The cheers erupted from the Horde as the Alliance soldiers were driven from Wintergrasp Keep.The red rage in Stenriht's eyes faded, and his shoulders slumped. It was over- for now. The Alliance would return, and the defenders would have to battle again to keep this stretch of snow and ice.
For his part, Stenriht was tired. The comfort of the rage was no more. A year ago, the rage would have sparked euphoria. At the end of each battle, the warrior had looked forward to the gentle caress of the rage as it softly whispered passed his being, congratulating him on his victory.
Now, the rage leaked from his tired frame, cold and bitter as from a jilted lover. There was no feeling of pleasure- only the closing-in of an ever-shrinking horizon. These days, it took more and more of the blessed rage to satiate his thirst: More battle, more need for blood. This was Sten's life- the constant haze of battle with no final victory, only eventual, constant defeat. The warrior was suffocating in an atmosphere that became thicker every day, drowning even as he took deep breaths.
The Horde soldiers smiled and slapped backs as they went to the quartermaster to receive their well-earned grog. Meanwhile, the goblin engineers got to work repairing the damage to the walls in preparation for the next battle that would inevitably come. As for the healers, they went among the fallen to either repair bodies or to perform last rites.
Shaking his head in an effort to try and clear the haze, Sten summoned his drake. The offspring of Alexstraza had been with Sten for quite some time, and the orc took comfort in her friendship. Grabbing the reins, Sten climbed on to the wyrm's back and launched into the air. As one, the drake and the orc sped off to the Northeast- towards Ulduar.
As the cold air sped by the orc's face, he took the opportunity to scan the terrain below. The harsh, snowy peaks contrasted sharply with the cold, sharp parapets of the Lich King's fortresses. The villages of Ymirheim soon passed followed by the valleys leading to Sindragosa's Fall. The Horde possessed few, if any, troop movements here. The void left by soldiers eschewing battle in favor of the games of the Argent Crusade to the North had been gradually filled by the Lich King's minions. All the work that the Horde had done battling the forces of Arthas, had now been rendered moot by the Crusade's antics. Another failure for another lost cause.
Lifting his head, the orc viewed the oncoming mountains of the Storm Peaks. Soon, he would arrive at his destination. It was time for some answers.
So, warrior, you are coming home?
Sten ignored the taunt. Ulduar was not his home. It was his...what? The joining with his puppeteer was strong. Sometimes, it seemed that he could see through his symbiotic eyes as if through a thin veil upon a reflection pool of rippling water. The few hours he slept were filled with disjointed images of the places and events that confounded the mind and were impossibly old.
No, Ulduar was not home, but it was a place of comfort and intense pain both leaked from the abomination that had selected Sten as the vessel of its psychosis.
The orc swooped down on his drake and landed in the small courtyard in front of the Prison of Yogg Saron. Ulduar's ediface stood in its titanic glory, gleaming in the pale sun. As high as it stood among the Storm Peaks, the structure appeared to touch the bright orb as it slowly sank into the horizon.
After a quick pat on the neck, Sten dismissed his drake and began walking towards the swirling energy that marked the door. At first, the door resisted his entry. Sten was used to this and kept pushing until the swirling field of force reluctantly allowed him in.
Descending down the staircase, Sten ignored the bustle of activity by the dwarves. A few stopped their tinkering with various machinery and glanced at him. Seeing his grim expression, however, disuaded them from entering conversation.
The warrior approached the transport portal. By now, he was an expert at activating these ancient devices due to his forays with Arafalle's squad. The prison level was empty- except for its star inhabitant.
You seek death, mortal?
At this point, Sten didn't care. He was tired, so damn tired. He just wanted this- whatever this was- to end. If that meant his life, so be it. But by whatever gods there were on this miserable rock called Azeroth, he would get his answers.
His boots clanged loudly on the rock as he left the transporter. Turning left, he beheld the room of swirling green clouds. In the middle stood Sara, a puppet and speaker for Yogg Saron. She sat comfortably on the floor, a slight smile on her face as the orc approached. Tilting her head to one side, she regarded him.
Huge monstrosities sprang from the clouds and began to descend upon the warrior. Sten stopped and waited. He did not bother to reach for his weapons. In truth, his vision became fuzzy and dim, and he could care less about the show. Languorously, Sara waved her hand and the Guardians suddenly froze and gradually faded from sight. The orc nodded and traversed the few feet that separated him from the former Vyrkul. He sat down in front of her.
