Lacriessa knew these words by heart, and had done for as long as she could recall. They were, indeed, the first words that any orc would ever hear, and if the circumstances were right, also the last. Those seven lines contained the truth and everything in it, and were all an orc would ever need in order to make sense of the world. Of course, it wasn’t exactly that simple, regardless of how the priests liked to tell it, but the Mountain’s Creed was still a better guiding light than most.
Lacriessa repeated the Creed under her breath. It might not solve every problem, but nonetheless, it was a comfort. Today was a big day, easily the biggest of her life, and the nerves were already piling up. There was a small part of her that felt scared, which was understandable given the circumstances, but mostly she just knew that her task was an essential one, a noble one, and the responsibility for its success was hers alone. There was a lot to live up to, a lot of history and a lot of future, and she wasn’t entirely sure she was ready, but she wanted to do it, and she was keen to see it done right.
Outside, a bell began to toll. It was almost time.
She was in a small room, featureless except for the steel bench on which she was currently rested. This was where the Returning Child was required to wait, alone with their thoughts, whilst the ceremony was being prepared. The idea was to test the Child’s resolve, to see if the isolation and anticipation would make the mind turn on itself, make them abandon the ceremony and run away in fear. No orc was ever known to have done so, for there was considered to be no greater shame. Lacriessa certainly had no intention of being the first.
Besides, she still had the box. Resting on her knees was a small steel container, half-filled with copper shavings, and resting on these shavings was an egg. It was about six inches long, and a mottled grey colour. It was her egg, and inside was her child. Whether a boy or a girl, she would never find out, but that didn’t matter. They were still her child, and they were what today was about. She would not fail them, not under any circumstances. So long as she had the box, had the egg, she would see this through.
From the Fire we arose.
To the Fire we will return.
We children of the World Mountain.
We under her eternal Shadow.
Her Heart will claim us.
Her Heart will create us anew.
The End is the Beginning is the End.
Suddenly, the bell stopped. There was a silence, then a voice.
'Come forth, Returning Child.'
The door gently swung open, as if pushed by an invisible hand.
Now was the time.
Lacriessa took hold of the box, stood up and walked outside. She was in a large plaza, the Start of the Path, the heart of the temple-city of Diegerburdot. Buildings spread out on all sides, many the largest and grandest outside Toldurmei, the royal city itself. A crowd had gathered around the edge of the plaza, heads bowed in unison. To be in the Start of the Path, even for those who lived and worked in this city, was a rare and humbling honour. Lacriessa understood this better than most.
At the centre of the plaza were five priests, dressed in elegantly decorated gold armour. Orcs would often bring human garments back from war, made from leather or wool or silk, and were amazed at what others considered fineries. They knew how to make such materials, and create clothing from them, but they always considered such things to be bland and immaterial. The refining of metal, the forging of armour: these were works of labour and permanence, worthy of their place in the shadow of the World Mountain.
The priests who worked in her Heart would not be forced to make do with mere robes, but were deserving of the finest ceremonial gold. Lacriessa looked down at her own iron armour, the set she considered to be her grandest, and could only feel inadequate. But she was the Returning Child, not them, and despite having no better than regular iron, she would keep her head high.
Lacriessa walked over to the five priests. The eldest, the one with the finest armour, stepped forward to meet her.
'Are you the Returning Child?' he said, with the grandeur of long-performed ceremony.
Lacriessa knew the reply. Knew all the replies that would be required today. In recent months, she had studied nothing else. She took a breath.
'I am the Returning Child.'
'Are you ready to ascend the Path of the World Mountain?'
'I am ready to ascend the Path of the World Mountain.'
'Are you ready to enter the Heart of the World Mountain, and commit yourself to her Fire?'
'I am ready to enter the Heart of the World Mountain, and commit myself to her Fire.'
'Will your spirit be taken into her Heart, and be reborn anew in the spirit of your child?'
'My spirit will be taken into her Heart, and will be reborn anew in the spirit of my child.'
'Then you are indeed the Returning Child. Together we will ascend the Path of the World Mountain. But you alone can commit yourself to her Fire.'
