The Book of Jewels

Illustration by Monica G. Cabral | twitter | tumblr | Instagram |

Illustration by Monica G. Cabral | twitter | tumblr | Instagram |

I wrote this short story a little over a year ago. Then, I didn't really have any intentions on what to do with it. All I knew was that I had come up with this fantasy world and I wanted to write something in it. Enter Hrusk, the half-orc half-gnome ass kicker. (I also have a rough novella with her has the protagonist.) 

This world, at the moment referred to as Aftania, is my own version of orcs, gnomes, and elves. I came around to this late, I think most fantasy writers probably start with the elves, get it out of their system, and then transition to more creative stuff. I did the reverse, writing weird shit before I decided "fuck it," I wanted to write about orcs. Some of the worldbuilding elements have changed since I wrote The Book of Jewels, but I've decided to upload it warts and all. Hopefully, you'll see more of Hrusk in the future.

***

The orc punched Hrusk in the face.

Roll with the punch.

“Half-breed’s got nothing clever to say now?” He jabbed her in the gut.

Groan, make them think it hurts.

The orcs tossed her against the wall, and the biggest most tattooed of them leaned forward and said, “we don’t want to see you around here again. Ever.”

Avert your eyes, make them think you’re scared.

They sauntered off, seeming real proud of themselves.

Hrusk spat blood onto the alleyway’s cobbles. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, and then felt her ribs. Nothing was broken. She rolled her tongue around her tusks, both still there. Hrusk crouched near the opposite wall and searched the grime crusted cobbles. There it is. A key, covered in small markings, which she managed to swipe from one of the orcs. They hadn’t even noticed as she tossed it to the side.       

This better be worth it.

She walked into the street and pulled up her hood. The people here were packed shoulder to shoulder. She sidestepped a bushy bearded gnome, and shouldered past a giant beetle who warbled a complaint at her. She averted her gaze from a pack of orcs, muscular and hairless with black pupilless eyes, and ducked under a floating cart. Its levitation sigils warm on her skin. She came face-to-face with an armastoat, who snorted snot onto her and then licked it off. A moment later its handler cracked a whip and the stoat lumbered on hauling the cart at its back.

Hrusk squeezed her way to a side street that led to the Teal district. It stunk of rotted meat. She checked the dagger at her waist and laid a hand on the pommel of her sword. This was one of the places in the city of Aftan that few wanted to be in. The tenements were made of rotted wood and cracked bricks. She rounded a corner and found herself walking in the space between two tenements, barely wide enough for her to fit. There were a lot of shadowed corners someone could disappear into. One bad job for the wrong kind of people and Hrusk would find herself in one of those nooks. She didn’t like the Teal district.    

A man with a golden beard and long matted hair slumped against a wall with a canteen in his hand. Even in that position Hrusk could tell he was tall and lanky, and the pointed ears added to the effect.

Hrusk kicked him, and he looked up at her, his face angular, his nose hawkish, and his eyes a vibrant blue.

“Hello Ellbrim, I got what you wanted.” Hrusk tossed the key into his lap.

Ellbrim rolled it between his fingers, took a swig from his canteen, and said, “well, shit. I didn’t think you could do it.”

“I’ve been dealing with orc gangs ever since I can remember. I barely broke a sweat.” One of her bruises radiated a dull ache.

 Ellbrim rose from his place, making sure to secure his canteen on a loop at his belt, and began to lead Hrusk deeper into the Teal district. All five feet of her had to look upward to see his face. It was hard to believe that this ragged elf had once been a renowned incanter. His faded red waistcoat with dangling threads made him look like a vagabond.

Ellbrim kept taking swigs from his canteen. He staggered once, leaned against a wall, and then regained himself. She’d done jobs for him before, and when he promised a payout he was good for it. Even if the job ended in a maelstrom of spectral fire.

Ellbrim stopped before a dilapidated tenement missing four of its walls and all of its roof. Ellbrim stepped over the rubble into the building. Hrusk chuckled as she walked through the only standing door.

“You needed a key for this place?” Hrusk said.

Ellbrim held the key pointed downward between his forefinger and thumb. “The key is sigiled, though I doubt the orcs knew that.” The key moved slightly as Ellbrim paced through the tenement. “The best place to hide a secret is where no one will look for it.”

