The Fox and the Flame

Suffering as mortals know it did not exist until the creator god, Bakthua, plucked his eyes to give to his children. People suddenly began dying forever, and felt pain in ways they never thought possible. Yet despite their turmoil, nothing truly mattered–you were born, you were hurt, and you died. The brother god, Geldorg, as he wandered through our world to see it for himself, had yet to realize the futility of it all. It was only when he met a truly evil orc, Gordūn, does he learn the difficulty of mortal life.

Word Count: ~3500
Rating: PG
Warnings: Descriptions of violence

When Bakthua plucked his eyes and gave one to each of his children, the shout that tore from his throat shattered the sky. So great was his pain, it escaped his essence. Even the labor pains he suffered to create the world could not match what he experienced then.

His suffering trickled out of the divine realm and into our world. And suddenly, all living beings, too, felt hurt. We felt the first pangs of hunger, the numbness of depression. The ache of aging and the stammering of terror. For a time, nobody knew how to cope, and all creatures did whatever they could to ease their pain. The wise invented medicine, and used parts of herbs or animals to manage their hurt. Some concocted elixirs and brews to quiet the buzzing anxiety in their minds, or grant them the energy they lacked. But not everyone could create what they needed. The kind-hearted gave their inventions away to whoever needed them, while the clever traded for what they wanted. The cruel devised a way to get more from their creation than what they put into it, and only more people hurt as this became the new way of life. A great many died, and we call this the first war. All beings, even today, fight to control their pain, and it is a battle that even Rek’gor sees no end to.

The sister yelled at her father as he sulked away to retire after realizing his mistake. Her godly sight had not yet come to her, and only in the midst of their argument did she being to see the lives of all beings. Her thoughts quickened and she stuttered her words. As Bakthua left his children, she sank to her knees and sobbed. The rain that fell in our world brought with it a moment of comfort, and though we could not stop fighting, we at least learned to cope a little better with our pain.

Geldorg did not witness his father and his sister’s fight. Empowered with the gift of sight, he wandered and saw a great many things, but no speaking creature took notice to him. With new problems to deal with, we forgot our ability to see beyond, and could no longer meet with the gods. Not, at least, until our deaths.

The brother god traveled through Veiadokuur and it hurt him to finally see the people he’d heard so much about from his sister, yet not be able to speak with them. He saw Agrat the wanderer in his old age, and he saw Karuk and Maruk, the wise and the strong. He walked straight through the center of a town or tribe, yet none met his gaze and introduced themselves to him. He walked among the Blackskulls and the Blinking Ears in the east, and through the Stampeders’ territory in the south. He arrived at Stablerock, the home of the Kilverud, and made the rounds again. It must have been terribly dull to walk all that way and not even get a nod of acknowledgement from a single person. But Geldorg found his own enjoyment in finally seeing the world for what it had to offer. And he took a liking to people, too.

He came across a family of orcs raise a baby boy in Stablerock. They lived on the outskirts of the city in the poorer district, but the love they shared helped ease their suffering. Geldorg saw right away that the child was male, but his parents did not know until he introduced himself to them when he turned seven. They chose a new name for their child: Gordūn.

Geldorg liked Gordūn. His personality shined like a campfire during a new moon, and he had a good sense of humor. When the other orc children cried if they tripped and fell, Gordūn laughed and rolled in the grass to feel it tickle his skin. He understood nothing of “tragedy,” and always found a way to make difficulty easier to bear.

So Geldorg followed Gordūn through his life. You must remember that our lifespans do not feel near as long to a god as they do to us, so this was no great journey that Geldorg undertook.

Like most people in the earliest part of this ongoing war, Gordūn lived a difficult life. His father died of disease when he was still a child, and his mother died shortly later in a hunting accident. The rest of the Kilverud took care of Gordūn, and those who could welcomed him into their homes, but he still felt bitter and estranged. Nobody knew how to offer words of comfort at this point, and he couldn’t get used to the parenting of other families. He lost his identity and his place in the tribe, floating from house to house and never connecting with anyone. The despair of grief is still something we struggle to cope with, so you can imagine how difficult this must have been for people who were still learning what it was.