The crowd began to stamp their feet. The slow, rhythmic chorus was used at orc gatherings of many kinds, a gesture indicating deep and eternal solidarity. Lacriessa began to feel a lump in her throat. To give such a gesture was common, but to receive it was not.
The other four priests stepped forward, forming a loose square around Lacriessa. The elder priest moved ahead, leading the way. The bell tolled once, then the party walked out of the plaza. The stamping from the crowd began to die down.
Lacriessa looked up at the World Mountain. She was massive even when seen from the farthest corners of Ensturg, but here at her very base, she loomed over half the horizon. Fire and smoke constantly billowed from her summit, pouring her spirit into the sky. Above Lacriessa’s head, as above the heads of all orcs, the sky was thick with black clouds, keeping the land in the eternal twilight in which it had been created. The World Mountain had breathed out her Fire since the beginning of everything, and on this everything now turned.
Halfway up the Mountain, almost impossible to see from here, was a giant cave. This was the End of the Path, and inside was the Heart of the Mountain, the source of her Fire. This was the navel of existence, where all orcs were born, and where they would all one day return.
The party reached the edge of the city. Ahead of them was the Path itself, a staircase wide enough for seven orcs to walk side-by-side, twisting and turning up the Mountain until it reached the cave. The staircase was not steep, but such was the distance, it would take many hours to climb.
As they began their ascent, Lacriessa reflected on the events to come. The exchange with the elder priest had not been mere ritual. It was a statement of intent, of her business in the Heart of the Mountain. She had meant every word. Today she would die, and in her place her child would be born.
Lacriessa had never been that interested in school. With rocks to climb and games to play, the finer details of her race and its history had been lost on her. But the priestess, whose hard face terrified Lacriessa to this day, had made an effort to beat some of it into her anyhow. She was proud to say she at least knew the basics.
The land of Ensturg, surrounding the World Mountain from which it had taken its name, was not a kind place. To keep the rest of the world turning, one part had to be under the Mountain’s shadow, making the necessary sacrifice. There was little sun here, and few plants could grow. The animals that scratched an existence from them were small but tough, and would tear apart all rivals in order to protect what little they could find. The orcs had been no better, at first, until they had learned to make the cold, barren desert work for them, to get the most out of every resource the land could give. They had learned to mine rocks deep beneath the earth, and turn them into precious metals of all kinds. They had learned where the clouds were thin and the water was pure, where they could take the wild plants and make them grow into bountiful fields, and raise the animals in obedient herds. But it was not a paradise. The land was still hard and unforgiving, and there were few who could live there.
It had been discovered, many ages of the world ago, that the World Mountain itself knew this, and had taken steps to help. To ensure that they would never grow too many, the orcs were given only a limited number of souls. There could be no more than 250,000 of their race, each reusing the spirit of one who came before, and in time passing it onto one who came after. If a child was born that brought the orcs above this number, then they would not be given a soul, and so their egg would never hatch. There were no loopholes and no exceptions.
The problem, of course, was that death was even less predictable than life. Most times, especially in the wake of all-too-common wars and diseases, the population was much lower than this number, and children were born with no difficulties. But there were also times when the orcs were at their maximum, and there could be no more. For a child to be born then, an adult would have to die and give up their soul. They would walk the Path of the Mountain, enter the cave that was her Heart, and throw themselves into her Fire. Only then would there be another child.
After the egg containing Lacriessa’s child had been born, she had taken it to Diegerburdot, to a sacred pool in the heart of its largest temple. As all orc parents would do, she dropped a stone into the pool, and waited for a sign. For her, the sign was that the orcs were at their maximum, and she would be a Returning Child. The idea was terrifying, but there was also a simple truth: her soul was not hers to keep, but was to be kept aflame for those in the future who would have need of it. Unlike many others, she would get to ensure the succession personally.
The party came to a stop. They were already some distance up the Mountain, and had reached the first Waypoint. By the side of the staircase was a plinth, about chest-height, and on top of it was a plain silver medallion. Next to the plinth was another priest, this one in armour of matching silver.
