Of Orok And The Ozirmok

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7And it was then that Orok strode forth and sang unto Ion the battle chant of his people, for it was given unto him as Warchief, to issue the Right of Challenge.

. 10"You come before me, Orok, seeking the Right of Challenge. Must I kill you in order for you to put aside your claim, or might I convince you of another way?" Ion's words were spoken without strength, yet all assembled in that place heard these words, for such was the way of them.

11 And Orok stood tall, filled with the pride of his station and backed by the traditions of his people. "I fear there is no other way, great Ozi̮rmok, for there can be only one to lead the host, and I will not be led."

- The Rise of Kalmaktama, 9:7-11; The Solomonari Valkzaron

Interlude: Ad Momentum, Pace | In Memoria, Adytum

Orok squared his shoulders and stepped quietly into the training salle, a thousand, thousand questions burning febrile in his mind. Ion sat on the floor in the middle of the room, their legs tucked up under them in a meditative pose. They were still dangerously thin, and Orok scowled at the sight. They should be tall, powerful, majestic in their glory. Not this husk of a creature, skeletal and weak. How long would they allow themself to inhabit such-

"Have you come to challenge me again, dear Orok?"

Ion's words were soft in the stillness of the room. Barely above a whisper, they nonetheless carried clearly to the Klavigar, cutting into his inner dialogue like a knife, bringing with them memories of another place, another challenge, long removed from now.

The roar of the Halkostänä filled the air around him, lifted him, caused his spirit to fly. This gathering of the tribes, never before seen under the heel of the Daeva, carried the current of life and a yearning for more, the desire to be free. These people, his people, they chanted one name, his name, his title, over and over again.

Ŋorotari! Ŋorotari!

Mayhap they weren't of his tribe, but they were all the same people, the conquered that refused to be defeated Their words and customs might be different, but their stories were the same. Pushed aside, crushed underfoot, beaten down, but never defeated. Again and again they revolted together against the whips of their demon mistresses, and they died together in droves.

But this time it promised to be different. This time they were led by a holy warrior, about whom already sprang myths and legends. A warrior that promised change and had already proved it with a handful of early victories.

Ŋorotari had to see it for himself.

He slipped his sandals off and placed them on the ground before stepping up onto the platform that filled the majority of the space. "Perhaps, ŋäcämatse. Do you claim the place of Ozi̮rmok?"

Ion laughed and opened their eyes. Orok paused at that, caught in the act of gathering his legs to settle into a position opposite his… what was Ion to him now? There was a time when they were everything to him. His lord, his teacher, his battlebrother, his lover, his mate. But that was when Ion stood at the height of their power, Ozi̮rmok of the Halkostänä, Emperor of the Deathless. Eater of gods.

And here they were now, not even an echo of that former glory.

"Do you think me weak, my Ŋorotari?"

Ion's words stung, the title used sinking into Orok's mind, giving strength to the doubt that already lurked within his most private mental spaces. It was an old title; one he had abandoned on that field so long ago. His breath caught for a moment, and he settled into position harder than he had intended. Clearly this remnant shared Ion's memories, but was it still Ion?

Orok gazed across at this would-be Ion, and silence hung between them like a shroud. If this was Ion, what were they to each other now? What could they be, with so much time lost between them? The world had moved on, forgotten them, no longer remembering what it meant to be Ŋorotari. What was a First Spear, in a world that had no more need for spears?

He was the Warchief of the Bear. It was destined for him to lead, for those of lesser tribes to follow. His was the hand that guided, the fist that demanded, the spear that ended all dissent. And he had come to this place, this convergence, to take his rightful place.

No holy man mumbling empty prayers to meaningless gods would stand in his way, no matter what vague victories the stories may have hinted at. This man was not a Bear. He could not lead a Halkostänä, it was simple as that.

The tribes all knew Ŋorotari of the Bear, and what that meant. No tribe had survived the coming of the Daeva intact, save for the Tribe of the Bear. Wild and free, they lived upon the shoulders of the world, and the mountains had sheltered them from Daeva warbands. Their warriors had raided into the valleys long before the coming of the Daeva, and they would be there long after they had gone.

Even now, none of the other raiders save for the Bear had ever survived raiding Daeva compounds, and no uprising had ever lasted long without a Bear at the lead. In the end, the Daeva would die to their claws, and everyone knew it. That was why they chanted his name-title. He was Ŋorotari, the First Spear of the Bear. It wasn't just his title, it had become his name, and he had surrendered himself to it utterly.

And he had come to lead this mad horde, as was his right.

"Why have you not reclaimed your Flesh? Is it truly a choice that you have remained… thus?" It was hard for Orok to keep the doubt from his voice as he spoke. Too much time had passed for him not to doubt. Too many atrocities committed in the name of a dream that hadn't borne fruit in so very long.

Ion smiled, then gestured towards the shadows along the far wall. Something moved there, and Orok frowned as he noticed the homunculi standing at the edge of the salle platform.

"I was waiting for you, Orok. You remember me as I was, long ago. You have held onto that image in your mind for far longer than I held it in truth, and it is important to me for you to see me for who I truly am, not just your image of me." Ion shook their head. "My Flesh is not me; it never was - just as this body is not me, nor is your body you."

