Gromsh the Gnarled, overlord of the Blacktusk clan and Hand of the Black Tower, flinched as the gods punished his failure.
[Objective: Assist Graak with his Life Favor request. Status: Failed. Reward removed.]
So his nephew was dead at the hands of the humans. Disappointing, but perhaps not that surprising. He had always been so eager to impress his clan and kin, too susceptible to the call of the gods. His reach had finally exceeded his grasp, and he had paid for it.
Gromsh blinked away the text and climbed the stairs to his lord's study. The trip was painful in Gromsh's condition. He had been injured as a young warrior in a duel, permanently crippling his left leg. It had given him a certain prestige, and allowed him to join the Elders far earlier, so he had never considered it a tragedy. Using his talents for politics, manipulation and deception, he had eventually risen to lead his clan. And for that honor he would have given two legs.
But his Master loved his petty torments. The lord of the black tower often went to the underground and the Meeting Hall, and could very easily meet with Gromsh there. But he never did. Always he summoned him to the very top of the tower.
Lord Vlassex was of Clan Redfist—longtime rivals of the Blacktusks, and he liked to remind Gromsh of his authority.
"Ahh, my old friend,” the tower lord smiled and stroked his bejeweled, filed tusks. “Thank you for coming so quickly. It wasn't a hardship climbing the tower stairs?"
He asked every time.
"No, lord.” Gromsh made a show of wiping sweat from his brow, and wincing at the pain in his leg. “To serve the tower is never a hardship. How can I assist?"
Vlassex smiled, pleased as ever by their little game. "I wanted to show you something." He gestured out the tower window until Gromsh limped to his side. "Do you see those little dots in the distance?"
Gromsh winced slightly, expecting he knew what he would see. He squinted and adjusted his aging eyes until he could make out the line of pathetic looking survivors of his nephew's raid limping back to the towers.
"My scouts inform me some of those warriors went beyond the first human settlement. That they charged headlong into the Great Forest, where they were nearly all killed. But I don't recall ordering any warriors to attack beyond the first human settlement. Can you explain this?"
So. Now Gromsh had to decide.
Did he explain his nephew's ambitions and the collection of his life debt, and let the boy's death remain honorable? This made him look incompetent, because he had failed entirely, and thus stained the honor of his family and clan.
Or he could lie, and say Graak had done it all on his own accord. This option made him look weak, not even in control of his own warriors or family. Both were terrible defeats, and the end of his ambitions. He would never be a tower lord.
At best he would be kept as Hand but on the edge of a knife, removed from power for the slightest infraction and basically toyed with by Vlassex until his dying days, perhaps losing even overlordship of his clan. At worst, he would be executed.
He looked out at the stragglers, knowing they would soon be interrogated. Sooner or later Vlassex would learn Gromsh had sent his riders and the truth would be revealed. He therefore had no choice. He had to admit his failure, and accept the consequences. Then he blinked in surprise as the gods whispered in his mind.
[Objective: Throw Lord Vlassex from the Black Tower windows. Reward: Legitimized tower lordship.]
Gromsh hid his surprise behind a practiced mask, but could hardly stop himself from holding a breath. Lord Vlassex rarely met his underlings alone. He trusted no one, not even his bodyguards, and protected himself in many ways from treachery.
But he considered Gromsh helpless. Lame. Not a threat. A belief Gromsh had cultivated for two decades by wearing a bulky cloak and enhancing his limp, huffing and puffing everywhere he went, even tripping and growling in pain in public.
In truth, he was quite strong. Every morning he lifted heavy buckets full of sand with all his limbs, even his crippled one, and usually again every night. Beneath his baggy robe of office was the aging but muscled frame of a once proud warrior. Beneath his hunched posture remained strong shoulders and back.
He felt a bead of sweat form on his brow. His nephew's criticism of him had always been his caution—lack of ambition to seize what he wanted.
"Our clan is strong!" Graak had always argued. "We have the most warriors. We could crush the Redfist if you but ordered the betrayal. The other lords would not interfere. You are too cautious, uncle."
Gromsh had never shared his nephew's confidence that the other lords would do nothing. But he knew the young warrior's words were otherwise true. They had haunted him for years. Especially with the death of his brother...
"My lord..." he finally said, wiping spittle from his lips.
"Oh save it," Vlassek spit, no longer smiling. "I always knew that whelp of a nephew would be your doom. You should have exiled him long ago, Gromsh. Our task is to defend the Holy Stones, not leave our lands, conquering settlements and starting wars with humans or anyone else. I won't execute you, Gromsh. But I will punish your clan for this, and you will accept it."
Gromsh stared at the god's divine whispers, feeling the eyes of his brother and his nephew in judgment upon him. He was here. The opportunity was here. And if he did nothing, his clan would fall to lesser status before Vlassex was finished. I will not dishonor you, brother, he thought. At last I will make you proud.