The elder priest turned to Lacriessa.
'Where were you born?' he intoned.
'In the Heart of the Mountain, as is the orc way.'
'How were you raised?'
'By the Church of the World Mountain, in the orc ways.'
'What were you taught?'
'I was taught the names of the rocks, the plants and the animals. I was taught to mine our earth, to reap our harvest, and to build our homes. I was taught the history of those who came before, and the future of those who will come after. I was taught to keep the Fire of the World Mountain alight, to defend it from all who will see it extinguished. These are the orc ways.'
'Then you know the beginning of your tale.'
The silver priest stepped forward, and placed the medallion around her neck. It felt heavier than she was expecting.
'We must continue to ascend the Path of the World Mountain.'
The party moved off, with the silver priest quietly stepping in behind.
This ceremony was, if in only in part, about the end of a life. The purpose of the Waypoints, this one and the two after it, was to acknowledge that life, to tell its story one last time. Most of the questions and answers were ritual, but there were some that were not. The effect was the same either way.
It suddenly struck Lacriessa as odd that, despite all the places and objects and ideas behind it, the ceremony itself did not have a name. It was something she, like most orcs, had just accepted, as the ceremony was so momentous that the word itself could refer to no other. Maybe some things just didn’t need names.
The Church of the World Mountain was much the same. Unlike the human world's swarm of competing gods, each with a name even sillier than the last, the orcs had only the Mountain, and its church was simply the Church. They needed no other. Its leaders were priests and kings both, ruling over Ensturg and its people in the name of the Mountain they served. Their power was absolute and unquestioned: they governed the armies, enforced the laws, collected the taxes, suppressed the rebellions, raised the children.
The latter was currently at the front of Lacriessa's mind. Her parents, after their visit to Diegerburdot, had given her egg to the priests. They had then taken her to the Heart, where she was given a soul from the Fire. Once she was born, she was brought to one of their schools, and trained in all the many orc ways. She had never met her parents, and never would. She knew nothing about them, didn't even know whether one of them had been a Returning Child, or were both still together somewhere. They knew as little about her, and even if she were not walking the Path, Lacriessa would too never see the child she was carrying in her arms.
Whether this was a good or bad thing, she did not know, and would never ask. This was how she had been raised, as had all orcs since the beginning of time, and ultimately, she knew no other way. Though she would not witness it, her child would grow, be educated and prosper, and in those dark hours when she would weep for reasons she did not understand, this fact would be a consolation.
The party had reached the second Waypoint. There was another plinth, another medallion, another silver priest. Lacriessa looked back down the mountain. Diegerburdot was a long way below them now, alone and insignificant at the base of the World Mountain. Far beyond, almost at the edge of the horizon, was the dark Sestige ocean. Somewhere out there, amidst the violent and capricious waters, was her husband, and probably her greatest regret was that she would not live to see him return.
The elder priest turned again to Lacriessa.
'When you came of age, what did you do?'
'I was taken to the mountains of Elterrand, where I hunted a Troll in the deep caves. I proved my worth as an orc in the traditional way, as all have done before me, and as all will do after.'
'Did you then take up a trade worthy of an orc?'
'I took up a trade worthy of an orc. I did my part to keep the Fire of the World Mountain alight.'
'Were you asked to take up arms against those who would destroy us?'
'I was not asked to take up arms.'
'If you were asked, would you have taken up arms against those who would destroy us?'
'If I was asked, I would have taken up arms.'
'Then you know the middle of your tale.'
Lacriessa was given the second medallion, and the silver priest took his place at the back of the party.
'We must continue to ascend the Path of the World Mountain.'
The party started walking again.
Though orcs had moved beyond killing each other over meagre resources, it was still a fundamental truth that this land would make short work of those who did not know the warrior’s ways. To be considered worthy, then, an orc would have to know how to fight, and regardless of their other skills, at the age of fifteen they would be asked to prove it. Trolls were large and dangerous creatures, to be found only in the darkest of caves, and even the greatest warriors were not guaranteed to survive a fight with one. But all orcs were required to do so, and in a combination of youthful audacity, iron determination and blind terror, most would succeed. For Lacriessa, it had been the single worst experience of her life, but she had brought the head of a Troll to the surface, as required, and had proved her worth.