Brilliant.

“Here,” the key in Ellbrim’s hand vibrated from an unseen force. “Tear up these floorboards. Now.”

Hrusk sauntered forward, “take it easy with the commands and the ‘now.’” Hrusk jammed her dagger between the floorboards and pried them up. She looked into the opening to see solid steel. “Well shit. There is something here.” She pulled up the rest of the floorboards to reveal a steel door. It was covered in sigils similar to those on the key, and had no hinges or keyholes. “And how does this thing open up?”

Ellbrim let go of the key and it hovered above the steel plate. With a few whispered words, a motion of his hands, and a spark of blue light, it began to lower. Jagged sigils glowed when it touched the steel plate, and the key melted into the steel. There was a grinding noise, and the plate dissipated. A cloud of gray-blue mist rose around them. Hrusk batted her hand in front of her face.

Ellbrim bowed, “after you.”

“What’s down there?”

“An ancient temple to a forgotten god.”

That was never good. “What exactly is it you’re looking for?”

Ellbrim shrugged. “There will be gems and jewels, enough to pay you what I promised twice over.”

Hrusk was getting that festering feeling in the pit of her stomach. An ambiguous incanter and an ancient temple never went well together. But temples were notorious for being lavish. She inclined her head toward the opening, “pointy ears first.”

Ellbrim extended his hands as if to say “as you wish” and descended the stair. Hrusk followed. The stair led far beneath Aftan. It spiraled around a thick column. The stair led into a long hall with unused lanterns hanging from the walls. Ellbrim snapped his fingers as they passed these and each one burst to life with green fire. They came to a grand chamber, and her eyes widened. Gems. A lot of fucking gems. They lined the walls, embedded in the stone to make murals and frescoes. Even the pillars were covered in rubies and sapphires. Jewel encrusted serpents spiraled up the pillars. 

Ellbrim marched into the chamber.

“Wait, what are you doing?”

He spun on a heel and raised his hands to take in the whole chamber. “What’s it matter, look at all this. Start taking as much as you can carry. It’s your reward.” And he turned his back to her.

Hrusk drew her dagger and started popping jewels out of the walls. She stuffed as many as she could into her satchel, all the while keeping an eye on Ellbrim. There was so much here, her gaze travelled along the walls and ceilings. If no one else knew of this place, she could live like a king, coming back to harvest it all. But Ellbrim knew of it. She didn’t even like elves.

Hrusk shook those thoughts from her mind. Don’t go to that dark place. You’re better than that.

Hrusk made for the door. She glanced over her shoulder. In the center of the far wall was a massive serpent statue coiled in on itself. It was covered in crimson and amber jewels, and its maw was closed. Ellbrim raised his hands above his head, and spoke in a language Hrusk didn’t recognize. The air around him went muddy, and the serpent’s head rose. It brought its great head back, opened its maw, and slammed down on Ellbrim. Its maw closed over the elf, and then it returned to its resting position. Ellbrim was gone. No blood, no fabric, not even scuff marks on the tiled floor.

Hrusk knew enough about incanters and gods to turn her back on the temple. A small part of her was curious as to what she had just witnessed, but she buried that part, along with the entrance to the temple. She heaped broken beams and mounds of bricks over the entranceway to make sure no one else found it. Maybe she’d come back later for more gemstone. For now, she was going to get out of the Teal district.

***

Hrusk spent her gems all over the city of Aftan. She had gone from tavern to tavern gulping as much ale as she could and getting thrown into the street for being too rowdy. She was half asleep, her face pressed against slimy cobbles, when two bugmen approached her.

“You the half-orc half-gnome?” One of them warbled at her through its face mandibles.

When Hrusk gave a groan for an answer the second one, which looked like a hunched over beetle, said, “what else would she be? Look at her.”

The bugman’s tone roused Hrusk, and she stumbled to her feet. “Whadya sez?” She fumbled at the hilt of her sword but couldn’t get it free.