Once Gordūn grew taller and stronger, he left the tribe to find himself. While he wandered, he met with great pain: Hunger, injury, sleepless nights, loneliness, and fear. Not a single night went by without some sort of difficulty or problem, and he grew desperate. With desperation comes carelessness, and one evening he stopped beside a dark road known for its danger. Wild animals and bandits lurked with their eyes open for weak prey. And indeed, a group of hobgoblin thieves cornered him and demanded his money and all his possessions. But he had none to offer—he’d run out a few days before, and hunger gnawed at his gut. The hobgoblins, seeing his strength and his stubbornness, lowered their blades and offered to let Gordūn join them. He agreed. Gordūn had been alone for so long that he pined for companionship and some semblance of security. As always, Geldorg watched from afar, and hoped for the best.

But what Geldorg witnessed hurt him. He saw Gordūn terrorize other people and slit their throats for coins. He saw him kill those who dared give him the wrong look. He saw him beat his way to the top of the bandit gang and take over as their new leader. Their former boss, Raggar, survived their fight, but left it with one less arm. When Kolok, the oldest member of their group, accused Gordūn of fighting dirty, Gordūn kicked his head again and again until he ruptured his eardrums and deafened him forever.

“Who else wants t’ defy me?!” he demanded, standing over Kolok’s swollen, bloodied face. The hobgoblins said nothing.

Gordūn was fearsome and brutal. He brought with him, wherever he went, suffering. Disappointed at how we mortals reacted to our new pains, Geldorg considered leaving the world and never paying us mind again. Even the gods, in all their wisdom and power, can be childish when things become the slightest bit difficult.

But it was Gordūn’s last act that turned Geldorg’s stomach the most. Geldorg watched him and his troop of bandits attack a convoy of herbalists transporting medicine meant for a region afflicted by disease. The bandits stalked the carts and planned to steal the drugs for themselves and sell it for ten times its real worth. A diseased region was a desperate one, after all, and their wealth would grow tremendously. The carts—four of them, each pulled by one horse—were packed full of the cure, along with notebooks detailing how to cultivate the necessary herbs and create the medicine from those. Of course, Gordūn wanted to burn all that information, lest competitors join the scene. Only five travelers came with the convoy. They left their home village quickly and had no time to find more people to accompany them.

The bandits attacked the travelers late at night. With blades drawn and pointed at their necks, they tied their victims up to steal the goods. The herbalists cowered and sobbed, surrendering immediately. They were old and owned only a single sword between them to defend themselves, but no means of using it.

“Please, let us go,” the leader said. “We only want to help people. You can take our medicine, but please—don’t take our lives. Just let us move on in peace!”

Gordūn’s second-in-command, Durunad, moved to cut the herbalist’s hands free.

“You promise not to fight back?” he grunted. The herbalist nodded, but Gordūn stopped him.

“Don’t cut those ropes,” he said. “They’re good as dead already.”

“But why kill them?” Durunad said. “We got what we want.”

“Idiot, you think with your brain, not your heart. As soon as we let them go, they’ll tell the guards in the nearest town. And then what’ll happen?” Durunad frowned and the herbalists’ faces went pale.

“We won’t tell a soul!” they said. “Please listen—we promise!” But Gordūn, cold as the Impassables’ highest peaks, closed his ears to them. He ordered the bandits to kill them all, or face his blade, and they obeyed with fearful faces. They murdered the herbalists, one by one, and left their corpses to rot.

The mindless murders sickened Geldorg’s heart, and he set his mind to go in the morning. But during the night, Gordūn and the other bandits argued over their cut of the profits.

“Thirty is plenty for you bunch,” Gordūn said while they sat around the campfire and ate. He tore bits of dried meat off between his teeth and chewed contently. “You fools would be nowhere without me,” he said through bites. The hobgoblins stared, bewildered.

“Nowhere?” Durunad said. “You took off our leader’s arm, and deafened old Kolok when you beat him so bad! You stole what we already built!” He bared his sharp teeth and his fur stood on end. But Gordūn only looked at him with bored detachment.

“You, and?” he said. “You couldn’t stop one man from taking over. Can’t trust people like that with the bulk of the cash.”

“We do all the work!” Durunad stood.

“Under my orders!” Gordūn also lurched to his feet and glared down at him. Durunad’s fists shook. They both knew Gordūn would win, but Durunad felt trapped. He was sick of hanging his head and cowardly, shamefully turning away and giving in. Moments crept by like sap in cold air.

Kolok, however, had been waiting for this. Silently, without disturbing even one dry leaf, he crept to Gordūn’s back. With a flick of his wrist, he brandished his knife. Shk, shlk—he jabbed Gordūn’s side twice. Gordūn cried out and bent, but Kolok stabbed him again, and again.

