Disclaimer: what follows is some world-building notes from a fantasy setting I’ve been developing for the past year or two, primarily in short fiction.
As my captors will never deign to write their history themselves, let alone read it, I, Yrelliel Dawnsbreath, the last of the the elves, take up my quill and scratch this missive in the diluted blood of my own people. So that people, one day, may know.
The wars were lost. This much is obvious. The kingdoms of humanity were crushed, the dwarven empire ground to dust, and the immortal courts of the elves slaughtered and forgotten. This was over a century ago now, though the pain of it is still keen. Know you the old human proverb, “time heals all wounds?” Not so for the children of the twilit world – we elves remember. We remember as it was yesterday, and for all time. I envy my ancient human friends now, long sent to their rest, leaving scarcely a ghost to haunt me.
But my monitor – a hobgoblin named Fether – grows anxious. He believes me to be writing something I ought not, which indeed I am. How fortunate I am that he cannot read my calligraphy. Oh, how my mother would laugh. She always found my penmanship abysmal. Now, after the world I knew has ended, how funny it is that such terrible handwriting would serve as my primary defense.
But, to business.
All orcs are born goblins. This was not commonly known in the World Before, but now it occupies my thoughts at all times. The species, which we once thought four distinct races, is really one. How arrogant of us to never learn this. How steep the cost of such pride.
Goblins are wretched creatures. Usually discarded by their mothers shortly after birth, they grow quickly into vicious, adaptable little creatures who know nothing but hunger and terror in equal measures. But I will say this: their cruelty is not genetic. Many have been the young goblins set to bring me food or spy upon my rest or run this or that errand of my captors who has looked at me not with revulsion and hatred, but with curiosity and wonderment. I see in their red-rimmed gaze the same innocence and eager energy I remember among human children, though goblins are physically the most superior children ever born. By the age of five summers they can sprint as well as any elf I can recall, and their nimble little fingers are capable of great feats of ingenuity.
Goblins survive on their wits and their will alone. Orc society shows them little mercy. They are servants, slaves, and even more wretched things in this world, and it twists them to become their worst selves or, as is often the case, kills them before they can ever amount to anything worthwhile.
The species is always growing, always feeding. The more a goblin eats, the larger they get. Eventually, they grow large enough to depart the title of “goblin” altogether, though when exactly this occurs is subject to some debate, I gather. In any event, food is strictly controlled, strictly rationed. Only those goblins that prove themselves worthy of their masters’ affection are fed, and the rest eat only what they can steal. If they are very lucky, they become hobgoblins.
Hobgoblins are the managers of orc society. Their chief responsibility lies in keeping the labor force (the goblins) in line, by lash or by hook. They are granted greater privileges by their orc masters – regular meals, a degree of protection from other orcs, access to equipment and training. Aboard a leviathan, hobgoblins act as reliable foot soldiers, as only they have a degree of loyalty to their orc masters. Like goblins, they are clever and ingenious, devising the vast bureaucracy that allows Orcdom to function and constructing the huge machines that gave it the capacity to overcome the world of old. If they are met with success, they are permitted to attend the feasting table of their orc master and are showered with food. In time, should they continue to impress their masters, they will soon grow large enough to become an orc themselves.
The orcs, of course, are the warlords, rulers, tyrants, and masters of this society. Huge, bulky, violent, and only occasionally cunning, they live for conquest, whether in the military or civilian arenas. Their hunger is, of course, their defining feature. Whatever civilized traits they once possessed have long since been beaten out of them by their hardscrabble climb to the top of the social pyramid. They are without imagination, as imagination is seen as a threat to their society. There are no artists in this world of theirs. No poets. Scarcely any scholars worth the name.
Just an elf with poor penmanship chained in a tower.
There is, of course, one more evolution beyond that of the orc. It is rarely spoken of in orc society, as the orcs fear what the greatest among them become. Should an orc be unusually successful, whether at war with other tribes or even as a merchant or ruler or otherwise, and should they gorge themselves on feasts that would embarrass even the most gluttonous human king of old, they will, of course, continue to grow. As they grow – and indeed along their whole history of growth, from their birth as a goblin onwards – their hunger becomes more and more part of who they are. The orcs are balanced (barely) between the intelligence of their former self and the barbaric hunger that has gotten them this far. For trolls, they have fallen off the precipice.