A roar, as if from a waterfall, started quietly in his ears. Gradually, the sound increased to a crescendo before trailing off abruptly. When it left, it took the orc's hearing with it. Deaf, the orc sat there and waited. And then, the darkness finished taking his vision, the smiling face of Sara fading from his sight.
The drilling seemed the worst. The low-pitched grinding caused his body to vibrate in harmony with the metal table. Dim light gently filtered through the darkness- enough to show the fine mist of blood gently hugging the off-white powdery bone as it streamed from the numerous thin augers digging into his flesh.
Thousands of nerve endings, aroused and engorged by the pulsating hum, split and screamed as fresh, sharp needles jabbed into each relentlessly. In the dim light, the orc could see the smiling face of a man wearing the tabard of the Scarlet Crusade- a man whom he had killed over a year before.
Do you now see?
Through gritted teeth. "No, it would not have been sufficient."
You hold him to a high level of esteem, puppet. Too high, I'm afraid.
Holding desperately to consciousness, the orc spat causing lights in his mind to flash painfully. "You know little of my family, squid. He was our greatest champion!"
Mocking laughter, deep and rumbling, bounced through his head.
He was strong of body but weak of mind. Less than useless.
Through the intense pain, Sten held on to the image of the massive orc, the Champion of the Horde, the powerful warrior that defeated all enemies, the father whose nod of approval was the pinnacle of reward.
Enough puppet. Your stubborness is... tiring.
Sound rose and then faded leaving a soft whisper of memory. Darkness closed leaving only a point of light that fluttered and disappeared. Sensation ceased.
Floating in a sea of darkness. There, a point of light rushing towards him. Engulfed in brightness, lancing through his brain and penetrating the darkest recesses. Shapes, movement, washed out colors forming into coherence...
Snowy peaks melded into the green hills of the Alterac mountains. Sten flew impossibly fast over the snow in disembodied form. Soaring over a rise, he beheld a small battle. A group of orcs appeared to be ambushed by a host of Yeti along a deer trail that wended its way down a frosty slope. Sten's focus telescoped in on one figure amidst the fray.
The enormous orc was covered in blood. Laughing maniacally,he dispatched another hairy behemoth.The Yeti continued to come, boiling from their caves and descending upon the small orc party. Never-the-less, the warrior was practically giggling, while his companions fell around him.
"Marrow, look out!"
The orc turned just in time to duck a boulder thrown his way. With a scream, he charged the offending beast, swinging his two-handed axe, Gutripper, accidently decapitating another Yeti in its deadly arc to the offending boulder-thrower. Nearly cut in two, the beast flopped to the ground, entrails spilling upon the snow.
Marrow tugged once on Gutripper, but it was too firmly lodged into the corpse. Letting go of his axe, Marrow met his next opponent straight on, grabbing its claws with his hands and spreading his arms wide. Dipping his head into the white fur, he opened his mouth and dug his tusks into the soft throat, ripping out the arteries and larynx with one vicious swipe. As the limp corpse fell, Marrow spit out the detritus and looked for more beasts to fight. Seizing two more of the snow apes by their throats, Marrow laughed as they flailed away at his mail hauberk. A squeeze and a twist and both of them dropped to the ground like broken marionettes.
Turning to face the rest of the pack, the warrior roared,his head slowly arcing backwards to the sky. Muscles bulged below his armor and his arms, flexed, exposing powerful veins popping through the skin as his arms rose above his head, fists tightly clenched. The roar rose to a crescendo,shaking the frozen trees and causing ice crystals to shatter and plummet to the ground.
The Yeti ran. Abruptly, the roar ceased. For a few seconds Marrow stood, his face to the sky. With a slow, heavy purr, the muscles loosened, the arms gradually fell to his side and his head lowered to face his squad. Panting slightly, the orc slowly, languorously smiled and stretched.
The two remaining orcs from his original squad of ten eyed the warrior warily. Marrow laughed gently and shook his head. Moving to his axe, he placed his foot upon the rib cage of the former Yeti. With one powerful pull, Gutripper lurched from the corpse. Resting the axe upon his shoulder, Marrow jauntily strolled towards his companions.
"What is your issue, grunts?” Marrow spat, "This battle was glorious! Now pack up! Grom will not wait forever for his report."
