The meal was winding up by the time Mordecai and Threadbare got back. Celia helped wash the dishes in the bathroom sink and put them away in the little cupboard niche behind one of the wall hangings.
“Thank you. That was delicious.” She scrunched her nose. “Weird, but delicious.”
“You be welcome, child,” Zuula smiled down. “Also you be red.”
Celia mopped her forehead. “I thought it was just hot in here.”
“Hot inside you belly, too.” Zuula chuckled. “Be hot coming out too. You know how toilet work?”
“Oh, er, uh, yes.” Celia turned redder.
“Good. Mistah toilet gon' be your friend come an hour or two.”
The boys chuckled, as Celia turned the reddest she'd been so far, and covered her face with her hands. Zuula shot them a glare, and they fell silent. “Why be embarassed? You alive. Living things eat, people shit. Is nature of world.”
Threadbare wondered if that meant he wasn't alive. If he wasn't that, then what was he? The little bear, his mind heavy with his first philosophical crisis, sat down with a bump and tried to work it out.
WIS +1
And he thought that if he wasn't alive, it didn't matter, really. He had a friend, two friends if you counted Pulsivar, who treated him as if he were alive. So that was the most important part. The other troublesome parts of that notion could be worked out later.
Celia didn't notice. Her eyes were wide under her hands. Zuula had just said a forbidden word!
...maybe it wasn't forbidden, here. Not under this roof, anyway.
“Yeah, I guess so,” the little girl said, moving her hands away. “So, um, what now? Do we go to sleep?”
“Nah.” Mordecai said. “Clear night tanight. Up fer starwotchin'?”
The family nodded, and Celia nodded with them.
Starwatching, as it turned out, involved climbing a ladder in back of the hut and stretching out full on the thatch-and-plank roof. It was slightly sloped, but not so much that they risked falling off. Which was good for Threadbare, since his agility was still a bit underpar. He only managed the ladder because he clung onto Celia's skirts for dear life and let her carry him up that way.
Your Ride skill has increased to level 2!
“Oh, that's the rain plug, isn't it?” Celia pointed to a wood-and-leather object lying off-center from the roof, with ropes coiled around it.
“Clever girl,” Zuula said. “We move it up top before rain come. Keeps stuff dry. Have to open windows to let smoke out, den.”
“But what if it rains before you can get the plug in?”
Zuula snorted. “Unclever girl. This home to a shaman and a scout. Rain DON'T come we don't know about.”
“Oh. Right, sorry. Dumb question I guess.”
“Not really. You don't know much about shamans, do you?” Garon asked, from where he was sitting, and honing a knife with a whetstone.
“No. They're... nature priests?”
“Pah. Say more like priests are sellouts.” Zuula grinned, all sharpened teeth in the moonlight. Her yellow eyes were almost aglow... as were Jarrik's and Bak'Shaz' eyes, too, Celia noticed. “World come first. Gods come later. World remembers. All tings in nature remember. People forget. Shamans remind dem.”
Celia frowned. “But the books say that Kolnol created the world.”
“Books, pah!” Zuula threw her arms in the air. “What dey know? People wrote them! People not dere when it all start. Mountains? Mountains dere. Oceans? Oceans dere. In different places now, yes, but still dere.”
“Oh.” Most of Celia's earliest friends had been books. She wasn't sure how to handle the fact that some of them might be wrong.
“Shamans work wif' plants an' beasts an' natural forces. Comes to a pinch, Zuula can call winds.”
“Don' do dat too often, dough,” Zuula said, relaxing. “Pull winds out of place, dey get cranky elsewhere. Dey take it out on tings dey shouldn't.”
“She also does the sweat lodge,” Garon said. “You ever tried that, Celia?”
“I-I don't even know what that is.”
“Oh you poor girl!” Zuula rolled over to face her. “Tomorrow night, we do sweat lodge.” She pointed at a shape in the darkness back from the main hut a bit. Celia had taken it for a storage shed, the first time she'd seen it. “You get nice an' dirty, sweat lodge get you clean. Also...” She tilted her head, looked to Mordecai. “Dream quest, you tink?”
“Too soon,” Mordecai said. “Some things she's got ta learn first.”
“Things? Like what?” Celia asked. “What's a dream quest?”
Mordecai and Zuula shared a long look. “Summat that'll require yer daddy's permission,” Mordecai finally said. “Gets inta prophecy an' hints a tha future.”
“Ways it can go, not prophecy.” Zuula corrected. “Possibilities....” She stretched the word out, hissing it.
“Oh. Um. Well, okay. I'll ask him when we go back. When is that?”
“Tired of our comp'ny already?” Mordecai said, teeth glinting in the moonlight.
“Oh no, no no, this is fun!” Celia said. “You're all very nice, and I've seen and done things I've never done before. It's probably doing great things for my human levels!"
