Marzul pulled the tilted wooden door open, its bottom edge scraping the floor along a worn arced divot in the stone.
High Cleric Xocoy stood on the other side, his arms folded against the chill. A few lazy snowflakes had fluttered down and settled on his bald green head. His thick brow, more wrinkled than Marzul remembered, kept the High Cleric’s eyes hidden in shadow.
Xocoy was flanked by two of Marzul’s guard orcs, both kneeling in the snow, their eyes deferentially cast down at the ground. Each clutched a spear that they held tight against their sides.
Marzul bent down, his knees creaking nearly as loud as the door’s rusted hinges. He lowered his head and laced his fingers together.
“Praise to the Mountain Father,” Marzul said. “May Kog’Tepetl forever drink the blood of our enemies.”
Xocoy grunted. “Get up,” he said. “You don’t need to kneel for me. As far as I’m concerned, you’re still a High Cleric.”
Marzul ignored Xocoy’s command. He would finish his prayer before rising, as was expected of an orc in the presence of a High Cleric of Kog’Tepetl.
“Father, I give praise to your hatred, and ask that my guts churn with your rage. I am grateful, Father, for the imminent destruction of your enemies. I am heartened, Father, that all orcs shall taste the blood of the unworthy, feel the breaking of their spines in our hands, sense their final breaths on our cheeks. One day you shall stand again, Father, and lay waste to the defilers, as you have done before.”
“We praise,” Xocoy said. The declaration was then echoed by the two young orcs kneeling on either side of the High Cleric.
Marzul pushed himself back up to his feet with a moan. He lowered his head and stepped to the side, inviting Xocoy inside. The High Cleric nodded and crossed the threshold, hurrying to the burning hearth on the far side of the round room.
Before shutting the door, Marzul shuffled outside, pulling the hood of his cloak up over his head. The cart that had carried Xocoy here looked as if it would crumble into splinters if it was pulled another inch. The journey from Ayotochi was mostly roadless, especially the steep and rocky incline to this nameless plateau. The cart’s wheels were rutted and the shaft connecting them was bent, pitching the seat to one side. It couldn’t have been a comfortable ride, Marzul supposed. Still, the cart had completed the journey, which was a testament to the orcish cartwrights who built it, the finest in Entrath.
The troll slave that had pulled the cart here stood hunched and panting. Its green tongue hung off to one side. It was clearly beyond exhausted and desperately struggling to breathe at this altitude, where the air was stingy and biting. Still, the troll was obviously blessed by the Mountain Father, as the creature had managed the savage journey across the ridge and up this slope without dying and stranding Xocoy in the middle of nowhere. For that, the slave deserved Kog’Tepetl’s mercy.
Marzul motioned for the two orc guards to stand. He pointed at the troll. “Make it quick,” he said, pointing at the sides of his own neck to demonstrate where the spears should stab. The two guards nodded and began moving towards the troll slave. Marzul moved back inside and scraped the door shut behind him.
High Cleric Xocoy sat in a high-backed wooden chair that he had pulled up close to the hearth. He held his thick hands up to catch the heat of the flames.
“It’s the wind,” Xocoy grumbled. “Bad for old joints.”
Marzul pushed a second chair next to the High Cleric’s, then picked up a low wooden table and set it between to the two seats. He retrieved a carafe and poured a dark liquid into two wooden cups. He handed one to Xocoy, then set the carafe on the table between them.
“You’re thirsty from your journey,” Marzul said. It wasn’t a question.
Xocoy nodded, Marzul sat. They drank.
The two orcs regarded each other in silence. Xocoy’s horns were yellowed and the flesh of his neck was starting to droop into jowls. Marzul was gaunt, his red eyes dark and sunken, his hands jittery. Neither of them looked quite as the other remembered.
Xocoy took another swallow, then set the cup down. He reached into a leather bag he had lain near his feet. He carefully retrieved a parchment, cracked and torn at the edges, and held it up to the light of the hearth.
Marzul recognized the script on the parchment as his own. He had spent weeks laboring over the proper words, scribbling and scratching them out in his head dozens, if not hundreds of times before committing them to paper. The effort had been worth it. The High Cleric had come.
“I was worried you would think the summons was a hoax,” Marzul said, his throat dry despite the ale.
Xocoy stared at him. He’s not convinced that it isn’t, Marzul thought.
“When I was your apprentice,” Xocoy said, “how many of your letters did I deliver? Too many to count. I’ll recognize your writing until the final drop of my blood feeds the mountain, High Cleric.”
