Once Orcs Were Warriors

For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!

This Week’s Inspiration: Orc

Niklaus is a typical orc in an untypical age. Although he has a wife, twin sons, and an office job, his blood longs for the ancient ways. For bloodshed and the glory of battle. As the petty frustrations and humiliations of modern life mount, Nik is on track for an explosive eruption when old ways meet new.

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The twins’ braying cries, both from the baby monitor and through the thin wall of their apartment, roused Niklaus from sleep. Grunting, he stayed where he was and pretended to sleep. Darkness blanketed the room. Red numbers illuminated the face of the digital clock on his nightstand, showing the time was just after 3am.

“It’s your turn.” Half-asleep, Aniya shoved Nik by the shoulder.

Nik rolled to the side of the bed and scowled at Aniya, although she couldn’t see it in the dark. Maybe it was just tiredness but he felt a stab of anger, even hate. She stayed home all day, he worked. Shouldn’t the damned night disturbances be her problem? Childrearing was no job for a male orc. Once upon a time, no female would have dared ask a male like him to take a turn checking on their children in the middle of the night. But Nik had agreed, he hadn’t fought the share of responsibilities so whose fault was it now? If he couldn’t lay down the old law in his own house?

Wearing only boxers, Nik stumbled out of their bedroom to the twins’ room. Nik, a fine example of orchood, filled doorways in the apartment which had been built to human proportions. Closer to seven foot than six, admittedly he’d gone soft around the middle and flab clung to his thickly muscled chest and arms. But like most any orc he was powerfully built, a warrior’s build. A wall of grey-green flesh. Sharp tusks bristled over his upper lip, at the corners of his mouth. His head was shaved smooth, in the fashion of his clan.

“What do you want? By the gods,” Nik mumbled.

Both twins cried and thrashed around their cribs. Twin nightlights lit the room. One of them had almost certainly woken up first and got the other started. Bane was the larger of the pair, the louder, and demanded more attention. Twins and triplets were more common among orcs than single children but there was always a dominant one among them. Nik had been the dominant of the pair between himself and his brother. He settled Bane first. A few solid thumps caused the orclet to belch, having sucked in too much air as he cried. Nik nestled Bane against his bare shoulder.

Wenzel, the lesser of the twins, continued to ball his tiny fists as he wriggled and cried as if in pain. Eventually, Niklaus reached into the second crib and scooped Wenzel out with one hand. Holding Wenzel away from his body for a moment, Nik studied him dispassionately. Wenzel was smaller and weaker than his brother. His chest frail and limbs sticklike, while Bane was solid and beefy.

Some orcish clans, in the harshest regions of the old country, used to inspect a baby for imperfections as soon as it was born. And if it was weak or sickly or had any deformities that didn’t look beneficial, it was left for the vargrs and the rats. Nik, to tell the truth, didn’t know if his clan lineage had ever participated in such a practice but it didn’t really matter. Once orcs were warriors. All other crafts, as builders or tanners or artesans, were secondary to the ability to fight. But that was a long time ago, before they were civilised. Nik nestled Wenzel against his bare skin. Still, Nik was sure orcs weren’t built to nurture, to care, to feel anything deeper than rage. But maybe that was just the exhaustion talking.

Eventually, Nik lulled both twins back to sleep. He replaced Bane and Wenzel in their cribs without waking them and returned to bed. Rageful and resentful dreams disturbed his sleep, however, until his alarm woke him.

Getting up, Nik shaved, showered, and dressed for work. Aniya sat at the breakfast table, feeding Bane and Wenzel. An orcish woman, she was almost as tall and almost as muscular as Nik. Her hair was shaved down the sides of her head then drawn into a thick plait behind her head, decorated with crude gems. Resentment hung, unspoken, between the two of them.

“Can you pick up dinner tonight, on the way home?” Aniya said. “And we need diapers, and diaper cream.”

Traffic ground along the freeway. Nik’s vehicle was sized for larger humanoids but it was cheap, uncomfortable, and still felt cramped. Sometimes life felt like a series of boxes, their apartment, the car, his cubicle at the office. Father, office drone, nobody. Boxes.