With a shout, Durunad jumped back. Kolok shoved Gordūn to the ground and kicked his wounds, screaming incoherently. Gordūn all but roared and curled up, trying to protect himself. The white-hot pain shook his brain and he passed out.

The bandits took what they wanted—all of the medicine, supplies, and money—and left Gordūn for dead by the fire.

Now, remember that people lost the ability to see the gods once Bakthua took out his eyes. But when you are dying, your mind straddles your body and the space between life and death. It takes a moment before it decides where to go. Gordūn awoke again later with terrible pains ringing in his body. It was not the worst pain he’d felt in his life, but he still wanted it to end. He looked up and saw Geldorg crouching in the trees, staring. Watching.

“You,” Gordūn said. “Help me. There’s money in it for you.” Geldorg got to his feet and walked over slowly. He clutched at his chest with one hand and looked down at Gordūn. Blood soaked his clothing and muddied the dirt. He felt cold, even so close to the flames. Their dancing hypnotized him.

“I fear it’s too late,” Geldorg said. “There’s nothing I can do to save you.” Gordūn laughed. He coughed.

“Some god,” he said. “You are Geldorg, aren’t you? You look just like what the elders said in the tales.” Geldorg nodded and Gordūn spat blood to the ground. “So, now you show your face. Scrawny coward—everyone’s thought the gods abandoned us.” Geldorg shook his head.

“We haven’t,” he said, though he was unsure of it himself. “I haven’t.” He neglected to mention that he almost did.

“Then do something,” Gordūn said. Tears fell from his eyes and he shook his head slowly. “I’m not—I don’t want to die.”

Geldorg’s face heated and he fisted his hands. Fury sparked in his stomach and he boiled over.

“Did that mother and child want to die when you stole their horse? Did that elderly man want to die when you slit his throat for his cane? Did those herbalists want to die when you robbed them?” he said. His voice and his body trembled. His throat hurt. Gordūn said nothing. He only sobbed. “You have hurt so, so many others. Why should I help you live? Tell me, Gordūn. What makes you worthier than all those others?”

Gordūn struggled for words. He stammered for a moment, but nothing worthwhile came out. Finally, with just his eyes, he looked up at Geldorg.

“Could you tell me what death is like?” he said. “At least let me know that much.” The brother’s anger calmed and he sighed. He put his hands on his hips and looked up at the sky.

“Well, for your kind, imagine the space between being awake and dreaming,” he said. “It’s nothing-like that. Your soul just rests.”

“My kind? You mean orcs, bad folks, people who criticize the gods—what kinds of people do you mean?”

“All kinds, of course,” Geldorg said. “Good, bad, orc, hobgoblin, human—it doesn’t matter. Death is the same.” Gordūn stared, and broke out in laughs again. “What’s funny?” Geldorg asked.

“Don’t you think that’s foolish?” he said through a grin. He pointed at Geldorg. “You’re one to talk about worthiness. Sure, I’ve done bad things. I have hurt a lot of people. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. I could’ve had a better life, could’ve done better things and helped people instead. But what difference would it make? No matter what I do, whether I’m kind or wicked, I still end up in this… nothing.”

Geldorg was lost for words. He stood there, jaw agape and single eye wide open. Gordūn’s chuckling stopped—he coughed again, retching blood from his throat—but he waited for an answer. Geldorg regained his composure and sat next to Gordūn. He meditated on those stagnant souls, resting in silence and unaware of time and all the life around them. Indeed, no that Geldorg looked, he saw countless souls—deadly still, but still vibrant—in the world surrounding him. They drifted without meaning or thought, side-by-side. The souls of murderers stood next to thieves, who stood next to mothers who died in childbirth, who stood next to artists, who stood next to healers, who stood next to more murderers. Such different lives, and yet they suffered the same fate. And now that he saw, it bothered him.

“You helped me realize something I never thought of,” he said. Gordūn said nothing and only stared at him. “Yes, you made many people hurt. But I must thank you for such a grand insight. I’m a blind fool for not having realized it myself, long ago. So tell me, Gordūn—if you got another chance, what would you do?”

Gordūn searched his heart and considered the question. He recounted his life and all his experiences—good, bad, and everything else in between.

“I have my regrets, Geldorg,” he said. “Don’t be mistaken. Were I to get another chance, I’d want to be someone people are happy to see. Someone who wouldn’t get stabbed in the back.” Geldorg nodded and thought his words over.

