By Way Of Introduction
This was submitted for the Blizzard 2010 writing contest; it did not win, place, or show. Sigh. The version below is very slightly different than the one actually submitted, mainly in that it was not cut back to 7500 words to fit the contest guidelines. Much as I’d like to delude myself into thinking otherwise, I doubt the extra 500 words would have made much difference. This story references places, characters, events, etc, in World of Warcraft and is not intended as an attack on their copyrights or trademarks yadda yadda yadda, the actual story is mine and remains copyright to me, etc, you know the drill.
The Tale Of Gramlak Boarskewer And Mister Kettlehead
There is a thing which is believed only by the very wise and the very foolish: That one in a million chances happen nine times out of ten.
The sky flared, crackled, and glowed, but when, in this benighted otherworld, did it not? Gramlak Boarskewer glared spitefully upwards for a moment, which caused his helmet, rather ill-fitting, to slide slightly down over his eyes. As he struggled to adjust it without breaking pace, he found his shoulder pads shifting out of position, rubbing over a patch of bare skin and scraping back and forth with each step, a tiny irritation in itself but one which magnified, over and over, as he and the rest of his column slogged forward. The shouts, curses, and threats of the officers had become just one more background noise, vocal lightning to match the visual.
It was a chance for glory, he’d been told, a chance for a pig farmer’s son to earn true honor. They didn’t say what they mostly needed at Thrallmar was workers, brute laborers to do the heavy lifting, or that there would come a time when they’d be so desperate for warriors that they’d grab anyone they could find, give him ill-fitting armor stripped from the dead, and march him out under the alien sky to grapple with nightmare creatures ten times the size of a troll. He stared up at the thing they were approaching, a Fel Reaver, someone called it. The ground roiled as it walked, almost oblivious to the tiny things near its feet. Gramlak breathed deeply and tightened his grip on the spear. I might die, he thought, no, I will die, but I shall die like an orc, I shall die as a proud warrior of the Horde, I shall…
There was an instant of something, perhaps fire, perhaps pain, and then the world became grey mist, fading and drifting, and Gramlak realized, rather in shock, that it was over. He couldn’t remember if he’d managed to stab the thing even once, but he didn’t think he had. He’d died with his spear unbloodied (in more ways than one, came a sad thought), and now there was nothing waiting beyond, no second chance, no hero’s welcome beyond life, just fading grey. He looked down at a world increasingly blurry and faded, and began to feel the end of feeling, the dissolution of all that he ever was, and welcomed it, welcomed the end of the awareness of just how little “all that he ever was” had amounted to, in the end.
Then the howling began. At first, he thought it might have come from himself, a howl of pain and frustration and anguish, but then he realized it was coming from outside himself, from all around him. The grey mists were streaked with violet, flashes of energy whirling and spinning, and Gramlak wished, for a moment, he’d paid more attention to the droning tales of the shamans, as perhaps they might have mentioned something like this. Then it felt as if his soul was a parchment upon which was written an unwelcome message, and some angered warchief had seized it and crumbled it and hurled it away. The howling became the only thing he could hear, the only thing he could perceive, and then, there was a quiet, a welcome stillness. Light was everywhere now, bright light, with shadowed, looming, shapes, immense figures of vaguely humanoid form, towering far higher than even the fel reaver, and there was a voice…
“Oh, poo. This will never do.”
The shadows resolved themselves, and Gramlak felt true terror for the first time in both life and death. What waited beyond life was… a blood elf female the size of a mountain, her already unpleasantly thin and pointed features formed into an even more unpleasant pout of frustration? A hand came then, a hand the size of his family’s hut, and picked him up… no, Gramlak suddenly understood, picked up something he was inside, some sort of clear shell or prison… he could not move, he could not speak, he could not close his eyes. All he could do was watch as the world tilted, whipped, and swayed as the immense creature casually carried him away, then tossed him through the air. He tried to catch a glimpse of what else was out there, but the world was too large, he could barely take in anything before all he could see turned green.
A high, grating, voice spoke. “Hey, you don’t want this thing, I’ll take it. Give you a copper for it. Hey, I’ll make it two, you’re cute.”
The elf spoke then, her voice filled with the languid boredom and practiced contempt of her kind. “Keep your coppers, and your hands, to yourself. Ooooo! I just hate this place, I keep trying to purify these crystals but there’s just soooo much ambient stuff out here it just messes up every experiment I try, and it’s completely ruining my hair!”
Darkness followed then, and Gramlak welcomed oblivion.
Sometime later, oblivion spat him out. There was light here, a lot of it, clean and white and pure. He caught a glimpse, barely, of a sky which was a proper blue, and then a mad mélange of colors and shapes he could barely comprehend, and more voices, goblin voices.
“This all you got for me, Grizzik? Scraps from the penninsula?”
