, and if there wasn’t a window where they’d put him he’d never be able to tell which. Would he despair at not knowing? Would he notice? Riaag was dead set on keeping accurate time enough for the both of them, even if his window didn’t always point towards the sun. Days were bright and nights were dark. He wasn’t sure how the seasons progressed in this part of the world, or if the wizard had any say over them, so instead he fell back on a more guaranteed method of measurement: waiting for the soap to gentle itself enough to be usable. It kept things in perspective. So long as the soap hadn’t cured, he reminded himself, it hadn’t yet been a month since they arrived. A lot could happen in a month.

Riaag often found his thoughts wandering towards the fate of the horses. They were evil-hearted, snake-eating, half-feral beasts, he told himself, bred under strange circumstances and traded to a pair of rubes from Naar Rhoan for a ransom in fine goods because said buyers didn’t know any better, and even without riders on hand to currycomb their coats and feed them apples they’d surely thrive with no company but each other’s. They were just too mean to not make it through the winter, he decided. Was Stupid Horse, Riaag’s massive steed, still wearing its barding? He liked the idea of a wild horse roaming the woods, all clad in ribbons and dozens of harvested skulls, spending the rest of its days screaming at travelers from the dark places between the trees. Perhaps the glass ball could point him and Sarouth towards their wayward mounts when the time came. It was strange to actually miss the things. Maybe he longed for the taste of horse chops more than he thought.

Sometimes between tasks he’d look down from his window at its variable height from the ground and think about the town. Life inside the tower was unpleasant enough, with its doors and flames and scentless temperate corridors, but at least up here he had an actual chamberpot and a place to rinse and dry his clothing between days; down there they had no such niceties. How could people live like that? Even the most decrepit stronghold back in the valley had some semblance of pride in itself. Adherents of the Hill God were tasked with tending to the green places, and orcs were a green people, so it stood to reason that He expected them to care for themselves and one another.

That was the other thing. Riaag had (grudgingly) accepted that there were people out there who didn’t hie to the call of Agritakh, even people who were orcs, but as near as he could tell there wasn’t a single symbol of the Hill God in the whole of town. It wasn’t that they were heretics, either, as he’d met his fair share of those and left most of them in pieces. Nobody below the tower seemed to believe in anything, be it other gods or ancestors or even their own indomitable will. It was like they’d been squeezed out like so much empty honeycomb.

How long had things been this way? They’d known about the tower months ago, back when it had come up in passing conversation with some travelers, but from what Riaag had been told it had sounded more like an odd little social experiment than whatever things were now. Naar Rhoan had plenty of problems of its own, to say nothing of their constant dealings with Usoa and the rest of the valley. It was reasonable that they’d put all their attentions towards trying to stave off aggressive neighbors while keeping everyone fed, wasn’t it? It was perfectly normal that they’d care more about strongholds that called upon them for help than distant rumors who’d yet to so much as send a raven with tidings. That was the downside of knowing more about the world: Riaag was still struggling to come to terms with the knowledge that he was a single man with only two hands, and he hated the useless feeling he got whenever trade caravans arrived with news of some disaster in the far corners of the land that he’d never known existed, much less knew how to help. At least he knew for a fact that he could do right by his own people no matter what storms raged on the other side of the mountains.

He started his day in the usual manner, with prayer followed by personal grooming followed by a meal. He had yet to see where the food they gave him came from; as it always appeared in one bowl and his water appeared in another, he was starting to suspect there was witchcraft at work. If it was some strange wizard bullshit, that would explain how so many people kept fed despite so little space dedicated to growing, raising, or even storing food. Maybe the carcasses he’d seen before were special treats for holidays or a job well done? These and other thoughts kept him company as he slipped into his clothes, which he’d gotten into the habit of airing out each night for lack of anything into which he might change. If the odorless air was going to ignore the time of year in favor of feeling like a balmy spring morning then he was going to treat things as such.

Once he’d sated his physical and spiritual needs as best as he was able, he went through the routine of unlocking every part of the door and seeing where it would spit him out this time. So far he had yet to end up anywhere other than the empty tower corridor. He was still convinced that the one time he didn’t think to check he’d end up at the bottom of the sea, and while he was an excellent swimmer he didn’t fancy a long walk back home with wet sand in his undergarments. There just wasn’t time for it.

As usual, the hallway was completely empty as he walked it. Save for Plum and the animals, and technically the infrequent sound of footsteps that never seemed to stop at whatever room held him at the moment, Riaag never saw anyone else while working. Plum herself waited for him in the supply room where she usually briefed him about his daily tasks, but this time she was not alone. The seneschal stood in front of her. The two of them had clearly been speaking with one another when he walked in.

“Ah, Hogfoot,” said the seneschal. “I have good news for you. It seems your chargehand is convinced you can be trusted with more important tasks than feeding animals, so starting today you’ll also be assigned to those guests which don’t require a more, hm, personal touch. They’re not pets, like His Majesty’s Coral, so don’t worry about washing them as you do with the beasts. Instead you are to provide food and drink, clean up their rooms for them, and see if they have any news for His Majesty. You’ll be given a key of your own so you don’t need to shadow your little friend all the time. Think you can handle that?”

Riaag nodded. He tried to hide his excitement, since for all he knew he’d be asked to wait on some unknown personage who had opinions about how their grapes were served, but seeing to guests meant that he’d have far more chances to overhear something interesting. A key of his own opened up countless possibilities for espionage that still ensured plausible deniability for everyone else. To think it had only taken about ten days for him to make such headway! That sounded like a pretty good time record in the world of deep-cover sleuthing.

The seneschal seemed pleased enough with his answer. “Good. Your first guest is an old woman. See that the room is not too cold, won’t you? His Majesty can’t anticipate the needs of everyone who stays in his home and the elderly simply aren’t like other people when it comes to that. She is our guest, not a wild animal scampering in from the cold, and she is to be treated to the full of His Majesty’s hospitality. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, my lord,” said Riaag. He was looking forward to waiting on other people again; the malformed creatures the wizard kept were deserving of love and care, even the venom-tempered Coral, but Riaag’s greatest joys came from finding solutions to someone else’s problems. Brushing an animal’s fur to look glossy and smooth was nothing compared to the satisfaction he got from stoking a fire to just the right temperature when someone mentioned they were cold.

“You know how to navigate the halls by now, don’t you?” the seneschal asked, though since they didn’t wait for his answer it was a rhetorical question. “They’ll take you where you need to go. Don’t tease the guests, and don’t bother them with too much talk. You’re a servant, not an entertainer. Understand?”

Riaag nodded again. “Do I need to wait for Chief Plum before I start?” he asked. In spite of her many duties it’d felt like Plum was everywhere his first few days. He’d quietly accepted that she was, at least a little bit, spying on him. He didn’t blame her. What little she said of her band was always kept to a cautious distance, as though anything she said could be twisted around to hurt them like a farmer sowing brambles, and if her cooperation was assured so long as they were left unhurt it would fit the pattern Riaag had already seen.

“You are ready,” said Plum, which earned her what might have been a glare from beneath the seneschal’s hood. She flinched. Riaag hoped that she hadn’t just earned a punishment for someone she loved.

“As Chief Plum so helpfully answered for me, you’re able to do this on your own, and you won’t need her to unlock things for you all day, so we won’t be wasting any more of her time on minding the baby. If you have questions, ask them of her during the next day’s orientation. I expect you to do your job and to do it well. His Majesty’s guests are my liability, so if there is ever a fault in your efforts you will be answering to me. Understand?”

He still understood, so he nodded again. Riaag didn’t particularly fancy dealing with the seneschal more directly; answering to Plum was fine, since they had a crumb of understanding between the two of them, but he had yet to learn of the seneschal’s gender, much less their blood-kind or motivations, so he would need to be careful with each new report. He held out hope that they might be a friend in disguise. If they wouldn’t rise to that honor, he’d settle for Coral. The more allies he had in this den of jackals, the better.

“Very good.” They produced a key and dropped it into his cupped hands. “Now, have your little talk the way you always do with your war-chief” —they cocked a gloved thumb at Plum for this, apparently finding it funny to refer to her as such— “and get to work. Remember: I’ve got my eye on you.” With that they collapsed into unspooling shadows once more and were gone.

The daily conversation with Plum went much as it usually did, though Riaag could spot faint hints of strain around her eyes and mouth. He reported on injuries and recoveries from said, on which supplies he’d used and which had a surplus, and explained how he planned to use his time should she need to find him before the day was done. They said nothing about the seneschal. Even with the added wrinkle of being beholden to more than a few pets the little check-in didn’t last much longer than it would any other day, and so after a few minutes’ discussion Riaag was back in the halls in pursuit of someone’s day to brighten.

He really did know how to navigate the tower corridors. The problem was that he didn’t know how he knew, and this little bit of indoor wisdom defied more careful thought the same way it was instinct to close one’s eyes during a sneeze, or how one’s mouth would water at the sight of good food, or how a nice, cozy cave made the blood sing of home and safety. His lungs drew breath without him needing to think about it, and so the hall led him where he was supposed to go without him needing to think about it. It was hard not to think about the stories Sarouth had told him of the Labyrinth at times like this. A little part of him thrilled at the thought of one day letting the hall guide him to the wizard‘s sanctum and snapping that sorcerous asshole’s neck with his hands. Rationally this was impossible, as anyone who would go to the trouble of building a place this grand would have safeguards against spies getting where they weren’t supposed to, to say nothing of whatever mysteries the tower’s keys held themselves, and even knowing this it was a thought that gave him something else to think about at night other than the touch of someone from whom he’d now been separated longer than any other point since they first began their travels together.

The door at which he eventually arrived looked the same as any of the other doors he’d seen. This was not a promising sign, as those doors he’d seen led to storage rooms and animal pens, and he couldn’t imagine a big hardwood thing with spikes along its cross supports looking very welcoming to visitors no doubt already unnerved by the throng of orcs milling about at ground level. It felt right, and he hadn’t been told to avoid any part of the tower save those that would set him on fire at certain hours, so Riaag shrugged to himself and let himself inside.

He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, really.

The seneschal had implied that the wizard‘s guests were kept in better conditions than his pets. If there was any proof to this Riaag was clearly missing it, as the room was the same half-cage he’d seen among the pens and prisons he’d already encountered, and just as filthy. It was perhaps worse than the animal pens, in fact, as the cell’s occupant had her wrists in shackles that connected to a ring in the wall by a long, rusting chain where the creatures had been left free to roam (or, in the case of Coral, drag-slither) about their pens. When Riaag thought of guests, he thought of free spaces in traveler’s fields where someone might pitch a tent. He thought of those Usoans who had opened their homes to Rhoanish farmers to help till the fields in hopes of overcoming a bad harvest. Sometimes he even thought of the suite of rooms that he and the rest of Sarouth’s contingent had made their own for the duration of Concordance, and the variety of new experiences the summit had boasted for anyone who swore to observe its laws. A guest could even be as simple as a little animal allowed to curl up against someone for warmth. No definition of guest he accepted was one that welcomed squalor and despair the way the wizard clearly did.

Riaag approached the cell bars carefully. When the seneschal had said there was a woman inside they clearly meant a merchant woman, which wasn’t wrong but had failed to convey a few important details. She was darker than Coral was, and her wrinkled skin was dull in the tell-tale manner of someone denied the way to properly care for it. A head of long, gray hair fell in front of her face. She was clad in what was clearly an incomplete part of a more elaborate outfit, perhaps a shift to be worn beneath a dress or robe, and her feet were bare. Flecks of brilliant color clung to her chipped nails. Riaag stifled a gasp. He’d seen this outfit before. She was alive and she looked awake, so with a wary hand he gently rapped his knuckle against the bars.

The merchant woman looked up at him through her stringy veil of hair and startled in recognition of her own. He wasn’t quite as surprised as she, having known the circumstances of certain persons’ disappearances; what surprised Riaag was how much she had deteriorated in the months since they had last seen one another. This was no mere old woman in a cage. This was Ayyisha, of the Leopard’s Breath Company, master of the very scrying sphere that had pointed him and Sarouth to the tower and which presumably still waited for her somewhere out past the trees among the rest of their hidden things. He was startled to realize he’d only been able to tell it was her when he was so close he could’ve reached through the bars to stroke her greasy head. It was like an invisible curtain fell between them, subtly skewing whatever he saw until it was just shy of unrecognizable. How many other familiar faces had he passed by unaware because of that refraction of what was really there?

He clutched at his amulet to steady himself; if something unnatural was going on, he would be safe so long as he trusted in it. This was no time to worry about things he couldn’t control. What he could do was pay attention to what he noticed around himself, same as he always did. Ayyisha beckoned to him and he leaned in to listen.

“You are…the ogre from before,” she said, her voice weak and wavering but her words clear. Riaag didn’t know the name for what she spoke, only that it was a merchant language, and a different one from what he used to talk to the other tower staff. He also knew that he was just as fluent in it then as he had been the first time she and her absent companions had crossed his path.

“Orc,” he corrected. “You called me the wrong thing when we first met, too.” He lowered his voice and flicked his eyes towards the door. It didn’t look like anyone was passing by, so he continued. “Your ball came to where we live. Once the holy man learned how to listen to it, it told us to come here. We did so. It has been a long, strange journey.”

She struggled towards him, barely able to crawl on her hands and knees. She’d been able to walk last time. “The others…where are they?” she croaked.

“You are the first of the Leopard’s Breath I have seen,” said Riaag. “I am new here, though. Only today have I been allowed to care for more than animals.” He paused and thought of Coral, whose sour mood had not sweetened a mote no matter how much care Riaag put into arranging his hair and clothing. “And people who are shaped something like animals.”

“Something happened to them, I know it. I don’t know why I was left unaffected. If you see them, be careful, they may not be in full control of themselves. It’s his doing.” She didn’t need to specify who he was. “We already lost poor Safwan to this dreadful man’s machinations, and my heart aches to know we may still lose more.” She paused to catch her breath. It sounded as though she was out of practice with speaking. “You say my sphere called for you? Your holy man is an impressive one if it could sniff him out from so far away. Where is it?”

“Hidden,” said Riaag. He gestured in the direction he hoped their cache of equipment was still concealed. “It lies somewhere beyond the trees. The Faaroug’s own sacred tool is with it, I think. I let them take me before he was captured so I do not know what all he did while we were apart.”

“Hmm. Before you ask, I have seen few these past months other than yourself and that vile man’s lieutenant, so I do not know where your companion is. If I learn anything, I’ll tell it to you when next you come to see me.” Her tired eyes pleaded with Riaag. He knew an unspoken request when he saw one.

“I will do the same if I discover more of your Leopard’s Breath,” he said.

“You’re very kind for a man who we first met with our weapons drawn.”

Riaag shrugged. “I am used to it by now. Ask me some time when we have escaped this place and I can tell you how I came to befriend some of the shadows in the trees.” Footsteps in the hall caught his ear, prompting him to switch back to the more tolerable of the tower’s argots. He strained to keep his voice sounding as matter-of-fact as before. “I must open the cage to clean up so it will be nice inside. Please do not try to get away. You cannot. It will only end badly.”

Ayyisha was quick on the uptake and responded in the same language. “I’m chained to the wall. Where would I even go?” Her accent was strange but she had more of a grasp of vocabulary than he did. It was always interesting seeing the ways merchants learned to talk compared to a typical orc.

“I am just reminding you,” he said. They shared a nod before he unlocked the door and swung it open.

He cleaned the same way he always did the first time he was shown a new room, which saw him doing lots of sweeping, scrubbing, and scraping. Ayyisha moved about as best she could to keep out of his way. He checked her food—it was in the same kind of dish as the one in his quarters, so perhaps the crockery itself had something to do with from whence the porridge came—and conversed with her briefly about whether she felt sick or sore. They politely ignored the state of her chamberpot as he dealt with it. She spoke little until he offered to rinse her hair for her, explaining that he could reach where her bound hands could not, and this coaxed words from her again where previously she’d merely pointed and vocalized.

“I will allow it,” she said. “Do you only have water?” He could see in her eyes the hidden hope that she might be given any scrap of dignity. He’d seen that look on his own face plenty of times.

“I have made soap,” said Riaag. “It must sit a while longer or it will burn to use. When it is done I will bring you some, I promise.”

“I would like that.”

Riaag did what he could for her with what he had. At home he had any number of tools and any number of substances with which he might solve the problem; here he had himself, a bucket, and another trickling fish fountain, and that was it. He was able to manage the worst of the dirt and grease. While the cell was as middling in temperature as anywhere else in the tower he disliked the thought of leaving someone of her age and internment with loose, wet hair, as even if she didn’t catch cold it was only asking for it to drag through something. Instead he squeezed out as much water as he could before he plaited it for her in a firm, but gentle, weave. It was nothing like the wonders he’d seen when traders came to the stronghold, but it would have to do.

“This will keep it away from your face,” he said as he fussed with looping the end of the plait around itself. “If it falls apart, I will put it up for you again tomorrow.”

“Thank you.”

Once he was done he handed her a folded cloth and motioned towards the font on the wall. “When you are alone you may use this to tidy yourself. You may clean your skin, or places you do not want to show. I will bring a new one tomorrow and take the old one away. I would offer to do it for you, but we are not kin and this is not a bathing pond. I am sorry.”

Ayyisha chuckled as she accepted the cloth. “Are all orcs so thoughtful?”

Riaag shrugged. “Are all your own kind?”

“Perhaps I should have known,” she said with a rueful smile on her leathery face.

He didn’t say much as he went about doing what he could to make her surroundings not quite so unpleasant. The kindest thing to do would have been to break her chains and run. Kindness and cleverness were not always bedfellows, though, which meant Riaag had to leave her in shackles with a bit of fabric in one hand. He tried to comfort himself with the thought that he’d helped her in some way, and that he’d be back again tomorrow to offer further assistance. What comfort this brought him was cold.

Soon he could think of nothing else to do that was still in the same room. With a sigh, Riaag made one final pass around and ensured she had something to eat before he collected up his tools. The cell door sounded like it was judging him as it locked.

“Templar?” called Ayyisha.

Riaag didn’t know what that meant but he suspected it referred to himself. Given the way Ayyisha usually spoke it was probably something polite. He glanced back over his shoulder at her.

“I hope you see your Faaroug soon,” she said.

“We agree on this,” said Riaag, and then he closed the door behind him.

§

On the second day of the third week, there was something in the air that wasn’t the now routine rise and fall of the strange feeling that Riaag’s amulet valiantly fought back several times a day. It felt like a storm brewing even though the clouds were the same feather-gray expanse of raw wool they’d been for the past week. Riaag had been awake a few times when the halls blazed themselves clean and knew this wasn’t that; the knowledge wasn’t enough to keep him from fretting over whether his chamber might be exposed to the searing flames the next time he slept. The notion was silly. The notion was also inexcusable. He refused to let himself be incinerated until he’d managed to tell Sarouth he loved him one last time.

He was having a private midday meal when someone rapped at his chamber door. “Knock knock!” said an unfamiliar voice with enough volume to mostly drown out the actual knocking, their tone far cheerier than anyone else who spoke the tower’s formal tongue. Riaag wheeled around in his seat in time to see all three of the locks (which he had a habit of throwing behind him for the sake of his nerves, and which always took a little doing to change out) clack open at once. The door opened without its usual slight creak. Someone stepped across the threshold, after which it closed, forcefully, behind them.

Riaag was now in the presence of the lord of the tower in the flesh.

He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. With how much misery this man had caused it would’ve made sense for him to be a hulking brute of a warlord, and with how much power he’d amassed he could have had a long, hoary beard trailing down to the floor that he’d grown out over decades of cunning conquest. The wizard was neither of these. What he was was a merchant of medium size and uncertain adult age—Riaag was not the best at gauging how old merchants were if they weren’t going all silver and wrinkly, but he’d seen children of their blood-kind before, and this man looked older than any of those youngsters had—with smooth, camel-colored skin, a head of short-cropped dark hair, and pale eyes. His face was shorn of any facial hair save for a prominent beard shadow. A pendant set with either a chunk of cut glass or an alarmingly large ruby hung about his neck, its golden chain halfway vanishing into the many patterns of his robes, while a sword in a slightly curved scabbard that bore few recognizable signs of use hung from his belt. There was nothing else remarkable about him.

Riaag had a sudden, unbidden feeling that this person wanted to be his friend, perhaps even a benefactor, which he distrusted immediately. You didn’t reshape living people into goblin tigers and whatever Coral was if you had everyone’s best interests at heart. He tried to keep his discomfort from showing as the wizard strode up to him with a broad, avuncular smile.

“Hello, Hogfoot,” said the average-looking man with decidedly not-so-average deeds to his as of yet unknown name. “My lieutenant informs me you aren’t a werewolf.”

“I am afraid not, Your Majesty,” said Riaag.

The wizard sighed. “A pity. I really was hoping for something new in the menagerie. They’ve been so unwell, lately, but I suppose you’ve seen as much for yourself, haven’t you?”

Whether or not guests were part of his so-called menagerie didn’t change the truth of that statement. It was hard to think of a single occupant of any of the cages Riaag cleaned each day who wasn’t ailing, sick to the soul if not the body. “I try to be as kind to them as I can, Your Majesty.”