In the next lane, an expensive truck pulled alongside Nik, black with gleaming silver rims. Behind the wheel, a black-furred minotaur bobbed his bull head along with music Nik couldn’t hear. Gold chains fell around the minotaur’s throat and he had armbands around both biceps. The truck’s interior was roomy enough that even though the minotaur would have been around the same height as Nik his horns didn’t even scrape the ceiling. Nik avoided meeting the minotaur’s eyes but watched him from the corner of his gaze. Lips pulling back from large, flat teeth, the minotaur laughed at something. Maybe it was directed at something a passenger or his radio had said, or nothing at all, but Nik felt his blood surge and his face burn. Irrational or not, Nik felt certain the minotaur was laughing at him in his cheap SUV, his short sleeves and tie. Nik thought about dragging the minotaur out of his truck and stomping him into the road. Or trying to at least, expecting the minotaur would fight back and the two of them would be evenly matched. Nik bit back on his anger but wondered if humiliation was any better. Once, a perceived insult between their two races would have been enough reason to fight, to do battle, to kill, or start a war. Even if he was wrong, Nik didn’t feel it better to back down and bite off his rage. The minotaur’s lane moved first, and his truck pulled away.

Nik’s non-encounter with the minotaur kept going around in his head once he got to work. Nik hunched over his desk. His tie already felt like it was clinging around his throat. Cheap shirt stretching across his back and around his arms. Sounds of clattering keyboards, single halves of phone conversations and music muffled by headphones floated across the office. If it was the civilised thing to do, to tamp down his anger instead of unleashing it on the world, then why did it stew inside him and make him feel all the more miserable? That didn’t seem right or natural.

Nic heard his boss’ clacking legs coming up behind him. He quickly flicked through the tabs on his computer to find whatever would make him look busiest. Mr Al Hafeez took a long sip from a mug in his smaller hand marked ‘#1 Boss’.

“Niklaus, those numbers for last month look a little iffy,” Al Hafeez said, by way of greeting.

“Iffy?” Nik turned slowly in his chair, voice as rough as two stones grating together.

“I’m getting some heat from the sales floor.”

“Numbers are numbers. I do my job, it’s not my problem how they do theirs.”

Mr Al Hafeez showed no real reaction to Nik’s anger, certainly not intimidation. Nor should he, Al Hafeez was an arach. They were warriors too, once. Like Nik, however, civilization had tamed Al Hafeez, and maybe he’d adapted to that life just a little bit better. His human upper half dressed in a suit and tie, shirt tucked into a decorated loincloth that fell like an apron between his front pair of legs. With easy good looks, chiselled, human features with dark hair swept back, he fit among the majority of humanoid races better than the likes of Nik. Al Hafeez’s lower body was that of an enormous scorpion, covered in a bristly, black and brown carapace. Eight segmented legs and a coiled tail which arched up behind his back. His stinger, long and sharp like a tanto blade, was covered by a protective sheath to keep it from catching or cutting anyone accidentally. Al Hafeez’s left hand looked human while his right was a massive pincer, several times the length of his left hand and covered in a hard shell that continued up his arm to the shoulder.

“I need you to run them again, and break down the weeklys for me, okay?” Al Hafeez said. “Think you can get those to me by lunch?”

Niklaus imagined he and Al Hafeez meeting in ancient times, in the savage southern lands at the edges of orc territories during one of a thousand unnamed, glorious raids. Arachs had been nomads, warriors and mercenaries. Nik, bare chested, Al Hafeez’s vulnerable upper half covered in leather armour, both glistening with sweat, muscles taunt with exertion. One of those hooked arach swords made of brass flashing in the sun and ringing off Nik’s sword of crude iron. Circling, avoiding that infamously deadly arach tail, unsheathed, untamed. Desert wastes all around them littered with corpses.

“Niklaus? Is that okay?” Al Hafeez said.

“Yeah, lunchtime, that’s fine,” Nik said.