Each bugman grabbed one of her arms and started dragging her through the back alleys of Aftan. By the time Hrusk was regaining herself she was against a dead end wall facing three figures. Two were the ant and beetle bugmen, and the third was a man in a thick cloak with his hood drawn. She could see a tangled white beard spilling out of the hood. Symbols around his eye emanated a muted glow. Sigils?.  

“You are Hrusk?” The man said.

She nodded.

“I need to ask you about the Teal District.”

She didn’t answer.

“Rumor is a half-orc half-gnome was seen with an elf named Ellbrim. Do you know who that is?”

“No.”

The man raised a hand from within his cloak and snapped his fingers. A circle of red lightning surrounded Hrusk. “Wrong answer. What did Ellbrim show you in the Teal district?”

“Nothing.”

He snapped his fingers again and the circle of lightning tightened. She could feel its heat on her legs, and the crackling made her ears ring.  

Two four-armed bugmen and an incanter, the odds weren’t in her favor. Bide my time.

“Temple,” Hrusk submitted. “A temple.”

“Good. What kind of temple?”

“I don’t know,” she lied. Let him think her ignorant. The circle of lightened edged closer. “There were jewels everywhere, and snakes. That’s all I saw.”    

A smile played on the man’s lips. “Good, good. Now, you’re going to show me where it is. And remember, if you try anything clever, I’ll end you.”

She nodded.

The lightning faded, and Hrusk remembered to breath. I’ll run you through, old man. A set of insectoid hands took the sword and dagger at her hip, and then pushed her forward.

“Walk,” the ant one said.

Hrusk decided to take the long way to the Teal District.      

She came to learn that the ant was named Kank and the beetle was named Bamb. The old man said nothing other than “keep walking.”

Hrusk figured she could take down one of the bugs, maybe both if she managed to pry her weapons from them, but the old man at her back was a problem.

Carbun Avenue came into sight, dense with Aftan citizens. Hrusk led them as near as she dared. Her foot struck out, and Bamb’s knee twisted at an awkward angle. The beetle let out a warbled cry of pain. Hrusk tore her arm free of Kank’s grasp and darted into the crowd of Carbun Avenue.

She shouldered past a gnome, who went toppling into a human, who knocked down three other people. Bamb and Kank warbled at her, and a quick glance showed them charging into the crowd. They stumbled and shoved the confused onlookers out of their way. Hrusk ducked under a floating cart, pressed her hands to its bottom, and heaved. The levitation sigils groaned as the cart tipped. They couldn’t support the cart at a lopsided angle, and it fell with a crash, spilling cabbages and grains into the street.

Everyone in the street stared at the overturned cart and the two bugmen that clambered over it. Two orcs drew Hrusk’s eye. One had a myriad of tattoos across his body, it was the orc she’d stolen the key from. Hrusk dashed toward him, the bugmen on her heels. Too late the orc saw her fist streaking toward his face. The impact resounded with a meaty thud. Hrusk managed a quick “fucker” before sidestepping the stunned orc and barreling into the crowd. The bugmen collided with the orcs and they all tumbled into a heap of flailing limbs.

Hrusk darted into an alley. The tumult of the crowd faded as she dashed away. The alley opened onto a narrow street. Just as she rounded a corner, something grasped her leg. Off balance, she stumbled to the ground. The pressure writhed up her legs and to her abdomen. Her arms were pinned to her sides, and something hissed, its tongue licking her ear.

A red scaled snake coiled around her. The old man loomed over her. He spoke a strange language, and the snake tightened.  

“Now,” the old man said through clenched teeth, “you’re not going to do that again.” With a word the snake raised Hrusk to her feet.  “We’re going to the Teal District, and you’re showing me to that doorway. Or—“ the snake tightened and twisted as he spoke that strange tongue. “Do you understand?”

Hrusk nodded.

Bamb and Kank came stumbling into the street.

“Bind her hands, and make sure she doesn’t get away this time,” the old man said.

The bugmen tied her hands and then each grabbed one of her arms. The old man exhaled, and the red serpent dissipated.    

***

The Teal district, cracked and crumbling. Hrusk led the way to the fallen temple. She cursed Ellbrim, wherever he was.

When they found the dilapidated building, Hrusk took a step back and pointed her chin to the mound of rubble. “Under there,” she said.

Bamb pushed her aside and began hefting shattered stone and splintered wood to reveal the passage below.

