Gray grass was punctuated with sharp colorless crags and broken rocks as a shrouded horizon reached down to slump over the earth with a lonely embrace. A low valley was flanked by steep, morose cliffs and at the center of the uneven plain was an ancient weather-worn cairn. Surrounding the stones was a wide circle of evenly spaced pillars of stone, carved with worn sigils of some forgotten time.
The northwestern cliff was suddenly punctuated by a silhouette which quickly vanished as the form flung itself to the ground.
No sound could be heard but the chill air of a cold wind howling forlornly through the winds. Slowly, carefully, the figure hidden in the gray grasses began to push himself to the edge of the cliff. Brown curly hair blew in brief wisps behind his ears, and rough fingers itched a scruffy chin as gray eyes scanned the valley below.
After a moment or so of studying the terrain, he shrugged and reached to a shard of limestone and swung his leg over the side of the cliff. As he began to lower himself down to a lip of rock, the gray-eyed man began to sweat. While he made his way down the steep cliff his hands dug into the rocks, and as he continued to move toward the valley he carefully slid his booted feet to try to find purchase on a ledge or outcrop.
Pausing in the climb the gray-eyed man lifted his gaze to cliff above and saw that he had descended now about eight fathoms. Turning his gaze downward he saw that he was yet about ten or eleven fathoms from the ground, and that cracked stones poked from the grass below. Sighing, he wet his lips a moment and attempted to dig his fingers into a crevice, when his peripheral vision noticed a figure moving slowly through the grasses toward the foot of the cliff.
He froze then, until it was clear that the figure had tacked his course and was making his way directly to him. Only his eyes moved as he watched the approaching figure for a moment, looking for the presence of weapons or a possible threat and cursed mentally for his foolishness at moving so quickly without properly assessing the situation and determining if there was, in fact, anyone in the valley.
Looking up again he thought about trying to climb back to the summit; it should be fairly easy, and the figure below him, unless he was of a sorcerous bent, didn’t seem to pose any threat, at least at range. But as he reached up to pull himself to the crag above, his fingers slipped on the damp rock.
Both his hands struggled futilely and suddenly he fell a few feet down the cliff, his fingers stabbing desperately for purchase on the rocks; the rough surface ripping at his skin, bruising his knuckles and cutting into his fingernails.
The robed figure rushed suddenly to the base of the cliff, while the gray-eyed man managed to catch a ledge, his feet dangling over the empty air beneath him; the sharp rocks pushing up to stab their stony fingers at him eagerly, waiting for his body to fall below.
“Gods DAMN it,” he screamed out, slamming himself against the rocks, his boots stumbling against the cliff’s side. He could hardly think, visions flashing through his unconsciousness in dim images. As he struggled he observed that his fingers were grinding against the slippery stones; the crags cutting into the leather soles of the boots; he felt the dampness of blood on his fingers where the rocks cut into him. Then he heard the sounds of high-pitched screaming mixed with the noise of guttural yelling.
Suddenly he felt the rush and the tumble of wind tearing past him. A sickening lurch twisted in his belly, and the sky was beneath the ground and the cliff was chasing around his eyes… and the falling grew more real and the certainty of his death more clear… and then…
…and then; he stopped.
“What in the name of Hextor, Nerull, and all the gods above heaven and below happened?” he spluttered in shock and awe.
“Be at peace, brother,” came the deep baritone voice.
“What the hell is this?” the gray-eyed man said jerking himself out of the grip of the robed figure, whose broad arms cradled his somewhat bruised body.
The gray-eyed man turned to take in the figure and they widened in shock at the presence of a mottled face; eyes which squinted monstrously juxtaposed with a placid gaze and broken and jagged molars pushing over the crest over a lower lip could not distract him from the site of a benign smile.
Tumbling over the ground the gray-eyed man jerked a pair of blades from his belt and hopped back into a fighting stance, eyeing the face of the half-orc beast leering down at him.
“You give life to the rumor, brother,” he said sadly, his eyes softening, the smile now gone.
“Wait… huh? What rumor?” the gray-eyed man asked, suspiciously, somewhat confused, his eyes following the half-orc, searching desperately for the imminent threat.
The half-orc sighed softly, shaking his head, his thick muscled forearms folding across his massive chest to slip into the sleeves of the spartan robe. The thick black brows knitted above his eyes and he looked to the cliffs above, then back to the gray-eyed man in front of him.
“It is said among the peoples of the realms below the earth that the men who dwell under the naked sky are bereft of skill or wit, and have no talent to recommend whatsoever, except for their propensity to kill.”
“What?” the gray-eyed man spluttered. “Nay skill or wit, and only good at killing? And what do ye think orcs are good for, ye whoreson?”
The stubbly teeth pushed forth again in the crooked smile.
“At the least, oh man, we are good at catching humans who are poor at climbing.”
The gray-eyed man slowly lowered his weapons, catching the tentative smile in the face of the creature in front of him. Glancing quickly to the cliffs above him again, then back to the robed person, he straightened his back slowly and slid his blades into the sheaths at his belt.
“You saved my life, half-orc, my thanks,” he said with a nod and a grin at the half-orc’s joke and the absurdity of the situation.
“It was not your fate to die, yet… and though many may call me a half-orc, there are some who call me Ug Fu’Lao,” he said quietly, the tentative smile fading somewhat.