“Don’t call me that,” Marzul said, withdrawing even deeper into his chair. “I am not that anymore, have not been for a very long time.”
Marzul sat, unmoving, staring at the flickering of the hearth.
Xocoy looked around the sparse stone room. “Is this where you have been for the past twenty-six years?”
Marzul let out a grim laugh. “Is that how long it’s been? The days are mostly the same here, I find it difficult to track time. To answer your question … for the most part, yes.”
Xocoy could do little to contain his frustration that had been sparked by receiving that damned parchment and had gained strength throughout his miserable journey here.
“You spurned your vows to Kog’Tepetl,” he said, “to the other High Clerics, to your former pupils, and left without explanation or remorse. To do what? Become an ascetic? Spend your remaining days sitting alone at the top of a freezing plateau?”
“No,” Marzul said, pushing himself forward in his chair. “Not alone.”
Marzul reached for the parchment and snatched it from Xocoy’s grasp. With a flick of his thin wrist, he tossed it into the fire.
Xocoy exhaled forcefully. “Are you going to tell me what I’m doing here?” he said. “I would not have made this journey for just anyone. I probably shouldn’t have made it for you. But I received your summons, and like a good apprentice, I came, even if I did not know why.”
“Yes, High Cleric,” Marzul said with an obedience that might have been disingenuous. Xocoy could not tell.
Marzul pushed himself off his chair. He shuffled over to the far side of the round room where stone shelves had been carved into the wall. When he was a High Cleric, Marzul was regarded for managing to amass a formidable collection of books, and it appeared as if he had brought much of his library to this remote place. Though he apparently cared little for the condition of his collection, as books were stacked haphazardly among the shelves, pages were barely hanging on to rotting bindings, and many had torn or missing covers.
Humming absently to himself, Marzul searched the shelves, occasionally poking at books or shoving entire piles out of the way to access further volumes held deeper in the stacks. Xocoy watched his doddering former mentor and wondered if he had been summoned here by a madman. He had come out of respect for what Marzul had once been. He wondered if perhaps he should just leave, ashamed of what Marzul had become.
Xocoy reached for a pile of cut logs beside the hearth, pick one up and tossing it into the fire. The popping of fresh sparks did not distract Marzul from his search.
“Ah,” the old orc said, then bent down to pick up a heavy tome that lay on a shelf near the floor. He carried the book back to his chair, gave Xocoy a flash of a smile, then grunted as he settled himself again with the book on his lap.
The cover was made of what looked like blackened leather, though that could merely be an effect of the book’s age. Engraved on the cover was an intricately designed spider web that stretched to all four edges.
“Is that …?” High Cleric Xocoy asked, not daring to continue.
“The Arachnomicon,” Marzul said. “The holy book of the vennen.”
Xocoy abruptly stood, sending his chair skitting across the stone floor. It was as he feared. Marzul had gone insane.
Xocoy was not yet a High Cleric himself the day his mentor had stood up and calmly declared that he was renouncing his position. His statement was short and direct, all these decades later Xocoy could still remember it word for word. Marzul gave no reason for his decision, he merely removed his Cloak of the Mountain, handed it to a shocked High Cleric Ulrog, then walked out of the Cathedral of Stone and Blood, becoming the first High Cleric to renounce the clergy in more than six hundred years.
Had he already gone mad? Xocoy now thought. At the time, he had been sure that Marzul had a worthy reason for his renouncement and subsequent disappearance. An orc as devout as Marzul would never betray Kog’Tepetl, never turn his back on the holy Mountain that protected their people.
Unless, of course, he was deranged. Marzul had seemed so calm that day, as he did now. He was staring up at Xocoy, his expression stern. If madness lay behind those red eyes, Xocoy couldn’t see it. But what other explanation could there be?
“Sit,” Marzul said.
There was no point in arguing or leaving, Xocoy decided. Even if Marzul was crazy, even if he was a traitor to his people and the Mountain God, even if the reasons for his unspoken betrayals were connected to the blasphemous book that now rested in Marzul’s lap, Xocoy had to hear him out. He’d come all this way, any remnants of respect that still existed for his former mentor demanded it.
Xocoy pulled the chair back under him and sat.
Marzul carefully opened the cover. The pages within were yellowed but unwrinkled. They were covered from margin to margin in small, black intricate patterns that would mostly look identical at a casual glance. Vennen writing looked like spider webs strung together with certain strands crossing at various angles to indicate different words or concepts. Both Marzul and Xocoy could read it, as could all High Clerics. It was important to learn the language of their foe, so that correspondence intercepted by spies or captured in raids could be read and used against them.