“Hey, this is good stuff, great stuff! Arcane crystals, demon blood, fel iron scraps… we can make a lot with this!”
“It’s crap, Grizzik, and you know it.” Gramlak felt himself being lifted into the air. “What am I supposed to do with this? It’s cracked!”
“Stick it in one of those K3-7’s. It’ll work well enough. Besides, what are they gonna do if it breaks? Come to the other side of the world to get their money back?”
“Heh! Yeah, you’re right. What the hell, the suckers paid in advance!”
Gramlak heard raucous laughter, and the scene spun around him again, and yet once more there was the welcoming darkness.
Light. Gramlak discovered he had eyes again. He tried to turn his head, but couldn’t. He was looking down, towards a simple planked floor covered with a sprinkling of straw. The light was coming from an open door straight ahead of him. There was an odd, hornlike, sound, coming from a black and white animal that stood a bit to his left, and he was looking down at…
He’d never fought the Alliance directly, but he grew up on tales of great heroes and their wars against the humans, and he knew all about human treachery, deceit, and cruelty. Weak, honorless, creatures who would massacre entire villages in the name of their king and who seemed to think no place mattered, or even existed, until they had “discovered” it.
At least they weren’t giants. Indeed, he seemed to be a good two feet taller than they were. But why couldn’t he move? It occurred to him that maybe he’d only been knocked unconscious in the battle, that he’d been taken from the field by prowling humans and captured for interrogation, that he was bound or perhaps ensorcelled… but they didn’t seem to be asking him any question. He tried to study them further, his inability to move fuelling a rage that had no place to go. He struggled to control himself, to stay calm, he would face whatever fiendish cruelties these pink-skinned monsters had devised with the honor and dignity of a true warrior of…
“You spent how much gold on this thing, Jacob?” The speaker was a human female, probably. They were hard to tell apart. It had long brown hair and was wearing clothing in a simple plaid pattern.
“Not so much that we won’t make it back in one harvest, Abby. Maybe two. There’s just not enough farmhands anymore, not with all the troubles, and the McClancies down the road swear by these things.” This one was male, barely any bigger or stronger than the female.
The female… it was Abby? Laughed. “Swear at them, maybe! Robb McClancy probably wanted you to buy one so he wouldn’t look like the only idiot here.”
“You’ll see I’m right! Now hush, I’m trying to figure this thing out…” The male stared at a pamphlet covered in tiny letters, and read aloud from it. “‘Welcome to much productive happiness with new Reaper Of Crops K3-7. Is functional with great simplicity and much work for goodness of you…'” He flipped through some pages. “OK, here it is.” The human looked up and stared directly at Gramlak. It spoke. “K3-7, Activation Code 529012”
A new voice spoke. Gramlak was astounded to find it was coming from his throat, or where he felt his throat should be. “Activation. Acknowledged.”
The man… Jacob… smiled, as if he’d done something worthwhile. “You see, Abby? You see? It works!”
Abby shook her head. “Sure it does. Fine. I’ve got cooking to do, you play with your new toy. Just remember, when it falls apart, the crops still need to be harvested.”
This was a third voice. Gramlak wasn’t sure where it came from, then his head spun around and he saw the source. A tiny human, probably a girl, wearing a plaid outfit like the woman’s, and clutching something made of rags in one hand. Abby looked down at her and smiled.
“Not a toy for you, Kara dear. This is a toy for Daddy. Daddy spent a lot of money on it. I hope Daddy has a lot of fun playing with it, because he’s not going to be playing with anything else for a long time unless those crops get harvested!”
The girl looked up at Gramlak, and her face exploded in a broad grin. “It looks like he’s got a kettle on his head!” She laughed at her own joke. “He’s Mr. Kettlehead!” She clapped her hands and jumped.
Gramlak had been called many things in his short and undistinguished life, but “Mr. Kettlehead” had never been among them. He tried to talk, to demand to know what was going on, but he couldn’t.
Jacob spoke. “K3-7, Activate, uh, harvest protocol. Subject, wheat.”
Gramlak heard a metallic scraping noise and he saw huge metal blades scythe out of his hand. Then he felt himself lumbering forward, out the door, towards fields waving with grain. The feeling was that of being tied to some wild riding wolf, going where it went, unable to guide or control it. He saw flashes of his own body… arms of wood and metal ripping through the stalks, piston-like legs ending in flat feet, occasional flashes of crude canvas draped over a barrel-shaped chest. Understanding exploded through his mind like an alchemist’s experiment gone horribly, typically, wrong.
I’m a golem!
Was this some sort of punishment? Was this what happened to those who did not die properly, with honor, with a life of glory behind them? It’s not fair!, he screamed silently at an uncaring and unresponsive universe, as he watched his bladed hands relentlessly cut and stack the grain. I tried to die in battle, I did! It’s not my fault I didn’t get the chance to fight!