The family laughed at that, and Bak'Shaz made a googly-eyed face at her. Jarrik kicked him in the butt, and the little kid yelped as he almost slipped off the roof. The family laughed more at that, and Celia, hesitating only a bit, joined in.
Threadbare, getting into the spirit of it, pointed at Bak'Shaz and held his belly, shaking.
Your Adorable skill is now level 13!
“Right on, little guy,” Garon ruffled the teddy bear's head.
Then they settled back and watched the stars glimmer.
“Um,” Celia said after a while. “What's it like being half-orcs?”
Zuula didn't answer. The boys rolled onto their sides, looked at her, then looked at each other.
“I'm sorry. Did I say something wrong? I don't... it's... oh dear. I said something wrong, didn't I?”
“No. Is honest question.” Zuula decided. “But let Zuula ask first... what is it like being human?”
“Um... I don't know. I guess. I never thought about it much.”
“You don' have to. Mos' everyone around here human. But we got tink about it. 'cause we not. But Zuula going to keep her tinkin silent because maybe you a bit young to hear her tinks on it.”
“Boys, why don't ya field this one?” Mordecai asked.
Garon nodded. “Sure. First off, people who aren't human might get a little angry because they get asked that a lot. By humans. In fact it's only ever humans who ask that question. Ever.”
“I wonder why that is?” Celia's face was innocent, and Jarrik and Bak'shaz relaxed. She hadn't meant anything by her question.
“So... the first thing you have to understand is that orcs come from overseas. There's this bunch of idiots, they're down below the Oblivion now, what's their name again-”
“The Cane Confederation,” Zuula spat.
“-Right, them. Bunch of little kingdoms and tiny nations, all feuding and only banding together when bigger nations try to invade them. Thanks to constant warring and not enough people to work the fields and do the lousy jobs, they had the bright idea of using slavery to get by. And for a time this worked for them, but it got them a lot of anger from the surrounding neighbors, who didn't like slavers to begin with and liked them less when it was their folks being enslaved. So some genius, he decided hey, let's go enslave some people nobody cares about.”
“Orcs,” Mordecai said. “Big, big mistake.”
“Yeah. After a few decades, there were big rebellions, bloody wars, that are probably still going on today. The orcs escaped into the swamps down there, and the places too wild for humans to survive, and grew. Every few years a new horde forms and sweeps up, and there's a whole lot of death.”
“Orcs don't forgive. Orcs don't forget. Cane be enemies. Cane be dead,” Zuula hissed. “It take ten generations or a tousand, dey die.”
Celia shivered. “But if they imported orcs... humans and orcs fell in love and got married, right, half-orcs are because of that, right? Proof it can happen?”
The boys looked to their mother, shared a long glance. Mordecai coughed. “Sometimes, ya. The local orcs only got a grudge against the Canefolk. Mind ya, the wild tribes will kill you if they fink yer weak. Or if they're hungry. Or if they fink they could prosper from yer death.”
“Dey do dat to other orcs too, so is fair. Orcs do dat to everyone. Stronger peoples makes for stronger world. Means demons and worse tings get butts kicked when dey show up.” Zuula made a squiggly hand sign. “Evil beware!”
“But do ya know what orc means, in orcish?” Jarrik asked her.
“Um, no.” Celia said. She was far, far offshore in very deep waters, and a storm was brewing, but she didn't know how. She just knew she had to ride it out.
“Orc means tribe. Thass it. If they accept ya, yer family.”
“S'how I met me Zuuly,” Mordecai curled his arm around his wife's shoulders. “Got hired ta raid one of the little Confederation kingdoms. Fort we raided had a captured tribe in it.”
“What was left of us,” Zuula hissed. “Damn dem.”
“I sprung 'em and guided 'em out. An' after I fought alongside'em, I was family. They helped me mop up the rest of that kingdom, an' Zuula followed me north. An 'ere we are.” Mordecai sighed. “This was all back 'fore the Oblivion, of course.”
“When it done, we go back and see tribe,” Zuula said. “Might have to kill a few to get back in, it's been a while.”
“When what's done?” Celia frowned.
“The Oblivion.”
Mordecai sat bolt upright, as did all the boys.
“What?” The old scout choked out. “What are ya talkin' about?”
“Oh. Right.” Zuula smacked her head. “It be coming down. Saw it in last Dream Quest.”
“Dream quests are jus' possiblities,” Mordecai insisted.
“Yes. And all possibilities here say it coming down. Few year or few decades. But it gone eider way.”
Mordecai was shaking now, hands white-knuckled on the roof. Zuula looked at him serenely. “We need to talk about this.” Mordecai whispered.
“Come, den.” Zuula rose, and headed to the ladder. “Not you,” she told her boys, as they stirred as well. “We be back.”
The adults left, disappearing into the darkness. The kids looked at each other, wide-eyed.
“Okay, we don't talk about this. Ever,” Garron decided. “This is the sort of news that gets you hauled in front of the Royal inquisitors.”