There was no text in vennen society holier than the Arachnomicon. It made Xocoy sick to his stomach to be so close to the profane scribblings of their eternal enemies. Marzul began softly flipping the pages. Xocoy’s guts boiled seeing Marzul handle the awful book with such care.
When Marzul found the passage he was looking for, he placed a finger under a cluster of inky webs near the top of the page. He began reading from the text in a low whisper.
“‘A band of orcs exploring the caverns of the world below the surface discovered the enormous lake of blood. Outraged at the presence of surface-world intruders in her lair, the spider goddess Xentoth captured and consumed the entire orc contingent. Soon after, Xentoth began to lay hundreds of eggs, and from these sacs emerged the first vennen.‘”
Xocoy crossed his arms in front of his chest to keep himself from wresting the filthy book from Marzul and throwing it into the fire.
“‘Xentoth was pleased by her brood. The vennen were beings of pure Blood Magic. Each of them that hatched was male, as each of Xentoth’s children ever shall be. They shall call each other “brother” and they shall love their Spider Mother, she who gave them life and Blood forevermore.'”
Marzul looked up from the page and gave Xocoy a thin smile.
“This,” the old orc said, gently placing his palm flat on the web-inked page, “is the foundation of vennen society. Xentoth the Spider God is the mother of all vennen, and ‘each of them that hatched was male, as each of Xentoth’s children ever shall be.’”
“Except,” Marzul said, “that it is a lie.”
Xocoy unfolded his arms and leaned forward. “What are you saying?”
Marzul closed the book. He picked up his cup and drained it of ale. “Drink,” he said. “Then put another log on the hearth and refill our cups.”
He stood and hobbled back over to the stone shelves. As Marzul returned the Arachnomicon to the shelf where he had found it, Xocoy did as he commanded, except that he drained his full ale cup twice before Marzul returned to his chair and sat.
“Twenty-six years ago,” Marzul said, “one of our raiding parties managed to infiltrate the vennen Hatchery. It was a daring maneuver that exploited a lapse in the vennen’s defenses that I am sure they have since corrected.”
“We’ve sent countless scouts to try and find weaknesses in the Hatchery’s perimeter,” Xocoy said. “As long as I have been a High Cleric, we’ve never succeeded.”
“Kog’Tepetl’s grace was guiding our raiders on that day,” Marzul said. “Many of them died in the raid, but not all. Not only did the raiders slay some of the Brood Barons, but they managed to escape with three intact vennen eggs.
“The eggs were brought back to Ayotochi,” Marzul continued. “I was the only High Cleric the raiders told about their find. I decided it was best to keep the existence of the vennen eggs a secret until I decided what to do with them. Myself and a very small, trusted group of advisors tended to the eggs over the next few weeks.
“Then, the vennen eggs hatched. All three of them within the same day. Two of the hatchlings were male. One was female.”
“Impossible,” Xocoy said.
Marzul coughed, then swallowed ale to clear his throat.
“One of the males died within hours. The other male lasted four days. We expected the female to expire soon after, but she didn’t. She survived the first week, then a second. Then a third. She grew, faster than we expected. We were utterly astonished, as you can imagine.”
“How long did this female vennen live?” Xocoy asked, attempting to play along.
Marzul smiled. “I prayed,” he said, ignoring the question. “I spent days on my knees, not eating, not speaking with anyone except Kog’Tepetl. The Mountain Father remained silent, as he always does, but I desperately wanted to know his will. When I was assured that I understood his intention, I stood again, my legs numb. I stumbled to the chamber where the female vennen was being hidden. I gave her a name. Lazgar Chul.”
Xocoy knew the name meant “child of the mountain.” That a vennen, even one that only existed in Marzul’s demented imagination, would be given an orc name made his eyes and ears smolder with fury.
“From there I went to the Cathedral of Stone and Blood and resigned. It was easier to do than I thought it would be, because I knew it was what Kog’Tepetl wanted. That very day I smuggled Lazgar out of Ayotochi and came here.”
“Twenty six years, nothing,” Xocoy said, keeping his voice calm. “Why break your silence now?”
Marzul set down his cup and stood. “Come,” he said, and moved towards a shadowed archway at the far end of the room. He lifted a lantern that hung from a peg in the wall. A tiny red gem was nestled in the center of the lantern. Marzul whispered a short incantation and the ruby became surrounded by a crimson flame. He beckoned, and Xocoy stood and followed.