He screamed his rage from inside his prison, as the sky above the human farm turned from blue to orange to black and back to orange and then to blue, as the sun rose and set and rose, two days, three, and then the fields had been harvested and the grain stacked. During this time, he’d seen the humans come and go, seen the male and the female bicker and then nuzzle each other and then fight again, watched the girl run back and forth, saw other humans coming and going, all of them free to move and talk and exist, while he smashed his non-existent body against the walls of the invisible cage. He held on to one thought as the days slid by, that somehow, he would be free, and he would take vengeance for this humiliation, that he could endure having been a laborer for the Horde, if that was the only way he could serve, but he would not spend his afterlife like this. Anything, even nothingness, was better, and he would find a way. He must find a way.
At the end of the third day, Jacob spoke to him. “Well, you did a good job there, K3-7. Let me see here…right, here we go, ‘Initiate Rest Protocol'”.
The golem’s voice spoke. “Protocol. Activated.” Gramlak hated its slavish obedience. He wondered if the various overseers and commanders he’d worked for had seen him as something like this, as a thing to be ordered about. Peon, serf, golem… was there a difference in the eyes of those who gave the orders?
The golem trudged into the barn, selected a corner, and sat down, awaiting its next command. Gramlak knew pig farming, not crop farming, but from what he could tell, the next field would not be ready for another few days. Days in which this body would sit in the barn, and in which he would try to get free. Maybe if the golem wasn’t doing anything, he could somehow take it over…
Hours of pointless rage later, he decided that wasn’t likely. His rage hadn’t really ended, it had just run out of places to go, and it collected in on itself, gathering into a tight, hard, lump while Gramlak tried to think of something he hadn’t yet tried.
“Hello Mister Kettlehead!”
Slumped down as he was, Kara’s head came up the top of the barrel which formed his chest. She was standing barely an inch from him, and stared up at him, her face smudged with dirt.
You are a rebellious child, Gramlak thought. I have heard your mother command you many times to be clean. A warrior must learn first to obey orders if she ever expects to give them!
Kara heeded this silent rebuke about as much as she heeded her mother’s much louder ones.
I know your parents will not properly discipline you. This is why the Horde must rule. The Alliance is too weak to face the Scourge.
Kara’s head tilted to one side, as if she was contemplating this bit of political debate. Then she held up a lumpy, moldy, something that might once have been an apple, a lifetime or two ago.
“Are you hungry, Mister Kettlehead?”
Mister Kettlehead remained mute. Kara frowned and dropped the apple, then reconsidered, picked it up, and stuffed it into the pocket of her dress. She then held up the lump of rag she habitually carried with her. Gramlak could see that it was a very crude doll, with a splotch of dirty yellow yarn for hair.
“This is Calia. She’s a princess.” Then Kara looked around and whispered. “But don’t tell anyone. It’s a secret.”
Foolish girl! You never reveal secrets in the presence of an enemy! Your parents have taught you very poorly!
Kara frowned. “She’s sad. She misses being in a castle. So we’re going to have a big party and cheer her up!”
Gramlak tried to make some sense out of this, and couldn’t. It seemed every time he thought his existence had reached its nadir, the gods or spirits or demons found some new burden. Now he was compelled to listen to the prattle of a human child, who he suddenly realized had vanished while he had been thinking. Unable to look around or move, he had no idea where she had gone until she returned, clutching a badly worn hat she’s taken from one of the scarecrows.
She stood on her tiptoes and placed it on his head. “There! Now you’re all dressed up for the party!”
I’d pray for death, Gramlak thought, but it’s too late for that.
Over the next few days, Gramlak discovered that in addition to being an orc peon somehow trapped in a golem’s body, he was a cruel king who sent his daughter into exile, an evil ogre terrorizing an unnamed kingdom, a mountain, a noble prince who was in love with Princess Calia but didn’t know she was a princess and she didn’t know he was a prince, and, most humiliatingly of all, a badly wounded Alliance soldier who needed to be healed by Chiurgeon (and secret Princess) Calia, aided by Alchemist Kara, said healing process consisting mostly of looking very, very, serious accompanied by the sad shaking of heads.
It was a relief to be sent back into the fields.
The crops were coming in now, a good yield, and even Gramlak’s day-and-night labors could not harvest them all. Jacob worked as well, and Abby, and even Kara helped as much as she could, hauling whatever she could carry. Grudgingly, almost hatefully, Gramlak forced himself to admit that despite their physical weakness and almost criminally lax standards of childrearing, the humans did not lack for determination, forcing their soft and easily broken bodies into constant labor, enduring pain and exhaustion until the job was finally done.
Through it all, Gramlak continued to struggle towards freedom. The longer he stayed trapped in this body, the more he began to feel as if it was his own. He still could not control it, but he began to feel it more, to pick up sensations of motion, to feel the gears and cogs shifting inside him as he moved. It’s a start. I will keep at this. I will be free.
