OGRE STRONGHOLD: “Great Cataclysm” Origin Story
Chisan peered through the small rent in the flap of his tent. A cold shock of air swept in and chilled the young boy as he tried to make sense of the scene before him. The twin moons were sickly vibrant as they shone upon two men conversing in secret twenty paces from the tent. Chisan watched in fear as his elderly grandfather spoke to a giant of a man, who stood a full two heads above the frail headman of their village. Why Grandfather spoke in hushed tones with this frightening stranger was beyond Chisan. Although his Grandfather was a small slight man Chisan knew he possessed an archaic strength and in darker times could bring sinister power to bear. Despite this knowledge Chisan still feared for old man. Something in the stranger’s bearing sent deep waves of terror through the boy, though he knew not why.
The old man withdrew something large and bulky from a woven basket, passing it with great care to the dark stranger. Without further word the stranger mounted a powerfully built black steed, whose coat shimmered with the faint glow of the moons. Spurring the beast into action the man sped away into the deep blackness of the steppes beyond.
Chisan froze as his Grandfather turned and looked directly at the tiny crack of light shining like a beacon from the tent. Chisan sprung away from his vantage point as though it held an adder, quickly turning and tending to the small cooking fire that sputtered in his absence. Grandfather pulled open the heavy leather flap that served as a door and bustled in, muttering to himself about the foolishness of youth. “Tend that fire boy, my joints ache with the damned cold.” Settling himself gingerly on the low pile of cushions and blankets, his Grandfather slowly regarded Chisan, as if coming to a sudden decision.
“Listen carefully my son. I know you have many questions, most of which I’m certain are stupid, foolish questions.” Grandfather was never known for his kindness, nor tolerance of impetuousness. “Tonight I will allow you to ask questions of me, of my business, because when dawn lights on our village tomorrow you will become a man. Tomorrow the sun will look down on a new age for Cathay, an age where the Dragon Emperor sits upon the Jade Throne no longer!”
Involuntarily Chisan drew in a sharp breath. These words were not only blasphemy, but cause for immediate and brutal punishment by any who should hear. Grandfather’s eyes took on a bizarre glow, seeming to Chisan as if they contained wide and limitless gulfs of madness. For an instant Chisan made ready to run, run away from the sleepy village and this madness and brave the steppes beyond. Then again they were clear and bright, and showed nothing of the insanity revealed for what felt like an eternity.
Chisan stammered, his voice seeming tiny and brittle in the presence of his Grandfather, “Sir, you told us never to question the Emperor… the Guard would take your head if they heard you now!”
Impatiently Grandfather shook his head. “All will be clear soon enough.” With that, the old man lifted his left arm and withdrew the sleeve, revealing a small mark on the underside of his scrawny limb. Chisan looked closely, seeing yet another sight that chilled his blood; a crudely drawn symbol of a phoenix, clutching a writhing serpent in its claws.
“Grandfather!? No! Not the Black Phoenix, you can’t be—“ Chisan stammered, his entire world rocking on its foundation. From his earliest remembrances, he and the other children of the village were told of the Black Phoenix, a terroristic group of fanatic revolutionaries. The Black Phoenix decried the Jade Throne and the Dragon Emperor upon it, saying they fought for the freedom of the peasant class. Admonished from birth to hate and despise this cabal of lunatics, Chisan reeled from the glaring, hated symbol scrawled on Grandfather’s wiry arm. Chisan’s eyes stung from betrayal and fear gripped him.
“Be still boy, there is much to tell. I assure you, when this tale is finished you will understand and welcome your destiny.” His Grandfather, always such a powerful and commanding leader, suddenly appeared to Chisan as a hunched, daemonic figure, leering and arrogant in his revealed pride.
