“Help! Oh, gods of mercy and light above! Help!!” a woman screamed in frantic need of aid.
Yenrab shook his head, his topknot twitching this way and that despite the stiffness of his hair. Some people never learned.
The voice was distant, but he could hear her. The forest floor dappled with light, the sky bereft of clouds, and the branches of the trees swaying softly. It was such a peaceful scene for such a horrid sound, and so her voice struck a discordant and unavoidable key.
That lady is gonna get the hiccups soon if she isn’t careful, Yenrab surmised as she screamed again.
His mother, the mikellehcor, leader of the warriors of the tribe, shook her scarred head and stared into his face.
“Don’t you do it!” his mother said to him, her massive body a few inches taller, looking down at him with eyes that gleamed with concern.
Yenrab felt himself begin to nod, then stopped. He should, and he could, but he wouldn’t stop himself. It wouldn’t be right to do so.
“I have to, Mom. These people don’t know what they are doing,” Yenrab barked back at her, teenaged annoyance written across his face. He looked at his mother, and her tough, wizened face saddened.
“We have to think of the tribe, Yenrab. You always run off and go help the settlers. They don’t deserve our help. They are the enemy,” she instructed the young half-orc, balling up a powerful light-green hand in anger. “Tribe Atsittab should always come first. We are your family, Yenrab.”
“Mom,” he rebuked, “these people are just people. Just like us! They talk to me, you know. When I save them, they tell me all about the wars of their lands and how they want to come here to live a better life.”
“Pah!” she scoffed. “They want a better life in our land, and they fight us as often as not over it. Let them stay over there where ice sells cheap.”
“Mother . . .” Yenrab’s voice cracked, puberty taking its toll.
“Don’t make me ground you,” his mother warned, stretching her arms to ground him into the dirt if it became necessary.
The half-human, half-orc raised himself up from the crouch he had assumed, stretching his pale-green skin and the massive muscles beneath as he limbered up for what was to come.
“I’m not twelve anymore, mother, and it might be you who gets grounded.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“And, besides,” he added, “have I not been anointed as the avatar?”
Her eyes widened.
“Ya know,” he articulated, “I always thought that was meant to mean something.”
“You don’t know of what you speak, child. You aren’t old enough to understand how bad those settlers are. They will come and come and come without end.”
“Then we better make peace with them while we can,” he answered. He could imagine logic cheering his victory from the sidelines.
“This is the will of the gods. I know it. You have always said I know the way upon which the Bear shall tread. Is this not true?” Yenrab asked, double-checking the multitude of twists, ties, and buttons common to local travel gear.
His mother, a tremendous and powerfully muscled behemoth in her own right, scowled. Her tusks jutted out in an even fiercer manner as she did so.
“You are anointed, and you are the avatar. But you are so young. Is it really your avatar that tells you to do these things? Does the voice of a Gamer truly tell you which way to turn and what to do when you get there?” she asked in desperation.
“He does,” Yenrab stated.
“Can I talk to this Gamer? I am sick of the gods making us a target. My progeny, warrior of my uterus, we battled settlers three times this month! Is this Gamer maybe not some evil spirit?” she accused, her eyes hawklike as they darted over him. Her voice, though, was both concerned and sharp.
“Mom, it doesn’t work that way. I more get a feeling, and at times, a rattling of dice. He doesn’t talk to me directly. He is just more like a sense I get,” he tried to explain.
Then Yenrab screwed up his face in confusion and noted, “I know he is there when there is the taste of Mountain Dew and Cheetos on my tongue. Not that I know what those are, but I know that this is correct.”
Yenrab had reached his full height, an easy six-and-a-half feet and four hundred and fifty pounds of muscle. Only his mother, the famed mikellehcor of the tribe, stood stronger. The sight of both in that sunny forest glade glaring at one another with concern and sadness would have been terrifying had any other sentient wandered in. Like bears wrestling in the open, or a feral strongman escaping the circus.