“That’s why I came to visit! That kindness is truly remarkable and it shines through in everything you do. You’ve done such a good job, and in so little time, it’s really unbelievable. Coral can’t stop talking about you when I stop by.” This Riaag definitely did not believe, as Coral had decided to start complaining to him directly about anything that bothered him at the moment, with Riaag himself being a frequent object of discontent. It was getting to the point that he suspected Coral operated under a geas where he had to spend every waking hour vocally disappointed or he’d shrivel up and die. Coral had a lot of valid things to complain about (many of which leaked out of his body at irregular intervals) but Riaag could only take so much of someone else’s venting before he just wanted to go back to his room and scream into the single cushion he’d been given.

“I’m really excited you chose to cooperate with me,” continued the wizard. “You know, back where I first studied, people have such awful opinions about orcs. They think you’re all emerald brutes ready to snatch up children for pies. Sometimes you see bounties out to bring in ears or tusks, no matter who they might come from. Isn’t that horrible?”

Riaag nodded. Both the concept and the misconception felt degrading in their own way. He couldn’t help but wonder how many ghosts roared through the streets of those far-off lands, raging impotently at the darkness as they longed to be put to rest. The idea made his amulet throb against his skin.

“Now, when I was a young man, just barely starting out, I suspected this wasn’t really the case.” This sounded so reasonable Riaag immediately braced for a followup. “People can be good or bad, as I learned from my family’s dealings with traders from afar. Morality is a pretty big concept. Orcs can talk, which means they can think, and that means there’s no reason they can’t understand bigger concepts if only someone’s willing to break them down into chunks. You understand good and bad, right, Hogfoot?”

This got another nod out of Riaag, who remained seated all the while and saw no reason to change this. The last thing he needed was someone getting spooked by his size and making up excuses for why he needed to be taken apart and put back together as something ghastly. Had he felt like this was a more honest philosophical exchange he might have been willing to discuss what all the Rhoanish mindset thought of certain beliefs and acts, since the stronghold’s culture was a living thing that constantly changed and adapted. As he had yet to see any reason not to feel like he was a hair’s breadth from giving his not-so-generous host an excuse to hurt someone else for their so-called own good, Riaag kept his ethics to himself.

Dire thoughts about his motivations did nothing to stop the wizard‘s chipper chatter. “And there you have it. If a simple orc we found wandering alone in the trees can understand that much without guidance, if he can begin to grasp that there’s more to life than simply whatever guarantees the easiest route to eating, fighting, and fucking, it is criminal that we keep to the same old ideas about them. Everyone here agrees! I’m helping them break free from the burden of tradition. I’m sure someone like you knows a lot about how people only get hurt if they refuse to leave their old ways behind.”

Was this man skimming Riaag’s thoughts? Of course someone born untouchable knew of the ways tradition could leave lasting wounds! Riaag wore an amulet in part because of them! Had he not been seen as wretched from birth, had he been raised as a child like any other no matter how many oathbreakers chose to sire him, had he not been told as soon as he could understand words that he was not even deserving of the fist that struck him, maybe he would still be prone to fits of sorrow, but he doubted they would be any worse. The hair of his forearms concealed the healed tells of defensive wounds, each cicatrix a reminder of how he’d not always been so large. Those other unclean he’d seen back when he still wore a bastard’s paint often bore similar traces. Many adults in the valley carried reminders of accidents and fights; the difference was that theirs usually hadn’t gotten there because someone else needed to remind them of how offensive they were to decent people’s sensibilities.

His scars were hardly the last of it, too, as Naar Rhoan had been built at the behest of a god who wanted His people to try something new in the name of making better lives for themselves and pleasing Him with their attempts. Its first year had been a constant state of terror as they struggled to convince nomads to settle down and till fields instead of begging forgiveness for stealing grasses of the ground from the wild creatures who had sacred claim to them. While these days they boasted more allies than ever, that didn’t mean the blood had stopped flowing as they found themselves targeted by warbands and jackals drawn by Naar Rhoan’s prosperity. The stronghold partook in so many things considered taboo by their neighbors—sometimes even by their own families, at least for those fortunate enough to have such—that it was a wonder so many faces flocked to its corpse-studded walls. Rhoanish itself pulled from the speech of the unclean as a direct challenge to those who spoke more formal dialects. It was hard to get further from tradition than that.

And yet. And yet they still felt the call of band and clan, they still sang for ancestors and the great Animals. In spite of the many new tricks they learned from foreign friends, the Rhoanish people still prayed to Agritakh the way their forebears did. There was nothing new about gifting the land with blood-mixed ashes. Sarouth would take a winnowing basket to his own heritage at the slightest provocation, but casting aside the cultural chaff didn’t mean he didn’t treasure those things that successfully passed his judgment. Riaag had gone along with everything at first because he saw no life for himself but one of servitude spent in Sarouth’s shadow. It wasn’t until years later that he’d understood that all of Sarouth’s incessant challenges to the status quo, fruitful or not, had led to him breaking things down and building them back up until there was a Riaag-shaped space inside of them.

What would it take to convey how one could be so badly hurt by a god’s tenets and still seek Their divine love in spite of that lasting pain? It might have been possible to explain it to someone if they shared a different language more suited to that kind of nuance, or if they came from a similar background of ironclad customs to which they’d initially been denied. Perhaps if this wizard had known both the sting of rejection and the succor of community there would be common ground between them. As it was, there was little that could be said that wouldn’t run the risk of revealing Riaag’s Rhoanish origins or offering tacit permission to insult a way of life he held almost as dearly as life itself, and these were both unwise for different reasons.

“It makes things complicated,” replied Riaag with great understatement.

“I knew I liked you for a reason, Hogfoot! You understand why the world needs a change. I’m just the man to bring about that change.” The wizard began to pace around, sometimes shaking his fist for emphasis. “You see, nothing truly gets done, in life or anything, without a little discord to mix up the everyday grind. A man doesn’t get stronger unless he chooses to destroy enough of his routine to train his body. A woman cannot bear a child until she chooses to overcome the emptiness of her womb. What I’m doing is simply disrupting the concept of orcitude” —Riaag was confident that that was not a real word in any tongue, past or present— “and remaking it into something new. Something better! It’s really quite exciting that so many people have joined me in this venture, and now you get to be one of them. No one else has ever thought to try it. It’s such a shame! You people are an incredible untapped resource.”

“How is that?” asked Riaag. Resources were usually things like bags of flour, kegs of fresh water, or seasoned firewood cut for the hearth, expendable goods used for making other things happen. Even natural resources like the forest or the river were usually seen in terms of what they could give if responsibly harvested. What sort of twisted did you have to be to view people through that same eye?

The wizard clapped his hands together with great eagerness. He must have been hoping for a question along those lines, as he promptly launched into an explanation that felt rehearsed. “It’s a known fact that your kind are in possession of simply tremendous willpower. Few thinking sorts are so prone to lingering after death, for example, nor supporting such tremendous memetic weight, and the way you can take to new concepts is really like no other. If you put your all into it you could rival an intellect as grandiose as my own. The problem, though, is that your curious little minds are too busy concentrating on the wrong things to truly grasp your potential. You’re hobbling yourselves! What I’m doing is simply clearing away unnecessary distractions to leave a wonderful new self behind.”

Riaag hadn’t heard the phrase memetic weight before. It didn’t sound like a good thing. “What things are unnecessary, Your Majesty?” he asked, though given how poorly the concept of tradition had been presented earlier he believed he already knew the answer.

“I’m so glad you asked. You see, I’ve made some study of many of the little orcish cultures in this part of the world, and I’ve found several constants. You fight too much. You distract yourselves with countless variations on different words for the same thing. You’re prone to caring too much about things that don’t matter. Your customs, your superstitions…they’re pointless. They get in the way. I’ve found that by removing the desire for those things, it just makes everything so much more efficient. I’ve given the orcs who’ve answered my call the tools for success. There’s no potential for misunderstanding and everything’s peaceful and calm.

“Before I raised the tower this place was a battlefield. Families clashed with families, hunters clashed with beasts. It was a mess. I’ve been able to bring everyone a better way. There’s no need to waste so much time roaming around if I can provide everything you need. It’s possible to elevate a simple orc to greater things so long as he has a proper sponsor, and I, in my infinite charity, am providing myself as the perfect inspiration for your greatness. I’ve made a place where nobody has to worry about anything. By taking away the stresses of life, I can help everyone realize their dreams. I’ve created a place where the most magical of things are real. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could actually touch the sorts of things that only appear in fairy stories? Wonder no more: Anything you can imagine, it can happen here! With the help of people like you, I can bring that sense of magic and wonder to everyone in the world, and it’s going to be fantastic.

“Now, you might ask why I couldn’t do this on my own. A fair question! A person like myself, if I may be honest, is limited by the scope of a single mind with a single mind’s worth of thoughts. I’ve found that I can exceed these limits if I can, how to say, borrow some of that magnificent willpower and focus it, and the more consistent those volunteers are in thought and deed, the more helpful they are in bringing my goals to fruition. Orcs, unlike certain unnamed parties who originally stymied my work, are unburdened by inconveniences like morality, which means I’ve been making great strides since raising my tower. All it takes is diverting that stubbornness towards the right means! I care for your people, after all, so I think it’s fair that I make good use of what I’m owed. Each one of you is a key part in making dreams come true. Soon my influence will stretch from one edge of the world to the other and everyone living beneath my benevolent aegis will be freed from worrying about the unfairness of reality. I have some contingency plans prepared in case people are unwilling to cooperate with my vision of peace, of course, so don’t you worry. I have it all under control.

“Nobody else understands your kind the way I do. You really should be thanking me for everything I’ve done. I’m a humble sort, though, so I won’t ask you to offer your gratitude until you’re genuinely ready to give it. I know you will. We’re making history here, Hogfoot. And soon we’ll be making more than just that.”

The idea of making more than just history was especially distressing when it came from the mouth of a man who took captured spies and twisted them around until they walked on four legs instead of two.

“The problem is,” continued the wizard, “why aren’t you accepting my gifts?”

Actually being asked a proper question again came as a shock. He’d eaten food, drunk water, used furniture, relocated whenever they wanted him in a new spot, and generally done what he could with what little they’d given him since his capture. What was Riaag missing? “Gifts?”

“Don’t play the fool with me, Hogfoot, it doesn’t suit you. You don’t understand Orcspeak. Orcspeak was designed to be universal, a way to communicate without all that confusion getting in the way. We should be having this very conversation in it. I don’t know why you’re resisting it, anyway. Wouldn’t your head feel clearer without all that pesky noise in there? You won’t have to think hard about anything. Everyone will know exactly what you mean, exactly the way you say it. Nobody will misunderstand you because you insist on speaking something that’s too difficult for them to learn. It’ll be so easy.”

The feeling from before rose up again in time for Riaag’s amulet to rebuke it. Oh no. Had that been noticed?

“How odd,” said the wizard. He leaned in to peer at Riaag owlishly. Shit! How much did he already know? “It seems there’s just something wrong with the part of you that’s supposed to understand what you’ve been told. You’re basically frightening yourself away from the Orcspeak whenever it gets close. We see this from time to time. Always a shame when we do, since it means we need to perform some manual corrections.”

Riaag cringed. “Is that bad, Your Majesty?” He could imagine so many ways that someone might try to correct him. There was nowhere for him to hide. He didn’t know what to do. Was it his mind at fault? Was it the amulet? Was there something else? Was he only protected by the grace of Agritakh, and would he lose that if whatever this Orcspeak thing was got inside him? His thoughts reeled faster and faster, so fast it felt like they’d manage to outpace his amulet, and—

“Don’t worry,” said the wizard with a chuckle. “This is just a temporary setback.”

A fingertip pressed against the center of his forehead and Riaag didn’t think of anything anymore.

§

He had a simple job. It was nice to have a simple job. Every day he would wake up and eat the food that was in his room. Once he ate he would clean up. Once he cleaned up he would take care of the master’s friends. He would clean the beautiful mermaid. He would comb the hair of the scary witch. He would help all the creatures and then it would be time to eat again. Then he would sleep. One day became another day and everything was fine.

It was important to say thank you before he ate and slept. Was he saying thank you to the master? That would make sense, since the master was always so kind. What did not make sense was how it didn’t feel like he was thanking the master. Who else would he thank, though? Maybe he was thanking the master’s friend, who he didn’t see as often. Maybe he was thanking the tower. No matter who he was talking to, every day before he slept he was sure to lie down and say whatever he thought up. It felt good. So long as it felt good to do, he knew there was no harm in it.

Sleeping was strange. Sometimes when he slept he dreamed. He saw strange things when he dreamed, so he was always glad to forget them when he woke up. When he dreamed his thoughts felt too fast and hot. It was easier to be awake because his head was clearer. When he was awake he could trust his thoughts to be slow enough to let him know what they were. So long as he didn’t sleep he wouldn’t feel dizzy. He decided this was fine, since it meant he wouldn’t want to be lazy. Lazy people didn’t get to live in the tower.

He never had to leave the tower, which was nice. People who didn’t live in the tower were not as lucky as people who got to be so close to the master. Inside the tower it was warm and dry. Inside the tower nobody smelled dirty. They could get dirty, which was why it was his job to clean things, but they didn’t smell that way. The master was very concerned with that. The master was very concerned about a lot of things that were hard to understand. He didn’t want the master to worry. All he had to do was do everything he was told and that would never be a problem.

Sometimes Chief Plum would come to visit him. She talked to him in an odd way, like she thought he was forgetting something. That was silly. There was nothing for him to forget so long as he did his chores as he was supposed to. Even if she talked oddly it was nice to speak to her. It was also nice when she left, because he didn’t like the thought of being alone with people too much. He felt content when he was alone. It was good to be content.

“How’s the soap coming along, Hogfoot?” Chief Plum asked him that morning while he ate. She asked him the same thing every day. His name on the inside was Riaag, but his name on the outside was Hogfoot. He didn’t know Chief Plum’s inside name. That was fine. Inside names were special. That was why he didn’t think of his own very much unless he had to think about other people a lot. It kept everything special.

He looked at the soap and tapped it with his claw. It wasn’t ready yet. He didn’t know how he knew it wasn’t ready yet, but Riaag didn’t know a lot of things. That was fine. It wasn’t his job to know things. “Still not done,” he said.

“Any idea when it will be?” She asked that every day, too.

“When it’s done, Chief Plum.”

“Remember to check it whenever you wake up,” she said.

“Yes, Chief Plum,” he said. Just like always, it was timed with his last bite of breakfast. It was time to get to work.

He liked walking in the tower because it helped clear his head. There was nothing quite like a clear head, since that way there was lots of room for good thoughts. Distractions had no place in a clear head, either. By this logic anything that came to mind while he was walking from one place to another wasn’t a distraction. He let those happen. The master wouldn’t let him have such thoughts if they weren’t supposed to be there, after all. The master knew best.

It wasn’t his job to think about things, but he thought about what Chief Plum said anyway. Was looking at the soap important because she really wanted to know? That didn’t feel right. She kept reminding him about it in a way that felt like it was more about the soap. Maybe he had forgotten about it once, then forgotten he had forgotten. That sounded like a good reason to talk to him about it so much. It would be nice when the soap was ready and he could share it with everyone.

Sometimes some of the master’s friends asked about the soap, too. They talked in ways he couldn’t remember very well. The master had told him that sometimes his friends used special voices that made people feel upset, so he made sure Riaag wasn’t troubled by them. It was so nice to have people looking out for him. Wherever he had been before he came to the tower definitely had not been this way.

He was not surprised when a shadow rose up from the floor while he was cleaning. That just meant he had a visitor. The master’s closest friend sometimes came to see him and sometimes they didn’t. The master was a busy person, so it was more likely that Riaag saw them or Chief Plum if he saw someone who wasn’t the kind of friend who was a guest. He worked with the master’s friends all the time but the master’s closest friend was different. They didn’t need to stay in a cell, for example. Instead of many drapes they wore robes all the time. Riaag had never seen them in anything but.

“Good morning, my lord,” he said as he stacked up some things that had been knocked over.

“Good morning, Hogfoot,” said the master’s friend. “I heard Coral gave you some trouble yesterday.”

Coral? Riaag had to squint until he remembered that they meant the beautiful mermaid. There had been a problem the day before. He’d woken up with bruises but forgot why they were there at first. It hadn’t seemed important. “He wiggled around too much,” he said. “I warned him to be careful but he wouldn’t sit still while I tried to make him look nice. He hurt himself. I did not want that to happen. I’m very sorry.”

“Don’t be, he’s a little shit. I’ve taken away his jewelry privileges until he behaves better. Make sure you don’t bring him any replacements until you’ve been told he’s allowed to wear them again. He’ll sulk and complain. He’ll also live.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Something came to mind. “He told me he knows who you are,” Riaag said. “He said you’re a liar. I told him to not be rude. I think that is why he started to try to slip away. It wasn’t fair. I had almost finished putting his hair up.” He frowned. “I don’t know why he would call you a liar, my lord. That doesn’t sound right. Only His Majesty knows your inside name, doesn’t he? That’s not lying.”

The master’s friend laughed. “That worm might think he knows a thing or two, but don’t let him fool you. He only knows what I’ve led him to believe. For all he knows I have ass’s ears under these robes.”

“What are you like under your hood, my lord?” he asked.

“Whatever I want to be,” said the master’s friend. They laughed to themselves again. This time it sounded like they were in on a joke Riaag hadn’t been told. “His Majesty finds it very convenient, and I find it wise to be seen as convenient, so I’m sure to remind him of it regularly. Remember that, Hogfoot. His Majesty will go to great lengths so long as you’re of value to him.”

This sounded like something that would be good to remember. “How do you remind him that?”

They rubbed their hidden chin slyly. “However I please, since I know where he sleeps. He’s such a creative thinker.” A gloved hand pointed accusingly at Riaag. “Don’t get any ideas about usurpation in that little head of yours, you oafish boar. It’s not even a contest. I’m his lieutenant, not you, not that legless wretch he made the old one into, not anyone else, and I’m not afraid to take the steps necessary to enforce that little truth. Keep that in mind.”

He hadn’t realized the master’s closest friend was that kind of close. It sounded lovely. Everyone deserved a chance to be happy, especially someone who did as much for other people as the master. He smiled. “I’m glad you have each other, my lord,” he said.

“Yes, I suppose you would be.”

That the master’s friend would think so highly of him was an honor. He was so taken by those kind words that barely paid attention to the rest of the day. He did his job and he spoke when he was spoken to. He was an oaf, the master’s friend had said so. That gave him a definite goal with his days. He would try to be the best oaf he could be.

That evening he ate his supper alone, the way he always did. People milled around below in the snow. He was too high up to see them up close, but he knew they were not as well-liked by the master as he was. He thought again about how lucky he was to live in the tower. The master was so kind to give him that chance! If he kept being a good example maybe everyone down there would come live in their own rooms in the tower someday. That was a nice thought he could use to end the day.

That was how it was, now. He did as he was told. He ate what he was given. The sun rose and the sun set. Everything was perfect.

§

“I have an important job for you, Hogfoot,” said the master one day.

Riaag nodded. It was an honor to be given important things to do.

“One of my guests has been, hmm. Difficult? He’s been very difficult. You get along so well with the others, I was thinking maybe you’d have better luck. Every time I try to have a reasonable conversation he makes such a fuss, always going on and on about how his kind are patches in a quilt, not threads in a bolt. I think it’s threads in a bolt? He uses all these metaphors that assume I know a lot about commoners’ work. I keep explaining that’s not knowledge I need to remember and he just keeps doing it. Meanwhile I’m trying to get him to see the bigger picture but it just won’t take. Instead all he does is mess up the room I gave him.”

That did indeed sound difficult. “What should I do, Your Majesty?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Clean up after him. See if you can convince him to behave. Talk to him a little, if you want. You’re such a good example to everyone, surely you’ll be able to do something.”

“I will try.”

He followed the master through the halls in a way that felt different from usual. This didn’t bother him. He’d been told that there were secret rooms in the tower, and it was an honor that the master thought him worthy to see one for himself! Guests were so lucky to be hidden in secret places. They never had to worry about anything bad happening to them that way.

Soon they came to a door with many locks. It opened up when the master touched it, because everything in the tower knew the master was in charge. That was comforting to know. When everyone remembered their place it meant everything worked right. When everything worked right it made Riaag feel happy. He was almost always happy, so that meant all was well. It was so easy. The people who lived at the foot of the tower didn’t know what they were missing.

He followed the master through the door. Inside was another guest room like the ones he cleaned most days. The walls and floor of the cell were covered in marks. They looked like very deep scratches made with many passes by something small. Some of the pets in his care scratched at their walls at times, but this was different. These made patterns out of curves and angles that became a sort of maze. Why would someone scratch a maze into a wall? Who would make such a mess? There were no tools in the cell, so what could they have used? It made no sense.

A man sat cross-legged in the middle of the cell with his back to the door. The skirt around his waist and the shackles all the master’s guests wore were the only things he had on him. His skin was orc green but there were red lines all over it. The red marks made patterns that looked like smaller versions of the scratches on the wall. His hair was shaggy the way hair got when it was cut short and left to grow out again. It was also bright white. Did that mean he was old? The rest of him looked lean and not like an old man at all. Riaag had never seen someone quite like this before. He could see why the master would want to keep such an unusual person as a guest.

“You’re not going to get anywhere with me,” said the man, who did not turn around. His voice was icy. It was a shame he wasn’t smiling. A smile behind that voice would probably make him sound very nice.

“I’m sorry to hear it,” said the master. “I’ve brought a little friend for you today. Maybe that’ll improve that bad attitude of yours some.”