“They prolly know anyway. Won't their own shamans have figgered it out?” Jerrik asked.
“King ain't got no shamans,” Bak'shaz pointed out. “Too un-simple-eyed.”
“Uncivilized,” Garon commented. “Though maybe the clerics and oracles said something. And who knows what his cultists told him. It would explain why everything's so tense in the garrison in town. I thought it was just because of the troubles in the North, but... this could be it.”
“What?” Celia asked.
Jarrik looked over at her. “The garrison of guards in town grew four fold in the last two weeks. Something big's going down.”
“Word is they're bringing in dragonriders!” Bak'Shaz grinned. “I wanna see that!”
“Not up close and personal you don't,” Garon told him. “But we don't talk about this. Not till Dad says it's okay. Swear?” He held out his hand. “Put yours on mine and swear,” he added, at Celia's look of confusion.
The four kids and Threadbare touched hands, as they swore their first oath of secrecy against the rest of the world. Well, Threadbare thought it, anyway. He got his head ruffled for being cute again.
Afterwards, they were silent for a while, digesting the news in their own way as the stars wheeled overhead.
“Hey,” Garon finally said. “You wanted us to tell you what it was like being half-orcs?”
“Oh. Never mind, it was a stupid question anyway.”
“No, it's fine. You're tribe now. You're family.”
“Oh, uh... thanks!” She gasped. “My charisma just went up!”
They laughed at that. “Ya must've lead a pretty sheltered life,” Jarrik jeered.
“You have no idea,” the girl muttered.
Garon shrugged. “Alright. So being a half-orc means people are gonna look at you and think to themselves 'wow, that guy's really tough and really violent and really dumb.' It means having to live with that, knowing that people will think you're either a threat or an idiot.”
“That's horrible!”
“Well... it can be, if you let it. But here's the thing. The people who are stupid enough to think that's all there is to you, they underestimate you. So if they're your enemy, you can exploit that. They die easier when you pull off something smart. And if they fear you, you can use that to your advantage, too. Me, people look at me and think hm, axe, half-orc, the dude's a berserker, who's going to murder his way through life, go into a rage, and kill indiscriminately.”
“That's horrible!”
“Yeah, especially since what I want to do is murder my way through life, go into rages, kill discriminately, and get paid for it.”
“But you aren't a berserker, how can you rage?”
“Race skills. We get born with one orcish skill and one human skill. In my case I've got that human drive to achieve, which gives me bonus experience for quests and stuff like that. And I've got twisted fury. It's... pretty horrible. It's a rage that burns me up, eats up hit points.”
“Oh. That's... kind of dangerous, right?”
“It would be if I weren't smart.” He tapped his forehead. “Shamans get slow regeneration which helps me survive, and mercenaries get Blood is Gold, which lets us trade money for instant healing. I'm gonna be a legendary fury on the battlefield, when I start getting paid enough. And when I'm on a battlefield. Which is going to be soon, if the Oblivion's going down in our lifetime.” his eyes gleamed. “It'll make grinding all that charisma totally worth it...”
“We didn't get his fury,” Jarrik said. “Just as well. He goes through so much crap keepin' his temper down. We got Darkspawn instead. Lets us see in tha dark, get bonuses to stuff at night or in tunnels and such.”
“Oh. That's pretty handy!”
“Yeah, all the best monsters come out at night,” Bak'shaz grinned. “Downside is I'm stuck with Orky charisma. But my tamer job helps there.”
“Mom put a scorpion into his crib to toughen him up when he was a baby,” Garon explained. “No shit, he made friends with it! Didn't sting him, slept with him, kept other bugs away from him.”
“Wait, she did what?” Celia's voice rose.
“It's all right. She had the antidote right there, and was ready to heal him up. She did stuff like that to all of us. Orcs are born with lousy luck and no real clearics among most tribes. So children have to get tough fast or improve their luck quickly, or they die because they just didn't have the luck or fate to survive.”
“She lost a few children that way, before she started getting tough on us,” Bak'shaz said. “Then we lost one more 'cause she got stupid.”
“Don't talk about Mastoya that way,” Jerrik scowled. “You don't know nuffin' about it.”
“What... um...”
Garon glanced Celia's way. “She joined the King's guard. She had twisted fury too, she'd be dead if she couldn't find an outlet for it. Can't blame her. She's off in the North somewhere right now. Still sends letters and money back. Dad keeps the letters and gives away the money. Which is a shame, because I could put it to good use. In fact...” He bit his lip, considered Celia.
“You're family now.” He glanced around. “Jarrik, are Mom and Dad gone out of earshot?”
“Keen Eye,” Jarrik whispered, then stood up and looked into the woods. “I think so.”
“Good.” Garon smiled, and leaned in close to Celia. “How would you like to help us run through a dungeon?”
Spoiler: Spoiler



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Andrew Seiple


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