At this point, like many orcs, she left the true warrior’s life behind, and became apprenticed to a travelling merchant. It had been honest, well-paid work, and she had been good at it, and in time, she inherited the cart and the wares for herself. They would now in turn be inherited by her own apprentice, and so the cycle would continue.
As a merchant, she had never been asked to go to war, and for this she was grateful. So many would be sent, and so few would return, and those who did would leave something deep inside themselves lying on that foreign battlefield. No one knew exactly how it had begun, but for many centuries, the orcs of Ensturg and the humans of Elterrion had been in endless conflict. Every few decades, one would send an army out against the other, and there would be many deaths on both sides before that army was driven back, having gained nothing but giving a new generation a life of night terrors. The fighting was bloody and ultimately irrelevant, but for the orcs, this itself was ultimately irrelevant. They were not looking for a great and lasting victory, but only to keep away the enemy at their gates.
The party had reached the third and final Waypoint. They were close to the Heart of the Mountain now, and Lacriessa could see the glow of the Fire on the cave’s walls. The smoke from the Mountain’s summit was beginning to get thicker.
'The parents of the child you carry.' the elder priest intoned. 'Are they still of this land?'
'I am the mother of the child I carry. The father is still of this land.'
'If he is still of this land, then why is the father not here today as the Returning Child?'
Despite the coldness of the question, there was a point to it. No one became a Returning Child for the amusement.
'The father of the child I carry is on a voyage across the seas. It is unknown when he will return, or even if he will return.'
'Then there is no one else to be the Returning Child, and you accept this?'
'There is no one else to be the Returning Child, and I accept this.'
'Once you cast yourself into the Fire at the Heart of the World Mountain, your child will hatch from their egg. They will be taken into the Church of the World Mountain, and will be raised in all the orc ways, to keep the Fire alight in the face of those would extinguish it. Is this the life you want for your child?'
Lacriessa paused, perhaps longer than was considered proper.
'It is the life I want for my child.'
'Then you know the end of your tale.'
Lacriessa was given the third and final medallion. They were feeling very heavy now, but she tried to dismiss this as a game of her imagination.
'We are almost at the End of the Path. But there are still more stairs for us to ascend.'
The silver priest took his place with the others, and the party started climbing for the last time. Lacriessa realised that the encroaching gloom wasn’t just down to the thickening smoke, but also to the start of nightfall. It had been noon when the party had set out, and the hours had gone past without her even noticing. She had expected the ascent to take years, to be assaulted by the details of everything she would see for the last time. But she wasn’t. Even with the Waypoints and their rituals, the details had gone past without her even noticing. And she didn’t miss them.
She did not blame her husband for not being here, and to do so would be foolish. His own labours were of great importance.
Lacriessa had met Helm in the course of her merchant work. A naturally gifted individual, he had been sent to study in the Elven community of Conobia, high in the Elterrand. It was a high honour to spend time in this outpost of the ancient, sophisticated race, and the orcs were always grateful for whatever secrets they would share. Lacriessa, for her part, had simply gone there to trade, but the two of them became fast friends, and it was not long before they were married.
Helm, as often happened to those in his position, became popular amongst the scientists and engineers of Toldurmei, and it wasn’t long before he was invited on an expedition of great importance. Cryptic notes and fragments in Elven scrolls, mysterious even to their owners, had long hinted of unknown lands far to the east, where riches beyond imagining could be found. The orcs had no desire to leave the shadow of the World Mountain, but they were keen on claiming resources not already held by their human neighbours, and eventually they built a fleet capable of making the long and dangerous voyage across the Sestige.
Helm had left with the fleet three months before, only a day after Lacriessa learned she must become a Returning Child. She had waited for him to return, so that she might say goodbye, but the ceremony could never be held off for long. She could no longer avoid her destiny. Her husband would have to face whatever future awaited him alone.