“Don’t bet on it.” The man looked over his right shoulder to glare at the master. When he saw Riaag he froze. He spun around on his knees to face them both, which showed that his left eye was squeezed shut. There was a mark all around it made from two bent lines with his closed eye in the center. The sight made Riaag shiver. He wasn’t afraid of what he saw, so it was odd that he would feel that way. It wasn’t right that this man could make Riaag feel bad without him understanding why. Riaag hoped he hadn’t scared him. A lot of guests were scared the first time they saw him.

The master chuckled. “Not so mouthy now, are you? This is Hogfoot. He’s here to help me convince you to stop being such a prick about everything.” He nudged Riaag in the side and gestured for him to approach the bars. “Well, Hogfoot? Go and say hello.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

Riaag walked closer to the cage so he could get a better look at the man inside it. The stubble all over the man’s chin was the same color as his hair and eyebrows. It was still a ways from being long enough to make a proper beard. It was too thin in some places and too thick in others. It didn’t look good on him at all, but Riaag was not going to tell him this. There was no need to be rude to a guest.

He knelt down so they could see eye to eye. “Hello,” he said. He wondered if this man would have the kind of voice that made Riaag forget it later. He hoped that wouldn’t be so. Even though the man needed to see a barber he was very nice to look at. It gave him the same warm, happy feeling that working in the tower did. That had to be a good sign.

The man pressed as close to the bars as his shackles would let him. “Riaag!” he said in an excited whisper. “You’re actually here! I don’t believe it! Thank every scrap of stardust in His mouth you’re still in one piece!” Those were not the words the master or the master’s friend used. They weren’t words anyone in the tower used at all. Why could Riaag understand them? And why did this strange man know his inside name?

The man continued. “Oh, my wolf, I’ve missed you so much. I’m sorry you have to see me this way.”

How strange. Riaag wasn’t a wolf. The master had been very clear about that, since for some silly reason some people thought he was. This man must have mistaken him for somebody else. Maybe that other person talked the way this one did. A talking wolf sounded like a fine creature to meet.

“I don’t know you,” he said. He didn’t use the man’s words since they sounded like they would taste bad if he said them. The master kept him safe from bad things, and since the master was here it was important to show he knew how to avoid bad things on his own. His job was cleaning, not thinking. It was important that the master know he was worthy to live in the tower now that he wasn’t going to be distracted by lots of silly thoughts.

“Riaag, it’s fine, he doesn’t understand Rhoanish,” said the man. “I don’t know what you’ve told him, but if you want we could share a little of the Chant together before you go back. I’ve gone without the sound of your voice for weeks, it’s been awful.”

Riaag tilted his head. Chant? That sounded like something meant for people much more important than he was. “I don’t think I should do that.”

“Ah, of course. You’re right, you’re right. We probably wouldn’t have the time to do it justice.” The man smiled up at him with hope on his face. “But if that one over there isn’t going to make a stink about it, could you remind me of some of your poetry? Or maybe a little song?”

Now he was just talking nonsense. “I don’t have time for distractions like that,” said Riaag. There was too much to do in a day to spend it making pointless noise. The people in town knew that, even if they didn’t know it well enough to live in the tower. This man must be very special if he could make a mistake like that and still be kept as a guest.

The man jerked backwards in shock. He covered his hand with his mouth. “Oh,” he said. “They’ve cut out your tongue….”

What a thing to say! Riaag’s tongue was where it was supposed to be. No wonder the master had asked him to help if everything that came out of this man’s mouth was a little bit wrong. Sometimes people just got confused. He would try to be patient until the man’s head could get nice and clear like everyone else’s. Distractions could make people act very silly, after all.

The man in the cage stopped talking to him in that strange language and instead leaned his forehead against the bars. Now that he was calming down, that was probably a good sign. There had been too much fight in him when they first came in. Once he was nice and calm he could have a proper conversation with the master, just like a real person.

The master waved Riaag away from the bars, so he took three large steps backwards to give the master plenty of room. If he had been working the way he usually did he would have moved to a new room. This time around the master had asked for him directly, so it felt like he was expected to stay. There wasn’t much he could do just by standing and listening, but the master knew best. Riaag knew not to question requests important people made of him.

“I see you’ve had a chance to chat,” said the master as he took Riaag’s place by the bars. “Is there a problem?”

The man in the cage looked up. His face was very sad. Sadness was another kind of distraction, so that wasn’t any good at all. “He…reminds me of someone I’m very close to.”

“He seemed to understand those nonsense boar-grunts of yours.”

“Of course he did. I’m a god-speaker of Agritakh, He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth, and His favored tongue resonates with all His children. With enough effort I can make myself known to any who can trace their history back to the first Old People to discover His ways. Blood calls to blood. Not that you’ve been paying attention.” That didn’t sound right but Riaag couldn’t figure out why. Whatever a god-speaker was, it seemed like even more of a distraction than ever.

“A god-speaker, you say? Quaint. Is that why you keep wrecking this room I’ve provided for you?”

The man shrugged. “I see nothing wrong with it.”

“You have ruined the walls.” The master waved his hand at the scratches on the other side of the bars. “Look at this! Out of the goodness of my heart I take you in from the cold and give you somewhere to live, and this is how you repay me? Am I to believe that these just sprang up overnight?”

“The Hill God works in mysterious ways,” said the man. He held out his hands to wiggle his fingers. His claws were all neat and tidy. “If I’d done it myself, wouldn’t these be bloody stumps by now?”

“I’m sure you have your ways,” said the master. He pulled up one of the chairs all the rooms had outside their cells. “Come now. I’m a reasonable man, you’re a reasonable creature. We don’t have to keep going around in circles, you know. If you’d cooperate it would make things so much easier for everyone.”

“Cooperate with what? Letting you herd around my own kind? Letting you make people disappear? My contacts know what you did to that scout of the River People, and what you did to her friends. Did you think you could send someone back as a warning and not expect her to talk?”

The master scoffed. “Come now, that was all a misunderstanding.”

“Some misunderstanding!” spat the man in the cage. “She’s a broken woman, now. I hear she can’t even go outside without an escort or the panic takes her. I haven’t seen for myself, because I’m not a ghoul, but those who are close to her talk of strange scars, of bruises that won’t heal no matter how much medicine she’s given. She can barely recount vague things about how they got there, but she remembers watching her comrades be taken apart. She remembers that they did not go slowly. Did she just ‘misunderstand’ that you and yours didn’t really mean to shatter her mind?”

“She was an intruder and my guards are well-trained. Any spy knows the risks their job carries. I can’t exactly let my rivals sneak in and steal my work from under my nose, now can I?”

“Your ‘work’ is not worth shit in a pot. At least the shit can grow a garden.”

Riaag was horrified. What sort of person would accuse the master of such nasty things? The master was good and kind, as he was quick to remind those who worked for him. How could someone good and kind break someone else? It must have been what the master said, all a big mistake. Maybe they would realize where everyone was confused and laugh about it tomorrow.

“Do you even understand what I’m doing here?” asked the master, who brushed off the man’s rude comment. “I’m guessing not, since I’d never heard of you before you showed up on my doorstep. You can’t be that important if I’ve not heard of you while you most clearly have barely even heard of me.”

“You mean to say you’re not enthralling people for fun?” said the man with a curl of his lip.

The master laughed in surprise. “Enthralling? My, my, no, everyone who lives here is free to leave at any time. You make it sound like I keep them all in leg-irons. I’ll have you know that’s the furthest thing imaginable from the truth for most everyone here who doesn’t need accommodations as special as yours. For example: Hogfoot, do you like living here in the tower?”

“Of course, master,” said Riaag. He beamed. It would be nice to remind the master that unlike some people, Riaag was able to appreciate good things.

“And do you ever want to go outside into the snow to find your own food?”

Riaag shook his head. “No, master. It’s so cold. The tower is warm and safe.”

“You see? No coercion whatsoever.” He tossed a key to Riaag, who caught it. “Why don’t you clean up his cage a bit while we talk, Hogfoot? He’s been so surly to anyone else who tries to get close, and I really cannot have my guests living in filth. It reflects badly on my character.”

“Of course, master.”

He unlocked the cage, stepped inside, then passed the key back through the bars. If this man was as much trouble as he seemed to be, Riaag had no proof he wouldn’t try to run. He hoped the man would behave. Chief Plum had told him stories of many ways guests to the tower chose not to behave. Riaag didn’t want to get hurt if something like those happened. It was hard to trust someone who looked so wild and strange.

“You see, I’ve figured out the secret to all the world’s troubles,” said the master. “Everyone is so caught up in things that don’t matter that they blind themselves to the bigger picture. It’s all a matter of unnecessary distractions….” This felt like something that Riaag knew, or maybe something that he didn’t need to know. He focused on sweeping the floor instead. It was amazing how much of the debris on the ground and lodged in the scratches on the walls looked like bits of shed claw-tips.

Riaag tidied up without paying attention until the man interrupted the master again. He kept cleaning after this, but he thought maybe the master would ask him to calm the man down again, so he made himself listen.

“What you want is vile.”

“It’s a goal of peace and cooperation! How could that be vile? I just want people to put aside their differences and do what’s right for themselves, and I can be the one to guide them to such a lovely goal. A tranquil unity is far more valuable than a thousand chaotic minds all clashing together. In this age of suffering, I fail to see how wanting to give that to people is wrong.” The master looked hurt. “You ‘god-speakers,’ as you call yourselves, don’t you want that very ideal?”

The man spat. “What I want is a place where those who love the Hill God can thrive, and where we can bring gifts of craft and word and deed to our neighbors, just as they offer their own gifts to us,” he said. “I want a place where we can explore the wonders of the world without fear. I want a place where the barriers between us are no thinner than paper, still having boundaries in the ways that matter that can still be crossed in an instant when we choose to. I want a place where we can be free from pain of our own creation without turning our backs on who we are.”

“That’s the same thing!”

“It really isn’t.”

Riaag finished sweeping and took up the string-broom he’d brought with him. Some of the scratches had flecks of dried blood in them, not just claw parts, and that might attract bugs if he didn’t clean them up. Like most guest rooms, the tattooed man’s cell had a little fountain in it. It gave Riaag ample water to help make things tidy again. Normally he rinsed out each guest’s food and water bowls when he cleaned, but these both looked untouched. It didn’t make sense to throw away good food. Maybe the man didn’t get hungry until later in his day. That was all right, then.

“I’ve heard tell of the things you make here,” said the man. “It’s sick. It’s sick and it’s wasteful. What value do such things bring to this peaceful unity you want so much?”

The master clapped his hands. “Plenty!” he said. “Every culture in the world has its own little stories about imaginary creatures, dragons and fairies and so forth. Wouldn’t it be delightful if all those fairy tales were real? I can use my knowledge to craft delightful things so people can see them with their own eyes and touch them with their own hands. I can make the fantastic into the factual. It’d bring a sense of wonder to the world it’s sorely missing.”

“You know what else brings a sense of wonder? Letting us live our own fucking lives.”

Riaag had never heard such harsh language. He wanted to tell the master it made his ears burn, but the master seemed untroubled, so Riaag tried to feel the same way. Swearing was just another distraction. If he brought attention to it, it would just mean the man would be more likely to swear again, and that would simply make Riaag even more upset. He busied himself with scrubbing out a really stubborn stain instead.

“I really could use someone like you on my side, you know. I’ve tried uniting everyone with a language of my own invention, but for some people, like poor Hogfoot over there, like yourself, even, it just doesn’t take. That little trick of yours where you can make people understand you no matter what would be quite useful for sad cases like his, you know. Imagine how many others you’d be helping if you only accepted what I’m offering.”

Something flickered across the man’s face. Riaag didn’t know how he knew, but he thought it looked like the man realized he risked being caught in a lie. That didn’t make any sense. Riaag knew no Orcspeak, and he didn’t know the other language the man had used, either, but he could understand the man in the cell just fine. There was no lie there, so why was he worried?

“I’ll have no part in this,” he said.

The master chuckled to himself. “That may not be a choice you get to make,” he said under his breath. He stood up and put the chair back where it belonged. “Hogfoot?” he asked, this time loud enough to be easily heard.

“Yes, Your Majesty?”

“I think we’re done here. Finish up and you may return to your regular duties once you’re done.”

“Of course, Your Majesty.”

Riaag thought it was strange that the tattooed man couldn’t make up his mind between looking at him and averting his eye. Was he shy? The way he had spoke and acted before didn’t seem very shy. Maybe he acted differently because Riaag was closer, and it was the bars that made him bold. That made sense. If the master asked for advice, Riaag would suggest that for next time. Unless it wasn’t safe? It was better not to say anything just in case, he decided.

The master’s closest friend rose up from the ground to stand at his side. They shared a whispered conversation that Riaag couldn’t hear. The master’s friend seemed to want them to leave soon, maybe to talk to the tattooed man in private. Riaag could see no reason not to let this happen. He didn’t want to make trouble, especially not with such a troublesome guest. Instead he put away his tools, waited for the master to let him out of the cell again, and got ready for the rest of his working day.

Someone cleared their throat when they turned to leave. To Riaag’s surprise, it was the man in the cage.

“About this, this Hogfoot…,” said the man. He gestured at Riaag vaguely.

The master raised an eyebrow. “Yes…?”

“Be kind to him. His has been a cruel fate. I’d be a joke of a god-speaker if I didn’t think about the plight of my own people even when I’m halfway to Vulture’s feast table.”

“You and your little superstitions,” chuckled the master. He led Riaag out and away from the room. The master’s friend stayed behind. The door closed on the guest room with a click and then, because the master willed it, it no longer connected there anymore. There would be no more worrying about men with foul mouths and white hair that day, which came to Riaag as a great relief. He hadn’t felt very good around that strange guest at all. Thinking too much about it was distracting, and distractions were the kinds of things that made people make mistakes. If the master needed him to return he would, of course, but until then it was time for him to walk the hall to his next obligation.

§

It was a fine morning on a day before the soap was done and Riaag was cleaning the chambers of the master’s closest friend.

There had been a problem with the beautiful mermaid yesterday. The beautiful mermaid hated to be cleaned, no matter how gentle Riaag tried to be, so he would struggle and yell. Yesterday he struggled so much that his shimmering tail knocked something loose that at first had not looked like it could come away from the wall. Inside there was a little cubby. In that cubby were pieces of jewelry, and some other things. The mermaid shouted at Riaag until the master’s friend came by and took the hidden treasures away. Riaag was told that the mermaid needed to understand the error of his ways, so Riaag would be cleaning other places for a while. He’d proven himself to be very trustworthy. Knowing this made him very proud, so he was careful to do a good job as he passed a dusting rag over things and sharpened the spikes on the lights and doors.

The master’s friend stayed in several rooms all joined together because they were so important. One room had a big table surrounded by chairs and low benches. One room had a place for bathing. One room had a bed in it covered with all sorts of blankets. It was this last room where Riaag spent a lot of his time, since there were plenty of clothes to fold and sheets to turn down. He fluffed up the pillows so they would be nice and soft the next time the master and his friend decided to stay there. Once that was finished, it was time to dust the furniture next to the bed.

He was not sure what to call it, but it looked something like a table with lots of little doors in it and some hinged pieces on the sides to help it close up. There was a clasp at the front which had a lock on it. The lock was not closed, so Riaag knew he was supposed to clean inside it. He whisked his rag over everything. The master’s friend was sure to be so pleased when they came back to see what a good and thorough job he had done.

Part of the furniture in the very back caught his eye. It looked like a painted panel with hinges hidden along one edge so they looked like part of the pattern. Something about it felt important, and if it was important that meant there were important things inside it. If those things were important, he would need to get them extra clean. He rattled the knob and pulled gently until it finally opened for him.

Inside there were many things. Most of them were jewelry. Riaag recognized one of the pieces: a necklace made from beads the same orange-pink as the mermaid’s pretty scales. So this was where the master’s closest friend kept treasures! He was sure to buff and polish each carved bead. It was fortunate that he kept his gloves on to keep from smudging his hard work. When the beautiful mermaid behaved sweetly enough to get his necklace back, he would want it to look as nice as he did, after all.

Riaag polished each piece of jewelry in turn. He had thought he was almost done when he spied yet another hidden thing inside the panel. This one was a dark velvet bag with a texture that made it resemble the grain of the wood in the places where the furniture had not been lacquered. He stroked his beard in thought. This was hidden twice over. Did that mean it was extra hidden, or extra dirty? The master’s closest friend would not have let him in their chambers if they didn’t trust him to make everything nice, so that must mean it would be fine if he kept doing as he had been told. Riaag was happy with that logic. He picked up the bag and gently pulled it down to reveal what it held.

The thing in the bag was long, thin, and made of bright gray metal. One end of it tapered down, but it was not sharp like a needle was. It looked like it was made of silver. Silver liked to tarnish, which would make the odd little wand look bad if the master’s friend wanted to take it somewhere to show people. That wouldn’t do.

Riaag pulled at the tapered tip to better ease the wand from its bag. It slipped from his fingers. He tried again and it slipped again. The metal was too slick for his gloves to hold on to, so he took one off to try again. This time he was able to close his hand around the wand without any trouble at all. It made his skin tingle. He smelled something, too. When was the last time he had smelled something? He did not have time to think about that riddle for long because that was when the pain started.

He felt bad. His mind simply couldn’t imagine a better way to say it than that. Forgotten scabbed-over gashes in his legs and back opened up and began to hurt in addition to the all-over pain that clenched at his teeth and muscles. A fever blazed through his blood. Chills raced across his skin, making him feel cold for the first time in what felt like forever. Points of light drifted in front of his eyes. His thoughts jumbled up and started to trip over each other. He used to have such nice, clear thoughts, but that was not the case anymore. The happy head-feeling that had been his friend for so long faded away and left disorder behind. He was delirious. He was disoriented. He was distracted.

Something around his arm flared to life and he yelped like he’d been burned. He felt like he was going to fall over; sinking to his knees only helped so much. He struggled, but it felt like his body wasn’t under his control anymore. Everything on the other side of his eyes felt like a dream. When he fell the rest of the way over he was fortunate that there were cushions on the ground to pad his collapse.

At some point he’d dropped the wand. He could still feel it against his hand, somehow, like the image of a bright light remaining after closing his eyes. He hoped he hadn’t left any prints on it. Those would simply ruin the finish.

Riaag shivered and sweated in a heap on the floor. He couldn’t move. He was alone with his thoughts, now, and they raged like a swarm of ground hornets stirred up by a hiker’s walking stick. It was deafening. A dark part of him screamed that he’d seen bad things, that he’d helped bad things happen. It said the only way he, or anyone, could be safe would be to tear down the tower, piece by seamless piece, until nothing remained of that blasphemous spire whose influence split the sky and tethered unknown hundreds to its base. It said that he needed to find the root of the evil that festered here and rip it out. It said he did not have to be hurt again. It said he needed to burn it all down.

But if he did that, the master….

The master….

The master was….

The master was no master of his, neither now nor ever, and whatever fealty Riaag had offered was claimed by unjust means.

However long he’d labored under a murky head and muddled thoughts, his purpose returned to him with the clarity of the sun through fresh ice. Riaag was a warrior of tusk and claw, of axe and shield, and the great gentleness within him belonged to those to whom he gave it, not those who snatched at it for themselves without so much as asking. He pressed a hand to his amulet—which had stayed with him all this time in case he needed it, even if the faux happiness that had tangled his brains had kept it dormant for days upon days—and said a quiet, proper prayer that he was blessed to have such curatives in his life. Had it spent its last pulling him back from the brink? He didn’t relish the thought of finding out the hard way, but now that he’d shucked his reins he resigned himself to the reality that he was probably going to have to do exactly that.

What he’d seen and heard while ensorcelled still remained in his head despite the wizard‘s attempts to flush everything out; a herald’s ear, even while dormant, never stopped taking in what happened. At least until recently he’d seen proof that Sarouth still drew breath. This was no longer a guarantee, as who knew what the seneschal had done to him once he and the wizard had left them to their privacy, but once again he took solace in the fact that the avatar of He Who Sleeps was unlikely to pass away without the land itself crying out in grief. Comforting as that was, it still left an awful lot of room for horrible things to happen. He’d seen Sarouth suffer injuries that would have killed a fully mortal person. Riaag remembered, and promptly banished, the sight of Sarouth with a bloody gouge taken out of his side from when he’d won an honor duel in defense of a certain disciple of his. It had healed up by His grace (leaving the pain as a lesson, Sarouth had said, but fully restoring the flesh), but the god-killing blow had still struck true and the robes he’d worn that day had still been ruined. The only moving of the earth they felt back then had been from the swearing of their long-overdue oath.

Sarouth had looked unhurt when they had their half-meeting, but given how god-speakers were remade whole and perfect each time they returned from the Labyrinth that didn’t mean anything. Riaag thought back to the scratches on the wall. They were very far up off the ground—assuming the tower was a place where concepts like “ground” and “up” still held any sway—and given how Sarouth wouldn’t even wear thick-soled shoes because of how they distanced him from the earth he had to be desperate to connect with Agritakh’s divine nature in any way he could. Destroying part of himself in the name of sanctification sounded like something he’d do; the tattoos on his arms hadn’t just appeared one fine day. That the tower flagstones had tasted even a drop of Sarouth’s holy blood was unthinkable. Once they were together again he’d sweep Sarouth of his feet and kiss his fingertips until he knew every agonized memory had been soothed.