“They are people too, our mikellehcor. I bow to the wisdom of the gods and the Gamer in this,” the teenaged youth said with defiance.
“I forbid it! As the mikellehcor, I forbid this from happening.”
The young man looked away, letting the moment wash over him. The tribe was a good place, really, but a lost one. It fought against the outside. It fought against change. Yet every time he heard a cry of anguish or fear, he responded. And they weren’t the enemy! They were good and decent people, too stupid to know about the nuances of the swordfisted-abnercath, or the damnful yet funny games of the titterdum. Over the last few years as he gained in dexterity and strength, he had gone out to those cries for help. He had made a name for himself among the settlers, becoming a figure of legend whose name was known and muttered praisingly as he swept in to rescue them.
Traveling over the Crokrad River, with the tribe in sledges, his people had ignored the moans of the freezing and lost family of settlers just a mile over. But Yenrab had left and gone back for them. He had taken them in. He had brought them back to the fires of his tribe as they laid up for the night. And the tribe, when they found out, had decided to kill them all. Murder hobos, the Gamer had suggested to him. What a bunch of murder hobos. Not in voice, the Gamer never talked to him in voice, but the word was on his tongue anyways.
“Mikellehcor, we have lost the path of the Bear. We are murder hobos. I must go.” The sight of mother, father, and children splayed bloodily against crusted white snow played again and again through his mind’s eye.
She looked upon him with uncomprehending eyes.
The distant woman screamed again. Yenrab’s eyes widened, and he turned, determination setting into his teenage face.
His mother looked on, seeming to grow in distance though she did not move. “Yenrab, please don’t!”
“I have the taste of the Mountain Dew in my mouth and the clatter of dice in my ear, mother. I must. I invoke the right of exile. Until such a time as my avatar supreme, line of the Bear and totem to our tribe, revokes it and sends me back to challenge reconciliation.”
“Then it is done,” the tremendous woman warrior said, narrowing her eyes in what may have, from a distance, looked like an angry and murderous gaze but was, as it is so often, a desperate attempt to dam the flow of tears from continued exodus.
“You will be an adventurer, then, son Yenrab, once of Tribe Atsittab. A mercenary and a scavenger of treasures. May the Bear and the Gamer treat you well!”
He looked once more before leaving, giving her a deep bow of respect and love. Then he sprinted off to his latest rescue.
Leaping over a fallen log, he took a hillish incline at a run. Above him the tree branches waved in greeting as a gust shook their leaves to fall as rain about him. “Yenrab!” he thought he heard his mother shout. If it was her, she was too late. He snatched his battle axes out from their latched harness upon his back as he ran. It was unlikely he’d need them, but not impossible.
“Get away from me, you fiend!” the woman’s voice echoed outward. Yenrab nodded as he ran. His axes were to be fine tools for this operation indeed. Leaves slid and scattered smoothly underneath him in damp forest loam, their noise a pleasant reminder of who he was and what he needed to do.
Blasting over the incline, he leaped, his heart soaring as he did so. A cloud of forest litter, its needles and surprised denizens therein, sprayed upward from behind him. It followed his arc as if it were the tail of a misbegotten god.
There, where the local creek cut its way through the land, was his target. A woman who was quite beautifully dressed for a settler. She was up against a mossy rise of hillock near the water’s edge. And a man in ripped and ragged leather, looking all manners of scoundrel and vagabond, crept up on her. She had warded his advances thus far with a large and well-made leather satchel. But it was plain to see that the man was toying with her. Were Yenrab in his place and the woman an enemy, he would have caught the satchel as it swung and disarmed her before slamming her into the dirt. He grinned sadly as he thought of the damage he was going to have to inflict. It was always better to settle fights than to win them.
Sprinting down the slope, skidding just a bit here and there, the massive barbarian made his presence well-known. The man turned in surprise at the sound, and the woman slung her satchel over the hillock before scrambling up it in a dexterous move that surprised the massive half-human, escaping them both in her bid to win back safety. The brigand looked back at her, scowled, then drew two curved blades and faced the teenager dead on.