The leaves had begun to turn the same orange as the evening sky when Jacob looked around at the fields, crossed his arms, and smiled at Abby. “Well, we did it. And we wouldn’t have without K3-7.” He looked back at her expectantly.
Her gaze locked onto his. “Fine. You were right. But we still haven’t earned back what it cost us. What if it breaks before next harvest? Those goblins, they’re even worse than the gnomes.”
“What if, what if, what if… what if a giant dragon explodes out of the ground and destroys the world? You can’t worry about every little impossibility!”
Kara looked up at her father, eyes bright with wonder. “There’s gonna be a dragon?“
Abby sighed. “No, no, that’s just foolishness. Jacob, don’t scare the child with things like that!”
Kara crossed her arms, exactly as her father did. “I’m not scared. I want to see a dragon! Then me and Princess Calia and Sir Kettlehead The Barrel Knight will go fight it!”
Jacob couldn’t think of a response that would anger Kara, Abby, or both, so he said nothing to either. Instead, he told Gramlak “Initiate Rest Protocol”.
This brought a joyful squeal from Kara. “That means we get to play some more!”
Abby watched her run off after the golem, which was lumbering as ordered towards the barn. “Are you sure it’s safe to let her near that thing? Those blades it has, they could slice her open in an eyeblink.”
“It’s harmless. The manual says so. Besides, when it’s in rest mode, it’s basically just a lump of wood and metal. It’s as dangerous as a piece of furniture.”
Abby snorted disparagingly, but said nothing.
It was a short autumn, giving way to a long winter. Gramlak was surprised to learn, mostly via slight changes in Kara’s preferred themes and plots, that the humans shared many holidays with the orcs. As the cold grew harsher, Kara’s visits grew more infrequent, and Gramlak found himself alone for long stretches, with nothing to do but listen to the creaking symphonies of branches in the wind and struggle to gain control of his golem-shaped prison.
It was just as the winter snows had mostly melted away and the first intimations of new growth had begun that the storm came. Gramlak’s head had been turned, rather crudely, to face one of the barn’s windows (“So Mister Kettlehead can look and see if Greathfather Winter comes!” had been the reason, months past), and so he had seen a hint of green appearing here and there and had wondered if returning to rote labor in the fields was better or worse than endless hours of blank tedium and red rage trapped in the barn. He watched as the clouds swarmed in, a great rolling mass of darkness and shadow, blotting the sun, and he heard the screaming fury of the winds as they built and he felt his own soul try to join in the choir of wrath, adding its voice to the harmonies of rage and destruction that began to reach a crescendo. The old barn creaked and buckled, and Gramlak saw flashes of motion outside, the weaker limbs of trees torn off and flung aside, as if they’d been humans battling a troll, and then the thunder began in true earnest, war drums pounding behind the chorus of the winds.
He wanted to join the storm. It spoke to him, screamed to him. It was the wrath and frustration that spun and whirled inside him, made manifest, and the crackling flames of the lightning were the spears he never got to hurl in life. He felt himself in tune with it, matching each surge in power with a surge in his rage, allowed himself to be carried away with it, feeling it do what he could not do… move!
And then he did.
He wasn’t sure of the precise instant it happened. Lost in the exultation of anger, caught in the blinding swirl of pure feeling, of emotion stripped of all ties to the flesh, he had stood and howled and spun and smashed against the ladder which led up to the loft, his metal bladed hands shredding it into dust and kindling. It was in the shower of sawdust that he stopped and became aware. He looked at his hand, at the long scythed “fingers”, and curled them, seeing them slide back and forth according to his whim. He turned his head, then lifted his great metal feet. He howled in a mix of triumph and release, his voice carrying over the wind, and he began to stomp towards the door. Free! Free! Now I can…
He skidded to a halt. Months of dreaming of this, half a year at least, and he came to the awareness he wasn’t sure what to do next. He wasn’t even sure where he was.
Human lands!, he told himself, but the humans lived everywhere, pestilent creatures. He tried to recall what little he had learned of the world… the son of pig farmers was not given the most extensive education. The humans were mostly far across the sea… it was the same continent the shambling corpses lived, he knew that… there must be Horde here, somewhere…
He looked through the barn doors, torn open in the storm’s fury. He thought of what he’d seen when he’d been out there, a few farms, the smoke of a small village in the distance, fragments of names he’d gathered from overheard conversations and Kara’s play. If there were Horde here, they’d be hundreds of miles away, in no direction he knew for certain. Weeks of trudging this body through the wilderness, dealing with whatever dwelled in the dark places beyond the light of the towns, then, somehow, finding some fort or outpost, hoping they didn’t simply attack as soon as they saw a barrel-chested bladed war machine clanking towards them…
Where am I supposed to go?