It was time to get up off the floor. He sat up and braced for nausea. None came, and once again he thanked the single white hair strung through the core of his amulet for everything it did for him. He stood up and stretched with caution. He needed a change of clothes, a long swim in a deep pond, and what would probably be several hours with a brush. Lacking these, he used the seneschal’s standing mirror to shape up as best he could. Looking too nice would be suspicious. Looking just a little bit nicer with clear signs that a silly little valet had tried to make himself fancy in the shadow of his so-called betters, however, would fit the narrative he’d accidentally started crafting for himself during his cleaning efforts. A quick, sloppy waterfall braid would be good enough to keep his hair out of his face for the time being. The cowlick in the back still curled its way out of whatever he did to it. Between that and the fucked-up teeth, at least he knew it was his own reflection looking back at him.

He looked over the cache of jewelry with fresh eyes in search of familiar pieces, but none of them looked to belong to Sarouth. Damnation. He focused his thoughts (which felt good to be able to do again without something trying to push them down and out of sight again) and walked himself through the logic one step at a time: Sarouth had been stripped of what he’d worn during his nighttime visit to Riaag’s cell, and the wizard (Riaag felt befouled for having ever thought of him as anything grander) was a peacock of a man who seemed to collect all sorts of things that weren’t his, so since Sarouth’s things weren’t hidden among the seneschal’s possessions they were likely kept in the wizard‘s own quarters. His lip rose in an unbidden snarl as he thought of that nasty piece of work slipping on one of Sarouth’s bracelets or attempting to wear something emblazoned with Sarouth’s clan pattern. How many of the things the wizard wore had been stripped from past prisoners? It was possible he was simply a man of means, whether earned or inherited, stolen or found, and he’d traded his way to that scabbard-locked sword or the pendant with the big red gem. If that was the case, there was less reason to leave people freezing in the town below.

The wizard had said something about going stargazing that night from his quarters perched atop the tower’s summit. It would be risky, but Riaag was fast approaching the point where risks were the only options he had. The seneschal was supposedly going to be out of town on an errand; Riaag didn’t trust this claim, but if he had the wand and they didn’t that evened the odds a touch. It wasn’t like his foes had everything on their side: The wizard was a master of lies and a weaver of nightmares, and at best he weighed in at a fifth of Riaag’s mass. If Riaag could save the entire valley with a well-timed flying tackle, then with Agritakh as his witness he would do his damnedest to execute a motherfucking tackle.

He wrapped up the wand in some dirty shirts—Riaag had always been keen on laundry duty, even if he still didn’t have the supplies he needed to do a proper job of it—and went about his business of cleaning. Things could be moved around so long as he’d obviously been dusting or polishing them; after his first pass he went out of his way to move more things, creating a scene subtly different from how it had been before in dozens of tiny ways. If they thought he was brainless then he would leave a scene that reflected that. How silly that the big, hairy orc tried on a hair comb! How ridiculous! What fun! They could go fuck themselves; if no one claimed the jade comb with the long-tailed birds and glazed ceramic inlay, that one was going home in his saddlebags.

Speaking of saddlebags, what were the horses up to? Karsta listened to its master, more or less, but Stupid Horse had approached him with murder in its animal heart since day one, and a month apart was unlikely to change its mind. He was probably going to have to get a new one at this rate. It felt like such a waste of meat, riding instead of eating, but Sarouth wanted them to be a shining example of trying new things without transgressing against the Chant, and so Riaag learned how to clamber up into a saddle and not fall off while his balls slowly turned themselves into so much chutney. He sighed. Hoping he’d see Stupid Horse again felt traitorous to think, but it was either that or walking, and Naar Rhoan was a long way away.

Riaag finished his actual chores soon enough and made to return to his quarters. He kept the shirts held against his stomach, just close enough to keep the bag concealed and just far enough to avoid suspicion. Sheer bad timing had seen him visit his other charges before tending to the seneschal’s suite; it would look suspicious if he went back to check on Ayyisha if he’d already made a habit of never doing so, Coral was still being punished for the crime of wanting his own necklace back, and the various remade animals were unlikely to be good for conversation. He didn’t dare go exploring. He could play the fool and play off a lot of things, but Riaag doubted that even he could spin a story explaining why he carried a thing designed to bring pain bundled up in someone else’s laundry.

Doubt crept in as he paced down the hallway. Was this the right time to act? Most of the Leopard’s Breath Company was still missing, he’d yet to find what remained of the Usoan spies that had died here, and then there was the matter of the people who lived below the tower who only thrived because the wizard wished it so. A single touch of the wand had agitated his wounds from the goblin tiger again. There was not enough food here to feed everyone until spring, and who knew if the fountains would still flow once their master fell. Then again, trying to sort out hundreds of starving people was a problem with a solution, while a maniac sending an army rampaging across the land in a quest for brutal unity was a bit harder to take care of once that actually became a thing. Riaag knew which of those odds made the more comfortable bet.

An amulet could keep the Orcspeak out, and an Agritakh-ruhd’s holy nature kept them similarly inoculated, and there were not enough of the latter to create enough of the former to help everyone in time. If the Orcspeak had already gotten into their heads, was the only way to get it out again to hurt them with the wand? What if they were sick, or old? What if they were children? No! He wouldn’t allow it. He needed to do right by these people he’d never met because that was what decent people did.

Footsteps came from around a bend that hadn’t previously been there. Riaag tried not to tense up, as nothing looked more suspicious than someone afraid to rouse suspicion, but he only fully felt the muscles in his jaw relax when he realized it was Plum who was heading towards him.

“How’s the soap coming along, Hogfoot?” she asked in passing.

“Reckon it’s comin’ up sooner than later,” he answered in Kaziric.

She paused in her tracks and clearly had to struggle not to drop the serving tray she held. “I take it you’re feeling a little different from how you were this morning,” she said, not changing what she spoke.

“You could say that.” He glanced up and down the hallway for any of the unseen walkers he kept hearing throughout the day. Seeing none, he continued. “I ain’t gonna share more than that at this moment in time. I’s in possession of a plan what I intends ter enact forthwith.” He thought of everything that might happen to the tower once the wizard died, up to and including it collapsing beneath his feet and taking everyone inside down with it. Saving one person was better than saving nobody at all. “Might be worth it ter ensure yer affairs is in order soon. I’d suggest findin’ somewhere in town ter be afore the morn.”

“I’ll…do that,” she said. She bit at the patch of lip next to her broken tusk. “So, Hogfoot, one last question before I leave you to your work…?”

Riaag nodded to her. “I’s all ears, Chief Plum.”

“How do you know when that soap of yours is ready?”

“Texture. Smell. Stops losin’ weight from day ter day. Also it don’t fucken burn yer skin off, that’s the big one.”

Plum laughed like she hadn’t expected a real answer. “Your eye for detail is impressive.”

“I’s right punctilious when I wants ter be.”

“Indeed. I’ll be seeing you, Hogfoot. Hope that laundry doesn’t give you too much trouble.”

“You ‘n me both.”

It was a simple conversation, barely more than the sort of thing two farmers would share during a rest from working the fields, and yet it shook off the last lingering concerns he had. He would wait until after the evening fires died down and then see about paying a little visit upstairs. If he didn’t act now he didn’t know who’d still be able to act next time, if anyone even could. They didn’t have the luxury of waiting for a better moment. Riaag had only the slightest chance that he could return Plum to her band, or Ayyisha to her comrades, or the Usoans to their village, or Sarouth to his side, but that chance was enough.

The lord of the tower was a wizard, nothing more and nothing less, and the wizard was going to die.

§

The rest of Riaag’s day passed without incident. He was careful to clean the seneschal’s clothes as nicely as he could and returned them to their chambers promptly, though he made sure to stow the wand away in the stuffing of his mattress well before then. So long as he kept it wrapped up in something it would be safe. His gloves might have put enough space between his skin and the metal to handle it safely, but Riaag held on to a rougher washing rag just in case. The last thing he needed was the damn thing slipping out of his grasp like a fish during the coming showdown.

He ate his dinner the same as always. Thoughts of Sarouth drifted through his head, and of Sarouth’s untouched food. How long had he been protesting that way? Sarouth ate things cooked by people other than Riaag all the time, but maybe he drew the line at self-replenishing porridge. It was a wonder he’d been as eloquent as he was when Riaag had been taken to see him. Maybe he was running on pure spite by now. It would certainly be in character for him. They were going to have words about that when Riaag rescued him, and then he’d make the biggest, most ridiculous platter of food imaginable to help make up for lost time. If the message ended up mixed they’d just have to sort it out from there.

Riaag reviewed his plans. If he wasn’t so pressed for time he would have tried to gather some allies, perhaps spring Ayyisha from her bonds or find a wheelbarrow or something to transport Coral, but not only was he short on the time to do so, he had no idea whether or not anyone other than Plum was in good enough condition to follow him, and Plum herself might well have already snuck out into town after finishing her own duties. As it was it was just him and the wand against the world. What he’d do with said wand, he decided, was to wrap it up and keep it under his coat where his belt could pin it against his inner layers. He’d need to position it carefully so its shape wasn’t obvious against his side. With the wand properly secured he’d wait until after the tower interior finished burning itself clean for the night, then make his way to the wizard‘s lair. He’d yet to find a lock his key refused to open, so maybe fortune would be with him and he’d be able to sneak in the main door. If that proved impossible, he’d find his way back to the seneschal’s quarters and see where the windows chose to be that day. Maybe he’d climb the rest of the way or something. Riaag was willing to ignore his distaste for involved climbing if it got him closer to his goal.

He’d confront the wizard during his little star-watching session and close the distance between them before his opponent could do anything. He’d chased down heretic priests before and knew how much trouble they could be at a distance; if he got in close he’d be able to negate that factor, to say nothing of putting mortal flesh within range of the wand. The wand’s pain had outright incapacitated Riaag, whose tolerance for pain had grown gently over time like a strand of ivy, so what would it do to someone who seemed sworn to the path of least resistance? Even if it worked on merchants differently than it did on orcs, he could still hope for a brief stunned period. When Riaag was involved, a stunned foe was as good as dead. If the tower fell apart the instant the wizard died, Riaag would accept his passing with all stoicism. Even the worst consequences would come to pass in a world safe from that awful man’s machinations.

Riaag looked out over the snowy town. In the moonlight, and from such a great height, it looked halfway nice. There were bones there. Shitty brittle half-hollow ones, maybe, but bones nonetheless. If the tower fell then the orcs who lived below it could use scrap from it to make those rude little dwellings into something better for themselves. There was a dense forest around them, so there’d be something out in the trees to eat if there were hunters and collectors willing to go far enough. Several bands were probably willing to leave entirely, which would further reduce the strain on everyone. It’d be a hard winter, that was for certain. Hard was not the same as impossible. He’d take what he could get.

The braziers guttered in the particular way they did when there were only five minutes to go before the night’s fires. Riaag spent his time in silent prayer, knowing well that this may be his last chance to get right with Agritakh before he fell away from His grace forever. Would there be anyone waiting to sing him home, now that Sarouth counted him as kin? He doubted it. The best he could do was hope he’d leave behind a ghost that could be easily exorcised. That didn’t seem like too much to ask, given how he was a cleansed and pious man and all.

The braziers guttered again, this time in the pattern that said there was a minute remaining. The stars were hidden by the clouds that night, he noticed, save for a few holes where the sky peeked through. It had been this way for the past week. Was this really good stargazing weather? The wizard being who he was, he presumably could manipulate that if he so chose; he wouldn’t talk so glowingly about something he had no intention of following through on unless it was related to somebody else’s well-being. Riaag had to trust what he knew.

Something scratched at his door. He almost didn’t hear it above the steady pulse of the braziers as they counted down the remaining seconds. If it was some poor animal that got out that was a shame, since there was not enough time to unlock everything and coax the creature inside before the flames came. That the radiant heat didn’t roast Riaag in his room every time the fire rose up was further testament to the unreal nature of the tower itself. He supposed he’d never know what was there, since not even ashes were left after things cooled down once more, so—

“Riaag? Are you in there?” said a familiar voice on the other side of the door.

Heedless of the risk, Riaag threw the locks with such speed he risked wrenching them from their housing entirely. Sarouth’s battered form half-fell into the room. Riaag seized him and pulled him all the way inside before shutting the door with a boom; given how mere moments later the hallway filled with the roar of fire, he hadn’t been a moment too soon. He cradled Sarouth against his chest. He wanted to be angry—they’d almost seen the fate of an entire stronghold burnt to a crisp!—but he just couldn’t find it in himself to be. Instead he held Sarouth tightly and kissed the top of his short-shorn head, which was painful to see with his newly-clear vision. How dare these people do such a terrible thing so casually to someone so important.

Tears welled up in Riaag’s eyes. He was angry, he was sad, he was relieved, he was his usual state of being a few steps away from weeping at all times. Sarouth was here. He was here, and while he looked a fright, he was alive. If the two of them confronted the lord of the tower together, maybe they’d come out of this okay. The strength of their union was far greater than the sum of its parts.

“I missed you too,” said Sarouth with a weary smile. How refreshing it was to hear Rhoanish again, and this time through ears that could appreciate it! “Listen to me,” he continued. “I heard someone say these fires will burn for a while, so once they die down we’ll need to be quick.”

“Quick how, Holy One?” asked Riaag. His mouth needed to praise Sarouth even though they were alone. A mere month on his own had left cracks in his soul he never knew were there until he was reminded of all the pleasures he usually enjoyed back at the stronghold.

Sarouth let that one slide. His left eye stayed squeezed shut—based on the subtle way it darted beneath his lid it hadn’t been cut out, and thank He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth for that—as he held Riaag’s gaze with his own. “It’s him, that asshole with the fancy sword and fancier necklace. He’s going to do something if we don’t come back with help. We need to get back home. We’ll round up some warriors, ask the neighbors, maybe see if anyone unblooded feels like grabbing a pointy stick, and we have to get back here with as many people as we can if we want to stand a chance. If we don’t retaliate, and soon, he’s going to lay waste to everyone in the valley.”

“I’s aware. That’s why I’s gonna ascend this fucken thing ‘n kick him right in the dick.”

An amused half-smile found its way through Sarouth’s mask of weariness. “That’s very forward of you, my wolf.”

“Reckon it’s the only way ter handle someone so thoroughly back’ards.”

“Normally I’d agree with you, but you don’t understand just how strong he is. We can’t do this ourselves. But if you’ll come with me, the two of us together can bring enough people to stop him.” He rested a hand against Riaag’s chest. There were faint marks around his wrist where his shackles had been, but a god-speaker’s vitality refused to give something as petty as a friction burn enough time to become permanent. “He’ll be tied up with watching his little star show tonight. He’ll be distracted. We can escape if we hurry once it’s safe to leave the room again.”

Riaag’s eyes stung. It’d probably been too long since he’d had a proper rip-snorter of a breakdown, so it was no surprise he was due. “Once he sees we’s gone he’s gonna hurt so many people. He’s gonna think they helped us.”

“We can pray for them together once we make it as far out from here as we can. The sooner we leave, the more people we can save. Please, Riaag, you have to understand where I’m coming from with this.”

“Cain’t we go back fer Ayyisha? She’s so fucken old, ‘n she’s gotten so bad since we last done seen her. If she has her ball with her she can help us with—”

“We don’t have time for that,” said Sarouth. His eyes kept darting towards the braziers, which had yet to signal the all-clear. The sound of the fire was a gentle roar through the wall. “Who knows where that spooky fucker in the hood is? He could show up anywhere if we give him the time to. You’ve seen him do it.”

That was true, and the seneschal did seem prone to surprise checks throughout the day. Riaag hadn’t understood it at the time but he’d returned to having his room obviously tossed a time or two. Whoever was responsible had left his soap alone, so that had been enough for him at the time. He’d actually hidden the wand based around what search patterns he’d already seen. If he left it where it was, would it be safe? Would some other cleaner who didn’t know better stick their hand in there and get the shock of their lives? He couldn’t exactly take the wand with him, but now that it was out of the seneschal’s quarters he couldn’t think of anything they could safely do with it. Bringing it back to Naar Rhoan was out of the question.

A tear rolled down Riaag’s cheek, soon joined by more. He’d thought he’d planned so well for this! If they’d just come with a legion of people willing to fight the first time around, maybe they wouldn’t have wasted an entire month stuck in the mud. Of course, if they’d done that, they would’ve ended up hurting the Orcspeak-addled people who’d been told not to leave town, and those people hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d been in Usoa when bandits had struck it and he remembered how they’d moved like a tide through the village. The Rhoanish had no business bringing that sight to anyone who’d simply made the mistake of coming to see what that big white thing in the distance was supposed to be.

“Riaag,” said Sarouth.

Riaag didn’t reply. The problem with having a clearer head was that it was easier to get lost in it. He could already imagine how badly things were going to go. They were just normal people! What could they do against someone who could reach inside someone else and pull out a goblin tiger? So many people were going to die no matter what he did and it was all his fault.

“Riaag, please. The halls are going to be cold again any second now. We don’t have time for this.”

Forming words was an enormous effort all of a sudden. He snorted mightily and tried to talk with a quivering jaw. “I cain’t. I cain’t. I’s, I’s, I’s stuck….” There, he’d managed to say it. Sarouth understood what happened when Riaag got stuck like this. Almost ten years of managing Riaag’s broken head and flagging heart had left Sarouth with plenty of experience in figuring out how to get his oathbound’s emotional state back in from the pasture again. What amulets couldn’t always finish, Sarouth usually could.

Sarouth placed his hands on either side of Riaag’s face and looked up at him with pained kindness. “Then please, my wolf,” he said in his sweet, smoky voice. “You need to get un-stuck. You can’t keep crying those tears or they’re going to—”

Going to what, Riaag would never really know, because at those words his arm moved almost on its own to catch Sarouth full in the throat and slam him with great force into the wall. Sarouth cried out in pain. Even after the initial impact Riaag held him pinned well off the ground, leaving Sarouth’s bare toes to kick at the air once he recovered from being stunned. They were maybe half a head apart in height when standing next to each other; this was far from how things usually went during those pleasant moments when Riaag had means to tilt his head up towards Sarouth’s loving face.

“Why?” he croaked. The stubble on his neck was prickly even through Riaag’s glove.

“Who the fuck is you?” growled Riaag.

Sarouth tried in vain to push Riaag’s hand away. “What?” He struggled and choked. Tears of his own welled up in his eyes as Riaag’s fingers closed ever-tighter around his swan-slender windpipe. “Please, s-stop…,” he said, his breathing labored. “You’re hurting me….”

“That’s the fucken point,” said Riaag, who pulled him away from the wall just enough to slam him back against it once more. The sound was dulled by the steady drone of magical fire. “I’s known Sarouth White-Hair since he saved my fool ass from a life ‘a misery ‘n great woe, and you, motherfucker? You. Ain’t. Him.” With each of these last words he struck the wall again. He was probably going to end up with bloody knuckles from this, but a little bloodshed in the name of a greater cause never hurt for very long. It was better than slowing down and letting himself get terrified of what he was actually doing.

“How…did you know…?” gasped the thing in Sarouth’s skin.

“You really wanna know?” Riaag leaned in close, his tusks bared and his snaggle teeth mere inches from the impostor’s ear. He let the favor of Wolf move through him and escape his lips in the form of a primal snarl. Who was there to hear it? The halls were ablaze. “You look like him. You talk like him. You even moves like he does. But long as I’s known him, long as he’s had me, ever since he done pulled me up from nothin’ ‘n told me I had the Hill-God-given right ter stand on my own two feet, he ain’t never fucken told me not ter cry.

A smile that was not Sarouth’s spread over the impostor’s face. “I’m impressed,” he (was it a he?) said, his voice raspy from its repeated punishment but still capable of perfect Rhoanish. He adjusted how he hung in a way bodies usually did not move. While imperfect, his following words were more in control. “When I steal someone’s face I usually take more than enough of them to fool even those closest to them. Even His Majesty isn’t immune. Not that it’s hard to convince him he wants something if you know how his mind works. He still thinks making Coral into that was entirely his own idea.”

Was everything—the tower, Orcspeak, everyone who’d gone missing, the wizard‘s wild plans, everything—all just the result of a fucking power play? Was it true that he’d lost a month of his life, and plenty of people had lost their lives, period, because someone needed to feel a little more important for a while? Riaag was nearly incandescent. “You did all this?”

The unmasked seneschal sputtered a laugh. “What? No! He came up with everything on his own. I simply…helped things along. I couldn’t have done anything without him.”

“Why come ter me, then?”

This earned him another pained laugh. “Do you think I’m a fool? I’d heard tell of a stronghold to the north run by two orcs, one bright and one dark, the bright one as slender as the dark one is broad. They call the bright one a holy man among their people. Your kind does so love its clergy. Once we had both of you it was easy for me to figure out the rest.”

“So how’d you plan fer me not to find out the truth? How’d you make yerself look like such a fine match? Fuck’s sake, you even knew not ter make his ink matched what I last saw on him.”

“A skin-thief never tells,” said the seneschal with a smile.