General Hu pulled his silvered blade from the chest of a Nipponese soldier, spinning and slashing a second and third warrior before the first slumped to the blood-soaked earth. Around the General a ring of corpses held silent witness to his prowess, each dispatched with an ease that seemed impossible for the armored, aged warrior. To his right a deep bellow reached his ears and the General allowed himself a rare smile, as out of place on his lined face as anywhere else on this field of death. Risking a glance the General saw his prodigy crash through a small unit of Nipponese lancers, their curved blades shattering on his oversized armor or cutting superficial wounds in his great bulk. A wide blade hacked through three of the doomed warriors as the ogre known as Kwan Dao bellowed in triumph. The ogre warrior’s black armor took on a grotesque appearance as hot fresh blood spurted over him anew. The return stroke of his five foot blade removed the head of a lancer and arcing downward, cleft a second in two from right shoulder to left hip. The enormous blade bit deep into the trampled ground and the General watched in awe as Kwan Dao abandoning his blade and gripped two more lancers in massive fists, smashing them into each other. The snap of broken bones was clear over the tumult of the battle and the General nearly laughed as Kwan Dao threw each body into a charging unit of mounted swordsmen. Two Nipponese warriors were knocked from their lean mounts, trampled by the stunned riders behind them. With no pause Kwan Dao charged directly into the oncoming horses, kicking the legs from one beast and tackling another. The whinnying steed fell like a stone, sending the rider cartwheeling over the rampaging ogre’s broad shoulders. Kwan Dao seized the horse’s legs in his iron grip and spun, sending the screaming animal into a mass of horrified warriors thirty paces back in the Nipponese lines. This was too much for the usually stalwart fighters and the back of the army broke as the invaders tried to retreat. The General sounded a call of victory and his army cheered as one, Kwan Dao’s rumbling voice loud even among the thousands of Cathayan warriors.
Dawn broke upon the polished wooden floor of the temple, striking like fire across the glass-smooth surface. The utter silence was gently broken by rising choruses of sleepy thrushes and sparrows, rustling their feathers and preening amongst themselves. Gossamer-like petals gently lighted upon the swept marble paths leading to and around the ancient temple. In this scene of tranquility knelt Kwan Dao, for all his bulk seeming to fit as the old paintings of the Cathayan enlightened god, Bodhu. General Hu looked upon his behemoth soldier, one of the finest among an elite army of thousands. Was he a physical manifestation of the god Bodhu? He certainly appeared as such, a prodigious gut swelling the silken robes specially crafted for him.
The General allowed himself to revel a bit in his triumph. Kwan Dao came to his camp fifteen years hence, a ragged and vicious brute. Several of General Hu’s bodyguard set upon this monster, seeking to bring him down lest he offend the General or otherwise cause trouble. Hearing the roars of pain and violence coming from his men, the General rushed out to confront the menace and was taken aback at the sight of a blood-soaked beast, smashing his men apart like woven straw dolls. His men left a telling mark upon the reddish, rusty hide of the ogre, spilling its blood as they gave their own. With a cry the General leapt in front of his men, daring to face down the three meter tall monstrosity alone. He stood, calm in the face of imminent death, showing and truly feeling no fear. The ogre tossed aside a broken warrior like a bored child discarding a toy. He stopped and nearly checked his own berserk charge, for the first time in his life sensing an invincible will. The brutish ogre felt fear. Not understanding this new sensation, the ogre was enraged and rushed headlong at the diminutive figure who calmly mocked him. The General stood firm before the avalanche of unwashed flesh and violence, only to step lightly to one side, deftly parrying the hurtling weight. Quicker than Hu expected the ogre stopped himself, spinning and swinging a fist the size of a man’s head at the General. Hu turned the powerful blow aside as easily as a leaf in a hurricane, sending the ogre toppling to the ground. Instantly the General leapt onto the broad back of the howling ogre, his legendary blade whispering from its jade scabbard and gliding under the heavy jowls of the prone monster.
“Yield, savage!” Hu commanded. He waited a moment, doubting the creature spoke any of the Cathayan dialects. The ogre was silent, evidently understanding the danger possessed of the man perched like a cat on his shoulders. Resigned, the ogre’s mighty frame slumped, even his great strength exhausted against this tiny man who spoke gibberish to him.