He thought he could at least die in battle, tear through the human village until the guards finally came for him, but that thought died quickly. What would be the point? Killing the weak was the act of a coward and a monster, not a way to earn honor as a warrior.
There were still walls all around him. He was still trapped. His mind raced down one possibility after another, thinking of paths he could follow, finding each one blocked, an end that led in a second death as pointless and futile as his first. The rage of his mind could express itself now, at least, and he did so, his new body giving full vent to his feelings. Wood cracked and shattered. He lifted heavy barrels filled with water gleaned from the pure winter snows and hurled them against the walls, feeling the dimmest satisfaction as they smashed and exploded.
There wasn’t much point in this, but it felt good.
He tore into the hay, into the pen where the cow had been until it had been turned into the winter feast, an odd honor for years of faithful service, into support beams, into whatever tools were lying around, into.. his eyes caught a glimpse, an instant, of soft flesh and dark hair and a slightly humanoid shaped bundle of rags perennially clutched in one hand, and he twisted back, feeling the internal workings of his body rebelling against the order coming down from a new and different mind than the one they’d been built to obey. The scream of metal filled his sense, and he felt as if he was trying to snap his own spine, but he pulled back, ripping his hands away from their path, then stagged a few steps and fell against the mountain of shredded straw which had been carefully baled hay a few minutes before, and he saw the yellow of it was splashed red.
Gramlak looked back, all the fury of a moment before gone, punctured and deflated. Kara was still standing, blood running along her face from a gash that ran from forehead to behind her right ear. She lifted the hand that still held Princess (also chirurgeon, mage, soldier, and explorer) Calia, and felt along it, wincing painfully when she touched it.
She’s not screaming. Good girl. Pain just tells you that you’ve made a mistake. You learn from it.
Abby was less quiet. She screamed, and began to run for Kara. Jacob used a string of words Gramlak had never seen him use within hearing of Kara, and one or two he’d never even used within range of Abby.
Abby grabbed for Kara, pulling her back, “By the Light! Are you alright? Kara, please, speak to me! We’ll need to get a priest! Jacob, run, go get someone from the chapel, no, wait, first, get rid of that monster, I’d rather we begged in the streets of Stormwind than, Kara, Kara, please say something, honey, please, it’s not that bad, I don’t think it’s too deep…” She dabbed carefully at it with her dress, then managed to move to one of the broken open water barrels and dipped the cloth in, never releasing Kara from her grasp. “It’s not too bad, it didn’t get your eye, you’ll be fine honey, do you hear me, you’ll be alright, Jacob, what are you standing there for, you’ve got to get a priest and get rid of that thing…”
Kara finally broke her silence, looking back at Gramlak, who was remaining still and slumped against the wall.
“He was just scared by the storm. Poor Mister Kettlehead. He’s all metal. That’s not good in a storm, you told me.” Kara wriggled out of her mother’s grip and raced forward, towards the carefully immobile Gramlak. Abby and Jacob both rushed for her, but in the short years of her life, Kara had learned a great deal about slipping away from her parents.
She tapped on his head. A few more drops of blood trickled down, some falling on the wood of his chest. “Are you alright? Don’t be scared, the storm is over.” Gramlak said nothing. He wasn’t sure precisely what was going to happen here, what had happened here, but he knew that inaction was probably the best action. It’s not like I haven’t spent months doing nothing, he realized.
By staying still long enough to talk, Kara had exposed herself to a second grappling attempt. Abby’s grip this time was two handed, and no amount of squirming could break it. Abby looked down at Gramlak and kicked at him, then realized, with a moment of pain, that kicking metal with bare feet was a bad idea.
She moved cautiously away. Jacob kept looking at it, then at Kara’s bloody face. “Priest. Yes. I’ll go get Father Tommal, he can take a look at her… I’m going to have a word or two with Robb McClancy, maybe a fist or two as well, talking me into this… call the smith, have him take it away for scrap or something… ” He knelt slightly, so he was eye level with Kara as she was being held. “Kara, sweet, I’m so sorry this happened. Daddy’s very sorry he let this happen.”
Kara looked back at him. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t make the storm. And the storm is what scared Mister Kettlehead.”
Jacob nodded slowly, not really listening to her. “Well, you don’t need to worry about, uhm, Mister Kettleface any more. He won’t hurt you again. We’re going to get rid of him tomorr…” he saw Abby’s face… “tonight. Tonight. Right after I’m done getting the priest.”
“NO!” Abby suddenly kicked at him. “You can’t!” Tears that didn’t come when a knife slashed along her skin came now. “It’s not his fault! He was scared!“
Abby struggled to retain her hold. “Kara, he hurt you! He could have killed you! Do you understand what that means? Killed?”