What was someone expected to do when presented with one of their greatest fears? Riaag had heard stories of such creatures since he’d been a boy, the older children making sure he overheard their scary tale-telling because they knew such things frightened him. Ask three bands about skin-thieves and you’d get four answers, but everyone knew they did what their name implied. Some people said if one took your face away you’d wander forever, unable to show it to Agritakh, and ultimately doomed to die of starvation without a mouth to eat. Others said a skin-thief would peel you like a piece of fruit, leaving only steaming meat behind. They hurt people, however they did it, and even though this one spoke about impersonating the very much alive Coral, who knew if that had taken the same effort as a near-perfect mimicry of Sarouth?

A curl of something fell away from the skin-thief’s arm where their no longer short-filed claws had cut themselves during their initial struggle. The scrap fell to the ground like a little bit of leather, but no animal hide Riaag knew had a verdant tinge when tanned, nor did any beast naturally bear those familiar traces of red ink. Only through sheer force of will was he able to avoid being sick on the spot.

“You skinned him?”

Their borrowed eyes went wide with panic as Riaag’s grip tightened in a way their previous adjustment did little to ameliorate. “Only a little! He was always fine the next day!”

Riaag thought back to how hopeless Sarouth had looked as the door closed between them, Riaag having merrily left him to the mercy of this wretched creature. Riaag was supposed to keep him safe. Riaag was going to have to fix that. He slammed the skin-thief into the wall again. “Let’s play us a game, then,” he said. He ground his thumb-claw into the side of the seneschal’s neck. “If’n you steals a god-speaker’s face, does you get the rest ‘a his divine flesh with it?”

They glanced up at the braziers. It was no use; Riaag had been keeping time in his head and knew he still had a ways longer before the hall was safe again. What had started out as something to do was coming in rather convenient. He flexed the fingers on his free hand, popped his knuckles against his thumb, and then let his left hand join the right in strangling the life out of the seneschal once and for all.

“You’re being unreasonable,” they croaked, just before he began to increase the pressure in earnest.

“Reason ain’t got shit ter do with this.”

“His Majesty…will know…what you’ve done…!”

“Good.”

When he closed his eyes he didn’t have to watch, even though he could still hear and feel what was happening. Even knowing it was someone else with Sarouth’s face, the thought of watching something bad happen to those gentle yellow eyes and that mischievous overbitten smile was unbearable; in the dark Riaag could focus on what needed to be done. It didn’t matter how much they struggled because they would not be getting away. Cartilage and bone alike crunched beneath his hands. He heard a gurgle. Something warm (possibly spittle, probably not) dripped on his gloves and spread along the fabric. He kept squeezing long after the fighting stopped, then felt for a place to brace himself and pulled something free from something else. A leathery scrap of something (he was not going to think about that) brushed against his sleeve, then a gobbet of something plopped to the ground. One final wrench was enough to finish the job, not unlike pulling at a loose string to unravel an entire garment. Everything fell apart. He kept a tight grip on the part he still held until he felt the last wet piece slap against the floor between his boots.

When he opened his eyes again the only thing remaining of the seneschal was a pile of blue-black meat that was impossible to mistake for a person. A few leftover strips of borrowed skin, preserved for the seneschal’s dark purposes, lay among the mess. Riaag grimaced. He’d never know what the seneschal actually looked like beneath their robes now, assuming there was anything there at all. It didn’t matter. He’d seen what they’d wanted to show him and that was enough. It was a shame opening the door into the fire would have barbecued him thanks to fire’s greediness for air; as it was he’d have to simply hope they stayed dead, or at least stayed dead long enough for him to be gone by the time they came to. Perhaps it was a good thing he couldn’t smell anything because he suspected the scent of trouble-colored offal would hardly be a treat for the nostrils.

The corridor finally went cold and silent. No footsteps came to investigate nor did he hear any cries of dismay at some unknown safeguard revealing the seneschal’s fate. He wiped his hands on his shirt—he was going to have to have Sarouth say some rites over the thing before throwing it away once all this was over—and retrieved the wand and its protective rag to hide beneath his clothes. A ten-count passed with no suspicious noises, then a second. There was no use in stalling any longer than he had, so at the end of the third counted set he pushed open the door and stepped, at long last, into the hallway. There was work to be done.

§

The longer Riaag had thought about the wizard and how he operated, the more he’d doubted the tower had any real safeguards beyond the obvious, but there was only one way to find out for sure. He let his feet guide him; at first this trip through the tower looked much like any other trek through its impossible corridors, but soon enough he stood before a set of double doors covered in the ugliest decorative gilding he’d ever seen. This was, no question, the wizard‘s inner sanctum. To think any old asshole could have made it this far if they’d simply concentrated hard enough! It was certainly convenient for assassination attempts, but Riaag was a problem-solver at heart and a person-protector by trade, and the sloppiness stuck in his craw. If he wasn’t planning on murdering the wizard he would’ve wanted to sit the man down and have a long, involved talk about the importance of attention to detail.

Not only were the doors ugly, they accepted Riaag’s key without so much as a hint of resistance. They didn’t creak at all when he pushed one open to peek inside. Why even have magical keys if you weren’t going to be more careful with who had them? Was that talk about them only letting him where he was permitted to be all for show? Was everyone that secure that the wizard would go unchallenged by those in his thrall? Much like the seneschal’s quarters it looked like the wizard maintained a personal suite. Riaag crept into the receiving room and closed the door behind him, one hand pressed against the cleaning rag that was all that stood between himself and a really horrible time of it. He heard voices from what sounded like above. Keeping his tread as quiet as he could with gore-splattered boots, Riaag padded towards the next room.

A little spiral staircase twirled up through the ceiling of the central chamber. The way it was set up it looked like it would come out on either a higher floor or a balcony. Riaag tried to sniff for the wind but the tower air remained as still, cool, and scentless as always. If the upper floor was open to the sky, would he risk falling off if he charged and slipped? He heard the muffled sound of Sarouth’s voice from somewhere at the top of the stairs and let it fill him with renewed purpose. Step by step he made his way to whatever lay near the top of the tower.

It was hard to say whether the upper floor was a balcony, an extra floor, or something else. Riaag had seen an observatory before, and this looked nothing like that. There were no viewing tools or maps of far places to study, as Riaag had assumed most observatories kept, nor pictures of natural things seen from such a great height. Not that the room seemed well-suited to appreciating the movements of clouds and birds, as the pillars banding the walls had something off about their detailing while the windows between them were clogged with the obligatory ugly ironwork. Comfortable-looking furniture lay strewn about the room, a low table loaded down with food and a carafe of wine set up next to one of them; the wizard sat here, and on the divan across from him, shackled at both wrists and ankles, sat a very disheveled Sarouth.

Riaag had known that Sarouth had been done a great unkindness during his stay in the tower, but there was a difference between remembering what a dull-eyed hull of himself had noticed and actually seeing it in person. Sarouth looked awful. He was gaunt, like he’d been fasting too much, and the normally rich blue-backed green of his skin was dull save for a few patches of flesh around the denser clusters of his tattoos that looked conspicuously fresher than the rest. The scraps he wore around his waist were no substitute for his usual robes and jewelry, and while usually he could look magnificent in little more than a washrag, this time around he couldn’t quite hide that he’d been kept in a cell for the better part of a month. White stubble covered his chin. Worst of all was his hair, the source of his own name, and how it had clearly been cut almost completely off at some point; the wild dandelion tuft that had grown back in since then was as uneven as it was unkempt. It made him look unloved. It was a perfect insult, robbing him of his namesake, his dignity, and his connection to his band in one fell swoop. Riaag had to stop for a moment and force himself not to focus on old memories of a knife pulling across his own scalp even as his heart hammered in panic. That was done, that had happened. He could break down later. Sarouth needed him now.

Neither of them had noticed Riaag yet, so he pulled the wand free, peeled away as much of the fabric as he dared, and crept behind a free-standing pillar to listen to what was clearly an ongoing conversation.

“You still haven’t explained why you dragged me from my cozy prison,” said Sarouth. “Is it just to gloat? Maybe say a little speech you’ve prepared? You really ought not to do that, you know. It’s unlucky.” Sarouth was so prone to declaring this rock formation or that growth of junipers fortunate Riaag had almost forgot that he kept track of the inverse kind of portents, as well.

“I’m trying to be courteous, here,” said the wizard, who clearly had not offered Sarouth so much as a bite of bread or drop of wine. Were those swirls of color shot through both a sign of rare spices? A modest amount of spice passed to the right hands could’ve yielded enough simple food to fill half the town’s bellies for a fortnight, yet here he was, giving the people under him barely more than chewable air while he feasted on delicacies from across the land. What an asshole.

“Courteous would be to take these irons off me.”

“I said courteous, not stupid,” said the wizard around another sip of wine. “You’re angry with me and have shown me no proof you wouldn’t be aggressive towards my person the moment you could move around a little more freely. I brought you up here as part of one final attempt to make you see reason, not because I wanted to risk life and limb.” He popped a grape in his mouth as casually as if they’d been discussing interesting plants they saw lately. “Besides, I have someone doing some specialty work for me who might need access to that disaster you’ve made of your guest room. We couldn’t be having them see you in there and ruin the surprise.”

Sarouth tossed his head in a way that’d flip his forelock back when his hair was longer. “I think you’re underestimating Riaag,” he said.

“Riaag? Is that what you call him? I like Hogfoot better, much more dignified. Whoever he is, he’s been accounted for. Your man is already heading back to your home warren with someone he thinks is you, right down to the last chin whisker. They’ll rouse up your people and bring them here. That’ll give me enough manpower to unite the rest of the little tribes that live around here. Then I’ll have all the parts I need.”

Sarouth narrowed his eyes. “Parts for what?”

The wizard shrugged. “Just a bit of extra security. I learned back home that people are so quick to unfairly judge forward-thinkers, so I want to make sure I have the muscle to back up my actions. I’ve had good luck commanding the town’s warriors to sack the countryside for extra supplies, but imagine what I could do if I combined my wonderful goals with that simple force of arms? I know all about how to rearrange things into more useful shapes, and I’ve almost figured out how to tap into your kind’s intense force of will to overcome the limits I’ve had with different materials. Imagine, a sea of savage green faces with banners lifted high, peppered with fantastic beasts of my own creation! Why rely on your little clans when I can give you all the family you need? If I merge a few volunteers together they’ll never be lonely again. Infinitely less distracting.”

“You are a monster.”

“No, quite the opposite. But once I have enough flesh and bone, you can be. The fighters can join my army of orcs to lay waste to all who defy me, and those who I deem unfit can become ingredients for my beautiful hand-made dragon, which will keep the peace over what remains.” He chuckled to himself like he remembered a good joke. “You said you’d have no part in this? I disagree. I think I’ll use you for the head.”

The wizard stood, drew his sword, and made for where Sarouth was furiously trying to scoot backwards despite his bonds. If Riaag had been waiting for a sign, there would be few clearer. He rounded the column and charged, shoulder-first, into the wizard‘s much smaller frame, sending them both crashing to the many-carpeted floor. The sword tumbled out of reach of either of them.

“Riaag!” cried Sarouth. He sounded happy to see him, which was the nicest thing Riaag had heard in quite some time.

Riaag didn’t reply to him, instead struggling to keep the wizard pinned beneath several hundred pounds of angry warrior-poet. He flipped the wand around in his hand and drove it into the wizard‘s side; if just touching the thing had been painful enough, then really jamming it into the meat of somebody sounded like a good way to force them into shock. Riaag could handle the rest from there. If the tower crumbled with its master’s passing, at least this way he could hold Sarouth one more time as they waited for the end.

What he did not expect was for some unseen force to blast into him with a kick like a mule. It flipped him off the wizard and threw him against the wall, pinning him in place as easily as a kitten might hold a moth. Riaag couldn’t help but note the irony of this outcome, especially with his boots still damp with ichor. He tried to flail but found he couldn’t move. Had he broken his neck without noticing? Had he lost the use of all his limbs at once? That was no good, he needed those for chores. Much to his horror, he found he couldn’t blink, and even drawing a shallow breath was a struggle. He could feel his amulet stutter and flare as it tried to protect him, but he’d been wearing it too long, and in too bad a shape, with too severe a recent incident for it to still have its full potency. It had done the best job that it could do for weeks longer than his usual amulets lasted. He couldn’t ask for much more than that.

The wizard righted himself and ran a hand through his hair. He tutted. “Really, now, Hogfoot, I thought you were better than this,” he said. He had the gall to sound legitimately disappointed. “Did you really think I could be hurt by something of my own design?” He held up the wand and pressed at either end with his bare fingers. It collapsed in on itself and sprang back out as soon as he moved his fingers apart again. It didn’t appear to actually touch him, even if there was only a hair’s breadth of space between his skin and the metal. “The first thing a wondersmith such as myself learns to do is to always include safeguards in their work.”

Given how Riaag hadn’t had any trouble making his way there despite the tower (supposedly) never leading anywhere it didn’t want to and his key (equally supposedly) wouldn’t let him anywhere he wasn’t meant to be, he strongly doubted that. And seriously, wondersmith? Had he been able to move them he would’ve rolled his eyes at how twee that was. Surely there were better words in the wizard‘s language than that. Surely there were better words in most languages.

With a wave of his hand the wizard released the stranglehold on Riaag’s chest, which didn’t let him move any more than he’d been able to before but at least let him gasp for air. “So much for drama,” said the wizard. He put the wand down next to his wine and fished his blade out of the nest of pillows where it’d landed. Sword in hand, he struck a ferocious pose in Sarouth’s general direction. Riaag could spot a score of flaws in his form, but even a thousand flaws wouldn’t have mattered if neither he nor Sarouth could actually defend themselves. “Well? Your hero lies defeated and your little traditions have done nothing to free you from your fetters. I’d say all your scrabbling at the walls has done nothing to reunite you with your precious dirt-daemon. What do you think?”

Sarouth spat defiantly. “I think you are a fool. My god is with me always, as is the sharpness of His teeth.” He scraped his claws awkwardly through the silken top of a cushion clenched between his knees. Rummaging around in a wad of stuffing was cumbersome enough with free hands, so how Sarouth managed to do so with shackles on his wrists was anyone’s guess, but his destruction of the furnishings made sense when he pulled forth a flanged mace of black metal all set with red, lacquer-like patterns. Artifacts had a habit of getting where they wanted to be no matter how improbable the locale. Every time Sarouth hauled that thing from some unusual hiding place or another it looked as pristine as the day he’d first dug it out of the ground in the midst of an ecstatic fit. No doubt it lusted for blood already.

He held it with both hands and brought it down sharply on the hobbles at his ankles. They shattered in one blow. Thusly freed, he leapt to his feet with the mace still clutched in a two-handed grip. “You’re a dead man,” he said, then lunged forward to strike the wizard in the head with a powerful overhand blow, of the sort that Riaag had seen cleave skulls and stones alike.

The mace bounced off.

“What the fuck?” he said, in Rhoanish. Sometimes the best option really was one’s mother tongue. He swung again, and again, the blood-hungry head of his bludgeon deflecting harmlessly each time. His fasting must’ve caught up with him since it wasn’t long before he was panting and sweaty. Even in his wasted state he had a powerful clubbing arm on him, but between all his attempts he’d not so much as ruffled the wizard‘s hair. “What the fuck,” he repeated, this time in the wizard‘s language.

The wizard scoffed. “I am protected from the slings and axes of lesser creatures. No thing of the land can harm me, and while your serving-man certainly gave me a surprise, I can’t say I’m actually hurt from that tumble we took. Do you really not have men of my caliber where you come from? I’m going to have to conquer that backwater fortress sooner than later, this is just embarrassing.” He gestured and Sarouth was similarly sent hurtling into a pillar. The mace, the tooth from Agritakh’s own maw, lay uselessly on the floor. If the wizard couldn’t be touched by so-called things of the land, you couldn’t get more landy than a gift from a god that slept beneath the weight of the world. Riaag hated that that made sense. No wonder the lord of the tower was such a careless asshole; he had no reason not to be, if the hazards that bedeviled normal people simply rolled off his back.

The tip of the wizard‘s blade pressed against the underside of Sarouth’s chin, forcing him into eye contact. His closed left eye trembled from the strain of keeping the godly spark it housed concealed. The wizard didn’t seem to care that he stood before a wellspring of divine power; instead he spoke to Sarouth in that oily, let’s-all-be-friends voice Riaag had learned to loathe. “I’ll give you one last chance to be reasonable and join my campaign for peace.”

“Why should I bother?” said Sarouth. “Your wanting is the size of the world. Whatever you have, it won’t be enough. I’d rather live a quiet life caring for people I all know by name than have my shadow fall across every last mile of steppe and mountain. You claim to seek peace when what you offer is conquest. You look for new truths but fail to learn from what’s come before. You don’t see me, or my clan, or my god, or my home. You barely even see an orc, because to you there is no difference between us. Your offer holds nothing for me.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this!” said the wizard. He jammed his sword into a mechanism and pushed down on it as though he was trying to lift something heavy with a well-placed lever. The walls of the observatory shook. What Riaag had taken for decorations were in fact peculiar seams, and their nature became more apparent as the tower’s top opened up with all the grace of a flower in bloom. For the first time in weeks Riaag felt a hint of night wind against his cheek. He decided he would keep his eye on the wizard, at least as much as he could while mostly paralyzed; looking down from such a staggering height sounded like a challenge other people could attempt, thank you kindly.

The clouds parted and the stars seemed to swirl above them. Now that there weren’t walls in the way it really was a lovely view. “Look around you! Look at the sky! Look how insignificant you are against it all!” shouted the wizard, fuming. “A world this big has no place for small ideas!”

Sarouth managed to sit up in spite of the supernatural pull. “If it’s all the same to you, I’m happy with the small ones,” he said. He regarded the stars. How many times had Riaag seen him beneath a sky like this, his abacus in his lap and his head full of sacred mathematics? Agritakh-ruhds were speakers of Agritakh, the Hill God, but they never forgot He had once been the Star-Eater, and they carried that knowledge with them until the end of their days. If that was a small idea, Riaag was hard-pressed to imagine a big one. Sarouth straightened up a little more even as the effort made him shake. “You’re not going to win, you know.”

“Who’s going to stop me? You?”

“I can’t,” said Sarouth. He sounded tired. “Nothing of the land can lay a hand on you.” He squeezed his open eye shut and grimaced. The wizard took a breath to mock him, but Sarouth wouldn’t give him the opportunity as he cried out to the skies with tears streaming down his face. His resonant voice carried with it the same gravity as the most sacred of rites. “Wandering stars! Woeful lights! Know that I have counted your number in the infinite skies, and this night I say there is one too many! Remember the name of the one who first loved you! Heed my call, and His, and deliver me!”

Nothing happened.

The wizard laughed and kicked Sarouth in the jaw, which snapped Sarouth’s head backwards before forcing him to collapse in a pile of shivering, enfeebled agony. There was no resisting that immobilizing force, now. His reserves were well and fully tapped. “What are you going to do now, little dust prophet?” said the wizard, jeering. “This tower is my domain.”

Riaag fought to say something. His tongue was made of lead and his mouth was slack. He could barely flex his jaw, much less form words, and try as he might he couldn’t stop drooling. Could he provide a distraction? Could he do much of anything? He’d accepted the possibility that he would die that night, but those circumstances had involved a scenario quite a different than helplessly watching a merchant stomp his oathbound into the floor.

“I tried to be nice,” said the wizard, who punctuated his statement with another kick in Sarouth’s side. Sarouth yelped. “I tried to let you prove you were worthy of respect. But I can’t respect people who won’t respect me, so you’re going to have to go. I was going to let you be sublimated into the dragon I have planned. A dragon! Everyone wants to see a dragon! Everyone would love you! I don’t think you’d appreciate what an honor that would be, though, so it looks like I’ll have to clean up this mess myself.” He brandished his sword and pressed the sharpened outer curve against Sarouth’s neck. “Do you think your corpse will bounce once it hits the ground?”

A thin line of light glowed in the sky. A shooting star! They were supposed to herald auspicious events, at least if Sarouth was to be believed, but there was nothing fortunate about being put to the sword and pushed off the side of a tower. Riaag still focused on that little star. It was so pretty up there in the blackness, and from such a height it didn’t have to worry about all the cruelties that took place on the ground below. Would wishing on it be moot? It would fly away and fade, and he’d still be here at the top of a wizard‘s nest, unable to do anything but wait to be bled out next to an overturned plate of grapes. He hoped Plum could forgive him. He knew Sarouth would.

The little star didn’t fade, though. It hurtled through the sky, faster and faster, and whereas the shooting stars Riaag had seen before were quick streaks that burned away before they could fall, this one was different. He’d only seen something like it once before. That day was the same one as when he’d seen meteoric iron with his own eyes, at least once Sarouth had calmed him down over the noise; he still remembered when they’d found the crater, and the delight in Sarouth’s eyes once he verified the resulting mineral cache was cool enough for them to handle. The stars still remembered the Star-Eater, Sarouth sometimes said, and some of them missed Him more than others.

“Oh,” said Riaag, and since it was a vowel sound it came out sounding right enough.

The wizard had just enough time to look up, puzzled, before a rock the size of a fist, its white-hot mass glowing like a little sun, smashed into his head with the force of, for lack of a more poetic comparison, a meteor strike.

A lot of things happened very quickly. Those parts of the wizard that hadn’t been rendered into red mist and shrapnel slumped into a puddle of robes and corpse-meat, with smoke rising up from those parts that had been closest to the falling star’s tremendous heat. The ground shook, which at first Riaag thought was a sign the tower was falling but turned out to be the result of a fast-moving, fist-sized star striking it with great force. He found he could move again and used this knowledge to himself for the next impact. It never came. There weren’t even cries from down below. Surprised, Riaag uncurled himself to peer around the now deceptively still observatory.