“That will happen in due time,” he said. “But you must earn that. Would you help me right my wrong, Gordūn? Would you lend me your body after you die, and promise me your soul?”

Gordūn hesitated, but soon nodded. A second chance was, to him, worth it—no matter how long it took, no matter the cost.

“What must I do?” he said. “Will I be your servant?”

“A little like that. You will help me escort the dead to their next lives. From now on, every living thing will be reborn. When a creature dies, you must help bring their souls to me. I’m only one, and can’t do it alone—you must have some idea of how many die each day,” Geldorg said. He spread his palms and showed off his thin arms and fingers. Indeed, the brother god was physically weak. Gordūn raised his eyebrows and his jaw hung open.

“Every creature?” he repeated. “Ever orc, every human and hobgoblin? Ever horse and cow, every snake and bird? Every insect? Geldorg, you are only one, but I am only one more. How can two, even if one is a god, take care of every single soul?”

“What the fire. I’ll show you.”

Still uncertain, Gordūn trusted him, nonetheless. He stared into the fire and felt his pulse slow. As his blood stilled, he somehow felt warmer than ever before. The flames drew him in, closer, closer. They urged his soul from his body and though he tightened his grasp, though he fought it, it just kept tugging. Gordūn realized—he needed to let go. He loosened his grip on himself and—out he came. The pain in his side and gut and head faded, and he found himself one with the flames. He boasted a new shape, too. Instead of hands, he had black paws, like charred and blackened wood. His skin sprouted bright, lustrous fur—orange, and lively as the fire. Twitching behind him, a tail with a white tip grew. And his eyes, too, changed from brown to glowing yellow, like embers. His senses heightened, and his ears pointed even more and turned to capture every sound while his nose found every smell. The only thing orcish about him was his pair of tusks—smaller, but still prominent and proportional. Whenever he moved, sparks and crackles fell from his rippling fur. Yes, his new form surprised him, but he liked it.

“Whenever someone lights a funeral pyre to cremate their dead, you will appear,” Geldorg said. “You’re fire itself.”

“But what about those who aren’t cremated? People who die alone, animals, and those who don’t burn their dead?” Gordūn said.

“That’s what your body’s for,” Geldorg said. He touched Gordūn’s still corpse and it, too, transformed. His skin shimmered, and countless iridescent beetles crawled away and burrowed into the soil. Fungus stretched from his bones. His stomach hatched a vulture, and his intestines became thick, coiled worms. Flies of all shapes and sizes flew from his lungs, while his heart uncurled and a family of mice scurried out. Fur grew on his liver, and it jumped out and away as a coyote. At last, most every part of his body had become something else. All that remained were his eyes. These turned into small, round eggs, and their shells burst to reveal two fully-grown, one-eyed crows. They shuddered their feathers, croaked, and took wing. Though his body separated into so many countless others, he still saw through their watchful eyes, and their thoughts mingled with his own. All the images and smells and sounds and sensation overwhelmed Gordūn, formerly so single-minded, but he let himself be swept away. In their distinction, they—he—remained one.

“I see now,” Gordūn said. “These beasts are scavengers, and care for the remains of the dead no matter where they lie.”

“Exactly,” Geldorg said. “Consider this your chance to bring joy to others—your penance.”

“But Geldorg,” Gordūn said, looking up at him from his seat on the campfire, “even after all this change, I still bring death.” Geldorg readjusted his posture and sat cross-legged next to him.

“Well, yes,” he said. “And with death comes fear, or despair, or anger. You must give them comfort, Gordūn. Reassure the souls of the dead that more waits for them, and stillness isn’t the end.”

“That’s quite a task.”

Geldorg shrugged.

“I trust you’ll figure it out soon,” he said. “You do, after all, stifle their pain, too.” The flames that made up Gordūn’s body shrank and flickered. It became harder for even Geldorg to see him. “Now go—bring peace to those who are dying, and hope to those who are already dead.” He gazed out at the lingering souls—they dotted the land and left pools of glowing lights. Like cold lanterns that lit nothing and led nowhere. “We have so much work to do.”

Gordūn’s spirit left and he began his duty. Geldorg, too, turned to wandering again, and sent the souls to their next lives. As they escorted the dead from one life to another, they took notice of those who suffered more than others. They eventually spoke to Rek’gor to figure out what to do with such heavily-scarred souls, but that is a tale for another time.

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