Rise of the Alstalar
“Beware the zeal of the newly converted.”
Ulan Bator has the height and build of an average orc. That is where the similarities end, however. As a consequence of his transformation, Ulan Bator has skin the colour and texture of smooth, polished obsidian; it is completely black with an almost glossy finish. His skin is marred by thin cracks, through which an orange molten light pours. He is completely hairless with eyes of molten lava.
He wears only a wide leather belt, with an old, burnt dagger tucked securely into it and on his legs he wears loose, baggy pants and goes barefoot.
Upon reaching adulthood, Ulan Bator fought his way into his clan’s warparty, in which he conducted himself with brutal distinction. At the time of the hobgoblin assault on Huruk-Tul, he was gathering together the plunder to bid for his own clan. But in the savage attack, in which Black Omen was decimated, the tribe was thrown into chaos. In Ophen, the ragged survivors of the clan sought to rebuild their shattered fortunes.
When the Alstalar ruthlessly quashed the Water Riots, Ulan Bator was badly injured. He was left in the Bone Pit in order to heal or die. Orcish morale was at a low-ebb, however, so Angk’Ash called for a ritual cleansing of the pit as an appeal to the gods. During the preparation for the cleansing, the warlock Kul’Wraak demanded the right of divination. Angk’Ash was reluctant, but had to acquiesce before the manic demands of his despondent blood-chiefs. So after the prone bodies of the sick, dying and dead orcs in the pit were covered with pitch, Kul’Wraak drove the ritual dagger into the chest of the only still-living orc in the pit, Ulan Bator. Once this was done, Angk’Ash threw the sacred torch into the pit.
Ulan Bator was roused from unconsciousness by the calamity of the firestorm surrounding him. Suffocating in blood and ash, he dragged himself over the burning bodies and towards the edge of the Bone Pit. Before the stunned onlookers, the ravaged Ulan Bator emerged from the inferno. On his knees before the great fire, he screamed to the heavens, “Ophen shall burn!” As the words left his mouth, a great vision took shape in the fire, a message from the gods: Ophen engulfed in flames and destruction.
It is uncommon for orcs to emerge from the Bone Pit and very rare for them to do so during a cleansing. Such ‘Ashen’ are said to be orcs of great portent, though seldom do they fulfil this promise. Although this event is not without precedence in orcish lore, the orcs of Black Omen are conflicted about Ulan Bator’s existence. On the one hand, they view his miraculous metamorphosis as a sign of the gods’ approval. However, the overtly demonic nature of his mysterious transformation leaves many orcs uneasy. As a result, his former clan, Bleakwater, has publicly denounced him as a demonic doppelganger. Rebuffed by his former clan, Ulan Bator has joined the Withered Hand, the coven of Kul’Wraak. So far the authority of the warchief and less timid blood-chiefs has protected Ulan Bator from Bleakwater’s hostility, as has the power and influence of his warlock master.
Kul’Wraak walked to his tent. Pulling back the flap, he saw a silent figure sitting cross-legged, alone inside. The warlock moved to a simple table and lit the crude lamp on it. “I did not expect you so soon, Ulan Bator.”
The black shade rose to its feet and entered the dim circle of flickering light, “I am your devoted servant, Coven Master.”
The warlock smiled, moving to the pile of blankets and pillows that served as his bed. Bending down, he produced a bundle of dirty cloth. Ulan Bator’s eyes narrowed, as Kul’Wraak unwrapped it, “Do you know what this is?”
The efreet whispered, “That is the dagger you struck me with in the divination.”
“I certainly used it for that. But what is it?”
“I do not know.”
“Do you know the story of Grazael?”
Transfixed by the dagger, Ulan Bator seemed barely to hear the question, “Some bruuhka, wasn’t she?”
The warlock grinned, “Not just any bruuhka. She was the daughter of Murg’Ash the Terrible and hers is an interesting story.”
As Murg’Ash, the great war-chief of Black Omen, became old and sick, ambitious orcs throughout the tribe plotted to take his place. The eyes of these schemers soon found Grazael, the war-chief’s unmarried daughter. A single birth, she had participated in several raids and desired to emulate the famous deeds of Naga’Thar, the bloody maiden. The indulgence of Grazael’s terrible father had always protected her from the unwanted attention of males, but as the great chief grew increasingly insensate, ambitious orcs became more aggressive in their pursuit. Some swore oaths of fire and blood to possess her and entire clans roiled with anticipation.