The old man’s eyes were fixed on the dimly lit stair. Without looking at Hrusk, he said, “kill her.”

The abruptness of it made her heart leap. Kank drew his four blades and marched toward her. Hrusk backed away, arms bound and her weapons at the bugman’s hip. Kank leaped at her. Hrusk sidestepped the blow. Kank reeled on her and unleashed a flurry of whirling limbs. Hrusk ducked and dodged as best she could. So many damn arms. Kank thrust, Hrusk sidestepped it and clamped her jaws down hard on his wrist. She twisted her head and tasted bitter ichor. Kank let out a warbled cry as she spat out his hand. Hrusk lunged, pulling her sword free from Kank’s hip. Kank reeled, and she thrust with her blade, burying it deep into Kank’s chest. Green ichor pulsed from the wound, and Kank fell to the ground convulsing.

The old man and Bamb were gone. They’d underestimated her. She’d never have a better time to get away. But Ellbrim could be down there. She shooed away the thought. Let them shit fire on each other. Not my problem. She took a step away from the doorway. He’s probably drunk off his ass. A flicker of light came from the passage, it shone a faint green. It’s two against one. Ellbrim was supposed to be powerful. Drunk and out of practice. Hrusk turned toward the passage. She told herself this was to get revenge on the old man, not because she was worried about the elf. She grabbed her dagger from Kank’s corpse and made her way down the passage.

The lanterns Ellbrim had lit still shone, and she could see Bamb the beetle and the old man entering the jeweled chamber. She kept near the shadows as she moved closer. Take out the old man first, and then the beetle will be easy.

The old man and Bamb were standing before the great jeweled serpent. Hrusk pressed her body close to one of the grand hall’s pillars. The old man raised his hands and spoke in that unfamiliar language. The jeweled serpent came to life, opened its great maw, struck forward, and swallowed them both.

Hrusk waited a few moments and watched the jeweled serpent. The hall was quiet, and the statue made no further movements. Hrusk walked up to the jeweled serpent, sword and dagger in hand, and stared at it for a time. It didn’t move nor did it show any signs of life. She tapped her pommel against the statue’s body. Nothing.

She climbed it, hauling herself over the thick coils of its body until she was beside its head. She tried to pry the mouth open, but it wouldn’t move. She tapped her pommel along its neck, and it resounded with a hollow ringing. Using the pommel of her sword she struck at the serpent’s neck. Jewels fell to the ground and a crack formed where she had struck it. Again and again she slammed the steel of her pommel into the statue until chunks began to fall away and she could feel the soft caress of air on her skin. She pulled and pried at the hole, kicking pieces inward and forcing it wider and wider until she could fit through it. She climbed into the serpent’s gullet and had to crouch low to keep her head from striking the smooth stone above her.

She tripped and went tumbling down the tunnel. She careened down a spiraling tunnel, deeper and deeper, until tumbled onto stone.

What she saw was a palace. With domed spires and sprawling walls, it was a massive complex hidden in a large cavern. Green flame shimmered in lanterns. The palace was covered in jewels, but at the center of palisades, arching bridges, and huge towers were gem stones the size of horses. Hrusk had never seen anything like it.

She stood in the palace courtyard bathed in spectral green light. This first courtyard led to another wall, likely made to keep ancient armies out, and as she passed through the gate she froze in place. Lying on the tiles of an inner courtyard was Bamb’s body littered with arrows.

She pressed close to the doorway with her sword drawn and scanned the surrounding parapets and towers. She couldn’t see anyone.

She found her way through the first courtyard and up a stair to the parapets, from there a door led into a tower, up a stair, and to the top that was connected to an arching bridge that led from tower to tower.

A stooped humanoid figure stood motionless on the bridge, bow in hand. Hrusk stepped forward. The statue’s head whipped around to face her, symbols carved into it shone to life, and an arrow shattered on the wall beside Hrusk’s head. She barreled forward. The thing knocked an arrow and fired again, nicking her shoulder. Before it could knock a third Hrusk was on it and swung, gripping her sword two-handed, and shattered its chest like porcelain. It made a sound like grinding stone, and the myriad of symbols lost their glow.