He turned to face Vlassex and clenched his teeth with decades of rage. He dropped his walking stick and stood to his full height, uncurling his body’s fake bend.
Vlassex’s eyes widened.
"What is this? What are you doing?"
"This is for your endless insults and cowardice, my lord. And for your hand in my brother’s death. I knew. I always knew."
"Guards!" Vlassex squawked, pulling a hidden knife from his belt as Gromsh stepped towards him, hands flexing in anticipation.
"We both know they're too far," Gromsh growled. "What truly offends me.” He faked a lunge, then grabbed the older orc's hands and yanked him towards the window. "Is that you thought you could threaten my destruction without a single guard to protect you."
"This is impossible!" Vlassex practically whined. "You've been weakening for years! My spies have watched you! Your limbs shake, even when you're alone!"
"It is you who is weak, my lord. To be so easily fooled. Easily pacified. Now even the gods demand your death." Gromsh seized the older man's smaller frame and yanked him step by step to the edge of the window. Just as he lifted sand every night, he grabbed the tower lord's belt and lifted him to the ledge.
"Stop!” Vlassex shrieked. “I'll sign the tower to the Blacktusks! I'll step down. You don't need to kill me."
Gromsh felt his lips curl in disgust. He stared at the weak, foppish fool of a Redfist, his body thin and decorated with greed. His nephew had been right. Gromsh should never have waited so long.
"Save your breath for the gods." He growled and pushed, forcing his enemy out the window with a panicked scratching at the stone, then a scream as his weight dropped him from the tower. Gromsh watched until he saw the body hit the stone hundreds of feet below.
[Objective: Throw Lord Vlassex from the Black Tower windows. Completed. Reward: Legitimized Black Tower Lordship.]
Gromsh watched the title enter his profile amongst the many contracts and clan details, shuddering at the completion of a lifelong ambition fulfilled, suddenly given so freely by the gods. What was their will, he wondered? Why should they favor him, speak to him, and not Lord Vlassex or one of countless other chiefs or lords? What did they want from him?
He didn't have to wonder long.
[Objective gained: Complete the failed task of your nephew. Destroy Blake and Mason Nimitz. Obliterate the human settlement known as Nassau. Reward: Immortality.]
Gromsh blinked in something like incomprehension. To receive two commandments from the gods in an afternoon? It was unheard of. The stuff of legends. And the reward…what did that even mean? It couldn’t truly be what it said. It couldn’t…was it offering divinity?
Gromsh’s eyes filled with tears. He swelled with pride and devotion, knowing he was being favored as few orcs had ever been favored in the history of his race. He accepted the objective with his mind, and with his soul, thinking first about the destruction or assimilation of the Redfist and how he must act quickly.
Then the divine text moved again, jumbling and garbling in his vision. His eyes drooped and blurred, dizziness and nausea sweeping through him as he clutched the stone of the tower wall. Strange symbols and numbers swam before his eyes he couldn't understand, grasping only a few bits and pieces.
[/subsys activation. Project: return to mean. Equalization authorized. Enhancing.]
"What?" Gromsh's mouth tasted sour and coppery with blood and bile. His strength failing as he dropped to his knees.
[Objective accepted. Hidden reward granted. Chosen of the Gods. Please do not attempt to move.]
Gromsh felt his body stiffen, then lock entirely. He wanted desperately to scratch sudden itches that flared across his skin, then the itch became a burning pain, starting with his injured leg. It coursed up his body like fire, twisting his helpless limbs until he collapsed moaning and failing even to scream.
[Augmenting biological configuration.] The strange text continued before his unblinking eyes. [Adding unique class. Adding prestige class. Enhancing statistics. Applying immunities and resistances. Configuration confirmed.]
Gromsh, didn't understand any of it. Except the pain. It went on and on until the world went black and he feared he’d choke to death on his own tongue.
Then, much later, he rose. And Vlassex’s hall seemed...smaller. The air all around him was different, too, more accessible—fused with what he now knew was fuel for arcane power. The gods told him it was not to be feared, as his brethren and ancestors had said. It was to be used.
He walked down the steps of the Black Tower two and three at a time, until Vlassex’s bodyguards met him at the bottom and went wide-eyed, their spears held in trembling hands.
[Power activated: The Orc King.]
"Send for the lords of the towers," Gromsh said in a voice that was no longer his. "Tell them to meet me in the central hall. They will want to hear what I have to say."
"Y-yes, m-my lord Hand," the previously intimidating bodyguards bowed and trembled as they fled Gromsh's presence. One of them had fled so quickly he dropped his iron spear.
Out of curiosity more than anything, Gromsh lifted it and held it in his hands. It seemed so small, now. So delicate. He clenched his fists and pried, and with a growl of effort the metal bent between his grip before he threw it away.
The tower lords would like what he had to say, he decided. But even if they didn't, it no longer made any difference. No difference at all.