The vision began to blur and the voices of the orcs began to recede.
Your father was powerful, don't you agree?
Sten's pride filled his being. "Yes squid, he will always be known as one of the finest of the Riht."
Then let me take you to the beginning. It was not always so…
Darkness flooded in and consciousness ended.
The sun began to set, sending it's rays to spear the little valley. Orange light bounced from the backs of the gathered throng, waiting in anticipation of the ceremony. Smoke from the flesh of cooking clefthoof wafted over the crowd providing promise of the feasting that would take place after. It was a proud moment for the clan of Riht.
Orc warriors, surrounding a clearing, clashed their weapons upon shields in rhythm as fourteen young orclings approached the band of five warlocks. The leader of the five lifted up a large, crude cup. With arms extended to the sky, the former shaman spoke in a dark tongue spreading black, smokey tendrils that wended their way throughout the crowd before rushing back into the vessel. At once, the drumming ceased and there was silence. As one, the young orcs kneeled. Each one drank, in turn, from the outstretched cup.
Each of the young orcs stood for a moment before falling to the ground in violent paroxysms. Frothy blood spat from the orclings, and bone ripped through flesh as it attempted to escape from tortured skin. But the skin leapt forward and once again contained the thrashing bone and sinew that crackled in frustration. High-pitched grunting deepend into growls as the orclings transformed into full-grown warriors.
They rose, almost as one, full warriors of the Horde. The warlocks nodded their approval while the birds flying high over the plains of Nagrand cried in dismay. Nature was twisted this day and the land wept.
For his part, Marrow growled in frustration. His father, the noted warrior Brull, refused to let him take part in this ritual. The Horde was preparing to enter Azeroth once more, but Marrow would not be joining them. Broken and twisted from birth, Marrow grimaced as he looked at his deformed legs. Oh, he could walk, but he did not have the size or agility of his cousins. He was a disappointment to his family.
He stumbled away from the tents. Dusk was falling and shadows spread as he painfully climbed the hills surrounding the valley of the Riht. He could no longer bear the shame of being passed over.
The warlocks had come earlier, led by the former shaman, Curan. It was Curan that declared that all Riht over the age of ten would be part of the invasion force. It was Curan that performed the growth ceremony that artificially aged those orclings younger than 18 so that they could fight- much as it had been done during the culling of the Draenei many years past. It was Curan who was the ultimate arbiter of worthiness.
At 12 seasons, Marrow yearned to be a part of the family going to war. Instead, he would be left behind. At best, he would become a peon. At worst, he would be an outcast- fated to live with the Mag'har. The bonfires grew within the encampment in the valley, and Marrow could see the figures of his family members dancing around the flames. His own brother, Orlando, had taken part of the drinking. Even now, he was proudly lifting his father's impossibly large battleaxe above his head. Marrow turned away to look out into the darkness, away from the valley that served as his home.
He froze. In front of him stood a large, green female. She appeared to be a human, based on the stories the young orc had heard, but she was much taller- more than twice Marrow's height. A slight smile played upon her lips as she beckoned to the young orc. In her hand was a golden cup.
"Drink, orcling. It is time to change your life. It is time to become a dominant force, and realize the future that you deserve!"
She tilted it towards him where he could see a red glow emanating from the golden depths. Despite his mind screaming at him to run away from the apparition, Marrow approached the cup. Peering inside, he saw a gaseous, red liquid cloud swirling within its confines. The cup and its contents seemed to expand and soon consumed his gaze. Suddenly, he swam in the pool of red and the rest of the world faded from his sight.
Rage consumed Marrow. His bones popped, his muscles grew, his tendons stretched and his deformed legs straightened and strengthened. But unlike the warlocks' concoction, Marrow felt no pain, only power. Rage coursed through his body and the intoxication of it was overwhelming. Marrow felt invincible. Looking towards the sky, he knew that he could reach out and crush the moon. And he laughed deeply and fully.
Sten shook his head violently, and the image of his young father faded. He, too, had felt the power of the rage. He knew first hand the power of it's taint. But he had never felt it to the extent that Marrow had. Disgust and arousal battled within his soul, threatening to choke the life from him as it stoked the fires of his being.
Now you see, puppet. Your father, an unworthy cripple, became a true warrior of the Horde because of my gift. He confronted his father who acquiesced to his son's demand to be part of the Horde. And his father was proud of him for the first time in that young orcling's life. I owned him from that moment!