Al Hafeez scuttled on, #1 Boss mug in his off hand. Nik turned back on his computer to run the numbers he’d asked for, easy enough since he’d already done them once. He could break down the weekly columns almost without thinking, leaving his imagination free to wander. He pictured the minotaur from that morning in the same desert as he and Al Hafeez, golden armbands around his biceps, battleaxe in hand. Pictured some of the assholes from Sales there as well. He conjured up warriors to represent every petty annoyance or major burden in his life. Nik wished he could meet them all in combat in that desert. One after the other after the other. Even if it meant he’d be outmatched, even if it meant being wounded or killed. A glorious death was its own reward, they used to say. There was a nobility even in losing as long as you met it with all that battled with all that you had. There was a purity that the confusion of modern life lacked. His blood longed for the old ways.

By the middle of the afternoon, any comfort Nik had gotten from his fantasies had faded. Al Hafeez hadn’t bothered him again since he turned in the revised numbers. Hours dragged as Nik’s interrupted sleep weighed on him and caffeine didn’t make a difference. Slipping his phone and earbuds into his pocket with a guilty expression, Nik stood and moved toward the bathroom.

Crammed into one of the stalls after making sure the bathroom was empty, Nik opened the ErosFans app on his phone. He stuffed one of the earbuds into his right ear, leaving the other free to listen for anyone who might enter. His phone almost disappeared in his big hands. He and Aniya hadn’t had sex since the twins were born. That was fine, he wasn’t so desperate that he’d masturbate in the work bathroom. He just needed a jolt of desire, of heat, to wake him up and get him through the rest of the afternoon.

Nik scrolled through his ErosFans feed and clicked on a video of a demielf girl he followed called Starshine_18. Slender and pale with golden hued hair tucked behind pointed ears, and wide, innocent eyes. Naked, she spread herself in front of the camera and cooed in a high voice.

“Claim me, orc warrior! Claim me as your war wife, you’re so powerful!”

Nik’s lips pulled back from his teeth and tusks. Heat flushed his groin. Starshine_18 writhed and ran her hands down her body, keeping a perfect mix of fear and desire in her voice.

“Claim me! Spoil me for all others, you’ve conquered me!”

Nik kept watching, feeling his breathing thicken, but disgust began to creep in. Like rot, his revulsion quickly hollowed out and enveloped all feelings of desire. He was no conqueror or warrior, he was a pathetic loser watching porn in a bathroom stall at work. Naked and vulnerable as she was, the demielf had all the power here. Here he was paying her just to feed his lust and ego, and she would never even know who he was. Pathetic, Nik thought.

Someone entered the bathroom and Nik jumped as he heard the door swing open. The phone slipped from his fingers. Tumbling toward the floor, the cord attached to his earphones unravelled and the audio jack jerked free from their socket. As the phone cracked against the floor, Starshine_18’s video filled the screen. Without the earbuds plugged in, the sound of her exaggerated moans rattled out of the phone’s speaker.

Nik lunged. His movements shook the stall, which probably didn’t make things any better. Catching the phone with his foot, he dragged it toward him and fumbled to pause the video. Falling back on top of the toilet seat, Nik finally managed to make it stop playing. Outside, whoever had entered the bathroom hesitated but then crossed the room. Their tread was light, probably human. Nik’s green-grey skin flushed dark. Frozen, phone clutched to his chest, Nik burned with humiliation. He heard whoever was outside the stall stop at one of the urinals, piss, and then return to the sinks to wash their hands. Nik thought about throwing open the stall, grabbing them and crushing their head into one of the mirrors, again and again and again. In reality though, he was too paranoid to move until he heard them leave the room.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur of rage and humiliation. Nik didn’t know who’d come into the bathroom while he was there but it wasn’t hard to imagine, with that anonymity, that they’d been watching the bathroom door when he’d finally emerged. Part of Nik tried to tell him maybe they hadn’t heard the video before Nik shut it off, or failed to understand what they’d heard, but he didn’t believe it. In any case, Nik hadn’t been hauled into Mr Al Hafeez’s office. Presumably they hadn’t snitched, although there was always tomorrow. The humiliation that someone had the knowledge over Nik was enough, however.

“Did you get dinner, and diapers?” Aniya asked, as soon as Nik was through the door.

“No, I forgot.”

“What are we going to eat then?”

“I don’t know, order something.”

“Again? And what about the diapers?”