Ion reached out and gently stroked the platform between them. The bone rippled under their fingers, and the entire platform begin to quiver in response to that light touch. The scent of lihakut’ak wafted up from the contact, and Orok's eyes narrowed as the homunculi stepped forward and each placed a hand on the edge of the platform.

"If you are to challenge me, ŋorotari, challenge me in truth. To do any less would be to feed those doubts, to ever allow them to question who I am." Ion looked up at Orok, their eyes warm and compassionate. "If I fall, then I was never worthy of your trust anyway."

Who was this puny man that dared to claim the name Ozi̮rmok? He was small, beardless, frail, unlike any holy man Ŋorotari had ever known. This man was of the Daeva- that cursed blood could easily be seen in the slender lines of his arms, in the smoothness of his face, in the slight turn of his eyes. No, this was no warrior, and like the Daeva themselves, he would fall to Ŋorotari's hand.

He roared his challenge, staking his claim before this creature's edifice made from the bodies of the undying, and the horde echoed his call. This upstart, gentle and weak, would answer or fall.

"Face me! Or hide behind your walls of flesh and bone and by your cowardice prove you are unfit to lead. Meet me in the field and die with honor. You cannot be Ozi̮rmok, for that title is mine by right. I am Ŋorotari of the Bear, and I claim that which is mine!"

The masses chanted his name. With one voice they cheered for him, and his spirit flew.

His awareness of the world beyond the platform dropped away as the heady scent of Ion's power filled Orok's senses. He could feel it beginning to pour from them in waves that pulsed along his spine, playing across his nerves with little pinpricks of fire, and his own power leapt to meet their challenge.

He pushed himself back into a ready stance, his flesh and bone flowing like wax before hardening into the bone carapace of his armor. It wasn't quite the same as the one he used to wear, but it would suffice. He leaned forward, adjusting his balance to compensate for the weight of his spiked tail, and the moment of decision was on him.

The real Ion could never fall here, and if they had achieved what they wanted to in the Nevermeant, then there was nothing Orok could do to hurt them. If Orok was to serve again, there could be no doubt. His mind made up, Orok settled lower, putting the barbed points of the horns sprouting from his head and shoulders in line with Ion's upper torso. There could be no doubt. Not now. He stamped down hard on his thoughts and surged forward, intent clear.

Ion pulled on something as he shifted out of the way of Orok's charge, and one of the homunculi fell to dust at the edge of the platform. Orok grunted as he pushed his hand into the bone beneath him, creating a pivot point to divert his momentum to follow Ion's movement. Following through with the turn, he added to his momentum and kicked out hard at his opponent, his foot striking high towards Ion's head, only to connect with their casually upraised forearm.

Orok gasped in pain as the bones in his foot gave way at the crushing impact. He released his hold on the floor and threw himself into a backwards roll, dodging an anticipated riposte that wasn't there. He came up into a low guard, shifting his weight to compensate for his healing foot.

"You are faster than I remembered, friend." Ion’s voice was stronger now, and yet somehow gentler as well. The skin along their arms and chest writhed as something moved underneath, like maggots squirming against flesh pulled taut by the biology of decay.

"I have come, Ŋorotari of the Bear. You called to me and I am come to give answer. What would you have of me?"

His voice was gentle. It lacked the strength of the stones of the mountains Ŋorotari called home. It did not sting with the bitter chill of winter, nor did it come in waves like the wind in the season of rain. Rather, it was quiet, gentle, like the first rivulets of summer's melt.

This was not the voice of a man who would lead the Halkostänä. This was a voice for the haaremi, not for a place of battle.

And yet, there was something in his voice that gave Ŋorotari pause. There was confidence, a sense of surety, an understanding of the rightful way of the world. More importantly, there wasn't a single trace of fear in that voice. Just calm certainty that was as it must be.

Orok spat, the gesture meant more to calm nerves unsettled by this man's calm than to offer true insult. "So, you would accept, then? Come to face me in battle?"

The man - Ion? And what foolishness, to claim the title of Ozi̮rmok and yet retain this other name. What hubris. Ion held up his hand and waved it to the side, throwing Norotari’s challenge disdainfully away as if it were nothing. "I do not wish to kill you, Ŋorotari. I will, if I must, but I would weep to see you fall. We have need of your strength. We will not succeed without the Bear. It is known."

Orok drew breath in deep, even inhalations, flooding his blood and brain with oxygen. Suddenly, he felt more alive than he had in centuries. Without bothering to respond to Ion's compliment, he pushed himself forward to engage again. He lashed out with a feint, jabbing hard for Ion's head with the bone blade that erupted from the wrist of his right hand.

The blow was parried by delicate fingers, Ion casually pushing Orok's thrust to the side with little apparent effort. He then danced lightly out of the way as a stream of bone flechettes erupted from the fingers of Orok's spread left hand. Pressing the attack, Orok matched Ion's movement, pulling his blade in close, curving it inwards in a vicious side cut across their chest.

