Muse Quest - Chapter 31: An Experiment Goes Wrong
Ungrath tripped no less than seven times while battling his way through the dense forest. The trees hissed and sniggered to one another as yet another twisting root rose up to send him sprawling in a cacophony of oversized armor. The uruk picked himself up again, swearing under his breath, and shouldered his way through the clutching undergrowth.
He stumbled suddenly into a bright, open clearing and had to throw a hand over his sensitive eyes, his curses growing louder. The trees creaked warningly, but the expecting grasping thorns didn't come. Ungrath cracked open one watering eye.
He was in a clear, grassy place ringed by trees like silvery sentinel pillars - beeches, though of course he didn't know that. In the middle of the clearing, apparently unfed by any stream, a pool threw off queer blue-and-gold glints. Everything was completely still; even the trees' rustling was muted. Ungrath blinked and shifted uncomfortably. He couldn't remember ever having been in a place in which he so obviously didn't belong. He should go - find a way out of this Void-cursed forest and strike out for... where?
But - Not yet, he begged internally. I can't, not yet...I still don' know for sure. This was purest nonsense, and he knew it, but he still couldn't make himself keep going. Instead he looked around again, kicked the grass suspiciously, and sat down, looking mistrustful. The only soft surface in his experience was mud; everything in Orthanc was stone or iron. He looked down at the heavy metal sheets covering his limbs. Even him.
Just then, another of the now-familiar bouts of pain shook through him. Ungrath yelled aloud, gripping the tender grass stems with frantic claws. At the end of it he was dazed and gasping. Weird fragments of memory flitted behind his eyes, and he was almost relieved not to recognize most of them. The ones he did recognize were horrible. The pain was getting worse too. And...
...Ungrath raised a hand to his eyes and squinted at it uneasily. Sure enough, it looked different - even more than yesterday. He lifted his other hand and spread his fingers. Eventually he grunted and let both hands fall, but couldn't suppress a shudder. "Sharkey's ungrath..." he muttered to himself.
Trying to avoid the end of that thought, he began pushing all his oversized armor back into place, tugging the straps as tight as they would go. When he was finished, he swung an arm experimentally and was rewarded with the clang of a shoulder plate sliding down to catch on one of his vambraces. "Void take it!" he growled. He sat looking at his armor for a bit, then very reluctantly undid the many straps and buckles and shucked off every piece. Most of it was terribly dented, and some pieces had holes battered clean through.
He paused when he came to his left vambrace. It was a tattered, jagged mess, more holes than metal, and dried blood covered it like macabre paint. Ungrath peeled it off carefully. When he saw what was underneath, he gave a little hiss. The whole length of his arm was mangled with long, pale scars, still raw and painful: it looked like a warg's chew toy. Huh, no wonder I couldn' make it work, he thought ruefully. Shoulda carried a shield.
The absurdity of the whole situation struck him, and he even managed a sort of half-grin. But as he unbuckled the rest of his armor, he noticed more scars, and more, and more. His smile had died long ago; he was shivering a little, and not just from the cold.
The uruk bolted to his feet, scattering the remaining armor. He looked around wildly.
Cebu stood framed between two trees, staring at him. "Ungrath?" she asked again, nervously. "Is that you?"
Ungrath jerked his head in a nod.
"Oh," said Cebu, her voice high-pitched with nerves. "You look... different." He shrugged. "Um," said Cebu. "Well. I just... um." She cast about awkwardly. "What is this place?"
Ungrath shrugged again.
I've had better ideas, Cebu thought, searching desperately for a tactful way to bring up the topic she wanted. Ungrath was giving her a Look. Go away, it said. It practically shouted, in fact. Cebu had to fight the urge to bolt. Instead she just blurted it out: "I came to ask if you'll come and talk to Eicys."
He looked suspicious. "Why?"
Cebu jumped a little - even his voice was different. "Well - I've been worried about her," she said, and was taken aback at the vehemence of Ungrath's reaction.
"Why?" he demanded. "What's wrong?"
"Well... nothing, really. She's just acting really strange, not like herself at all. Really nervous and snappy. She says she's worried about you."
Ungrath's gaze, which had been directed over Cebu's head towards the campsite, returned to her face with a bump. "Abou' me?" he echoed. "Why?"
"Well, you haven't exactly been reassuring to be around since the escape," Cebu said mildly. Then she added with a trace of accusation, "She said you told her to go away."
"I haven' felt much like talkin' lately," the uruk said pointedly, looking threatening.
