The Deep Below (short fiction)

“Are they really going to do it?” asked Burr. “Again?”

“It’s their way,” said Shad.

In the valley below, the human and orc armies clashed. Blood and steel, honor and glory. It was all they sought. All they ever sought. There had to be everyday humans and orcs, elves and dwarves. Those who didn’t live to fight and fight to live. Or so Burr assumed. He’d never met one of those sorts, but he’d seen the villages, whether built on the fields, carved into the great mountains, or across the broken plains. But those types didn’t seem to matter. In the end, it was always war that drove the surface races. Even the dwarves, who only thought they knew the sanctuary of the Deep Below.

Burr said, “How many times must they do it?”

“Forever,” said Shad.

“Will they never learn?”

“They haven’t yet.”

Burr sat on a rock and watched the battle. As much as he hated to admit it, he could see the appeal. Not for him or his kind. They wouldn’t have been any good at war if they’d decided to give it a try. But the idea of his race rising up from the Deep Below to wage glorious conquest on the foolish surface races, it did amuse him.

“You’re smiling again,” said Shad.

“Am I?”

“I don’t see what’s so funny about it. Throwing their lives and civilizations away like this.”

Burr didn’t try to explain to her. It was probably better she didn’t understand. There was something wrong with him that he did.

“Oh, they’re about to do it.” He leaned closer. This was their role, to bear witness to the end of yet another surface age.

“Bet’cha it’s the orcs this time,” said Shad.

“Maybe they won’t do it,” said Burr with some hope.

“They’ll do it.”

She was more cynical than him with good reason. They had the records of all the times things had gone past the tipping point. There was nothing to be done but watch.

The human priests raised their angelic voices, calling upon their ancient gods. Their gods, moved by their prayers, sent down a phalanx of winged warriors, glowing with divine righteousness. Their mere presence caused both orc and human to burn. Burr and Shad were beyond the notice of the gods and their servants and remained unharmed.

Burr covered his eyes from the light as the orc sorcerers countered by summoning their own terrible deities, manifesting as twisted mounds of gluttonous green flesh, crushing both armies indiscriminately.

“Told’ja they’d do it,” said Shad.

“Yes, but you said it’d be the orcs.”

“Doesn’t matter who starts it,” she said. “If not them, then someone else would.”

They watched the titanic struggle far below as gods, spurred by their own savage enthusiasm, unleashed more blind devastation upon heretic and follower alike. The gates were thrown wide, and once the invitation was given, the gods would cover this world with blood until their appetites were sated. Until there was almost nothing left, and the surface folk would rebuild, forgetting all the mistakes they made over and over again along the way.

“Mark it down,” said Burr. “End of the fourteenth age.”

Shad scribbled a note on her scroll. “We should go now.”

They headed back into the cave, leading down, down, down into the place neither human, nor orc, nor elf, nor any of the rest ever went. Nor their weird, reckless gods. Down to the Deep Below, while above the wars and indiscriminate death raged. The death of an old age. The birth of another.

“Maybe they’ll get it right the next time,” said Burr.

“I wouldn’t bet on it.”

He’d like to believe otherwise, but maybe she was right.

Maybe it was just their way.

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