The End of the World - A Lead-in Short Story - Part 1


'Is the world ending?' the boy asked in a breathless voice, looking solemnly at the horizon, where the elemental forces of some forgotten magic wreaked havoc just below the melancholy clouds. He was standing on his toes and holding the banister of the slowly moving cart. His eyes were fixed in total awe on the far-away arcane anomaly.

'Yours will be if you don’t shut it.' the squinting handler walking beside the cart growled. 'Now sit the fuck down, Seedy, else I’ll feed you to Elves the next time we make it to a city.'

'My name is Aru.' the boy said with mild conviction already eroding under the handler’s malevolent gaze, and added after a little hesitation: 'And Elves don’t eat people.'

The handler leaned down, grabbed a fistful of Slerad dung from the road, and tossed it at the boy. Aru dodged deftly, but some of it hit him in the shoulder and neck. He wrinkled his nose and gagged at the peculiar, sour stench of the giant lizards’ feces. The handler guffawed at his peril.

'Elves may not eat people, but they’ll surely tear a seedy little slave like you to pieces, Seedy!' the man spat with a red face, then stared at his soiled hand with a blank expression and pulled out his knife. Aru knew not to say a word; he may have been enslaved only recently, but he had lived around armed adults with short tempers long enough to sense when violence was brewing. But the knife was only meant to scrape off the dung. While the handler cleaned his palm with the dull side of the blade, swearing quietly, Aru held his breath and wiped his neck and his ragged tunic shoulder with one hand.

'I daresay, Ordis, you managed to get more shit on your hand than on the boy.' a husky female voice said from behind. Unseen and unheard, Vagrus Sekethma snuck up on them while they were arguing. Now, the dark woman was riding next to the cart on her lean, blue Ifreanni lizard, flashing a wide, white smile at Aru.

'What does that say about you, hmm?' she turned to Ordis. The man stared ahead with an exasperated look, no words coming from his mouth. He could feel how he’s lost against a slave in front of his vagrus, and he was terrified of letting her down in any way, much like every single member of the comitatus - which was not only the name of this company but a name for all armed travellers or merchants, Aru learned.

Ordis took a while to answer, keenly aware of Sekethma’s gaze aimed at his back.

'He’s just a slave, vagrus.' he managed eventually, already sensing another defeat approaching.

'If he is, why bother shoving shit? Isn’t it supposed to be his work?' another handler, a black haired youngster called Duro asked in a jolly voice, turning back in the saddle of the giant Slerad that drew the cart. Both him and Sekethma laughed loudly, joined by several others of the comitatus in earshot. Aru noticed that he himself was smiling only when a red-faced Ordis shot him a murderous glance, making the boy realize this is far from over. Irritated to no end by becoming the butt of the joke and feeling he has someone to threaten more freely, the cruel handler shook his knife at Duro while taking a few quick steps forward.

'You’ll be shoving your bowels before I make you eat them, slave-lover!'

But before the argument had any chance of escalating out of control, it was interrupted by the arrival of Ran’Garr. The mighty orc was galloping along the line on an Ifreanni as well, spear in hand, armor clanking, and nearly trampled Ordis as he came to a hard halt next to them. The kicked-up dust from the road made the handler and the boy choke and cough, but Aru was more concerned about the orc guard captain’s lizard mount as it was measuring him with its predatory, cold eyes. He had no doubt that given the opportunity, the slender, but powerful reptile would tear him up for dinner in the blink of an eye.

'I seri’sly hope I misheard them threats o’ yours, dipshit.' the orc spoke in a guttural, rough manner, poking the spear’s point close to Ordis’s neck.

'No need, captain. Ordis is just having a bad day. Aren’t you, Ordis?' the vagrus was still smiling. There were a few moments when the handler looked like he would miraculously stand up to the orc and the vagrus, but it passed quickly, defiance fading from his eyes.

Finally, Ordis’s shoulders slumped and he shuffled off back along the line of carts and beasts of burden. Aru wondered if he’ll soon regret starting the whole argument. Everyone was silent for a while, with only the creaking of the carts and the howl of the wind providing a monotonous backdrop. The boy was busy staring at the large orc warrior. He could not imagine anything that would match Ran’Garr’s strength and ferocity. Aru considered in awe the bulging muscles on the captain’s lean body, his long, black, braided hair, his greenish skin covered in dark, swirling tattoos, and his leather armor decorated with bronze coins. An axe with an iron head was by his leg next to the saddle - not only a deadly weapon in the hands of a skilled fighter, but also worth a veritable fortune in the metal-starved world. People would have killed for it in Aru’s home village without hesitation.

The boy noticed that Sekethma, along with everyone around them, was now spying the horizon where the rampaging magical energies still played their lethal games.

'Any reason to be afraid, vagrus?' Duro asked quietly. Sekethma just shook her head.

'Not coming our way, Irafons be praised. That said, there’s always reasons to be wary.' she said, fingering a talisman on her belt, but still not taking her eyes from the arcane storm. At length, the strained silence was broken, and the vagrus turned to Aru with a smile that could even be considered warm.

'That…' she pointed at the crackling magical energies in the distance. ' an unmaker storm. It is deadly, but it’s no threat if we don’t get dumb and get closer to it, parvus.' The boy took a few seconds before nodding twice, noting how the woman referred to him as 'little one', which was both patronizing and familiar, yet unusual in the case of a slave.

'And don’t you worry about Ordis. He’s had it rough, he lost his brother a month back.' Sekethma added.

'He was an ass way before losing Kardo.' Duro chimed in, turning back in the saddle. 'But at least his brother was able to hold his leash.' a frown crossed the handler’s handsome features.

'Now remember, Duro, comitatus is family. We don’t turn on our own.' said the vagrus with conviction.

'Yes, but does Ordis remember?'

'I’ll make him, if it comes to that.'

And with that, the conversation was over, and Vagrus Sekethma spurred her Ifreanni and galloped ahead along the line, followed by Ran’Garr closely. The dust settled in a minute, and Aru went back to scraping away dung with his nails while staring at the unmaker storm. He was wondering how something like that can even exist. Growing up in a tiny village in the Great Eastern Desert among the tribal sharduk, his people, he heard old folks and wanderers tell tales of the dead world out there, and of its dangers, but it was one thing to imagine these things, and another to actually see them with one’s own eyes. At length, he became aware that someone was staring at him. Looking ahead, he saw Duro, still turned around in the saddle of the large, swaying Slerad, looking at him.

'You just stick close to me, Aru. I’ll keep an eye on you.' the man said with a smile, and turned away. The slave boy leaned on the banister and, lost in thought, made a solid attempt at daydreaming the time away when he did not have to work.

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#calamity #comitatus #rivenrealms #shortstory #vagrus