“Yes! But he just got scared! He’s my friend! You can’t make him go away!” She continued to kick, twist, and scream. Abby began to half-carry, half-pull her from the barn. “Why are you still here, Jacob? Where’s that priest?”
Jacob had moved over to Gramlak and opened a hatch on his chest. He rooted inside. Gramlak had just about a second to realize what he was doing before he felt an excruciatingly painful twisting in his guts. Jacob’s hand came out, holding an intricate chunk of metal. “There. This is the main bit, says so in the manual. Even if it goes crazy again, it can’t move without this in there.”
Kara’s face was pure horror. “You killed him!” Then she began to wail, louder than the storm. “Damn it, Abby, get her out of here! Now!” She did so. Jacob set the cog on a bench and walked out.
Gramlak tested himself as soon as they were both gone. It was true. Without that piece, was just as immobile as ever.
I wonder what it will feel like, to be melted down or torn apart?
Blazgrik cursed, something goblins considered a high science. “Well, here’s your problem, the counterclockwork derotatatron is over on that bench. Supposed to be inside it. Problem solved, gimme 5 gold.”
Jacob barely kept from kicking the small green man. “I know, I took it out.”
“Oh, well, then you voided the warranty. Nothing I can do. Besides, I’m a sausage vendor! Why’d you drag me here?”
“That thing almost killed my daughter!”
Blazgrik sighed. “Almost? Well, it’s not designed for combat. You want the Assassinatron-12.”
“No, you… look. It went crazy! Look at this place! It tore the barn apart last night! It’s not supposed to do that!”
“Wait, last night? Oh, that was the… uhm… the storm. Lightning. Very bad for this model. You, ah, you need the calliotropic insulation upgrade kit, I happen to have one right here and I can sell it to you for…” Blazgrik looked at Jacob’s face. “…uh, a free service for loyal customers.” Blazgrik grabbed a handful of bits he’d been carrying around, just in case, and made a good show of installing them. “There, good as new. Won’t ever happen again.” And, he thought, I’ll be long gone from this dump if it does.
The ensuing debate was nearly perennial. Every week, Abby swore that “either that thing goes or I do”, every week, Jacob managed to deflect or delay the issue, keeping Kara well clear of it while watching it for the slightest hint of trouble. Plowing, planting, tending, the weeks rolled into months and the K3-7 performed perfectly. Better than it had before, Jacob felt. Maybe that goblin really had improved it. Eventually, Kara was able to visit “Mister Kettlehead” while he rested in the barn without having to constantly sneak around her parents, something which, she felt, took a little bit of the fun out of it.
Gramlak faced a similar, internal, debate. He was loathe to flee without knowing where he was running to, but he worried about being set upon by the oft-threatened scrap dealer. Each day he resolved to flee; each day, he ended up putting it off. The work was familiar, and the endless routine brought stability. He felt constant stirrings of discomfort at working for, helping, humans, but somehow, these weren’t “humans”, the vaguely abstract enemy he’d heard of but never battled. These were Jacob and Abby and Kara. He’d been raised a farmer’s son and his life, prior to one brief battle, was one of farm labor; this was just more of the same.
Months turned into years and Gramlak had long since stopped counting them. He heard bits and pieces of things… battles in the distant north, political upheaval among the Horde… but life here rolled on. Kara’s visits became fewer and fewer, and her conversations began to be less about fantastic adventures and more about sharing secrets she couldn’t tell anyone else, trivial things as far as Gramlak was concerned but of passionate and all consuming interest to her. He also felt this body beginning to show the ravages of time. Gears creaked more and more. Blades were replaced, over and over. Wood was patched and patched again. Goblins did not build to last, and Gramlak wondered and feared what would happen when it finally stopped working. Would his consciousness remain here? Would it be buried or burned or melted down, and what would become of him then?
It was Autumn, closing on Hallow’s Eve, when Gramlak heard unexpected sounds. For years, he has absorbed the routine of the farm, learned its rhythm and motion, so even the slightest discrepancy was like a clanging bell. There were footfalls, soft but not silent, and voices that spoke in the tone of plots best done in darkness. Gramlak knew that sometimes young men would come quietly to meet with Kara (often nearly being impaled on a pitchfork by Jacob, who had an unerring instinct for knowing they were there), but there were many voices here, and they did not sound young.
He thought. They may be simply wayfarers crossing the farm, or patrolling soldiers stealing some fruit as a form of payment for their work, or any other fairly innocent thing, but he needed to be sure. As quietly as he could make his clanking body move, he walked to the window and peered out. This body saw well in the dark, not perfectly, but better than he did in life.
There were four he could see, dressed in various shades of dark. Fragments of light glinted here and there from exposed blades and arrowheads. They spoke rapidly to each other, each burst of words amplified or twisted by a gesture of the hands or shift in the feet. They were turned towards the farmhouse, and it was obvious that the topic of their debate was to advance upon it or not.