Sarouth had perched himself on the divan closest to the wizard‘s remains, which happened to be next to the plate of expensive treats. He hadn’t touched the latter. “I’m never doing that again,” he said as he wiped blood from his nose.

Riaag was at his side in a flash. He knew their time was limited, so every moment they could spend together was one he had to savor. He’d prepared for something like this ever since he pledged his axe to Sarouth’s service. Everything else was just details.

Sarouth leaned on him wearily. “Fancy meeting you here, handsome.”

“Hey,” said Riaag. He wrapped an arm around Sarouth and gave him a gentle hug. “Sorry I couldn’t getcha outta here afore it all came down.”

“Oh yeah? You know something about spooky towers that I don’t?”

“I mean…,” said Riaag. He twirled his free hand in search of how to phrase things. “Its master’s fucken dead, right? The tricks he used on us faded, right? Seems ter reason it’ll do the same thing.” He frowned. “…won’t it?”

Sarouth reached down to take a corner of the wizard‘s robe and blow his still-bleeding nose on it. Even if there hadn’t been chunks of would-be despot all over them, their patterns were so overly complex it barely showed. “So, don’t quote me on this, because fucknut there might well have been lying to me, but I think it works kind of like, hrm. You know how people can raise a cairn, and even after they go it’s still a cairn? Or how even if you completely dig out a mine and leave the tunnels, it’s still the idea of a mine? That’s what we’ve got here. A man can raise a dog, and he can train that dog to follow his commands, but if he gets run through with a javelin one day that doesn’t mean the dog will drop dead. Same idea.”

“Why would he tell you that?”

“Well, you met him. He was in love with nothing so much as the sound of his own voice.” He snortled and wiped his nose again. “What happened to the skin-thief that was with him?”

“Dead. If they ain’t, they’s real good at playin’ it, ’cause I fucked ’em up ter the best ‘a my ability. Made a big-ass mess. We’s gonna hafta burn this outfit twice, somehow.” He frowned. “When’d you learn what they was?”

Sarouth gave a rueful little chuckle. He slapped at one of his bare biceps like he was showing off a flexed muscle. “I’ll give you three guesses why some parts of me are dirtier than others.”

Riaag had been trying not to think about that, but he knew he’d figured it out when he first saw that patchwork grime with eyes unclouded by sorcery. He apparently hadn’t cried out all his tears because a fresh batch made their way towards his beard. “That’s, that’s torture, Sarouth.”

He shrugged and did that little head-toss of his again. “It wasn’t all at once. I’ve dreamed worse. It took me a while to find the center, remember? Feeling your own death every night for two years straight changes your outlook on worldly concerns a bit. I’m still alive, so I’m still everybody’s problem.”

“Sorry. Sorry, I shoulda known…,” said Riaag.

Sarouth wrapped his arms around him and stroked his hair where it had come free of its braiding. At least one of them had come out with their locks intact. “You don’t need to be sorry for anything, brave warrior,” he said. “Knowing that you care means the world to me.” He leaned in and planted a kiss on Riaag’s forehead. “You’re carrying so much. Let it out, and let it go. I’ll still be here once you’re done.”

This was the Sarouth that Riaag knew. Riaag was here, so Sarouth would be safe, and Sarouth was here, so Riaag would be safe. That was as it should be. Riaag sat on the divan next to Sarouth, put his head in his hands, and let everything that had happened since his capture bubble up and out of him in the form of a torrent of tears. He wailed as though he’d lost someone. He sobbed until there was nothing left. It hurt so much, knowing everything that had happened that he hadn’t ever been able to stop and learning of everything that happened that he’d been too addled, or too incarcerated, to do anything about. A reasonable voice that sounded like Sarouth’s reminded him that he was allowed to feel fucked up. It had been an intensely fucked up situation! Of course he felt that way! He let himself hurt, and then once he had recognized his pain he gave himself permission to stop hurting, as there was only so much merit in self-flagellation. It didn’t always work. Thankfully, this was one of those welcome times when it did.

When he finally surfaced for air again, sure enough, Sarouth was there. “Feeling any better?” he asked with a sweet smile.

Riaag followed Sarouth’s lead and blew his nose with gusto on the dead man’s robes. The whole front of his face felt covered in slime; some people were lovely in their sorrow, and Riaag was definitely not one of them. “Dunno. Li’l bit.”

“Ready to go tell everyone we just maybe saved the world?”

“Not really.”

“Want to go downstairs and see if this shithead bothered to put a washbasin in his personal quarters?”

When was the last time Riaag had had a proper bath? Not rubbing cold water on himself or straining it through his clothes to banish the worst of the filth, but a bath? Whatever the answer was it had to mean he smelled gross. For the second time ever he was grateful for the braziers and their scent-banishing secrets. “Yeah. That sounds nice.”

Sarouth’s smile turned playful. He folded his hands in his lap and glanced coquettishly over one grubby shoulder. “Carry me?” He batted his eyelashes. “Pretty please?”

Riaag smiled back. After a weeks-long cavalcade of weird shit it was nice to encounter something familiar. He rose and stretched, pretending to hem and haw over the decision. The game was more fun that way. “Well, since you asked so nice ‘n all, I suppose I might could manage just the once….”

He collected a laughing Sarouth in his arms and walked back downstairs, leaving the stars to twinkle, unfallen, behind them.

§

It turned out the wizard didn’t just have a washbasin, he’d acquired a tub big enough for someone of even Riaag’s size to soak in. One of the tower’s fish-fountains leaned over the side; more confusing was the sort of crocodile with ears next to it that also looked to be some sort of font. To their mutual surprise it turned out that the crocodile was able to gush forth with hot water without so much as a fire or kettle in sight. This had to be separate from the general workings of the tower, and therefore of limited use. Riaag insisted Sarouth go first, just in case.

“Ugh, I’m amazed this water isn’t solid black by now,” said Sarouth as he relaxed in the water with one hand over his left eye. He scooped up some powder from a little silver bowl and dumped it into the water, which gave it a cloudy pinkish hue. Perhaps under normal circumstances it was scented. “You’re going to love this once it’s your turn, my wolf. It feels like all my problems are melting away. My cares are so much butter on a griddle, at least until I remember why my head feels so light.”

Riaag gently touched one of the longer tufts of Sarouth’s hair. “I cain’t hardly believe it. You’s been shorn.”

Sarouth splashed some water on his face and sighed. “It’s just hair, my love. It grows back.”

“But it’s parta’ yer fucken deed name—”

“These assholes didn’t know what it meant when they did it, so therefore it has no power over me,” said Sarouth, who slapped at the surface of the water for emphasis. He seemed very eager to lash out at things; two more pillows had met the fate of the one that had his mace in it by the time Riaag had figured out what to do with the twin fountains.

The braziers had numbed his nostrils the same as always, but Riaag could’ve sworn he caught a whiff of bullshit. “Does you really believe them words, or is you just sayin’ ’em ter be brave fer me?”

“…both?”

Riaag chuckled and left a kiss on Sarouth’s exposed right cheek. “You get points fer bein’ honest with me, ‘n I know that ain’t always easy fer you.” He rubbed Sarouth’s shoulders until he felt the knot of tension between them ease up. “Why doncha have yerself a nice li’l float while I sees what else I can scrounge up. We gots ter fix that scrub grass you got goin’ on there.”

Sarouth sank into the water until only his eyes, the points of his ears, and the top of his head remained, then blew a choir’s worth of bubbles from his nose. He then ducked himself under to rinse away some of the oily dirt clinging to his scalp. “Don’t remind me,” he said once he surfaced. “Or rather, do, then shave it off immediately. The Faaroug should not look unseemly before his disciples. You can wear beard enough for the both of us.”

So he thought himself unseemly, did he? Preposterous! The blood and bruises, the short and ragged hair, the drawn frame, the rags he wore instead of his proper raiment…it might as well have been a drop of sweat in the rain for all it mattered. Trust Sarouth to manage to look incredible even at his worst. The stubble really did have to go, though, since they’d discovered the hard way that Riaag’s neck found god-speaker bristles unbearably tickly. Some quality time spent with scavenged supplies later and Sarouth’s face was once more smooth as a glazed game-counter.

Much as Sarouth enjoyed the heat he couldn’t soak forever, though he didn’t yield the tub to Riaag until his skin had turned to a prune. He seemed happy to lie on the floor in the nude instead of reclaiming the ill-fitting rags. Riaag couldn’t blame him; they’d both been through a lot, Sarouth especially, and Riaag was having trouble not letting his thoughts drift back to things he’d experienced or suspected someone else did. The idea of sleeping for a year straight in the arms of his favorite person was sounding pretty good.

Sarouth seemed to have other ideas, though.

“Lookin’ fer somethin’?” asked Riaag when a familiar pair of eyes—the closed one having been freshly marked with some kohl neither of them recalled the wizard ever wearing—peered over the side of the tub with lascivious intent.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Sarouth. He grinned. “View’s already pretty good from here.”

“In a bit of a mood, huh?”

Sarouth blew a very juicy raspberry. “Listen, you. I’ve been stuck in a cell for days and days with nothing to do but ruin my own hands each night in an attempt to feel His presence. I’ve had to endure a very creepy person peeling the skin from my arms and back multiple times. I’ve narrowly avoided getting run through with the tackiest sword I’ve ever seen. I’ve just dropped a meteor on some megalomaniacal fucker’s head by calling in favors older than the world itself is old. I’m sore, I’m tired, but most importantly I am so damned horny I can barely see straight.” He paused to catch his breath. “So yes, I do believe I’m in the mood to go find that asshole’s bed and get some friendly fluids all up into its batting. How’s that for a small idea.”

It took a certain kind of person to want to get his dick touched shortly after receiving (and not necessarily recovering from) grievous physical injury, and that was the sort of person to whom Riaag had sworn his oath. He was well aware that Sarouth would be fine once he slept and actually got something to eat in his belly, but the problem was that neither of these had yet to happen. Spending so long away from the touch of Agritakh’s blessed soil couldn’t be good for him, either. Part of being a good bodyguard meant protecting his charge from himself. “I dunno,” said Riaag. “You sure that’s such a good idea at this here juncture? You kinda got seven colors ‘a shit kicked outta you ternight. You’s said as much yerself.”

“I’ll be healed by the power of your endless love,” said Sarouth, clearly lying.

“No.”

“Restored to physical perfection by your adorations. Guaranteed.”

Hell no.”

Sarouth sat up straight with a little frown framing his tusks. His mood turned serious as swiftly as it had turned flirtatious. “I’m not asking you to do something you don’t actually want to, am I?” he said. “I know you worry about keeping me safe. What that thing did, it doesn’t hurt me anymore, but if it’s hurting you….”

Riaag responded by sinking down as far into the water as he could, which meant the tops of his shoulders managed to submerge; it was a large tub, but Riaag was a large man. When he closed his eyes he saw Sarouth, sometimes with normal-length hair and sometimes with it short, and neither version was being killed in effigy by his own two hands, so that was something. He splashed some of the heated water against his face. Did he want this? Given the circumstances it was worth thinking about instead of going with the flow.

He’d felt Sarouth’s absence with each passing day. Riaag didn’t always sleep next to Sarouth at home, since sometimes his worries would surge forth in ways he preferred to ride out in the privacy of his own personal tent that stood a little ways off from the one they shared, but this time around he hadn’t had that choice. He’d missed the feeling of a friend cuddled up against the fatty parts of his back with an arm thrown over the rise of his stomach. He’d missed the cacophonic snoring. Having those again was sure to guarantee the best night’s sleep he’d had in a while. A puff of breath against his shoulder would be enough to remind him they’d found each other again. Was he mistaking relief for desire?

The memory of Sarouth slowly waking to cuddle closer, all affection and sleep-stiffened shaft, came to mind. There was no great meaning to waking up with a boner, anyone with a dick could tell you that. Claiming otherwise was like saying there was a deeper purpose to the speed at which one’s claws grew. What was memorable was how Sarouth would snuggle up against him with an unspoken offer: This could be yours. If Riaag didn’t want that, he didn’t have to accept it. If he just wanted to lie next to Sarouth any nothing more, that was also an option. Sarouth’s hands would keep to chaste places. They were busy men, after all, same as anyone tasked with keeping the well-being of others in mind, and between prayers, chores, and getting breakfast going Riaag often didn’t have the wherewithal to fit in anything else.

Those times when he did, though….

A typical orc was a walking compromise, one foot in the world of instinct that had carried the Old People for generations and one foot standing among subtler, more abstract notions of numbers and philosophy. Warrior-poets such as Riaag exemplified this. How many times had his battle-quickened blood been receptive to a caress once his fury faded? How often had he discovered something profound as he reflected on fights he’d won before? It only made sense that after one kind of physical exertion, in lieu of more challenges to overcome he might hunger for exertion of a different kind. It certainly sweetened a victory! Sarouth never failed to remind him that Agritakh-ruhds felt differently about personal injury than others—Riaag had learned this the hard way the time he’d walked in on Sarouth and another god-speaker talking about deaths they’d dreamed within the Labyrinth, and Sarouth had been entirely too happy to recount an incident in which he’d apparently fallen into a pool of magma and was rendered into nothing but ash and bones—so Sarouth and Sarouth alone was likely the best judge of whether it was appropriate to dally so soon after what had happened.

Riaag heaved a sigh. Sarouth would be horny because that was just how he was when he was awake, and he’d clearly made his interests that evening known. Calling down a star seemed worth celebrating. When Riaag thought of taking Sarouth in his arms and enjoying more than a simple kiss it felt right. He was not blindsided by images of horrors past. He didn’t dwell on miseries they’d already endured. What he saw was the man who held his oath and the splendid time they could spend together, and perhaps, if his body was willing and he felt there was the appropriate sign, he might ask about one of those things he’d been too afraid to when they still slept on familiar ground.

The tip of his cock peeked above the water. That seemed like as good of a sign as any. “Yeah,” he said upon finishing his deliberations. “I thinks I does.” He held up a finger and Sarouth, who’d been making to lunge, froze in place. “Two conditions, though.”

“Speak and I will listen, my love.”

“Firstly, you’s gotta go eat somethin’ whilst I dries off. No negotiatin’. I ain’t gonna have you waste away o’ernight just ’cause we didn’t get any nourishment down yer neck in time.”

“If you insist,” said Sarouth, grudgingly. “For you I’d move earth and sky themselves. You know I would, you’ve seen me do it. I accept your first condition. What’s the second one?”

Riaag grinned. “You’s gotta ask nicely.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Go have some grapes ‘n we can continue this wherever that fucker keeps his bedroom.”

The falling star had narrowly missed smashing the bed with its descent, instead leaving a gaping hole in the ceiling and a twinned divot in the floor where it had skidded along the denser tiles. Riaag wrapped up the meteor in a sheet; one did not call down the sky in the name of a god and just leave things lying around afterwards. The metal found inside starstuff made for some dandy weaponry. Between drying himself and packing away the star he had only just had time to turn down the topmost blankets when Sarouth caught up with him.

“I didn’t trust the wine enough to have any, but I helped myself to anything else that wasn’t smashed and didn’t have blood on it.” He leaned against Riaag. “Does that meet your standards?”

“Reckon so,” said Riaag. “Now all you gotta do is that other part.”

That was all it took for Sarouth to fling himself into a dramatic pose. He pressed his wrist against his forehead and affected a sorrowful-eyed sniffle, complete with trembling lower lip. The artifice was hilarious in its blatancy. “Pretty, pretty, pretty please can we succumb to passion and rub our dicks together?” he asked. “It’s been so long, and my bed’s been so cold. If only some brave champion would come deliver me from this fate! But no, I am denied, and so I must suffer. It’s very beautiful suffering, see?” He vamped into a different position, still full of mock despair. “I’m a cracked vessel. I’m a wick with no flame. I’m dying, here, Riaag. I can’t believe it. You are depriving me of my very life.”

“Bit much, ain’t it?” said Riaag. He rolled his eyes but didn’t hide the smile that ran from tusk to tusk.

“My wolf, I am nothing if not a lot much.”

They laughed into each other’s mouths as they slipped between the sheets. They started side by side, relearning how their bodies fit together, and even with the odd breeze whistling in through the ceiling they kept themselves cozy and warm. Riaag pressed his hands into Sarouth’s back to pull him closer. The skin was smooth there, laid over healthy (if underfed) muscle and bone, with nary a scar to be felt; this was Sarouth, not his pain, not anything he’d endured. He didn’t forget what happened but he’d allowed himself to heal. Riaag wasn’t unblemished by any stretch of the imagination, no matter which part of him one checked, but maybe that didn’t matter so much. If Sarouth could be who he was at the end of the day in spite of everything else, maybe Riaag could try to do the same. At least he knew he’d be understood if he failed.

It didn’t take long for their kisses to become deeper. If Sarouth’s mouth was too harsh for want of ash-water Riaag certainly couldn’t tell. They took great care not to lock their tusks together, as was a risk for paramours whose dentition went in opposite directions to one another’s; Sarouth’s charming little overbite was nearly always the culprit, but Riaag didn’t mind no matter whose fault it was when someone’s enthusiasm got the better of them both and they had to take a moment to figure out whose neck had to twist, and in which direction, to free themselves. Thankfully they avoided such a fate this time, instead leaving him to marvel at the softness of Sarouth’s lips and the gentleness of his tongue. How grateful he was Sarouth had found so many chances to refine that technique before Riaag himself had a chance to enjoy this! Riaag was a fast learner, and some things were fun to figure out when nobody knew what they were doing, but when it came to navigating the perils of the orcish mouth (designed primarily for crushing bones after rasping them of flesh, no matter what else anyone did with them) he was happy to follow someone else’s lead.

Sarouth’s hands disengaged from Riaag’s back and instead went roaming. He stroked Riaag’s hair and ran his claws through Riaag’s beard, both of which had come through the ordeal intact. His fingertips traced the long-healed Wolf bite; surely Wolf would be proud of their accomplishments, because even if Riaag alone hadn’t been able to fix everything, there was a reason mortal wolves ran in packs. A tweak of a nipple; a squeeze of the softest, fattiest parts that swelled up from where his body creased against itself; a curl of a gentle palm around a bicep thicker than Sarouth’s head; a cup of the titty flesh that hid Riaag’s powerful chest muscles; everywhere Sarouth’s slim-fingered touch found itself, Riaag liked. He was less sure if he liked the way the eruption of goosebumps this summoned made the hair not on his head stick out a little, but if Sarouth thought that was nice Riaag was not going to argue. He could accept being enjoyed.

One of those playful hands returned to rest against Riaag’s shoulder—the left one with the bite, as he tended to rest on his right side to allow Sarouth a more sinister repose—and gently pushed. Riaag rolled with it. He then found himself flat on his back with Sarouth looming over him, his open eye bright and his grin salacious. Sarouth ran the tip of his tongue over his well-kissed lips like he’d just been offered a whole platter of his favorite home cooking. “Hi.”

“H-hi.” Riaag was quite aware of how Sarouth was straddling him and how it would take but a single tilt of his hips to press their shafts together, flesh against sensitive flesh. It was their preferred way of being together, after using their hands on themselves or one another. To think Riaag hadn’t even known this was an option as little as two years ago! He gulped. It took everything he had not to bare his throat and let Sarouth have his way with him. “So, uh, you was right serious when you said you wanted ter touch cock ter cock, huh?”

“You bet that darling little face of yours I was. A phallic caress will refresh me sure as a return to His Labyrinth.” Sarouth leaned in for another kiss. “Why? Did you have something else in mind?”

It was time to be brave. If things went badly it was just another part of the nightmare that was the tower, and he could safely leave it behind. It would stay buried beneath tons of shit along with everything else he’d try not to take back to the stronghold. But if things didn’t go badly….

If they actually went well….

He bit his lip and averted his eyes. “Might wanna have you inside me, some. See what it’s like.”

“That can be arranged,” said Sarouth with a smile. “I noticed the wizard kept a bottle of slippery oil in the bathing room. Weird place for it, but it’ll let me warm up my hands and maybe give me a chance to trim my claws—”

Riaag shook his head. “I didn’t mean that way.”

“Oh?”

Take me in your arms, my wolf, and tell me what you want. Sarouth hadn’t actually said those words, but he might as well have. “Thought maybe, Iunno. If I don’t flip the fuck out partways through, ‘n if it don’t hurt any, ‘n if you’d be so inclined ter such a notion, maybe you…could…come…inside…me…?” His voice rapidly lost volume the further into that sentence he went until the last word was just a wheezy, drawn-out squeak. Riaag could throw himself into a slew of armed bandits with nary a tremor, but this was what terror was. He thought instead of how happy it’d make both of them, especially if it worked out.

“We’ve talked about this,” said Sarouth, gently, since they had. “If you feel like you’re ready, I want to make this happen for you. I just don’t want you to think you owe me anything.” He paused. “Might be a little tricky figuring out how to get my dick in you in a way where you can still see me, but….”

“Mighta, uh. Had some ideas ’bout that.” He explained the way he’d daydreamed it, with one leg up and Sarouth seated on his thigh. He was convinced he was going to die from embarrassment, but his cock clearly hadn’t heard that plan; the tip was already moist with pre-come and felt like it offered forth another glistening bead with each detail he outlined. Riaag touched the tips of his fingers together with concern. “If it’s somethin’ what ain’t physically reasonable, then I’ll understand, though,” he said. “You’s more experienced than I in such affairs.”