Trolls are gigantic creatures, standing ten or even fifteen feet tall and weighing as much as four or five horses. They are nothing but unrestrained appetite, eating everything they come across, regenerating even the most grievous wounds, and leaving behind them a trail of destruction. They are a thing apart in orc society – more beast that being – and bear with them a kind of religious awe. Indeed, I have heard of whole troops of dispossessed goblins, hobgoblins, and even orcs that follow in their wake, worshiping the passing of the troll and feasting upon that which was left behind. These fanatical bands are a scourge upon the order of this society, but one that Orcdom insists is necessary, for some reason. I cannot understand it. In my old life I would not have wished to. But now?
Now, there is little I have to do but to understand this new world in which I live. To marvel at its perversity and its strange vitality. And to write it so that my orcish captors will never truly know what I write of them.
Author’s note: What follows is some teaser text for a gothic horror RPG campaign I’ve been running and am currently attempting to restart. I hope you enjoy it.
Life is cheap on the slopes of Mount Radu.
The boy has heard this from his father, spoken in bitter tones over cups of vocht, after the concertina ceased to bluster and old Nirri had fallen to snoring before the fire. He hadn’t ever really known what he meant. Now he think he knew.
The boy’s sister had found the crack in the basement wall. She, being a good girl, had run to tell father, and father had gone down with mortar to seal it. The boy had gone to sleep before father had come up, and then next thing he knew he was being shaken awake and had a beaverskin coat thrust on him and they were out in the bitter cold of the night, the snow crunching beneath their feet. Mother and sister would not answer the boy’s questions, and father was wild, crossbow looped over one shoulder, torch clutched in one white-knuckled fist, waving the flame at any shadows that looked suspicious.
They were to walk all night to the neighbor’s house, Veldavaya. The fir trees seemed to shuffle closer to them at night, and the boy breathed into his hands to keep them warm. His eyes darted towards the pale gray shapes the snow made on the tree trunks. Did that one move? Was that a light? An eye, like in old Nirri’s stories, red and hateful, gleaming in the flickering torchlight?
Where was old Nirri? The boy had asked, but no one had answered. Mother’s mouth got tight at the edges and she shook her head. The boy didn’t know what to make of it.
“Shhhh!” Mother hissed, but it was pointless–no one was talking. They did stop walking, though. Silence fell on them like a quilt. They huddled around the torch, eyes searching the dark, mouths open.
kruch-kruch…kruch kruch kurch kruch kruchkruchkruchkruch…
Little feet. Little hands. Scrambling through the snow like a hoard of greedy children. Coming at them from all sides, closer, closer, closer…
“RUN!” Father yelled. He seized the boy by the collar and dragged him, the boy’s legs flailing as he tried to get himself upright. Father wouldn’t give him the chance. He dropped the torch and tucked the boy under his arm like a hen. The pale glow of the starlit snow whirled before the boy’s face, pine-needles and icicles brushing by his raw cheeks. He heard his mother scream. He heard his sister shout his name. Father did not stop.
The sound of the little feet in the snow had become a stampede. It was joined by shrill cries and sharp little laughs, and the boy closed his eyes. Here they would die, just like in the stories. Dragged beneath the mountain, to be thrust in the stew-pot at the table of the Goblin King. The fate of bad little boys and bad little girls, just as old Nirri had always said. The boy wept and shouted he was sorry, but he didn’t know for what. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want father and mother and sister to die for what he had done, whatever it had been.
Father fell to the ground and the boy landed face-first in a snow drift. He scrambled out in time to hear the cry of a horse and the thunder of hooves as they galloped past, huge and somehow blacker than the night. There were riders with torches and sabers. They dove into the underbrush without call or trumpet; the boy heard shrieks of dismay from the darkness and, somehow, he knew the goblins had gone. They were saved. The boy got up, trembling. His father took him by the shoulders and hugged him close.
Then the riders came back. There were six of them, clad in silver mail with snow-white cloaks. Their faces were covered by a mask of alabaster, showing an angelic face, serene and at peace, with black, vacant holes where the eyes should be. The riders surrounded the man and the boy and looked down at them both with those empty, black eyes. For a long time, no one stirred.
Father knelt before them. “My regards to Prince Ladislav, and my thanks. You saved us.”
“There is a price.” The voice came from one of the riders, but the boy couldn’t say which. It was thin, cold whisper, like rainfall on snow.
“Take me.” Father said.
One of the riders shook his head slowly, once to the right, once to the left.
“He isn’t old enough.”
“He will be, soon enough.”
“There is no other way?”
“Are you refusing the Prince’s protection, woodsman?”
Father bowed his head. “Never.”
The rider nodded. “Then follow us.”
Father rose and took the boy by the hand. He did not look at his son, though. Not again for that whole night.
This was how the boy learned just how cheap life is on the slopes of Mount Radu.