“Old gods, Aniya, I’m working all day, I can’t remember everything! What are you doing all day? I just bought diapers, how are they already gone?”

“Have you ever raised orc children, Niklaus? They go through a lot of diapers!”

They ordered dinner, and Aniya fed the twins. Nik held it together until Bane and Wenzel were in their cots but then went to the bedroom and quickly dressed. Over his shirt and jeans, Nik put on a scuffed leather jacket he hadn’t worn in a couple of years. Given that orcs continued to grow at a steady rate throughout their lives even after reaching maturity, until they got too big and their hearts or other organs gave out, the jacket was naturally a little too tight through the shoulders and arms, and everywhere else. But it would do for the night.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Aniya asked.

“Out, I’m going out,” Nik said.

“Out where?”

“I don’t have to answer every one of your godsdamned questions! I’m going out!”

Taking his keys and wallet, Nik slammed the door behind him and stormed to the car. His head felt like it was on the verge of exploding. If he didn’t get out, all the aggression he felt had to go somewhere and he didn’t want to do something he’d regret. Rather, Nik wanted to do something regrettable but not to Aniya or the kids. Old gods, orcs weren’t meant to be nurturers or office drones. They weren’t built to swallow rage and humiliation and stress, Nik couldn’t take any more of it.

Middle of the week, the roads were quiet at that time of night. Batlike ghasts flew at the edges of the glow cast by streetlamps, eating insects. Nik pulled off the freeway and continued to the seedier end of downtown. Neon club signs and light from all-night corner stores spilled across sidewalks. Hot oil massage, adult stores, virmen trading scavenged items on folding tables and blankets. A drunken satyr almost staggered into the path of Nik’s car, forcing him to pump the brake, but they turned and vomited in the gutter instead.

Nik pulled over and parked. Part of him wondered if he was really doing this. He wondered what he was doing at all. Going out and looking for a fight like some punk kid. Aggression wafted off him in a cloud, like steam, but a little voice of caution planted a seed of fear in him. The caution of living a comfortable life. Caution of being a father now. It told him to go home, to apologise to Aniya and leave all this behind. But, as if moving on its own, his body was out of the car, it was locking the doors behind him, and it was stalking down the sidewalk in the direction of the nearest knot of bars.

Nik stomped around outside the bars in his too-tight jacket but didn’t go inside. He attracted looks from a couple of security guards, a minotaur and another orc. Plenty of orcs jostled along the sidewalks in this part of town, many of them tattooed, pierced, and wearing shredded clothing. Humans and tharls, heavily tattooed zavalans in spiked clothing, a pack of makara. A lot of them drunk, a lot looking mean, but not actively looking for a fight. Those that seemed to recognise Nik’s anger avoided him with care.

Nik wanted to hurt someone but he wanted someone who deserved it. He couldn’t just hurt anyone. He started to think he should just go back to the car but rage and humiliation still had hooks in him. His ego couldn’t take another perceived retreat. He’d attracted too much attention where he was, however. Nik veered away and headed down an alleyway between two of the bars.

Sound and light from the street faded. Nik remained too deep within his own head to really take much stock of his surroundings until a retching sound caught his attention. A dark shape rose, and rose, from behind one of the dumpsters. They braced themselves with two of their four heavily muscled arms. They were taller than Nik by almost three foot, easily over nine foot tall. One hand reached to wipe their mouth, sharp tusks bristling at its corners. Nik stopped and their dark eyes fixed on him.

“What the fuck are you looking at?” The gegenee scrowled.

Nik hesitated, a trill of self-preservation going through his system. He didn’t know exactly what he’d wanted, but he’d wanted to feel like a warrior. And warriors didn’t just fight the battle they knew they could win. They didn’t back down.

“I don’t know what I’m looking at, not much,” Nik said.

“Not much? Fuck is that supposed to mean?”

Gegenee looked orcish but were naturally taller and with four arms instead of two. Lean and muscular, their skin was dark blue instead of greyish green. Tusks bristled at the corners of the gegenee’s mouth. He wore his black hair in a long plait, and wore a vest designed to accommodate his four long, tattooed arms. Drunk, they lurched toward Nik and blocked the alley.