Pausing for a moment, the gray-eyed man caught the look, and glanced quickly through the broken rocks and grass around his feet and then again to the stone wall towering above him, seeking for the cliff edge, nearly a hundred feet above. He shook his head at the near thing that his fall could have resulted in, and let out a quick expulsion of air from his lungs.
“Derek Arkantos,” the gray-eyed man said suddenly, his face exploding into a bright smile as he thrust his brown hand forward.
The half-orc looked down at the extended hand in surprise, then slid his own hand slowly from the sleeves of his robe and extended his own hairy fist, which the human embraced warmly.
After a moment of somewhat awkward silence, Arkantos cleared his throat with a sudden gusto.
“So, what brings you out here… uh, Ug?”
“It is said that this place is an ancient shrine to the spirits of the earth; so I have come to pay them my respects.”
“You a priest?”
“I am not a priest; though I honor the gods for their gifts. I am… a student,” he said his gaze suddenly turned to travel through the valley.
“Student, eh? Whatta ye study, mate?”
“I am a student of all things. I am student of the earth and stone; the ways of body and the mind; the ways of the peace of force and the ways of…”
“Ye study quite a bit, mate,” Arkantos interrupted with laugh. Tearing a bundle of cloth from a pouch at his side he pulled out a short knife and cut strips of it and began to bandage his bloodied knuckles. “How about we study up some hot grub, though, if ye got any, eh?”
“I am not fond of grubs; but if you would prefer, I have some nuts and roots, which we may share near the cairn there,” he said pointing behind him.
“Any brandy, mate?” the human asked after a moment.
“No, good Arkantos. Fermented drinks are a pollution to the mind, and I must abstain.”
“Damnation, Uggs, that’s nay good. But what the hell? I guess we’ll pass on the drinks, eh?” his nose twitched as his eyes darted over the broken valley. “But do ye smell that, though? There’s water somewhere near.”
“Yes; there is a deep well near the cairn. It is filled with pure, clean water. We may refresh ourselves there, and, perhaps, learn more of each other. I tell you truly, the ways of Fate have brought us together with what I believe is more then chance.”
Akrantos cinched the bandage tight around his fingers and dug a strip of salted venison from his pouch and chewed off a piece, nodding absently at the half-orc’s declaration.
“I like you, Uggs, you’ve a good mind. And who knows, maybe ye’re right? Could be that the gods put us together fer a reason, eh?”
“Perhaps the gods have done so. Or perhaps it was instead the natural order of the eternal planes which have conspired equally to lead us to this destiny,” he said, thoughtfully as the two slowly walked to the pillars of stone that flanked the cairn.
“Eternal planes conspiring, eh?” Arkantos said with a chuckle. “You know, Uggs, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” he added, slapping the thick muscles of the half-orc’s broad shoulders.
“If that is our destiny… then it may be you are correct,” Ug-Fu’Lao responded with his soft benign smile.
As the unlikely pair approached the cairn, Ug silently gave thanks to the ever wondrous world that he was in the right place at the right time to help another life. It constantly surprised and amazed him at the vast ocean of personalities that the human species contains. Ug was under no illusions as to his monstrous appearance. His ready smile sometimes seemed to frighten people more than when he frowned. Ug was pleased that the grey-eyed man Derek had seen fit to allow the opportunity for a friendship, something that had not happened often in Ug’s 24 winters on this world.
Ug looked the man over as they walked, silently noting the easy stride and soft step of a man who spent a good bit of time stalking game. He also seemed to have an eagerness about him that belied a thirst to prove his worth to himself and others. Ug had no talent for conversation but could usually tell the character of a person fairly well, and he had a good feeling about this Derek. A man of many surprises, Ug was sure that at the very least, knowing this human would be an interesting experience.
Reaching the cairn, Ug knelt on the rocky ground and began the ritual prayer and meditations of the Li’Gung’Mai. The ritual itself consists of three main steps. Ug placed his hands on the ground in front of him in the diamond pattern of the first step, breathing deeply and pushing any unclean energy from his body. Body and mind attuned like a freshly honed knife, Ug began the second step. Focusing his gaze upon the cairn, Ug felt his link to the earth and rocks strengthen. He began the transferal of his pure chi energy into them, strengthening them against wind and water, so that they may last for future generations to look upon in wonder. Pulling his gaze inward, Ug began the last step. Pulling his chi from the deep lifespring that resides in all creatures, he reinforced his body and mind for the day to come.
While Ug went through this ritual, Derek was unsure of what to think of this large half-orc. He seemed to have none of the traits of his barbaric kin, but Derek had traveled wide and knew that things were not always what they appear. Still, there was something about the way he moved and talked that was genuine and honest, traits in short supply in this world. He moved with a plodding, rolling sort of gait that bespoke a boulder rolling down a hill. He was massive and ugly, but had a grace and serenity that was in direct opposition to his fierce appearance.
Not knowing how long the ritual was going to take, Derek quickly located the well and drank his fill, shaking off the final effects of the near death experience he had just had. Filling his skin, he turned back to again look at the half-orc that had just saved his life. Derek wondered where Ug had learned such focus and peace. A passionate man, Derek had done his best to survive in this harsh world while a feeling burned inside of him like he was meant to do something more. Perhaps meeting Ug would be the spark that allowed him to continue upon his path.