Again, Ion deflected the attack, but not before the razored edge of Orok's blade had drawn a fine scarlet line in across their chest. The two combatants separated, and Ion stumbled ever so slightly as the poison tainting the edge of Orok's blade began its insidious work.

"Kalākāran succeeded then." Again, was that pride? Not a trace of concern tinged their voice as the virulent pathogen spread visibly across their chest. Dark bruising blossomed along the edges of the scratch, quickly giving way to discolored blisters that grew with each beat of Ion's heart.

A faint smile curled the corners of Ion's lips as they brought the fingers of their left hand to touch the ragged edges of the festering wound. "First blood. You are faster, ŋorotari." They raised their fingers to their lips, tasting the tainted effluvia gathered there. "And the poison is better than I imagined."

Ŋorotari shrugged out of the bear pelt he wore as a mantle and pulled the great bear skull off his head. How dare this puny man toss aside his challenge? It was an insult - to him, to his people, and to the pride of the Bear. He could feel the rage of his tribesmen mounting behind him like heat radiating from a forge, rising to meet his own righteous fury.

He shifted his grip on the spear and rolled forward onto the balls of his feet. This is how it would be. He would answer this fool's words with action, and he would place his head atop his spear for all to see. He exploded forward, his mass sliding into motion with surprising speed, his spear aimed at this upstart's chest.

Ion didn't move— didn't even flinch as the spear sank into him, shattering ribs and erupting from his back in a fountain of blood and viscera. He had hurt him, that much was clear. He could see the pain in Ion's eyes, glistening like dewdrops on the grass. And yet, Ion didn't even twitch- not even a hint of struggle. Nor did he cry out, plead for mercy, or weep in suffering at the pain that must surely be coursing through him.

Ŋorotari roared and heaved the spear into the air, lifting the man free of the ground. A grimace flickered briefly on Ion's face, quickly swallowed by a look of sorrow that shown forth from him like a beacon. Ion raised his hands, but not to the spear impaling him. Instead, Ion reached out to touch Ŋorotari's face, gently, slowly, like a parent reaching for their child.

"There, Ŋorotari. Is my blood upon your spear enough to sate your rage? If it is so, I give it to you freely." He gently caressed Ŋorotari's cheek. Too stunned to do anything but stare, Ŋorotari held steady, frozen in this uncanny tableau.

Ion pulled again, and the grotesque rippling across his skin became thicker, the movement more somnolent as the second homunculus fell away from the platform without a sound. Long tendrils of flesh sprouted from the back of Ion's head and shoulders, coiling across his chest and torso, folding across his abdomen like a crimson parody of musculature.

Seeing his opportunity at victory slipping away, Orok attacked again. Faster than before, he loosed volley after volley of bone splinters, each as slender as a seamstress' needle, each glistening with Kalākāran's poison. They hung between them like a cloud, and Orok could see their shadow upon the floor of the salle. Could make out every line and crease on each splinter, could see each dark drop of his own blood, festering with the viral poison gifted to him by Lovataar's child.

What had he done?

Time seemed to freeze, as the memory of Ion's blood on his spear came roaring back into him, vivid and clear as the day it had happened. He could feel the wind on his face, sharp against the tears that dampened his cheeks. He could hear the crowd, restless in their thirst for blood. He could taste the bitterness and regret that filled his chest with bile.

And along with that memory came a sense of incalculable shame.

"I… what is this?" Ŋorotari whispered, staring up at the man impaled upon his spear. His fingers were warm against his face. Hot, like the blood that dripped onto his own hands. He could still see the pain in those radiant eyes that bored into him. But there was something else there too: forgiveness. Acceptance. Understanding.

He had killed this man. He should be dead now, but his heart still beat, sending pulsing gouts of bright red blood sheeting down over the haft of the spear embedded in his chest. Ŋorotari looked in horror upon what he had done, could see it now, could see…

"Shhh. Let me share with you my dream, Ŋorotari. Let me show you what is to come."

He screamed in horror and shame and hurled the spear away from him, tossing the man who was the Ozi̮rmok with it. He fell to his knees, staring at his hands, at the blood that stained them.

Ion pulled himself to his feet, the spear still jutting from his chest and back. He walked slowly back to where Ŋorotari knelt and gathered him into his arms.

Orok looked on in horror as a thousand shards of poisoned bone peppered Ion's skin. He screamed in instinctive pain as each of those shards sank into the Ozi̮rmok's flesh, releasing their deadly gifts into them. And he knew that Ion had let it happen.

Just as they had so long ago. Allowed Orok to release his rage and anger against something that could withstand it. Became the victim, in order to save his life. As they had done over and over again. Ozi̮rmok, the one that stands alone. Savior. Sinner. Sacrifice.

He fell to the ground and it all broke over him in a wave. Memories of times before, and the long empty years between. Relief at seeing his ŋäcämatse, of the end of this long and near-endless road. Grief, guilt, shame, relief, love, surrender. All of it crashed on him at once and he could do naught but weep.

Ion pulled themself to their feet, blood seeping from a thousand tiny punctures across their skin. He walked slowly back to where Orok knelt and gathered him into their arms.

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