With Murg’Ash on the precipice of oblivion, Grazael began to prepare the tribe’s balefire for her mighty father’s funeral. A young orc, his name long forgotten, could contain himself no longer. He seized her by the hair and swore before the balefire that she now belonged to him. Grazael screamed her defiance and brutally plunged her dagger, a gift from her great father, into the orc’s eye. Despite his grisly end, the orc’s impertinent actions unleashed the pent-up ambitions of the others, causing them to rush her, lest they claim her too late. Mad with fury, Grazael lashed out at all who attempted to seize her. Her dagger rose and fell again and again, as she stabbed, cut, thrust, pierced, and cleaved. Scores of dead lay at her feet and her arms were slick with blood. But the males kept coming. She slashed throats, severed limbs, and ruptured organs. Grazael decimated Black Omen that day, destroying entire clans and devastating families.
Throughout the slaughter, one orc of particular ambition, held back. Finally, as Grazael finished hacking the lifeless head of a male, the dagger slipped from her exhausted hands. In an instant, the orc pounced, kicking the dagger beyond her reach and holding the drained Grazael fast. The warrior triumphantly roared out the vow of mating before the balefire, ignoring her weary struggles. As he made to drag her back to his cave, with a fatal effort Grazael burst from his grasp and plunged her hand deep and long into the balefire. Immediately, the dreadful clash ceased and the orcs drifted away in silence.
“What happened to Grazael?”
“Oh she became a bruuhka, indistinguishable from the rest. She lived out her life in obscurity, washing clothes, fixing meals, her death unnoticed and unlamented.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“This dagger, the one I used on you, was hers. And I want you to have it.”
Ulan Bator crouched next to his coven’s large balefire, holding a twisted, burnt dagger. He appeared not to notice the arrival of the small group behind him. When at last one of the burly orcish warriors cleared his throat, Ulan Bator rose to his feet and turned towards them. Before him loomed two great orcish warriors, flanking a frail man, dressed in a dirty tunic. Ulan Bator glared at the man, “Was there any trouble?”
The orc who had cleared his throat shook his head, “Nothing to speak of.”
He grinned. “Excellent. Bring him closer to the balefire.” The orcs seized the man by his arms and pushed him roughly towards the orcish warlock.
“Are you sure he’s the one?”
“This is him. Taken for witchcraft.”
Ulan Bator frowned and the man shrunk beneath the orc’s withering gaze.
Suddenly a pasty man with a plump belly hurried into the chamber, holding the hem of his satin robes between pinched fingers. He called out, “Stop!”
The orcish warriors roared a wordless challenge, which caused the man in the dirty tunic to recoil. Ulan Bator raised his hand, “Hold. The gaoler may approach the balefire.”
The orcish warriors fell silent and the man in the satin robes strode unperturbed towards the warlock, “What in the name of Ophen are you doing? Under whose authority have you removed this prisoner from the dungeons?”
“Authority? I put Ophen before my own life and I need authority to see a monster who seeks to hand us over to the demonic horde?”
The plump man squared his shoulders, meeting the orc’s gaze, “This man has been accused of a crime. We have not yet ascertained the veracity of the charges. Until then, our laws protect him. And you must obey the laws of Ophen, as must we all. Otherwise – ”
“Your laws are an empty distraction. I serve Ophen herself, not meddlesome, self-important dogs. While you bicker about nothing, forces gather that would have us choking on the ashes of our own dead. Ophen must be protected from such venomous filth, whatever the cost!” Ulan Bator spat out, pointing at the frail man in the tunic.
“As chief gaoler, I am ordering you to cease your unlawful interrogation of this prisoner immediately!”
Ulan Bator growled, “Fine!” The warlock stalked over to the prisoner, waving away the two warriors, who stepped aside. He drove his burnt dagger into the man’s chest and with a powerful kick sent him crashing into the balefire. The tortured screams of the dying man merged with the shrieks of outrage from the plump gaoler.
“Remove him!” commanded Ulan Bator and the orcish warriors marched the man, still spluttering with inchoate rage, out of the chamber.
Ulan Bator’s eyes never left the balefire, as the prisoner writhed and flailed about. Later, once the charred corpse looked like no more than another log, Ulan Bator reached deep into the balefire and withdrew his twisted dagger.