Sarouth had sat back to let him talk, never once losing his expression of cautious optimism. “No, no, that sounds really hot. We’ll make this work.”

The oil the wizard kept on hand had a different feel to it than what they usually used, and not exactly in its favor. Riaag supposed that was only to be expected, as their preferred stuff showed up in the same strange little bottles as the rest of Sarouth’s potion collection did, and it was unfair to expect something dug up from the chambers of a man with bad taste and worse ideas to be able to compare with a gift from He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth in all His most holy generosity. It was slick, though, and as Sarouth gently tested how receptive Riaag’s ass was feeling it was easier to ignore the difference in favor of the lovely feeling of being a receptacle for the divine. He melted. Even with Sarouth relying solely on external stimulation with the odd delving by a knuckle—while still on the smaller side, his claws were still claws, and neither of them felt like risking more than that until Sarouth could properly file them down again—Riaag could feel his concern giving way to anticipation. It was almost time.

He’d more or less guessed right when it came to whether or not they could fit together in his suggested position. Riaag had some powerful legs on him, as he carried around the combined weight of his armor and field kit when fully armed and the combined weight of himself around at all hours of the day, so he had to use the greatest of care as he propped one up on Sarouth’s narrow shoulder. This was a new one on him. Usually when he lay beneath Sarouth he was pinned by Sarouth’s entire body atop his, or hip to hip and cock to cock, perhaps with Sarouth’s hands on Riaag’s shoulders to help remind him of who was in charge. This time he could feel Sarouth’s own legs tense and relax as he shuffled around to find out exactly where to put his knees. Riaag hoped his thigh made a nice place for Sarouth to rest. If it turned out this whole thing worked for them, there was a lot of potential in the configuration.

What he’d hoped would happen, happened: Sarouth reached down to cup Riaag’s balls and give them a firm, possessive squeeze.

Riaag whined with delight. Somehow, illogically, everything was going according to plan. “You caught me,” he said.

Sarouth glanced between Riaag and himself. “Did I, now?”

Riaag grumbled, still flustered. “Sounded better in my head.”

“Of that I have no doubt, my love.” He gave another squeeze. “You just let me know whenever you’re ready and I’ll start off nice and slow. I can enjoy the view until then.”

They’d opted to make use of the remaining chill-abjuring enchantment while it lasted, so while Riaag had his head against a mound of pillows and they had a nest of blankets wrapped around where they lay, Sarouth did actually have something to look at. Riaag could feel the tip of Sarouth’s glans giving him a friendly nudge. It didn’t feel that much bigger than those trysts they’d gotten up to back home where Sarouth would use more than one finger at a time. So what if it was? Riaag was a big man, ergo he had a big asshole. He knew Sarouth’s measurements intimately. They could fit.

He took a deep breath and let it out again. “Yeah. I’s ready. Go easy on me, okay?”

Sarouth had no snappy response for Riaag this time. Instead he guided himself with one hand even as he steadied Riaag’s leg with the other. A nudge became a push, and a push became the beginnings of a thrust. There was no doubt about it: Sarouth White-Hair, god-speaker and avatar, was inside of him in a very important way. It was absolutely nothing like having Sarouth’s hand there but not in a manner that bothered him. And it didn’t hurt, not even a bit.

Every time he breathed out Sarouth pushed in a little more. With surprise Riaag realized he was soon taking Sarouth deeper than they’d ever tried before, though that wasn’t necessarily saying much, and based on the angle of Sarouth’s lean he still had a ways to go before fully hilting himself. What would it feel like once he was all the way inside? The idea was thrilling.

“How you doing so far?” asked Sarouth. He petted Riaag’s elevated leg reassuringly.

Riaag realized he’d been holding his breath. He let it out again. “Okay. Weird, good weird, ‘n also okay. You?”

“I’m well on my way to being balls-deep inside my favorite person, so you could say I’m doing swimmingly.” He grinned. “You want me to ease my way all the way in, let you see what it’s like, let you acclimate? Or are you more in the mood to skip to the good part?”

On any other day Riaag could see himself picking the easy path. It’d be the kind of slow, thoughtful sex he enjoyed, where he could take his time to think about every bit of skin that was touching him and let the sensation build to a good, rolling boil. He also knew himself enough to know he’d risk losing his nerve if he did so this time. Sarouth wanted him to have a good time, and if things went sour then Sarouth could perform a little laying on of hands to fix it. More important than all of that, Riaag had spent the last month having his best intentions exploited by a monster. If anyone was going to have the pleasure of using him, it was going to be someone he actually loved.

“Good part,” he said.

“The champion accepts the challenge? I was hoping you’d say that.” There was scarcely enough time for Riaag to exhale again before Sarouth began in earnest.

Riaag had not expected just how much of himself would move while he was technically lying still. He hadn’t expected how Sarouth would move, either; Riaag had assumed a simple in and out, repeated until satisfied, would do the job, but Sarouth had a sort of oval-shaped gyration to his hips where he’d rub fiercely along Riaag’s thigh on the downswing and nearly lift himself up and out of his seat as he reset himself. It wasn’t a perfect oval and there was plenty of thrusting force applied, but it was still yet another way to remember that this was Sarouth himself doing the deed, and Riaag would happily take as many of those as he could get. Every time he felt Sarouth’s lower abdomen press against the skin between his balls and his asshole it was a reminder of their oath, that Sarouth wanted him in spite of every other part of the Riaag experience.

He realized that Sarouth had started to stroke him off, pulling down around his shaft as Sarouth’s cock went in and pulling up towards the glans as he pulled out. This was not surprising, as Sarouth would find whatever excuses he could to get his hands on Riaag and they’d spent quite a lot of time learning how to best masturbate one another, alone or in tandem. What surprised Riaag was what Sarouth was saying along with it.

“Riaag Bough-Breaker, Chosen of Wolf,” he said in his best ritual-master’s voice, “you have humbled yourself before Him and been found worthy. You have humbled yourself before me and been found worthy. Know that His blessing and my own lay upon you, for His is mine and mine is His, yet we are not the same.” His sacred eye, still tightly closed, twitched. How often did he admire Riaag through the protective fall of his hair? “I am His Faaroug, oathbound to you, and you are my champion, oathbound to me. So we have sworn, by blood and steel and fire, and so you have become my rightful kin. We are seen by Beetle, who binds by blood, and seen by Jackal, who binds by steel, and seen by Vulture, who binds by fire. As the Scavenger Kings have witnessed, so we shall be forevermore, so long as the wheel of entropy demands the old flesh be consumed to make way for the glorious new….”

Oh, this was the good stuff. Where had it all come from? It was so much to ask after everything else he’d done for Riaag. Why demand one more distraction when there was a wealth of delights from which Riaag could already choose? “You don’t gotta do that this time, Sarouth,” he panted.

Sarouth looked down at him with a look of great self-satisfaction. “Oh, Riaag, my pretty little bird,” he purred. “Do you think this is solely for your benefit?”

Riaag clutched his hands against his chest, curling them up like demure kitten paws. They’d scarcely had time to wash the stink off, much less prepare the way they liked to for this sort of game, and Sarouth could still say Riaag was pretty with all sincerity and intent? Sarouth wore his mantle of authority willingly these days, but it thrilled Riaag—who’d been the very man to set Sarouth on the path of accepting his duty—to hear that in spite of its heavy burden that mantle filled him with no small amount of desire. I will be Faaroug for you, Sarouth had once said. How true those words still rang, and how deeper and richer their meaning had become with the turning of the years!

There wasn’t as much precision control as when Sarouth used his hands, but he still was capable of finding those parts hidden within Riaag that liked being played with most. Riaag himself kept hoping he’d come with every thrust (it sounded romantic) and help hoping for a dramatic moment even when Sarouth stopped stroking him. He couldn’t risk Sarouth worrying he’d been anything less than perfect. His cock clearly had other plans, unfortunately, but maybe that wouldn’t be so bad; Sarouth did like dragging him all the way up to the brink of orgasm before easing off again, repeating the tease-and-release until either he tired of it or he thought Riaag had begged sweetly enough, so perhaps Riaag’s gasps and whimpers of joy would be enough. The countless orisons that tumbled from Sarouth’s lips certainly implied as much.

They moved together, their rhythm escalating until Sarouth clung to Riaag’s leg for dear life and hissed breath between his teeth. “I’m so close, Riaag. If you changed your mind about me coming inside you you’re going to need to tell me quickly.”

Perhaps in the future Riaag would ask for Sarouth to pull out and finish as he often did, painting Riaag with a stripe or two of come in the sort of baptism the rest of the stronghold wasn’t privy to receiving. Sometimes Riaag would sit back on his knees and watch as Sarouth, towering over him, would touch himself to climax and let it fall across Riaag’s face, and there was potential for that sort of thing here, too. Those, however, were not what he wanted.

“Bless me, Holy One,” he said, and it was a wonder he could find the words.

Sarouth didn’t even correct him on his use of a title when they were alone like this. “Then be purified.”

By all accounts it was a perfectly normal orgasm, with no choirs of ancestors rising up to greet it or stars to whirl in celebration. One person came and the other did not. Sarouth did not glow, nor did he become host to the descended spirit of Agritakh any more than he already was, but he did whisper Riaag’s name in time with his final shudder. Riaag had yet to climax himself. To the outside observer it would have been nothing out of the ordinary.

To Riaag, it was nothing short of transcendent. It was as though he was filled with light. Now there was no part of him that had not been graced by the merciful, compassionate touch of His Faaroug, and any lingering hidden recesses that might have somehow remained untouchable were scoured clean by Sarouth’s gift. How could anyone doubt the Hill God’s love in the face of such providence? No foulness could survive the fearsome presence of the Void, that which devoured all and left only purity in its wake! This was the beauty of the First Scavenger! Now he truly was a vessel for the divine, even if when Sarouth pulled out of him said divine slowly oozed down his leg and onto the sheets.

The sheets shifted as Sarouth reclined next to him and placed a kiss on the tip of his nose. “How you holding up?”

Saying it had been a religious experience wasn’t very descriptive, since that technically covered everything they did together. Riaag opted for something simpler and no less true. “Pretty good, I think,” he said. “My asshole’s all tender. S’nice.” He shifted his weight so he lay entirely on his back again; he wasn’t yet used to contorting himself into that position for long and his twisted spine welcomed the release. “How ’bout you?”

Sarouth chewed at his lip and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “I’ll put it this way, Riaag: I really like asses. I really love you. Enjoying both at once makes me a very happy cleric.” He dragged a hand down the curve of Riaag’s stomach to grip his cock around the base. His strokes were the maddening kind that Riaag could already tell would do nothing but tease and torment, keeping him hard for ages without actually letting him get off. “What can I combine for you to make you happy?”

Of all the bumps and scuffs Riaag had picked up between then and when he’d left, none of them were the right kind. “I wanna get bit.”

This made Sarouth stop stroking him, though he at least didn’t let go. “You’ve been through a lot, my love,” he said. “Are you sure you want more bruises?”

Riaag whined again, this time out of frustration. “I don’t want fucken bruises, I wants ter have yer mark on me. Help me remember who I belongs ter. Please, Sarouth.”

A familiar terror welled up in Riaag’s blood. This was not the fear that lived in his skull and tried to devour his heart for the sin of existing while broken. That one was an unwelcome rider, a gut-worm of shame that he would banish as many times as it took with as many amulets as it took. This was a wash of pure authority that was frightful in its sheer scope, a sensation that neither asked nor demanded obedience because that implied the possibility of refusal. It was as old as the earth—older, even—because it was a part of what lay beneath said earth in the very heart of the world. His breath knew it, his bones knew it. Those who walked the Labyrinth swam in the truth of it. This expected him to bow. This expected him to pray. This expected him to love, because it was also love, and there was no love so dreadful as that of a god.

This was the full nature of an Agritakh-ruhd, that which pulled them apart from those who were all the way mortal, that which they fought to conceal when among their flocks, that which sang in their heads to echo out through their sacred deeds, and Riaag melted joyfully before it.

Something pressed his shoulders into the mattress in a familiar way. Something dragged their cock, still slick and half-soft from having their way with him, against his skin, and as they rose to look down on him that same something wanted him to know he was pinned. Their eye gleamed a serpent’s yellow in the dim light and their tusks were bright and sharp. He had shown his throat and there was no way they wouldn’t act on that. Had this been anywhere but in the star-shattered bedroom at the top of the tower Riaag might have been afraid, except it wasn’t a mere something that menaced him so. It was Sarouth, and when his teeth sank into his shoulder Riaag came from the bite alone.

Sarouth leaned down to nip at Riaag’s ear. “Mine,” he snarled. His was the terrible voice in the far corners of the wilderness, the mad-eyed growl of Saber-Tooth before a pounce. In that single word bubbled the darkness in the depths of the earth. Had Riaag not already come that voice might well have been enough to finish him on its own. How intoxicating it was to lie beneath Sarouth when he chose not to hide the vastness of the Void he carried within him!

“Yours,” said Riaag in a blissful murmur. His lip stung from where he’d bitten it at the start of his orgasm; it didn’t taste like he’d broken the skin, so at least he’d still be suitable to kiss without risk of anyone kin-feasting. His poor shoulder may as well have stood in the path of the star for how it felt. It was going to look so nice once the color finished turning. “So long as you’ll have me, I’s yours.”

He felt a kiss on his forehead and then a cloth on his stomach, which became gentle, easy cuddles for a bit. Once he was able to do anything but stare at the ceiling and think about how cherished he was he realized Sarouth had since returned to the bathing room. Riaag toddled after him on shaky legs.

“Someone looks happy,” said Sarouth, who probably wasn’t talking about himself. He’d washed away the mingled come he’d gotten on himself and was busy at the mirror, trying to make his hair respond to a brush. The results were mixed.

Riaag touched at the fresher of the two bites on his shoulder and winced at how tender it still was. “Hah. ‘Course I is, you got me real good.” He came up behind Sarouth and wrapped him up in a hug. “Think I’s done on gettin’ reamed out most lovingly fer the night, but I’s open ter all manner ‘a other diversions. You think maybe next we can try one ‘a the ones where you tell me I looks cute in all manner ‘a detail?”

This earned him a sigh from Sarouth. “Can’t. The responsible thing to do is to go make good on our little jailbreak.”

“Aw. Right, right, reckon it’d be rude ter spend all night dallyin’ whilst decent sorts is still chained ter the wall further down this hellhole.” He found where he’d folded his clothes and began to evaluate whether or not they were worth changing back into; it wasn’t like someone shaped like the wizard would have much that he could wear himself. “What’s the first step?”

“We’re going to go find as many speaking, coherent people as we can and we’re going to invite them to sleep in the seneschal’s quarters,” said Sarouth.

Riaag glanced around. The wizard‘s suite had its own share of rooms, several with actual doors on them that always opened to the same place. One could fit quite a few bodies in there so long as nobody minded sleeping on things other than beds. “Not up here?”

“Up here’s a mess, we haven’t swept it for contingency-plan nasties, and we still haven’t moved the corpse in the observatory. I’m under the impression that would bother people.”

Riaag folded his arms across his chest in mock suspicion. “Them the only reasons?”

“The big ones, yes, but I also plan to return here to pleasure my oathbound until I’m no longer physically able to. Then I’m going to sleep for a thousand hours.”

“You does have some right significant catchin’ up ter do on both ‘a those,” said Riaag with a nod.

“Privacy is important,” agreed Sarouth.

There was no mint for them to chew, but between the scentless sorceries of the tower and the fact that those who’d have a chance to smell sex on them either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care, Sarouth assured Riaag it wouldn’t be a problem. They’d have the opportunity to get a fresh amulet put together later that night, though Sarouth had been careful to say its effects wouldn’t be as potent as the last one since he’d have to work with what he could find. When the time came to actually head downstairs, Riaag was sure to fetch the falling star and the remains of the wizard‘s neck chain as proof to those who would need more than the word of yet another strange orc in a town chock full of them. Sarouth, once more with mace in hand, stepped into the corridor, and Riaag determinedly followed.

It was time for him to bring other people salvation for a change.

§

The first thing Sarouth did in any official capacity was to send out a raven with a beaded message wrapped around one leg.

“Ruzhu’s probably climbing the walls by now,” he said once he sent the bird soaring over the northern trees. “She says she’s fine running the stronghold forever if something happens to me, but you can tell when you talk to her she still needs to roam. Knowing we aren’t dead yet should help her rest a little easier.”

Riaag nodded as he sorted through another pile of goods they’d plundered from the fancier tower rooms. Ruzhu Kind-Knife, one of Sarouth’s god-speaker comrades, had taken to watching over Naar Rhoan whenever they had to leave it for more than a few days, and while she was a loyal friend of the stronghold and its people that was not the same as wanting to move in for good. More importantly, her getting a message from Sarouth himself would mean she’d have proof Riaag was doing exactly what he’d promised he would, so she was less likely to be upset with him when they rode back with ramshackle gear and less of Sarouth’s namesake than usual.

“Found any of my things yet?” asked Sarouth as Riaag compared a pair of rings to each other. They’d found a scarf to cover Sarouth’s head (save for a few strands of hair that rested against his brow) and some gauzy fabric to veil his eye; the borrowed robes he wore were much more flattering on his frame than the wizard had ever managed.

“Not yet,” said Riaag with a sigh. Save for the jade comb he’d already used to put his hair up and the orange-pink necklace Coral probably wanted back, he’d yet to see many familiar pieces. “I know they’s gotta be in here somewhere, but this fucker had so much shit. I mean it looks like it oughtta be enough ter trade fer some decent amenities once we make sure we ain’t handin’ over nobody’s heirlooms in the process, that’s somethin’, but I’s gonna be a happier man once I find any ‘a yer sparklies.”

“Don’t worry about it too much. They’ll turn up.”

“They can turnip, parsnip, and catnip fer all I care, I just wants you ter be adorned as you ought,” said Riaag with a huff.

Sarouth chuckled. “It’s probably for the best if it takes a while to pick through everything. These people just got over having someone in a gaudy necklace shove them around. We don’t want them to think I’m the same shit on a different day.”

A booming whinny split the air, followed by general sounds of confusion. Sarouth looked up in the direction of the noise. “Sounds like somebody’s succeeded in finding the horses. You want to go see what’s up, or shall I?”

Riaag grimaced. “Reckon you oughtta, you’s the one what can mend a busted-up skull better’n me.”

“Fair enough!” Sarouth kissed Riaag’s cheek and strode through the doors of the building at the base of the tower, which they’d recommissioned as their base of operations. Riaag shivered as the wind blew in after him. Some of the lingering enchantments had begun to fail by then, such as whatever kept the place from being freezing at all hours; when not full of magical fire the spike-covered braziers thankfully burned wood just as effectively as anything else, so they’d managed to get by. It had required a great amount of willpower not to break down the furniture for fuel, but Sarouth had insisted the furnishings from both prison and tower be given to the people of the town, so Riaag resigned himself to collecting bits that had fallen off of houses to keep the fires going. The sooner he could reclaim his axe and get some proper firewood stores going, the better. At least his newly-consecrated amulet wasn’t having to constantly flare itself out every few minutes.

What to do with the tower was a tricky proposition. Everyone agreed it couldn’t just be left where it was, since even if it was no longer full of fire at certain scheduled times it was still a very large structure inside of which reality was wibblier than it reasonably ought to be, but wanting to be rid of it and knowing how to do so were two very different things. Riaag had suggested that deconstruction start at the top, as the wizard had dedicated his fanciest resources to his own quarters and those he’d given to the seneschal. Sarouth was more interested in performing a sweep of the lower rooms to find functional furniture (which, he stressed again, was not to be broken down for building materials or fuel) and getting as much of the town livable as possible. Others suggested ripping out ironwork from doors and windows to replace the town’s tools with something that wouldn’t crumble instantly. These were hardly mutually exclusive approaches, Riaag knew, but with so much tower to work through they had to figure out where to actually start.

Even after they came to an understanding over what to plunder first, there was also the problem of the other things to be found in the tower. Were the sculpted pets to be put down or freed? Could the pets be rehabilitated or was the attempt itself cruel? What about prisoners nobody knew where there? With effort those who’d been taught how to navigate the halls could get to pretty much anywhere they wanted to go, but they had to know about a room in the first place to navigate to it. Being left to starve to death—as of that morning the porridge bowls still refilled themselves, but nobody expected that to last—in a space between spaces sounded like an awful way to go. Plum’s knowledge was vast but imperfect. They needed someone who could suss out every last corner of the tower without risk of overlooking anyone, or anything, still held within its walls.

Thankfully, Riaag knew someone who could do exactly that.

Ayyisha still looked terrible but seemed in better spirits after a good night’s sleep. Her traveling robes were as lost among the horde as Sarouth’s jewelry; they’d found some clothes among the seneschal’s things that fit her well enough, so she at least managed to maintain an air of dignity in spite of everything else. Sarouth had done what he could for the bruising about her wrists. She sat at a table of her own a little ways from Riaag’s workstation, her scrying orb seated on a cushion Riaag had brought down for her from the observatory. Her hands moved over its faultless surface as she stared deep into whatever it was oracles saw when using their tools.

“Wandering bones with a fear of iron, far from their homeland of water and rice,” she murmured. “I see…four in the tower, and a fifth in the ground outside, and a sixth that has returned home but not wholly….”