Automatons. Artificial creatures brought to life with complex sigils. They could “live” for centuries requiring no food or rest. How ever ancient this palace was, it was still protected.

Ellbrim, what were you looking for here? She had a vision of the ragged elf proliferated with arrows. She shook the image from her mind. His body wasn’t in the courtyard with Bamb, which meant he may still be alive.

An arrow sailed past her head nearly clipping her ear. Her gaze found its source, an automaton knocking another arrow on the opposite bridge. She ran for the tower before her, and a dozen arrows clattered to the tiles around her. Automatons appeared in windows and from behind railings. One emerged from the doorway in front of her and let its arrow fly. Hrusk charged.  

It dropped its bow and drew a long rusted sword. Hrusk parried a thrust, sending orange mist into the air. She struck with her dagger. The automaton’s clay chest shattered, gears of tin and copper clanging to the ground as its sigils faded.

Hollow footsteps sounded from the stairs, more were coming for her.

She ran out onto the bridge where four automatons stood shoulder to shoulder, and a quick look over her shoulder showed more crowding the tower stairs. Hrusk wondered if it was too late to start praying to Balael.

Hrusk charged the four in front of her. Her sword swung, and the automaton’s rusted swords bent and shattered from the force. She ducked under a swing and tackled the attacker. With a heave strengthened by her momentum she sent one of the automatons over the bridge’s railing. She whirled in time to catch a broken rusty sword with her dagger, and cleaved through its head with her sword. The broken sigils popped, sizzled, and lost their glow. The automaton collapsed. The final two lumbered forward.  

The others had made their way up the stair and were crowding the bridge. Hrusk was about to turn and run when one of the automatons burst into flame, its porcelain flesh melting away. Another and another caught fire and the flames burned green.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” A voice called from behind her.

Hrusk turned to see an elf with a ragged beard and frayed red overcoat. With a flick of his wrist another automaton burst into flame.

Ellbrim!”

“Good eye, now hurry up.”

 “Are you going to explain what’s happening?”

“Automatons.”

“Right.”

Ellbrim led her from the tower and they bolted down a spiraling stair to an inner hall. Ellbrim swung the door shut and lowered a heavy iron bar over it.

“Now,” Hrusk said between breaths, “what is going on?”

Ellbrim mopped the sweat from his brow with his coat sleeve. “This is the palace of Orga.”

“You mean the palace?”

“One of her palaces. I came here looking for the Book of Jewels.”

“And that old man?”

“He wants the book.”

“Figures. Who is he?”

“His name is—“

A thunderclap shook the palace. Hrusk glared out a window to a large tower in the palace’s center. Red lightning sparkled in its windows.

“I’m guessing that’s where the book is,” Hrusk said.

“Most likely,” Elbrim brushed his beard. “There are a lot of automatons in there.”

“How much is a lot?”

“A small army kind-of-a-lot.”

“So, we just sit back and let them take care of the old man.”

Another thunderclap and an arc of lightning shot through one of the central tower’s windows. An automaton went spiraling to the ground, shattering into pieces.

Ellbrim was up and running. “We can’t let him get the book!”

Hrusk spat a curse and was sprinting beside Ellbrim a moment later.    

The courtyard was littered with the shattered remnants of automatons.

Hrusk picked up a piece of porcelain, its edges smoking. ”How strong is this guy?”

“Very.”

They bounded up a spiral stair crushing shards of porcelain beneath their boots. He’ll be tired when we get to him.

Two large double doors stood slanted on their hinges. Beyond was a grand hall of jeweled serpentine pillars and marble tiles. In the center stood the old man, hood back revealing his tattooed pate and glimmering eyes. Blood red lightning crackled around his hands. An eight foot tall automaton, nearly half as wide, loomed over the old man. It raised a rusty cleaver, and before it could swing it burst full of lightning. The cleaver fell to the ground as its hand melted, and the automaton turned to a pile of slop.

Ellbrim charged forward, his own hands engulfed in green flames. Hrusk watched as a cascade of green fire and red lightning exploded into the air. Each’s blasts seemed to resound off invisible barriers.

Hrusk made her way around the two. Each of their blows boomed like a thunderclap and shook the palace’s foundations. Jewels clanged to the floor, and tiles cracked from the force.