“Back the fuck up,” the gegenee said.

“Or you’ll what?”

The two of them both bared their teeth, tusks gleaming. Nik and the gegenee recognised each other as just what they’d been looking for. Someone they longed for while at the same time despised, as much as they hated themselves. Nik’s jacket was too tight, he ripped it off and tossed it on top of the nearest dumpster. The gegenee looked surprised at Nik’s boldness.

“You don’t know who you’re fucking with, little orc,” the gegenee warned.

“Show me,” Nik said.

Ignoring the world around them, to both ends of the alley, the two of them ran at each other. Three of the gegenee’s four hands snatched Nik by the shirt, tearing it and lifting him off his feet. He swung the orc around in a half-circle and slammed him into the alley wall. The gegenee, tall and powerfully built as he was, was immensely strong, stronger than Nik had been expecting. The gegenee cocked his fourth hand back in a fist and punched Nik twice in the face, splitting his lip open. Nik’s head bounced off the wall behind him.

Nik locked an arm around one of the gegenee’s right forearms and bit him on the wrist. His feet swung freely. Thrusting forward, Nik kicked the gegenee in the stomach. The gegenee grunted and folded over. Stained with vomit, his breath gusted into Nik’s face and he dropped Nik. The orc staggered and found his footing.

Tall as the gegenee was, Nik had to bring him down in size. With their additional weight and additional arms, Nik couldn’t get caught wrestling the gegenee either if he had any chance of winning this fight. Nik booted the gegenee in the side of one knee, staggering him. The bigger male swayed drunkenly, falling forward so that his face was almost level with Nik. Swinging around, Nik hit the gegenee with an uppercut that made his teeth and tusks clip together.

“You little shit,” the gegenee said.

The gegenee tried to hit Nik but Nik was too fast. He ducked and weaved under the fists and the gegenee stumbled into the bricks instead. He fell backward, hissing. Nik grabbed the gegenee’s lower right arm and twisted with all his strength, wrenching the limb around. The gegenee swiped and snarled. Nik pulled the arm straight, locking it at the elbow, and then drove his fist into the knotted bend. With a pop, the elbow dislocated. The gegenee cried out in pain and thrashed out of Nik’s grip.

The gegenee swung around and another fist crashed into Nik’s face. Nik wasn’t even sure which one. Nik sprawled toward the mouth of the alley. In spite of all the noise, no one had come to investigate. The gegenee loomed, his lower arm dangling uselessly but the other three all bunched into fists. Nik scrambled to his feet and drove forward, tackling the gegenee around the midsection. Tall as he was, the gegenee was flung backward by the impact of the stockier orc. They crashed into one of the dumpsters.

The gegenee drove an elbow into the side of Nik’s head. Dazed, Nik loosened his grip and the gegenee pulled free. One of his left hands grabbed Nik around the head and slammed Nik’s skull into the alley wall.

“I’m going to kill you!” The gegenee said. “I’ll squeeze your head until it pops!”

Niklaus sank against the wall. Part of him told him to just go down. The gegenee’s threats were only talk. If Nik let himself go limp he’d take a few more kicks and blows but that would be it, the fight would be over. Drunk as he was, the gegenee looked tired and fed up, and would probably wander off to seek treatment for his busted arm. But Nik still wanted to think of himself as a warrior, and warriors didn’t just go limp and take their kicks.

Roaring, Nik flung himself clear of the wall at the gegenee. Again, he attacked one of the gegenee’s knees first, knocking it out from under him. He fell to his other knee, bringing him down to Nik’s height. Nik grabbed him by the collar with one hand and slammed him in the face with the other. His fist throbbed. Nik hit him again and again, stunning the gegenee.

“I’ll show you! I’ll show all of you!” Nik howled.

The gegenee tried to fend Nik off but Nik kept driving his fist into his face. Blood sprayed out of a broken nose and splattered Nik’s fist and shirt. A tusk broke, snapping loose. Nik let go and swung both fists into the gegenee’s face. Stunned, the gegenee’s eyes rolled back and he collapsed in on himself. He folded over, falling flat on the floor of the alley. Nik felt victorious. He straightened over the gegenee, fists at his sides, breathing heavily.

