The Last of the Wvorgi
This story contains some mature themes to do with human trafficking and is not suited for younger audiences.Editor’s Note
The crooked flats of Arondzei, the Village on the Steppe, were a series of plains carved across the northern ridge of the Alt’Rhazia Range, stacked together like neat vertical zigzags. Atop each shelf were shaggy, lush grasslands, the interweaving roots of the grass as thick as handwoven rugs, dotted here and there by small, modest homes of earth and stone, their roofs near indistinguishable from their surroundings, covered as they were in the same grass-woven sod. At a distance, the town was all but invisible, which was how the villagers liked it.
Then, one night, the window of the old mage’s tower was illuminated by a small candle. The overgrown dwelling had been empty for decades, its stone walls heavy with dirt and snaked over with vines. Creeping weeds and climbing foliage all but obscured the front of the building from view. If not for the candle in the window, the place would be all but invisible to the undiscerning eye.
Yet, the next day, the weeds and vines were cleared away. Not long after that, a new frame was set in the doorway, and a fence went up, creating a small corral for a cadre of goats. By then it was clear to the villagers that whomever had traveled to this place had intentions to stay.
Brodin, a young man from the village, elected himself spokesman to approach the dwelling. The rest of the village huddled in a group fifteen feet away or so, muttering amongst themselves as Brodin approached the building to find out whether the new arrival was friend or foe, warmonger or deserter. Striding to the door, his back ramrod straight, Brodin knocked brusquely.
“I come to discuss your intentions in this village,” Brodin said loudly, loud enough for the others watching to hear.
The door opened. The person inside could not be seen from where the villagers stood, but after Brodin spoke, the door opened a bit wider to admit him. With a brief hesitation and backward glance at those gathered behind him, Brodin ducked his head and went in.
Not ten minutes later he came out, his face as gray and heavy as autumnal storm clouds. Straight to his own home he went, where he closed the shutters and locked the door. From the secret place above the transom, he pulled parchroot beer and drank it late into the evening. When asked the next day, he told the other villagers the new resident had the right to stay but elaborated no further.
At night, the new inhabitant could occasionally be seen here and there, walking about with a hood up, his eerie eyes reflecting every scrap of light that found them in the dark. Nothing was ever said to him. He kept to himself, quiet, and so rarely seen that the villagers gradually went on with their lives. Unease settled across the village under the shadow of his arrival.
A few months later, an elderly man went missing, and Brodin once again found himself at the stranger’s doorstep on the village’s behalf. The villagers gathered behind him, loudly this time, shouting accusations and demanding the stranger account for his actions. Festering in the fear that had cloaked the village for months, their imaginations had run wild from beneath the weight of his silence and night roamings. Brodin’s silence had also left them convinced the young man knew something the rest of them did not, and so he was forced to the front of the pack to serve as their hapless scout.
And indeed Brodin did know more than he let on. He knew what, if not who, the man was. He was a Stone Berserker, one of the Wvorgi: an extinct branch of Yeni warriors that nobody had seen in fifty years. Their clan had been wiped out in the first bloody clash between the Yeni countrymen and the Krygon Empire. It was due to them that many Yeni tribes could still claim freedom from the dictatorial Mogul of the southern lands. Brodin knew the histories, and so he knew that the Stone Berserker could help.
“Quiet!” Brodin shouted over his shoulder at the frightened men and women. He stood between them and the door to the mage tower. “He is a Wvorgi! He did not hurt Khalen, but he may be able to find him.”
“The Wvorgi are extinct!” a man shouted. “They haven’t been seen in decades.”
“They are extinct,” confirmed Brodin. “He is the last, and we need his help. Go back to your homes, and stop interfering! Every moment Khalen is out there, the chances of him returning alive diminish.”
The newest resident had heard the ruckus outside his new home, but he paid the villagers no mind or ire. He simply left them to sort out their fears by themselves and instead packed a small bag, exiting discreetly from the dwelling by a door in its the backside. That was how most first saw the last Wvorgi: walking out of the village, a pack upon his back. The swirling markings on his arms glowed sky blue in the dying daylight, then went out as he powered his eyeshine, the animalistic second sight that allowed him to see in the dark like an akor’mar. One minute he was at the edge of the Steppe, were the hills sloped down into the great forest of Bataklik, then the next minute he had disappeared utterly, leaving Brodin to handle the raucous community on his own.
Night fell quickly. The stranger’s eyeshine, that had so disturbed the villagers, allowed him to follow the elder’s trail and track him to a small drop-off near some boulders in the thick forest. Broken branches bent outwards and down where the elderly man had fallen through them, like a door hanging ajar over a steep flight of natural stone steps.
The Wvorgi got a rope out of his bag and affixed it to a tree, then climbed down to the base of the rocky flight. In moments, he had spotted Khalen, but the elder was not alone. Next to him crouched a large beast, something like a large wolverine, but the size of a bear. It was known as a rheine, and it was licking a wound on the man’s leg, acting almost as if it were guarding him.