The General waited, senses attuned to an inhuman level. When the ogre sank to the ground Hu sprung off his back and landed lightly beside him, sword held down as if in warning. The ogre was broken, beaten and bloody, deep gouges crisscrossing his body in dozens of places. Head raised, the ogre regarded this man who bested him so easily and wondered at his fate…
The years passed quickly as the General continued to break and remold the giant ogre into a true Cathayan warrior. None of the General’s men dared ask what they all thought, “Why him?” In typical Cathayan arrogance, most regarded the towering ogre with contempt. In time however, the ogre wanderer who was eventually known as Kwan Dao won over most of his own diehard detractors. Kwan Dao proved a quick study, possessed of a keen intellect the equal of most human men. His strength was beyond compare within Hu’s army, no twenty men could match him for raw power. His speed was also legendary, as was his skill with the enormous blade that was his namesake. That a monster of his size could become a refined and efficient death dealer brought true terror to any enemy Hu faced, natural fear of the gigantic creature coupled with the unnatural talents he displayed.
Hu did not neglect the scholarly side of his ward, patiently teaching the oft-frustrated Kwan Dao the finer points of calligraphy, painting and flower arranging. Kwan Dao never quite grasped the arts, though he did appreciate the fine works of Cathayan masters. General Hu always stressed the symbiosis of warrior and scholar to his men, and Kwan Dao was no exception to this.
General Hu smiled again, beaming with genuine pride that this broken and defeated barbarian could be taught and made into a proper soldier. Knowing it was appropriate to do so, Kwan Dao looked up from his kneeling position. “Kwan Dao, you have been with us for over fifteen years. I have given to you all of my knowledge and warcraft, and you have proved an apt pupil. I count you as one of my own sons, in whom I dare hope that my legacy will be passed on. You have done well with us, Kwan Dao. For this honorable duty, you will stand aside me in next week’s procession, the Viewing of the Dragon’s Sword.” This ceremony stretched back into time immemorial, every twenty-five years the Dragon Emperor was to view his armies in all their regalia. It was well known that the current Emperor cared little for this formality, however he was bound by his lofty station to attend. The General had only served through two of these processions, once immediately following his promotion to Warlord of Cathay, and the second following his mighty victory over raiding parties from Dreaded Wo. This time the General would present to his Emperor the born again son and hero of Cathay, Kwan Dao. The General hoped that this Son of the God Dragon would be moved, just this time, before Hu passed on to his ancestors.
The time before the ceremony was spent in countless drills, each performed to exacting excellence, each berated and ridiculed and threatened to be performed again and again. General Hu knew his men were beyond ready but still he drove them relentlessly, preparing each of his warriors for a demonstration more important than any battle. Kwan Dao he pushed the hardest, daring to hope that the Emperor would bless him with the status of a citizen-noble. He knew Kwan Dao could never ascend to full nobility, but he could become a recognized Cathayan if the Dragon Emperor willed it.
The parade grounds were flawless. A full one hundred thousand of the Jade Throne’s house staff had scoured every centimeter of stone so that the Emperor would not be offended at His mortal kingdom when He deigned rest His gaze upon it. It was common knowledge that the current Emperor was more fickle than most, demanding standards that were nigh impossible to keep. Taking offense at the slightest remark, sight or indeed even sound or smell, the Dragon Emperor was quick to anger and never soothed. All of these thoughts assailed General Hu, knowing full well even the most trivial of contrivances could cost him his post, even his life. The previous Emperor had been a wiser sort, more apt to learn of his kingdom and its people. Each Emperor that passed through the Throne were said to be reincarnations of the previous Emperors, so that truly they never aged nor died as men die. Hu reflected on this in his most secret heart, instincts telling him that there was less truth in this fact that appeared on the surface. These thoughts disappeared as suddenly as a storm before the booming timbre of the military drums. Huge leather-bound drums were beaten by impassive and muscular Cathayans, whose discipline rivaled that of the military amassed in glittering rows of lacquered armor and steel.