Riaag called for a runner. “We got bodies ter recover,” he said. Not everyone here spoke a dialect he could comfortably mangle, but most of them did. “You know the River People?” They shook their head. “That’s fine, you can still help,” said Riaag. “Look fer things what resemble her at yonder sphere, ‘cept with big, big eyes, long, long ears, ‘n faces what’s naturally pointy. Four in the tower, a fifth is mixed up with wherever people dump goblin tigers when they die. Handle ’em carefully. Their kin and kind likes ter carry toxins ‘a much potency.”

“Should we be helping?” asked one of the merchants who milled around at Ayyisha’s side. Much of the rest of the Leopard’s Breath Company, being dear to Ayyisha’s heart and therefore easier for her to seek out, had been some of the first unfamiliar faces recovered from the far corridors of the tower. Two of their number still walked the halls in search of their missing final member, while the others kept close to Ayyisha herself. Given how historically poorly the locals had been treated by the wizard, whether he’d done so with malice or not, Riaag couldn’t blame these other merchants for worrying about misplaced retaliation.

Ayyisha looked from her orb to Riaag. “Should they?”

He shrugged. “Your band found a bad deal. Help if you want, but it is fine to rest. Your…Caliph? They will want you well, I think.”

The other company members accepted this answer, though Riaag could tell it was a restless acceptance. He knew the feeling. People who devoted their lives to solving problems for others could always sniff out their own.

Riaag remembered something. “Did you speak with the changed man yet?” he asked, speaking directly to the tall merchant he recalled as having worn armor the last time they met. “He would not leave his room when we came for him. We cannot leave him here or he will die. He refused an offer to take him to Usoa, where he might seek an audience with their River God, but perhaps your Caliph’s court will suit him better.”

“Oh, that one?” said another merchant, this one smaller. Riaag was pretty sure they had pointed a spear-thrower at him once. “What little we’ve seen of him had him being foul and insulting any who passed by. What’s his name, anyway?”

“The wizard called him something, but I do not think that is his name. Best to ask him properly. Tell him whatever answer he gives, we will still return his necklace to him.” Riaag pushed the beaded chain towards the edge of the table and tapped the wood next to it with a fingertip. He paused. “Do not tell him I said this to you, but I think he once was a favorite of the tower’s master before he was replaced through treachery. He may know interesting things. He may also be dangerous. I do not know if he mourns, but I know it was not his choice to become as he is now.”

“We will keep that in mind, Bough-Breaker.”

Riaag had completely sorted one pile and started on another by the time Sarouth returned, sweaty and out of breath. He flopped himself onto the bench where Riaag sat and leaned on him wearily. “So the horses are fine,” he said between pants.

“Is they, now?”

Our horses are the same fierce little fuckers as always, at least. Couldn’t begin to say if our unlucky friends’ are in a similar state. They’ve been here much longer than we have, so I don’t have the best feeling about them riding out of here the same way they came in.” For a man needing regular gulps of air Sarouth could manage quite a lot of words in a row.

“Well, shit,” said Riaag. “Know if any tradin’ posts is out this way?”

Sarouth rubbed the back of his neck and popped his lips in thought. “Not a clue,” he said. “This is my first time south of the river in, well, ever.”

“Same.” Riaag held up one golden bracelet against another and compared their diameters. They weren’t different enough to say they weren’t part of a set, but they weren’t alike to guarantee it, and the longer he looked at them the more he kept changing his mind from one to the other and back again. He sighed and set them aside with the other not-quite matches, of which there were already several. It was worse than pairing socks on laundry day.

“I’ve got a lot of people to worry about right now, but I don’t plan to shove them out into the cold. I’m sure we’ll think of something.”

Riaag nodded. “Worst case scenario they accompanies us back ter the stronghold, ‘n from there they hops a caravan or somethin’. I reckon by the time we actually cleans up ‘n heads back home, we’s gonna have us a nice little journey. The night wind is prone ter blowin’ favorably in our direction, ‘specially with us bringin’ its own back ter rest.”

“Make sure to tell it thank you for me next time you see it,” said Sarouth, whose slouch against Riaag became increasingly boneless until he was fast asleep and snoring. He stayed that way the entire time Riaag sorted.

People moved in and out of the prison building at a steady pace. The loss of Orcspeak had caused a little chaos, as did realizing they couldn’t remember why they’d stayed in one place for so long; given how furiously Sarouth had worked that morning to keep panic from spreading through their numbers, it was no wonder he was tired. A god-speaker’s knack for overawing those they encountered certainly had its uses! Even those who had no loving ties to the Hill God were compelled to fall on bended knee when he exercised his divine nature, which was usually bought them enough time to break up fights or calm someone down from spiraling anxiety. Riaag’s gentle nature, backed by his powerful frame, had been enough to handle the rest. It was far from perfect but nobody had rioted. That had to count for something.

Bands and families found each other bit by bit over the day as different parts of the town found new uses beyond barely-functional dwellings. The fighting pits had quickly been converted into a proper place for bathing and healers’ work, which helped take some of the strain off the prison as far as gathering spaces went, but it was hard to find the space for everyone once people had the presence of mind to realize how little their old shelters had in them. Aside from a few blankets and supplies they were able to hand out to those bands most determined to leave there was still so much that wasn’t in the right people’s possession. The first cadres of hunters and herb-finders was due in just before sundown, but who knew how much food that would bring in. There was no easy solution to getting everyone to spring in one piece.

If he’d been asked, back when he was a boy, if he could imagine a time when he would be the one bringing comfort to others instead of begging for solace of his own, Riaag simply couldn’t have fathomed it. He liked to think he’d always been a good person, but life at the bottom of the pecking order hadn’t given him the opportunity to prove he could do much beyond taking the fall for someone else. Sarouth had changed that. Sarouth brought him in contact with so many new people, most of which even greeted them with neutral or higher feelings these days, and now Riaag had the luxury of spending what time didn’t need to go into kicking ass on working to help others. Sarouth created the opportunity for altruism and Riaag made it happen. It was one of the many ways his life was a richer one, now, no matter how well he knew the party in need of help. He could always depend on his kindness to strangers.

Not that all of the liberated locals were strangers, of course.

A familiar face weaved through the ever-shifting crowd into the building. He saw Plum before she saw him and waved to her. She approached his table nervously. He greeted her with a smile and put his current object d’art aside. “Soap’s done,” he said.

“About time,” she said. Her laugh was also uncertain. She ran her fingers along the edges of her namesake amulet as she glanced around the room. “When you said you had a plan, I didn’t realize you’d be doing so…much. We’re going to need a lot more than a few cakes of soap to get this place in shape.”

“Ain’t that always the way? I’s used ter such by now.” Sarouth stirred and Riaag nuzzled him warmly. “Allow me ter do my fucken job ‘n announce that you’s in the presence ‘a one Sarouth White-Hair, a man ‘a our people, god-speaker of Agritakh, His most holy Faaroug, ‘n also the holder ‘a my oath. Please excuse if he ain’t able ter greet you hisself fer a bit. He’s a touch sleepy.”

“A pleasure,” said Plum. “You may introduce me as Lakvo Blossom-Heart, a woman of our people, should he ever be awake enough for it.”

He could tell what she was subtly asking without her needing to draw it out for him. “I, Riaag Bough-Breaker, a man ‘a our people, Chosen ‘a Wolf ‘n general doer ‘a shit, is pleased ter make yer proper acquaintance.”

“Nice to meet you. The full you, I mean,” said Lakvo.

“Don’t mind the mess. I’s tryin’ ter get folks’ things back ter them, as you can see, but it ain’t so pressin’ I cain’t help out with other affairs. We’s gonna be here awhile.”

“You’re not leaving?”

Riaag shook his head. “Not until we get more ‘a this shit sorted out proper. I wanna go home, but there’s still weird animals in there. Probably still people, too. Think it’s safe ter say this’s gonna take more’n a day spent rummagin’ through drawers ter fix.”

“I see your holy man is not the type to rest on his title.”

“Nah, not when he’s got me ter rest on instead.” Sarouth stirred a bit at this, but didn’t wake up outside of a few mumbles in Riaag’s direction and a change in the timbre of his snores. Riaag gave him a gentle squeeze before returning his attention to Lakvo. “So what can we do fer you?”

She cracked a smile around her half-missing tusk. “Mostly I just wanted my soap.” Riaag, having held on to a cloth-wrapped cake of the stuff throughout initial distribution, handed it over. She gave it a thoughtful sniff before putting it in her carryall. “I’ve been having troubled thoughts, though. If the god-speaker will listen, I would request his ear.” Her thumb rubbed against the edge of her pendant again. “If he needs to rest, though….”

“He’s just havin’ hisself a nap after chasin’ down a few tons ‘a angry beast. I’ll wake him up.”

This was easier said than done, but at the touch of Riaag’s hand against his cheek (and, when this failed to rouse him all the way, a more vigorous shake) Sarouth reluctantly returned to the waking world. His drowsiness evaporated as Riaag gave him a summary of who Lakvo was and what she needed. After a mighty yawn he declared himself ready to hear her concerns.

“I was safe from that man’s influence in thanks to my amulet,” she said. “It protected me while others suffered. I tried to do what I could to help those I could, but I didn’t speak out. I told myself I could do nothing against a man of such power. Perhaps that was so, since rumors already abound of how not even blessed black iron could touch him, and because I looked out for myself I was able to help many people during my time as his attendant. What could I have done? What troubles me is that I didn’t try.” She gripped her amulet tightly and looked Sarouth in the eye. “Is there any hope of atonement for me?”

“Do you want there to be?”

Lakvo apparently hadn’t expected that answer. “What do you mean?”

“I meant what I said,” said Sarouth. “Do you truly want to work to forgive yourself, or are you asking for permission to give up?” He ran a hand through his hair. “I wasn’t there to see what you did. I wasn’t here for most of it. What little time I knew of this place I mostly spent in a cell, experiencing the attentions of excruciating people, so I can’t say much as to the state of your character. But if you don’t want to work for it, if in your heart you think you are beyond helping, then nothing that I say will matter.”

She set her jaw and nodded. “I will do whatever it takes, Holy One. Tell me what I must do.”

Sarouth slapped his hands together and rubbed them. “In that case,” he said, “you need to tend to your band. Make sure you have found each other, make sure they’re well. If they wish to leave, let them, but you must stay here and serve the town until spring returns. The only way which you may leave early is if all the rest are gone. You are doing right by those you wronged, not standing watch over an empty husk.”

Lakvo nodded. “Shall I tell others that this task is mine and mine alone?”

Riaag caught sight of a familiar face trying to pass through the crowd unnoticed: Toadspit, or whatever name was more correct for him. He nudged Sarouth, who followed his eyes and nodded. A sharp whistle was enough to freeze the ex-guardsmaster in his tracks. A beckon coaxed him over, albeit reluctantly. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere other than in front of Riaag.

“Not entirely alone,” said Sarouth to Lakvo with a sly smile.

It turned out the man’s proper name was Kedda Bat-Scarer, and while he kept much of his previous crude nature he had the good graces to be embarrassed about what he’d done while coaxed towards his worst self by the wizard‘s Orcspeak. He, too, was interested in Sarouth’s offer upon being confronted with how much of a tremendous asshole he’d been while in possession of a lick of authority. Lakvo and Kedda regarded one another in an uneasy truce. Riaag hoped both of their bands would be understanding, but if worse came to worse at least they’d have each other if there was still work to do by the time he and Sarouth left for home. There’d certainly be some interesting stories out of the ordeal.

The two left in separate directions, as Sarouth had seen fit to start them on different duties. Riaag watched them go as his hands fiddled with a hopelessly tangled cords of a woven bracelet. It was not the first time Sarouth had set people against each other on ultimately harmonious tasks.

“So, ah, I take it you could tell she weren’t the kind to accept an easy answer, huh?” he asked. How had this thing gotten so knotted? It had been in a box, for land’s sake.

Sarouth propped his chin up with his hand, his elbow on the table. “Whatever makes you say that?”

Riaag harrumphed. “I’s seen you fergive bandits, cutthroats, the untouchable, ‘n the lost. I dare say you’s practically trippin’ o’er yerself ter give most a second chance, barring specific circumstances.” They did not need to say what those circumstanced were. “You was bein’ downright difficult.”

“If she truly needed an easy answer I would’ve spoken to her, learned her nature, and more than likely given her my favor with little hesitation. She’s not a bandit seeking to throw away her old life, though, nor a recent convert to our ways. Also I think it was a little bit shitty she didn’t try to sneak people some clean blankets or something, this place has a tough row to hoe before it stops being disgusting.”

“What about Bat-Scarer?” asked Riaag. Sarouth had not exactly been light in his handling of Kedda, nor had Kedda asked for a blessing in the first place.

“Him? He’s a dickhole. That’s not a sin, it’s just bad manners.” He leaned over to study Riaag’s progress. His own purloined jewelry had still yet to surface. “Looks like a lot of people will be reunited with their stuff, soon. I was thinking we should do the same.”

“Yeah?”

“Assuming someone didn’t run off with them, and the charms I put on everything should’ve made sure of that, we’ve got some hidden caches of things to reclaim. I don’t know about you but I could do with some clean clothes that are actually fitted to me.”

“Gonna be a lotta trouble movin’ in now that the wizard‘s all smushed up. You any worried ’bout if’n we encounters someone what’s less happy ter see us than the folks back here?”

“I have the perfect plan for that,” said Sarouth, blithely.

“Yeah? What’s that?”

Sarouth pulled his mace from where he’d tucked it into his sash, hefted it, and tapped its head against the palm of his hand. “Percussive diplomacy.”

“So the usual, then.”

“If it works, it works.”

One of the Leopard’s Breath Company was happy to take over Riaag’s position of thing-counter, with the unspoken understanding that they were also keeping eager hands from helping themselves anything that hadn’t been vetted against someone else’s ancestral claim. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust the good people of the town, of course, more that someone who was afraid for what the future held was prone to making short-term decisions that didn’t always take others into account. Enlightened scavengers such as themselves thrived on instincts like that even when it meant pushing good manners to the wayside. Once there was less to worry about when it came to what tomorrow brought that’d clear right up.

Sarouth waved to people as he and Riaag, both wrapped up in wall hangings for want of better winter wear, ambled their way towards the trees and, ultimately, their stowed goods. A few people waved back. The town on the whole was still in shambles, of course, but there was a liveliness to it that had been sorely missing when they’d first arrived, with people actually gathering together to talk and laugh when not clearing away garbage. There were songs again. Bonfires blazed. The shittier houses were already halfway demolished so there’d be supplies for reinforcing the nicer ones. Riaag had even heard talk of some with an interest in pulling apart the tower discussing whether they wanted to trade all of it or keep some to make shelters of their own. Orcs settling down of their own accord? Stranger things had happened.

The ground rose and fell as they walked. Somewhere out here they’d find their things; Riaag missed the weight of his helmet against his head and the steely embrace of his coat of scale, but what he looked forward to most was having comfortable underwear again. He’d only dealt with it for less than six weeks but some of these people had been suffering under the wizard‘s negligence for what may well have been years. Were there enough trade-friendly sorts in this part of the world willing to come out this far in this kind of weather? Surely someone would be, even if just for the novelty of it, and perhaps mention of how grateful Naar Rhoan—with its textiles and porcelain, to say nothing of its spices—would sweeten the deal enough for somebody to brave the lack of roads. Not that they’d do this without informing Naar Rhoan itself first. Once they heard back from Ruzhu, they’d need to start getting as many message ravens in the air as they could.

A breeze ruffled their hair. Cold as it was, it was still fresh and carried the lingering scent of the evergreens that grew deeper into the hills. Sarouth spread out his arms and inhaled deeply. Riaag followed suit; he’d missed being so close to nature. The last concern that he’d be stuck in the tower forever at last put themselves to rest. They’d be returning with as much as they could wear and hold, with more trips to come until they could coax the horses to carry anything again. Until then it was just the two of them on their own in the middle of the woods. No matter how much he loved Naar Rhoan, its people and its food and the promise of its walls, Riaag still felt at his best if he was able to get away from the stronghold every once in a while to shake off the rust. That oxidized feeling apparently increased a scorefold when spooky wizard lairs were involved.

“So about those merchants,” said Sarouth as they wove through a stand of saplings. “The Leopard’s Breath Company.”

“What about ’em?”

“You remember what their seer woman said last time we met?”

Riaag nodded, even though he was walking behind Sarouth at the moment. “Ayyisha? Yeah. ‘Strange allies woven inter a tapestry.’ Reckon we done us some sittin’ at the loom these past few days. Wonder what such a tapestry shows?”

Sarouth chuckled. “Probably a really rude gesture. Upon my life but this sucked.”

“Did it ever. We did some real good, though, you ‘n me. Helped a lotta people, most ‘a whom likely won’t never know it.”

“That’s what we do, after all,” said Sarouth. “The sun will set and the moon will rise. The moon will set and the sun will rise. So it goes until all returns to the Void. You up for a shitty, shitty winter helping make sure other people get the chance to witness that endless cycle?”

“You know it,” said Riaag, and they bumped knuckles in a simple redeclaration of their oath.

The wind rose again, drowning out their next words with the promise of a coming storm, but as they hurried towards the safety of a cave their spirits remained high. That tapestry of allies was woven in their favor. People had shelter. Everyone had plans. And even the longest storms had to end eventually.

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7 thoughts on “Xenolith Cache

  1. it’s almost five in the morning and i can’t convince my phone to log in so, this is a placeholder comment

    but god! god!!! the boys! the horrible wizard! the prayers! i cried and then i cried again! I’m so proud of them and I’m so proud of you, dang

    • okay okay okay

      The terrible wizard is so fucking terrible oh my GOD i hate him. Like yeah sure you really believe people don’t need stuff, that’s why you still have a bath and a bed and fancy clothes. Oh wait, it’s not that you think PEOPLE don’t need stuff, it’s that you think ORCS, which is not synonymous with people despite them being CLEARLY FUCKING SENTIENT PEOPLE, don’t need stuff, I see.

      Also I am sure this was not intended but his weird “manually making fantasy creatures” gave me serious like…Disney vibes? Like he was almost imagineer-like when he was talking about “making wonders” (fuckin. “wondersmith”. literally wizard is LESS pretentious than that, and that…is hard to do)

      I love love love getting to see more prayers and getting more explanations of the cosmological ideas of the Hill God’s followers. ALSO IT WAS VERY COOL AND GOOD TO GET PAYOFFS ON STUFF THAT WAS SET UP STORIES AGO with Sarouth calling down the meterorite bc Agritakh was once among the stars??? That was SO GOOD, wonderful creative use of stuff set up before this story even!

      It is so delightful to see Riaag and Sarouth patiently work through and wait for Riaag to be ready to do more sex stuff and be more selfish and forthright about what he wants. Like, that is the shit a series is good for, where you can really let things take their time, and I’m so so pleased to get that eventual payoff! (It was also so nice to see via his fantasy that, it really is not about interest, and is about, being able to tolerate and work through trauma. Idk it’s just sweet to me)

      And OF COURSE Riaag spotting the shapeshifter right away because of dismissiveness that Sarouth has never ever displayed was SO GOOD and was like…fuck.

      Also I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I love Riaag’s amulets as like…the magical equivalent of medication for his anxiety. Like obviously it is also doing some very real magical things re: some of his worst fears, but it also seems like whether it is intended to or not, it makes him feel the kind of safety that like, my benzo prescription makes me feel, and lowers his anxiety to a manageable level. It’s really cool to see a creative fantasy solution to brain problems that isn’t the horrible “magic can cure everything” but also feels more culturally and magically specific than “here’s your antidepressant potion”.

      I just love this series so much and I love how much thought and detail you put into the everyday bits of life, and I love Riaag and Sarouth, and I would have read it and left a comment sooner, except I look forward to the Rhoanish stories in December so much that I had to save it for a day when I was both emotionally prepared to cry about Riaag, but also feeling good enough that I would remember it and actually enjoy it (thanks SAD). It was definitely a great thing to know I had to look forward to! Great work, thank you so much!

  2. Still don’t know how you’ve managed to make me love and care about orcs the way you have, but absolutely brilliant and well done as usual. Fabulous world building, complex characters, interesting new situations etc etc.

    A note to the mods or PtB’s or whoever: not usually an issue in SSBB, but in the rare case of a piece this super-long, I could have really used an easy way to download it into Kindle or iBooks or something that would keep my place. Not to say there isn’t one, but I sure couldn’t figure it out, and my browser kept reloading to the top nearly every time I came back to it and I had to scroll forever and figure out where I was… >_<

    Much love tho; I know this is free, and I appreciate everything I can get! 😛

    • The Editor here, re: your comment: We used to have a plugin that let you download that, but I think it broke following some past WordPress update. This is a good reminder to get that fixed.

      Otherwise, you can usually download stuff from Smashwords … when, uh, the Editor doesn’t get wrapped up traveling and forget to update that. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, though. We’re glad to work out whatever helps folk enjoy the reading experience!

  3. ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. i love the orcs so much, i’ve been looking forward to this update since i reread the books this spring. they are so delightfully flawed and real. thank you for sharing them with us!!

  4. I absolutely love this series. I enjoyed this story so much, even though you really had me on edge for a lot of it. Shit got dark, but Riaag hanging onto competence and determination and compassion despite his struggles was so wonderful to see.

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