The Wvorgi knew the predator did not do so out of a sense of sympathy or affection, however. Rheine hunters sought out prey for their pack, but they did not kill it outright. Rheine mothers carried their young in pouches on their stomachs and could not travel as quickly as the others, and so they were reliant upon such scouts for their hunt. The pack could take several days to reach their scout, so the scout kept the meat fresh while the others followed its trail. It would bring gifts of food and water to the prey after disabling it, keeping it alive just long enough for the others to find them.
The rheine were a vengeful, vicious breed, almost on par with Man himself, and the Wvorgi knew that if he killed the scout, the rest of its pack would slaughter the Village on the Steppe in revenge.
The Wvorgi crouched across from the unconscious man and the beast. Holding his hands up as a gesture of peace, he slowly removed the bag of supplies on his back. The beast growled softly, its jaw locked on the elderly man’s leg, tightening its grip with every movement of the warrior across from it, causing Khalen to groan even though he was unconscious.
Khalen was too big for the beast to carry far. Rheine scouts were creatures built for speed, not brute strength. The Wvorgi knew he had a bit of time to plan a better approach.
He looked out into the dark forest surrounding them. The markings on his arms glowed briefly and swam up his limbs to his eyes, enhancing his eyeshine, and allowing him to find a gray, winter-fattened stag guarding its family just down the mountainside in a copse of trees. Hands still up, he retreated from the rheine’s sight and struck out towards the copse.
Being upwind, the great stag likely already knew he was here. He’d have to activate some of his Wvorgi abilities to approach it. He knelt on the ground and put his bare fists and feet against the earth, drawing strength from the Talmenor stone. The raw power of the earth was overwhelming: animalistic and wild, almost angry. He did not stoke it with his own anger but instead channeled it towards the copse the stag protected. The shrubs put out their leaves, flowering suddenly out of season, screening him by sight and by scent from the confused buck.
Seconds later, he was barreling across the mountain on all fours, an inhuman howl roaring from his lips. He slammed into the stag before it could steel itself against him, sending it hurtling back towards a tree. A thud and a crack sounded out, the creature’s back now broken.
Even so, as the Wvorgi approached, the stag slung its head feebly in his direction, still seeking to gouge him with its antlers in an effort to protect its family. The Wvorgi knelt by the wounded creature as it flailed. Breath heavy, he fought to reinstate control over the primal energies coursing through his body, enough to speak.
“I am sorry,” he said to the great stag. He braced a knee at the back of its neck and began snapping off the tines of its antlers, so that he might drag it safely back to where the rheine waited. “Your family will be waiting for you in the afterlife.”
After breaking the last tine, the Wvorgi drew his knife and made his way into the thicket the stag had guarded, fulfilling his promise to the animal’s spirit and sending its family to the land of the dead ahead of it. The buck whined and grunted at the squelching sounds and tiny bleats from the bush, but it could no longer move.
After he was done, the Wvorgi dragged the stag back to the alcove where the rheine and elderly man hid. The rheine had moved the man a few feet, but they still remained in the between the cluster of boulders, protected and obscured from view as it waited for its pack. The warrior threw the stag down before it, still alive and helpless.
The rheine hissed loudly, ruff extending around its cheeks and spine like a mane. It growled and let go of the elderly man as it swiped a paw in the Wvorgi’s direction. The stag’s ears twitched and its eyes were wide, its breath coming in pants as the giant wolverine investigated it. Satisfied, the beast suddenly clamped its mouth on the buck’s neck, eyes flicking up to the man as it mewled softly, accepting his catch as its own: a sacrifice to buy the old man’s life.
The Wvorgi then approached the elder and picked him up, gingerly. The rheine hissed with each movement, but it did not let go of the buck. The Wvorgi carried Khalen to his rope, still laying across the stones where he had left it, and propped the man upright against the rockface. There, within view of the wary rheine, he dressed the elder’s wound and wrapped it tightly. Then he tied the man’s wrists together, making a loop out of his arms, and slid them around his neck and one shoulder like a large, ungainly backpack. So doing, he carried Khalen up out of the alcove. The rheine’s eyes followed them, all the way up the drop-off and out of sight.
Khalen was in bad shape. His breathing was ragged, and his leg likely already carried infection from the rheine’s saliva. They had a long way to go back to Arondzei, the Wvorgi knew. Perhaps the elder wouldn’t survive, so attracting the ire and hatred of the waiting villagers, but honor dictated the Wvorgi return regardless.
When the two made it back to the Steppe, only a handful of villagers remained awake. They rushed the Wvorgi as he broke the forest line, still angry and unsure of him, but their tones changed as soon as they saw Khalen humped over his back. Two elders clapped him on the shoulders, though their expressions were dour as the local healer took Khalen away.
When the sun shone on the Steppe the next morning, women brought the Wvorgi food and the men brought alcohol, leaving it by his door late into the evening after he had stopped answering the grateful knocks on his door. Uncle Stone, as he came to be known, had found his place in the Village on the Steppe.