“Let me guess? Yenrab the Good Orc? What is it with you? Why can’t you just let things be?” he sneered and spat into the turned up ground beneath him.
The human looked quite starved and exhausted, with dark bags under his eyes and a sort of pox marking his left cheek. More than that, though, the man looked suicidal and desperate. This wasn’t what Yenrab had thought it was at all. This man was robbing to survive!
“Yeah, ya know, you got me. I don’t got you though. Who are you and why are you . . . ?”
The human cut him off.
“You have killed me. You don’t know it, but you have killed me,” the man stated in a dark and increasingly shrill crescendo. Then he bared strange fangs and hissed, again surprising the youth. “The path to adventure has consequences, Yenrab, once of Tribe Atsittab. You bloody well look at me, for this is what happens!”
Yenrab’s face whitened a bit in shock, his green face turning a shade of lighter green. This man knew not just his name but also his new status and maybe even what he had eaten for breakfast.
How in the seven hells? How fast does news travel in this forest? he thought in bewilderment.
“Whatever being sent you, fiend, I am not interested. Leave this place, mouthpiece of some god. I seek not to hurt you.” Yenrab moved his hand axes into battle position as he said it, knowing that this encounter was something special just for him. Whatever god had sent him this challenge would not allow him to talk his way out of it.
“The wonders of the world lie at your feet, Yenrab. And the world, well, it does not give away such sights for free. Your adventures will not end well. They never do. You will die in pain underneath the foulest of beasts as your family is torn asunder. Slay me, and you will know. Or allow me to slay you, and die happy knowing that you have averted such a dirty mess,” the gaunt man said, a contemptuous smile riding his face as he did so. “Your move, bar-bare-ee-un,” the figure slowly enunciated in a ridiculous manner, insulting the teenager even as he begged for his own death.
A hand axe protruded from the man’s chest, flopping him to the ground. He smiled as blood welled forth, hard and crimson.
“Gharag will see you burn forever,” he gasped before losing consciousness for the last time.
Searching the corpse was a bit unnerving for the young barbarian. He had never actually killed a sentient being before. He poked and prodded a lot before he came to terms with the task at hand. Then he tore through the man-thing’s many pockets and pouches. But he kept on coming up empty. That was until he turned to the ragged backpack that seemed so deflated and empty of life. Hefting it up into one paddle-sized hand, he could feel a single item inside. Something that radiated importance.
I could just leave it here, he thought desperately. This is surely the thing that sends me on this path of horror and destruction.
But what if there is good to be done on the way asked the Gamer, or so it seemed.
“Ya know, I don’t have to do this!” Yenrab screamed up into the sky, whipping the backpack away from him to squelch hard into the wet clay near the bank of the creek. “I don’t have to play anyone’s games!”
But you do, Yenrab. This is the world, and we are all somebody’s puppet. The dim clatter of dice sounded in his ear.
The voice that wasn’t there, yet was, seeped through him, and then a bright and dazzling glow caught his eye. From the backpack had tumbled the only thing it possessed. It was a tome, in perfect shape, and written, somehow, in Orcish. On its cover was embossed, in what looked to be gold, the words: “How to be an Adventurer—Volume 1.” Underneath that, in silver, was tagged the byline: “Written by Jerold Frey at the Behest of the Gods.”
He thought about it. He really did. For almost an hour. He stood there, confused, deep in thought. The shadows changed in shape and demeanor about him, and the creek burbled and sluiced by. Then, finally, he couldn’t take it anymore.
“Why do you have to make this so damn interesting?” he asked with a chuckle. He smooshed his heavy frame through the slimy clay bed, wetting his feet and knees in the process, and he practically swam to the tome that shone so brightly with both magic and destiny.
“That was well played,” he spoke to the sky as he recovered the tome and stuck it firmly into his rucksack. “Well played.”