Within the serpent’s maw sat the Book of Jewels. The serpent statue’s ruby eyes glinted from the reflected light of spectral fire. There’s probably a pressure plate. She flexed her fists, her eyes darting to Ellbrim with each thunderous strike. Or it might breathe fire, spit acid. Ellbrim stumbled, and an arc of lightning singed his overcoat. Balael’s ass.

Hrusk leaped for the book, clutching it as she dove through the serpent's maw. The palace shook, and the sound of grinding stone echoed throughout the chamber. A screeching hiss sent Hrusk reeling. The serpent statue came to life. It slithered to the person in its field of vision, the old man.

He didn’t see what was rising behind him, even as Ellbrim began to back away.

It was at the last moment that he looked over his shoulder, and a primal fear twisted his features. The serpent statue struck with the speed of a viper, cleaving him in two.

The old man’s entrails spilled onto the marble tiles and seeped into cracks and crevasses as the serpent statue shook its head back and forth.

Ellbrim slumped against a pillar, sweat beading his brow and breathing heavy. Hrusk made an involuntary “whoop.” And the serpent’s head snapped around to regard her.

Shit.

Clutching the Book of Jewels close to her, Hrusk ran. Ellbrim staggered after her, struggling to keep up. The serpent statue snaked around pillars, and its bulk scraped and marred the walls of the spiral stairs. It followed them through the courtyard, crashing through walls and crushing still living automatons beneath it. All the while its ruby eyes intent on Hrusk and the Book of Jewels.

“The book,” Ellbrim wheezed. “Give it to me.”

Hrusk tossed him the book, which the elf nearly fumbled. The serpent had caught itself on a narrow corridor, and it was writhing to shake away the wall. Stone fell away from its sides as the corridor distended.

Ellbrim flipped through the books brass pages. Each was inlaid with small sigiled jewels and gemstones that glowed as Ellbrim passed his fingers over them. Hrusk was clutching her sword in both hands.

“Ellbrim, hurry.”

Ellbrim raised his hand, spoke in the language he’d used to enter the palace, and flicked his wrist at Hrusk. Her sword began to glow with white light.

The serpent darted forward in a storm of dust and shattered stone.

“Strike it!” Ellbrim called.

Hrusk raised her sword over her head, and as the serpent descended on her she swung. Sparks flew from where she hit, and chunks of stone fell away from the serpentine statue. Beneath its shattered flesh were slimy red scales. It reared up to strike again. Hrusk cast a glance at Ellbrim, but the elf was half-lidded, fighting to remain conscious.

The serpent struck. Hrusk leaped out of the way, its snout colliding into her side with such force that she went tumbling. Her blade still glowed. The serpent rushed forward. Still on the ground, Hrusk swung a warding blow. The blade’s tip sliced the serpent’s snout, and a series of cracks spider webbed outward. Hrusk scrambled to her feet.

 Ruby eyes glinted, and behind them blinked membranous eyes. It slithered forward, the foundations quaking from its movements, its tongue flicking outward. It lunged, Hrusk dodged to the side. Fangs racked marble. A ruby eye loomed before her. She thrust her sword, ephemeral light pierced through the gemstone to the flesh beneath. The grand serpent reared, maw wide with a silent roar. It thrashed, smashing its head against pillars and walls. The serpent fell, its body stilled, and the light from Hrusk’s sword faded.

She stared for a time before slumping to the ground. A few moments later Ellbrim staggered to her side.

They sat together, regarding the wreckage in silence. She traced the curve or the serpent, and noted the blood pooling beneath its head.

“That book,” Hrusk said. “It’s powerful.”

Ellbrim nodded.

“You could do a lot with that.”

“A lot of bad things.”

“Or good things.”

Ellbrim flipped through the pages, passing his fingers over the jewels. Each glowed as he did so, the sigils carved into them shimmering. He lingered on one longer than all the rest. He threw the book into the air, spoke a few words in that mysterious language, and snapped his fingers. The Book of Jewels was engulfed in flame. Its ashes scattered in the air before it touched the ground.

“Now,” Ellbrim said, “we don’t have to worry about it.”