And then, almost without her realising, the party were at the End of the Path. It was minuscule at the Start, but now, standing before it, the cave revealed itself to be enormous. An entire building, many buildings, could have been fitted into its mouth. Even from here, she could hear the roar of the Fire, and its heat was immense, hitting at her like a fist. The Heart of the World Mountain, like the land that surrounded it, was a force far greater than all those who lived in its shadow, and felt no need to be welcoming to anyone.
The party walked inside the cave, their footsteps beginning to echo loudly against the stone floor. In front of them was an octagonal granite altar, left undecorated, and beyond that was a long rock pier, hanging out over the centre of the cave. Far below was the Heart itself, the liquid Fire of the World Mountain. The very navel of existence.
This was it. The end.
Lacriessa walked behind the altar, then turned around. She could now see back out of the cave, into the open air as the last of the daylight faded. The elder priest was in front of her, opposite the altar. The others took up their positions along the walls, gold one side, silver the other.
The elder priest spoke again, this time louder against the roar of the Fire.
'The Returning Child is now at the Heart of the World Mountain, ready to give herself to her Fire. Place the child that you carry upon the altar, so that they may take their place in this world.'
At that instant, Lacriessa wanted to keep the box more than anything else in the world, but for the sake of her child, she did as asked. She placed the box containing the egg containing the child upon the altar, and stepped back.
'Once your soul has been returned to the World Mountain, it will be given to your child, so that they may emerge from the egg. They will be taken in by the Church of the World Mountain, and trained in all the orc ways. This you know and have accepted. There are no more words to be said. Do what must be done. Our eternal admiration goes with you.'
There were indeed no more words. Lacriessa turned round, and looked down the length of the rock pier. A dark thought slithered its way into her head.
This is the end. You will die. Here and now.
For a second, she could not move. The reality of the situation was too much. She didn’t want to do this.
But this was about more than just her. She’d already come much, much too far to turn back. Her child was waiting for her.
She moved her right leg a few inches. That was easy enough. Then the left leg. The spell was broken.
She walked down the pier, the heat and noise of the fire growing ever more intense, ever more unbearable. She could feel her armour getting hotter, her skin sweating uncontrollably. If these were the details, she realised, then she would rather be rid of them. But that, at least, would not be too far away.
Finally, she reached the end of the pier. Below her feet, the liquid Fire churned and boiled, a force beyond the understanding of all. She debated turning for one last look at her child, but no, it was safer not to. No more temptations.
Though she could barely hear herself against the Fire, she spoke aloud the Mountain’s Creed, one last time.
And then, Lacriessa spread her arms, and jumped.
She fell into the Heart of the World Mountain, the sound of the Fire growing dim as the cave walls swept past. She could feel it getting closer now, feel the heat growing beyond what she believed it could be.
There was a second, only a second, of unimaginable agony.
Then it was gone.
The elder priest remained by the altar in the Heart of the World Mountain. A few minutes went by, silent and motionless. He was not worried. He had performed the ceremony many times before, and knew what to expect, knew how long he must wait.
Lacriessa had been a brave woman, truly worthy of the orcs. When the time came to record her tale into the official records, he would be sure to make it known. A Returning Child would not have their memory disgraced.
Then, over the roar of the Fire, he heard a small cracking sound. He looked down. The child had begun to break their way out of their egg.
It was another few minutes. Then, a hole was torn in the shell, and a tiny hand popped out. Another hand followed, and then a head, and eventually the egg was pulled apart. It had been argued, and the elder priest was inclined to believe, that no orc would ever perform a greater feat of strength than this.
Exhausted from her efforts, the newborn collapsed into the remains of her egg. The elder priest stepped closer. He smiled to himself, honoured to see her first moments.
He stepped closer still, and, careful not to disturb the sleeping girl, gently recited the first words she would ever hear.
From the Fire we rose
To the Fire we will return.
We children of the World Mountain.
We under her eternal Shadow.
Her Heart will claim us
Her Heart will create us anew.
The End is the Beginning is the End.
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