Defias, Gramlak thought. He’d heard Jacob curse them often enough. Renegades, thieves, mercenaries… usually a menace from the next valley, seen prowling around one town to the south, a threat which struck elsewhere yesterday and might strike here tomorrow but was never around today.
Now they were.
Leave, Gramlak thought to them. There is no wealth here for you to steal. You would waste your time.
They didn’t heed his thoughts. A decision was reached; they marched towards the house. Gramlak’s hopes collapsed. He watched them go until the darkness shrouded them even from his body’s excellent vision.
Cursing that he had taken so long to decide, he trundled after them, as quietly as he could manage. Perhaps they’d demand only food and meat, and be on their way, the humans left slightly poorer but otherwise unharmed.
One stopped as soon as he got within a hundred feet. He gestured to his comrades, who melted away into the darkness, and looked at Gramlak. Then he made another sign. They kept moving forward.
I’m just a golem, Gramlak realized. I’m following my orders, gathering crops or doing some other chore. I won’t interfere and trying to destroy me would make too much noise. Keeping this in mind, he began moving in a wider pattern, as if performing a task, always keeping the stealthy figures in sight, at least as much as possible. There was no magic about them that he could tell, but they slid in and out of visibility as if darkness was a curtain they could pull around them.
The farmhouse door opened and light poured out, a great splash of red and yellow against the black. Louder voices came through the portal. “…telling you, it’s that golem. I know that damn clanking sound all too well, it’s gone mad again, wandering around at night.”
“Ten years, Abby, ten years or more and no problems with it, why would it start now? I’ll go…”
His voice stopped. Gramlak could see one of the bandits holding a glistening knife to Jacob’s throat, even as the others slipped past and inside. “Jacob, what are…” came Abby’s voice, and then a scream, then silence. The door shut. So did the window shutters.
Gramlak moved forward. The shutters were not perfect; there were cracks through which light could pass. He watched and listened.
Jacob was standing there, eye to eye with the leader. He was holding a small iron chest. “Here. It’s every damn thing we have. Take it and go.” Abby was next to him, trying to keep quiet, a crossbow held to her head by one of the others. Kara wasn’t visible. Perhaps, Gramlak thought, she’d snuck out to be with her friends.
The leader’s face was hidden, except for the eyes, but the cruel smile showed in his voice. “Everyone’s got to pay their taxes. There’s a war on.” He opened the box, then looked back at Jacob. “This isn’t much. In fact, it’s shit.” He glanced over at Abby. “The ring, woman. Now. And the necklace.”
Jacob nodded at her. With a hatred Gramlak had never seen in her, not even when she looked at him, she did as instructed. The bandit turned them over in his hand. “This is shit, too. We should just torch the place, teach the others to make sure they’ve got something worth coming out here for.”
There was noise and an indignant yelp from the stairs. Kara came stumbling down, half falling, half running, another of the gang behind her. Two of them grabbed her as she reached the bottom.
“This one was sneaking out a window. Probably going to run for the watch.”
The leader laughed sharply. “We slit their throats first thing, girl. Don’t you know anything?” There was a moment of careful reflection. “Take her.” Kara squirmed and tried to kick free, and was greeted with a powerful punch to her stomach. As she coughed and tried to catch her breath, the bandit continued. “We want 100 gold, in a week, placed by the stump on the field’s edge. Until then, she’ll be intact… if not necessarily marriageable.” There was more laughter. “If you don’t pay… well, by two months, three at the outside, we’ll have sent back enough pieces that you can fill her coffin.”
Abby screamed and leapt at them, to be taken down rapidly by fists and then a crossbow bolt that pierced her calf. Blades surrounded Jacob. “Do you want her to be an orphan, too? Try something.” They began to move out.
Then Kara saw her opening. She’d relaxed a bit, and so had the person holding her. Now she ducked, twisting free, and grabbed a fireplace poker, a hot one, which she swung clumsily at the nearest thug. The blow was glancing, but there was still a sizzle of flesh. The target screamed and drew a curved blade, stepping artfully towards Kara, who saw she had no place to back up.
Gramlak knew it would take a second for a skilled combatant to knock away Kara’s weapon, and then she’d be dead. His hope of ambushing them once they left the farmhouse was gone.
The wall exploded inwards, wood shattered under a steel whirlwind. Gramlak first swing took down the one threatening Kara directly, the blades of his hand sliding cleanly through leather armor and skin and bone, the body sliding off with a calm wet thud. “Lok’tar ogar!” he screamed, the battle cry strangely flat as it emerged from the golem’s metal mouth. The bandits stepped back, but did not panic. They moved, as much as they could, in the crowded room, setting up a flank, trying to trap him. Coded words were barked. One charged in, dual blades flashing, and managed to cut off a chunk of wood before ducking back and away from the returning blades. The second tried the same, but timed it poorly, and he staggered away, trailing crimson and fumbling for his crossbow. The leader…
The leader had pulled out something, some sort of clockwork thing. He weaved, dodged, stepped back, stepped forward, Gramlak’s blades cutting thin slices of flesh but never getting a killing blow. The other two kept up the assault.