With a dramatic flourish worthy of the finest actors of the stage, the procession of the Jade Throne wove its way down the Imperial Steps to the parade ground. Two dozen gold-clothed porters escorted the palanquin of the Emperor down the steep stairs, keeping the palanquin from rocking or tilting. Surrounding the gilded carriage were the Dragon’s Shadow, the cadre of bodyguard-assassins that never left the Emperor’s side. The only mortals allowed weapons so near the Emperor, these white robed killers struck fear into the entire eastern half of the world and beyond. They could strike silently from the shadows, or stand toe to toe with any of the world’s elite warriors on the battlefield. As the Emperor’s procession approached the ornate marble dais overlooking the parade grounds, General Hu risked one last glance at his assembled host. Rank after rank of glittering spearmen held their weapons aloft, the warm sun causing it to look as though a sea of gems swept across the kilometer wide pavilion. Here were his swordsmen, bedecked with their straight blades. To his left the lightly armored archers, each of which could put a feathered shaft through a keyhole from over 500 meters. Finally, standing proudly beside him were his sons, Hsing and Hun, his most able commanders. In between them stood the massive Kwan Dao, now an equal amongst the command of the Cathayan Royal Army. General Hu beamed as the Emperor’s palanquin was gently lowered in place. All in attendance bowed in unison, a million strong. Beneath the gauzy film covering the carven throne, the wispy hand of the Emperor was barely visible as he acknowledged the assembled host. As one the entire army roared in approval, Kwan Dao this time drowned out by over a million voices raised as one. When the cheering finally subsided General Hu bowed to the Dragon Emperor, his polished helm resting gently on the smooth flagstones. The Emperor spoke, a thin reedy voice that was the faintest of whispers in that grand place. An awkward youth, clothed in black robes of the finest silk strode forward, repeating the Emperor’s words. For all his meager size, this boy’s voice lifted and carried to all in the pavilion. “Rise General Hu. I would see this chosen champion you wish to promote to commander, alongside your own sons, Cathay’s sons.”
Kwan Dao shifted slightly, the Emperor’s words rocking him. He had not expected, nor dare even dreamt of such an honor being bestowed upon him by the General let alone the Dragon Emperor. In the years of tutelage under the General, Kwan Dao had learned and come to respect the divinity of the throne. Always blessed of more intellect than the common Ogre, Kwan Dao was more than capable of leading the devastating forces of Cathay. No non-Cathayan had ever held such an esteemed position. With the words of the Emperor, the ogre turned hero dared hope against hope…
“My Lord and God of the Most High Kingdom, I beg thee to bless the ascension of Cathay’s champion to High Commander. He has risen through the ranks, proving his worth time and again on the battlefield, delivering many foes for judgment among the Dark Gods of the Under-Kingdom. He has been trained and raised among us, though he hails not from our lands he truly is a Cathayan reborn!” The General spoke with his most demure voice, usually robust but now tempered by the presence of His Holiness.
The Voice of the Emperor spoke again to the assemblage, echoing His Lord, “Step forth, protector of Cathay, so that I may see and judge you.”
At the slightest of nods from the General, Kwan Dao stood to his full height and approached the throne. Rivulets of sweat ran down the broad sweep of Kwan Dao’s back as he bowed low to the Emperor God of Cathay. His gruff and booming voice spoke. “My Lord God, I pray you accept me into your Kingdom that I may serve with my life Your People, to the ends of this world.”
General Hu swelled with pride at his prodigy’s words, their simple eloquence befitting the ogre perfectly. He stood, eagerly awaiting the blessing of the Dragon Emperor. Seconds passed, then a full minute and yet no word from the Emperor. General Hu held his breath, sudden dread filling him with nausea.
A faint whisper again came from the screened palanquin and the Voice rushed to its side, bowing low. Ashen with terror, the Voice rose shakily, turning to address General Hu directly. “G-General Hu. I am most displeased with this a-abomination. You will have him executed immediately, his carcass will be fed to the carrion of the steppes. I am disgusted and offended by your offering, which speaks volumes of your poor judgment.”
General Hu’s sun-darkened skin went completely white, the blood in his face rushing away as his own fury rose. Without thought, the iron resolve of the legendary General cracked, and he turned to face the palanquin directly. Immediately realizing his mistake, the old warlord began to bow his head in obeisance, knowing full well his entire family could suffer from his lack of manners and disloyalty.