As the lust of the fight wore off, however, Nik saw the scene with another eye. He saw the gegenee’s crooked arm with a visceral disgust. He smelled the puke and trash of the alley. Was this really what he’d wanted? This was the glory after battle? He felt disturbed and disgusted by what he’d done. His reasons for fighting had been so pointless, the risk meaningless and result permanent. Kneeling, Nik checked the side of the gegenee’s throat. A pulse fluttered there at least, as he breathed thickly.

It could have just as easily been him lying there. What would Aniya think if that was the case? He’d been thinking only of himself, of the consequences for him but thinking what Aniya’s reaction would be receiving a call that he’d been found beaten and unconscious in this part of town made him feel sick. He could still be found and arrested. Aniya must already be afraid, and worried, as well as angry. The boys, Bane and Wenzel, they’d be too young to understand what it meant if he didn’t come home or he wasn’t there in the morning.

“Old gods, what was the point of all of this? What am I doing here?” Nik said.

Back in that desert at the centre of his mind, Nik again saw the bodies and the aftermath of battle. No longer was it a stage managed scene of bloodless carnage, however. He imagined the iron stink of blood and stench of shit as the corpses let themselves go in death. Gore and gaping wounds. The warriors sent to die on the whim of some half-insane tribal chief or greedy king. In the stories afterwards there might be glory but not on the battleground itself. And while a glorious death might be its own reward, it was still a death, leaving behind family, tribe, people who needed and missed them.

Nik collected his jacket and hurried out of the alley. Leaving the gegenee behind, the battle, the victory, he almost ran back to his car while ignoring anyone else on the street. A bloated mass of emotions swelled through his chest but nothing noble, nothing glorious.

On the way home, Nik stopped at a gas station he knew had a bathroom he could access without going inside. His face was swollen, knuckles scuffed, and blood splattered his arms and shirt. He went to the bathroom and cleaned up as best he could, dabbing his shirt with wet paper towel. Nothing noble. Looking at himself in the mirror, he thought of what was waiting for him at home. Aniya, Bane, even little Wenzel. Nik could hardly imagine tossing the scrawny little runt to the vargrs after all. Tired as he was, he’d been too stupid to see what he had all along.

When he was done cleaning up, Nik returned to his car. The gas station was still open though, and illuminated. Nik stopped, hesitated, and returned to the front entrance of the gas station.

Aniya and the twins were in bed when Nik returned. Apart from the twins’ nightlights, the apartment was dark, and silent. Nik dropped a plastic bag he’d bought at the gas station just inside the twins’ room, careful not to wake them. Returning to his bedroom, he stripped off his clothing and climbed into bed behind Aniya.

“I bought diapers,” Nik said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Aniya’s back was stiff. She pretended to sleep but Nik knew, by the rhythm of her breathing, that she was still awake. Guilt mingled with need, with love, with desperation, with recrimination, with bargaining. Nothing was simple, but that was alright too. At that moment, Nik heard the baby monitor crackling. Maybe he’d disrupted one of the kids when he arrived home. They started to stir, and cry.

“I thought I was meant to be something, but it’s something I’m not. Something that doesn’t belong anymore. Maybe something that never existed. I’m sorry, you sleep, I’ll get them. It’s my turn. My turn.”

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What do you call this? Toxic Orculinity? Naturally, this story relates back to my earlier story, ‘The Pig’, which takes place in the same setting and also features an orc, or half-orc, with something to prove as a protagonist. So I suppose I like trying to make a point about masculinity using orcs. Generally speaking I like seeing savage, ‘evil’ races given some depth to the point they’re no longer merely savage or evil. But I don’t like the other depiction of orcs as a kind of “noble savage” – mostly because I despise with a passion the noble savage trope for reasons I won’t rave about here.

I mentioned in the author note for The Pig I planned on releasing more stories in this setting! We’ll see how that goes, but next week is a very different setting which is also host to several different stories now. Next week is also the longest story I’ve written as part of All There in the (Monster) Manual, I believe so, you know, make sure you set aside some time?

Next Week’s Inspiration: Dragon Turtle

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