Through trembling lips of anger and shame, "No. You lie, squid. He was a Riht. He was strong!"
You know the truth, but not the entirety of it. Come, puppet, your final answer awaits. With that, darkness crashed Sten's consciousness.
Darkness. No sight, sound, scent or sensation. Sten, drained, waited.
A voice distant, but seeming to come closer. A whiney, breathless voice. Familiar and not pleasant.
"I shall rip the secrets from your flesh!"
A rough laugh, followed by a spasm and fit of coughing. Then a growl, "And I shall rip the life from you, human, if you do not kill me soon. These needles and your infernal devices annoy me."
The whiney voice, "Yes, you do seem unusually resistant to my methods. Perhaps I shall have to increase my ..."
Interrupted by the sound of running. Metal boots clacking on stone. An alarmed voice, "Interrogator, the Commandant requests your presence at once!"
A sigh, as if dealing with a persistent child, "Oh, very well Sergeant. I shall be there momentarily. Be useful, and inform our dear Commandant of that, will you?"
A slight shuffle and then a few metalic footfalls followed by the latching of a door.
Light, quick tapping of metal on metal. "Now then, my big, burly hunk of orc, we'll leave these wonderful little needles in you to keep you company while I go see what the fool of a Commandant wants now. A little aging of my process should help. You really must consider talking to me when I return."
Gruff voice, hoarse and gritty, "Begone, pest. Run to your master." A racking cough and chuckle followed the soft footsteps. The latch and then silence.
Hoarse, wheezing breath and a rattle of chains. Frustration laced anger, "Why can't I break these manacles." Grunting and straining, metal banging on metal leading to a roar of intense pain followed by the cessation of all resistance. Soon, all that could be heard was labored breathing punctuated by occasional quiet grunts.
"Oh, my poor little Marrow." A soft, feminine voice laced with irony gently stroked the ears. "You do seem to have gotten yourself in a predicament."
Astonishment followed by hope, "You! It has been a long time. Are you here to give me more of your potion?"
The soft voice, laced with amusement, "Oh, Marrow, Marrow, you already drank of that gift long ago. There is no more and no less. You've enjoyed that fruit for countless years."
"Then why can I not break free of these confines? Where is my 'gift' now?"
Gentle, whimsical laughter, filled with compassion, brightened the darkness while leaving an oily undertone, "The gift allowed you to reach your potential, little orc. It does not make you a God, however you may have felt. Unfortunately for you, your body began to fight the gift from the first day."
Growling, "What do you mean, wench! I reveled in the gift!"
The tinkling little laugh, gentle like a soft rain with the promise of angry storm clouds gathering in the distance, "Yes. But did you not notice that it took more and more of your gift each year to obtain your skill and prowess? Did you not see how difficult it had become to call upon your gift even though you craved it more and more each day?"
"Ye...yes, the rage doesn't come when I beckon anymore. But I feel it. It is still there, if I can but reach it..."
"But you can't. Now, all that you are is permeated with your gift, and it is time for you to make a decision."
"What... decision?" His voice quiet and now pensive.
"When you die, the gift dies with you. But if freely given, I can take that gift from you now and provide that to another. I believe you have a son whose destined for mediocrity, am I correct?"
A flat monotone. "Sten..."
"Yes, your younger son. I'm sure he will be happy in his life, chopping wood, raising boars, building structures for the Horde..."
"Enough, wench!" The roar was that of the Marrow of old, commanding and final. Conversation ceased and silence ensued except for the rasping breathing of the orc.
Then, "Take the gift and give it to my son. I will not have a son of mine serve as a peon. He is Riht, and he shall be a warrior!"
"Excellent!" The pretense of compassion was now absent. The feminine voice sounded triumphant. Then, Marrow of the clan Riht, I relieve you of your being. This might hurt a bit."
The tinkle of laughter wove its way through the agonizing screams of the orc. And Sten realized with horror that he was also screaming in the vacuum of nothingness as the sounds faded from his ears.
Durotar. A boiling land of red soil, cracked by unforgiving sunlight and infrequent rains, lined basins and ran into soft hills and jagged cliffs. Few creatures could survive such an environment, but there were a handful. From scorpids to centaurs to irritable wild boars, this land was not for the weak. His father used to tell him that Thrall chose Durotar as an appropriate reminder of the orcs true home- rough and merciless.