Kara slammed one with the poker, a hard blow across the knees, and as he grunted in pain, Gramlak’s blades scored a second kill. Abby and Jacob were backing away, Abby gesturing frantically to Kara, Jacob moving around and behind, heading for the firewood axe. The third bandit, already wounded and seeing how things were going, dashed for the door. Abby grabbed his cloak, bringing him up short with a choking gurgle, and pulled him to the ground, whereupon she grabbed a heavy cast iron frying pan and set to work.
The leader was all that remained. He had slid the device into his sleeve and had drawn his own second blade and moved into the fray. He and Gramlak performed a lethal waltz, a carefully measured performance where each blade swirled and arced like an elf dancer’s veils. Abby, Jacob, and Kara could do little but watch, none able to enter that edged storm.
Each step in the performance took one more bit out of Gramlak, a slice here, a chunk there. He could not bleed, could not weaken or feel pain, but he could have cables snapped, gears knocked out of position, arcane sigils disrupted and rendered useless. His enemy, in turn, found himself being cut in a dozen places, each hit shallow, but the sum of his wounds was mounting. This dance was taking place atop a narrow spire stretching high above the ground, and the battle was going to be decided by one final blow, one sudden strike that toppled the other.
The strike came.
The first cut, the telling blow, was a swift and unexpected curve that split cables and cut wood, rending Gramlak’s left arm a useless, dangling, appendage. As Gramlak tried to turn to bring his other arm to bear, to slash upwards with a killing blow aimed at his foe’s now unprotected side, he saw a knife drop to the ground and an almost inhuman spin of the wrist as the little machine appeared once more from its hiding place and was smacked onto Gramlak’s wooden shoulder. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he saw the bandit leader tumbling back, risking exposure to get away, and then there was deafness and blindness and fire.
The next few seconds were flickering fragments. He saw the farmhouse around him beginning to burn. He saw Kara turn and scream, running forward, reaching down, grabbing… he saw her again, steps away, as if he’d closed his eyes for a second or two, and she was holding… holding one of his bladed fingers, her mouth open in screaming fury… he saw the bandit struggling to stand, to get away… he saw Kara looking down at him, her face streaked with blood once again, this time most of it not hers… and then the flashes of darkness which had been growing longer and longer blurred together into one.
Gramlak stood and shouted. “To eternal glory for the victors!” His cry was taken up those around him, and rebounded off the walls and echoed through the hall, the bellowing of a thousand orcs or more. A somewhat less enthusiastic echo came from the dwarves, who had found themselves on the losing end of the most recent battle. Laughter came, from all sides, raucous but not cruel, as the dwarves promised fitting retribution when the feasting was ended and the battles would begin anew. “By the beard of my grandfather, you’ll not win again!” shouted one, and somewhere far off came an answering bellow “Hey! Leave me out of this! Fight your own fights!”
Gramlak finished off his mug and grabbed for the boar ribs. There’d be another fight soon, and it was best to be well fed. Of course, “soon” was an odd word; there wasn’t really time here, or hunger, or anything but feasting and glory. Let the druids have their emerald dream and the shamans their elemental reveries; here was a place for warriors, a place for those who died with honor and without fear.
Another cheer erupted, this one from the humans. An orc next to him grumbled. “Looks like they won one. Damn pinkskins, they’re insufferable every time they manage to actually win.” Gramlak looked to where the shouting was going on, then back to the orc beside him. “Nah, it looks like they’ve got a new arrival. Big one, too. Important.”
There was a drunken grunt. “How can ya tell? They all alike to me. Even the dead ones!”
Gramlak laughed. “Shoulderpads you could land a wyvern on.” He grabbed a full mug of beer, ignoring the protest from the orc who had been reaching for it. “I’ll check it out. See what we’re up against.”
“Bah. All the same.”
He worked his way through the hall, answering and winning a good half dozen calls to duel before he made it. Timelessness was a good thing. The new arrival was female, and the blade she bore across her back was at least as big as she was. A dozen other humans crowded around her, slapping her back, cheering her. She’d obviously done well in her life, been watched over by many.
There was a thin scar on her face, reaching from eye to ear. It was a scar that meant something to her. You only bore the scars you chose, here.
Gramlak walked up to her. She started slightly, perhaps not expecting to see orcs here… that all warriors shared in glory after life was something few knew or spoke of. She watched him warily, and the others stood back, to see what happened.
Gramlak smiled, something he not been able to do in the years he’d known her. “So… what has Princess Calia been up to all this time?”