They passed through a simple kitchen, down a narrow passage, then through a door that led outside. The snow was still falling at a leisurely pace, though the menacing clouds that obsured the peak above them promised more intense weather very soon. The glowing ruby in Marzul’s lantern exuded a sphere of heat that shielded the two orcs from the worst of the evening’s chill.
Marzul led Xocoy through a path that wound between high ridges. A multitude of questions churned in the High Cleric’s mind, but he kept his mouth shut. Perhaps Marzul’s crazy story of a female vennen was true. Or maybe the old orc had lured Xocoy out here as a ruse and meant to push him off a cliff, his corpse to be picked apart by carrion birds.
Either way, Xocoy thought grimly, I’ll have my answer very soon.
They continued through the narrow, winding canyon. The heat from the ruby gem in Marzul’s lantern melted the freshly fallen snow under their feet.
After a sharp turn in a ridge, the path opened up into a round clearing. Rocky walls rose up on all sides, protecting the small valley from the wind. The place was littered with implements of hand-to-hand combat: axes, spears, bows, quarterstaffs, swords, shields, and more. Training dummies made of wood and rock were chipped and cracked from extensive use.
Standing in the center of the clearing, holding a curved sword in each of its four hands, was a creature that was unmistakably a vennen. Its body was that of a massive spider, with spindly legs supporting its bulbous abdomen. The torso that rose from the front end of the creature resembled a grey-skinned orc, except for its four arms, insectoid mandibles sprouting from the sides of its face, and four pairs of purple eyes.
The vennen was attacking a large training dummy that resembled a wooden version of itself. But where the dummy vennen sat motionless, the living one danced nimbly around it, slashing and jumping away in a fluid circle around its target.
Xocoy instinctively reached for the dagger concealed in his cloak. Marzul placed a hand on the High Cleric’s chest and shook his head.
“Lazgar,” Marzul called out.
The vennen stopped mid-slash and turned towards them. It lowered its four weapons and approached the two orcs, its spidery legs clicking against the stone.
As it approached, Xocoy saw from the curves in the vennen’s orc-like torso and the thin features of its face, it was unmistakably female.
The vennen’s chest was adorned with a leather tunic of orcish make. Her thick white hair was gathered at the top of her head, then hung down her back. Her four arms were covered in tattoo patterns that had specific meaning in orc culture.
Marzul grasped Xocoy’s arm. He could feel the High Cleric’s primal urge to lunge forward and bury his dagger in one of the vennen’s many eyes. His old mentor’s restraining grasp and his utter shock at what he was seeing stayed Xocoy’s hand. For the moment, at least.
When the vennen stopped before the two orcs, Xocoy could see that she was at least seven and a half feet tall.
“Lazgar Chul,” Marzul said softly, “this is High Cleric Xocoy.”
Still holding the curved blades, the vennen folded both pairs of her arms and bowed her torso. Her front two spider legs bent low in supplication.
“Praise to the Mountain Father,” Lazgar said. She spoke in a hissing whisper. “May Kog’Tepetl forever drink the blood of our enemies. I pray I am worthy in his sight and yours, most revered High Cleric.”
Xocoy was rigid in shock. To hear those words coming from the mouth of a vennen, his people’s’ eternal enemy? It was unfathomable.
Xocoy turned to Marzul. “Have I gone insane?” he asked.
Marzul laughed. “Perhaps,” he said. “Regardless of that, she is real. She is one of us.”
“May I speak in your presence, Holy One?” Lazgar said.
It took Xocoy a moment to understand that she was addressing him. He nodded.
“Marzul has told me of your unmatched strength and resolve, revered High Cleric,” Lazgar said, continuing to bow before him. “One day the Mountain Father shall stand again and lay waste to the defilers, as he has done before.”
“We praise,” Xocoy said, not truly believing he was speaking these words.
“We praise,” echoed Marzul, then motioned to Lazgar that it was all right to stop bowing. She complied.
“How …” Xocoy began. He realized he still gripped the handle of his dagger. He slowly removed his hand from within the folds of his cloak. “How many females are there?” he asked.
“Only the Brood Barons know for sure,” Marzul said. He smiled. “But I believe our Lazgar here is the only one that lives.”
“Thanks to Kog’Tepetl’s grace,” Lazgar said, “my egg was taken from the Hatchery before my ‘brothers’ could slaughter me.”