Sten knew better. He had been to Nagrand and seen the lush plains there. No, Sten now suspected that Thrall chose the land to harden his people against the enemies that would constantly besiege them, while ensuring that none of the other major races would ever desire it.
He was there, but not there, standing on a hill. Numb with the knowledge that had just been shared, he watched the horizon. Soon, he was rewarded. A short, spindly orc cautiously stalked his prey- a boar rutting around in a small puddle of rare mud. The orc wore ragged leather pants and carried an awkward two-handed axe- a warrior's weapon that the peon did not deserve to carry.
With enthusiasm, the peon leapt upon the boar and battle ensued. Sten grunted in approval at the single-minded determination of the peon. Taking several nasty gouges from the boar's tusks, the peon never-the-less, grimly battled on, finally achieving a kill shot. Triumphant and bleeding from several deep wounds, the peon cupped his hands and reached into the boar, filling his hands with the blood of his kill. He then raised them to his mouth and drank deeply.
Immediately, the red glow started, but the peon didn't seem to notice. His spindly form filled out, and his body lengthend. The wounds began to close and a quiet, soothing power seemed to emanate from the orc. A peon no longer, the orc raised his face to the sky and roared his victory. With this kill, he would be admitted into the Valley of Trials and be accepted as a warrior of the Horde.
As darkness began to cloud his vision, Sten watched his younger self pick up the boar and trot off into the distance.
Slowly the orc returned to consciousness. A dim green light revealed that he was still in Yogg'Saron's chambers, but they were empty.
You have your answers, puppet. Are you satisfied?
Growling, confounded at what he had seen, Sten lashed out, "That my life is a lie? All my accomplishments are due to some swill given to my father and then forced upon me? You have answered my questions, squid, but I am far from satisfied."
A deep, throbbing laugh.
Well, my puppet, you have a decision to make. You still have time to enjoy your 'gift' and be a warrior of your precious Horde. Or, you can eschew it, and become a warrior without the rage- a peon subject to the whims and tempers of the true warriors. The former retains me as your companion. the latter frees you of me once and for all. Choose, puppet!
There it was, the choice provided by the devil. Maintain his status as a warrior and Champion of the Horde, or follow the more honorable path and rid himself of the demon forever.
Honor warred with pride, but the outcome was already decided. The thought of being a peon, treated as a beast of burden, repulsed him. He was a Riht, with generations of warriors behind him. To be less was to forsake his heritage, and that he would not do.
Sten pondered, and then, "There is a third option, squid. I could keep your curse and work with the Ani Ayastigi to kill you, thereby ridding me of you and retaining the rage."
Deep, throbbing laughter echoed around the empty chamber.
Really? You might have noticed that my chamber is empty, puppet. Your vaunted tribe has already 'killed' me, while I was busy patiently providing you answers.
"Killed you... what nonsense are you spouting, squid?"
Do you really think that you insignificant mortals are capable of killing a God? Oh my, what an inflated ego you all possess. No, I shall return in physical form soon enough and others will have to 'kill' me again. It is a delightful game, puppet, and I have enjoyed playing with you very much.
"No one toys with me!"
On the contrary, you are my toy. And as long as I allow you to retain your gift, you will be my puppet. I own you, Sten of the clan Riht, as I own so many others. The only difference is that you have been given the 'privilege' of knowing your owner. And now you know the price of your 'freedom'. Choose!
Sten struggled, but then squared his shoulders. "Do not underestimate the Ani Ayastigi, squid. They will find a way to destroy you utterly. I only hope that I will be there to see you die!"
Sten waited a moment to let that sink in, but then continued, "Never-the-less, I will keep your curse with the hope that I will someday choke you with it!"
The God's laughter, deep and rumbling, receded into the distance.
Excellent! We will have such fun together...
Soon, the chamber was quiet except for the breathing of the orc. Slowly, Sten turned and walked to the teleport chamber. Without honor, it would be difficult to look his brethren in the eyes. Instead, he would focus on the one thing that was left to him. He would defeat the enemies of the Ani Ayastigi, the Riht and the Horde. He would Kill Them ALL!
And with that, the light of his soul dimmed and faded to black.
- Originally published on the Ani Ayastigi guildportal site September/October, 2009