It was too late, without a word the Dragon’s Shadows went forward as one, nearly gliding across the smooth pave. For all his martial skill, the General would not fight back, his pride more daunting than ever in the face of death. A dozen swords whispered from their scabbards, and the General fell without a cry, his honor intact. His sons were paralyzed with rage, but dared not move, having been well-trained by their disciplined father. Their loyalty lie with their father’s murderer, only in their heart of hearts did they allow the seeds of vengeance to blossom. But Kwan Dao was not of this land, not of these people. He knew only loyalty to the one who had given him a new life, and despite his training and oaths, he was an ogre first and last.
A mighty bellow, heart rending in its power, preceded the great ogre as he charged forward into the knot of white-robed assassins. With a beauty that belied their deadliness the twelve leapt and slipped easily from the ogre’s grasping paws. He had the strength of ten and more speed than befit his bulk, and yet Kwan Dao appeared to move in slow motion. The dozen killers struck instantly, fountains of blood starting from a dozen perfect cuts. For an instant the scene held, twelve men in the traditional Cathayan color of death, stark white and pure against the gory mass of the ogre. Kwan Dao’s struggles wrenched at the heart of the entire army, to a man though none of them dared move. Kwan Dao should have died on his feet, however the Shadow’s had struck where a man would fall; however this was no man. Kwan Dao grabbed a Shadow, his raging strength tearing the man into two ragged halves. Swords flashed and struck deep into muscled flesh, only to stick and be torn from iron hard grips as the great ogre thrashed and whipped about. Lashing to his left and right Kwan Dao smashed in the heads of two more of the silent warriors even as one leapt high above him. Like an arc of lightning his blade came from on high, passing through the base of the ogre’s skull as easily as if through a blade of grass. Kwan Dao’s body pitched forward, staggering half a dozen steps toward the Emperor, who by now was crying out in a strangled voice, never having known the stark terror that set upon him now. Slowly, inexorably the body tumbled forward, great helmeted head toppling off and rolling toward the shrieking Dragon Emperor, Immortal God of Cathay. With a wet thud the still snarling head stopped, dark viscous blood seeping onto the silken curtain of the Emperor’s Palanquin.
“In the weeks that followed Hu’s entire family was ousted, lowered even beyond the peasant caste. The Emperor had decreed that the shame of their patriarch’s actions were more fitting than death.” These last few words were spat with contempt by Grandfather. With a grim satisfaction, he continued, “In truth many whispered that even the Emperor feared that the vengeance meted out by the military would overcome his throne should he execute the entire line of Hu. Most Cathayans accepted the turn of events as fate, and sought not to challenge it as was their custom. Honor, pride, loyalty, these were valued beyond all other traits. Only the dog Emperor couldn’t understand these values.”
“The head of the great hero Kwan Dao was taken and hidden deep within the palace. It is said that the Emperor’s wise men and sorcerers used the skull to enact long forbidden rituals, raising an unstoppable hellstorm of destruction. Rumors abounded of the devastation, that the vast population of ogres was reduced to handfuls of scattered tribes, wandering lost in the scorching deserts. Most ogres of today regard this as their god, wreaking havoc upon their race as punishment for some imagined faults. Once a powerful, intelligent race, the ogres were now barbaric, cannibalistic savages, seeking only to feed and destroy in their quest to sate the hunger of the flesh, and of violence. Now they are too simple to realize they were slaughtered wholesale, their foolish god does not exist!”
“Only one tribe managed to escape the devastation and retain their intelligence. This was the original tribe that birthed the great Kwan Dao, though its name then is lost to antiquity. The skull of the old hero was acquired at great loss by our agents within the Imperial Palace, and given as proof to the leader of the tribe. He is a powerful and wise shaman of their people, and will divine much of the truth from the soul image left within the great skull.”
“That’s what the man outside was taking, the skull?” Chisan interrupted. His Grandfather scowled darkly at him, then continued, “Yes the skull is the one key left to convince the tribe of their involvement in our revolution. With their might on our side we will crush the Divinity, and make equals of all men! Tomorrow, Chisan, you will fight in our revolution and become a Black Phoenix! Your father died fighting for our cause, I have raised you even stronger and you will lead when I pass! Do not fear for the future, the sacrifices of the past will guide and enlighten us. The blood of our ancestors runs through our veins, and the name of Hu will rise once more!”