“I suppose it is possible that Lazgar is the only female vennen that ever hatched,” Marzul said, “but the odds of that raiding party randomly selecting the only vennen egg that happened to contain a female is too astronomical to consider. No, High Cleric, I strongly believe that female vennen hatch far more frequently than we know.”
“The Brood Barons supervise every clutch of vennen eggs,” Lazgar said. “If the hatchling is a female, they immediately slay her.”
“That’s our theory,” Marzul said. “Maybe one in a million vennen eggs is a female. Or one in a thousand, or one in a dozen. We will never know. What we do know is that all hatchlings are overseen by a tiny cabal of Brood Barons. They are likely the only vennen who even know that female vennen can exist.”
“But they can’t exist. The Arachnomicon explicitly says so,” Lazgar said wryly, then lowered her head. “Forgive my impudence, Holy One.”
“The Brood Barons probably kill the females before they can even crawl out of their eggs,” Marzul said. “To ensure that their holiest of holy books isn’t exposed as the collection of lies it truly is.”
The sun dipped below the ridge line. The encroaching darkness was held at bay by Marzul’s ruby lantern, which cast a red glow on the fresh snow surrounding them, making it seem as if the three of them were standing in a pool of warm blood.
In this moment, Xocoy keenly felt the remoteness of this place. The cold isolation. He tried to imagine what it must have been like for Marzul to keep this secret for so long. To live his life secluded and detached from everyone that had feared and admired him, all of them, including Xocoy himself, spending those years believing that Marzul was a traitor, an orc that had thrown away Kog’Tepetl’s honor and trust. For nothing.
Now Xocoy knew it wasn’t for nothing. He stared at Lazgar Chul. He had never been this close to a vennen that wasn’t actively trying to murder him. Yet, here she was, bowing to him, speaking orc prayers, wearing orc clothes, desperate for his approval.
“This is a lot to absorb, High Cleric,” Marzul said. “I understand that. We should return before it gets too dark. You’ll have tomorrow to rest, consider all we’ve told you and answer your questions. The day after next is when we leave for Ayotochi.”
Xocoy’s head snapped towards Marzul. “We?”
“Oh yes,” Marzul said. “Lazgar is coming with us.”
“No vennen has ever breached the walls of Ayotochi,” Xocoy growled.
“No vennen has ever worshipped Kog’Tepetl,” Marzul said. “Except for the one standing before you, High Cleric.”
“With your forgiveness,” Lazgar said, “I must tell you, Holy One, that my entire existence has been in preparation for this. Marzul renounced the High Council for this.”
“This?” Xocoy spat. “What is the ‘this’ you seek?”
Lazgar Chul glanced at Marzul, who gave her a nod.
“The annihilation of the vennen,” Lazgar said. “They would have killed me if I hadn’t been saved. The time has come to return the favor.”
“Imagine the scene,” Marzul said. “The Arena of the Mountain God, on a steely gray afternoon. One hundred thousand orcs in the stands, expecting to watch gladiatorial blood being spilled. Instead, we lead Lazgar Chul to the center of the arena.”
“The crowd will rush the floor,” Xocoy said. “They will kill each other for the chance to kill her.”
“That was your first instinct as well, High Cleric,” Marzul said. “But you stayed your hand until you received an explanation. The crowd of the arena will as well. Once the initial shock wears off, and they understand that Lazgar’s existence portents the complete extermination of the vennen, they will accept her, as you have.
“After such a public display, the vennen will learn of Lazgar’s existence very quickly. They will be devastated and enraged at Xentoth’s lies, but they cannot turn against their mother and their Blood God, so they will blame us. And her. They will attack. We will be ready for them.”
“A blatant assault of Ayotochi would be suicidal for the vennen,” Xocoy said. “But they will have no other choice.” He smiled. “It’s genius, High Cleric.”
“But that’s not the end of it,” Marzul said. He motioned towards Lazgar. “Tell the Holy One the rest, my child.”
Lazgar nodded. “Once the vennen have been slaughtered,” she said. “The Hatchery will be left undefended. We slay the Brood Barons and put any remaining eggs to the flame.”
The glow in her eyes intensified and wisps of purple smoke rose from them into the darkness. “Then, to ensure none can ever hatch again, we kill my mother. We destroy Xentoth.”
Despite the warmth from Marzul’s ruby lantern, Xocoy felt the night’s chill grip his bones.
“She may be a god, but I will find a way,” Lazgar snarled. “Primals have been killed before. It can be done again.”