"No, probably not," Cebu agreed, and Ungrath blinked, unused to that sort of calm response. The redhead waited until she judged him to have gathered most of his wits back together, then said, "But you should probably talk to her anyway. I mean, you're her best friend, right?" and watched them all fly to pieces again. Suspicion and disbelief and... something else... chased one another across his ugly face. Watching him, Cebu suddenly decided that Ungrath needed cheering up just as much as Eicys did, orc or no. And so, fully aware that Eicys would kill her if she found out, Cebu said, "It would really mean a lot to her. She says she never feels comfortable anymore unless you're around."
Ungrath's expression crystallized into that of someone who'd just been hit very hard over the head. "What?" he asked blankly. There was a frightening undertone to the word.
"Well, you saved her life all those times..." Good night, the uruk actually looked embarrassed. But also... "Are you sure you're all right?" Cebu asked. He nodded absently. "So... are you going to come back, then?"
"I can't," Ungrath said without thinking, and his face was a nightmare.
"I can't!" he almost howled. "I won't! Khardik, it's hard enough leavin' wi'out this, an' you, an' - her. Leave me alone, can't yeh?"
"Leaving?" Cebu echoed timidly. "Where are you going?"
"Away," he snarled.
"But the trees - they'll kill you!"
"Good," he said fiercely. "Better dead than - than... K'sagrakh dhag akazhar..." The trees moaned out their fear and hatred at the sound of the Black Speech. Cebu shrank.
"What's that mean?" she whispered.
Ungrath's terrifying face twisted furiously. "Look at me," he snarled. "I was dead, right? Do I look dead? Do I even look anythin' like I used to?"
Cebu shook her head mutely.
"An' d'yeh want t' know what happened last time I started lookin' different?"
Cebu looked into his incongruous eyes and saw the answer there. She didn't. She really didn't want to know. But the question came out anyway, albeit in a whisper. "What happened?"
Ungrath stared at her. "I went wrong," he said at last, flatly. "Now leave me alone."
"But..." Cebu tried in a small voice.
Ungrath took a step toward her, ugly as the pits of Angband and twice as scary. "I said once I wasn' gonna kill anyone else, an' I've broke it a'ready," he growled. "An' when I go like las' time I won' have a choice. So you'd better get outta here now." Cebu took a step backwards, then another.
"You wouldn't really...?"
"Morgoth, why d'yeh think I'm leavin'?" Ungrath laughed unpleasantly at the look on her face. "Looks like the experiment worked after all, hey?"
"Experiment?" quavered Cebu.
Ungrath's eyes went flat. "Enough," he said. "Go away, Cebu."
Cebu stayed in place with an effort. "What about Eicys?
Fangs glinted as he opened his mouth and shut it again, defeated. "What about her?" he managed, callously.
"I think you owe her an explanation if you're just taking off like that."
"Void - I don' owe nobody nothin'." He gestured at his mangled arm, and Cebu's curls stood on end as she caught sight of those awful scars.
"What - " she started.
"I said git out!" snarled Ungrath, the orcish accent pronounced.
"But - " she tried again.
"Now!" he roared, and it was a roar, a deafening animal noise, black with the promise of blood and pain. Fear of that sort of sound is ingrained so deep in the human psyche that Cebu almost fell over in her haste to get away.
And Ungrath sat down heavily on the grass, his head in his hands, sick with despair.
* * * * * *
"Cebu!" Eicys gasped as her sister came scrambling back into camp. "What's wrong? What happened?"
Cebu stood there, trying to get her breath back. "Ungrath."
"What? What happened?"
"He - Oh, gosh, I almost had a heart attack, Eicys. He's gone completely insane!"
Eicys was unpleasantly aware of the others listening in. "What happened?" she asked yet again.
"He's lost it! He says he's going off on his own and not coming back - "
"--he kept talking about `going bad' again - "
"He'll get killed, Cebu!"
" - he said he was going to kill me!"
Eicys stopped with her mouth still open, dumbstruck. "What?" she managed at last. "Why would he say that?" Behind her, the Immies traded deeply uneasy glances.
"He wanted me to go away... I kept asking him questions and he got mad..." Cebu said, still panting.
"He never did like questions," Eredolyn muttered to no one in particular.
"About what?" Eicys asked.
"I don't know!" Cebu wailed. "Something about an experiment - I don't know what he was talking about - I was just trying to convince him not to leave..." Taras made a sudden movement and subsided again. Eicys had her fingers in her mouth. "What did he mean, experiment?" Cebu asked, calming down slightly.
Eicys looked around. All the Immies were gathered around, listening avidly; even Dilly was propped up and looking curious. "He... Saruman did something - I don't know what, but it was pretty awful. And now..." She clenched her jaw in a way that promised trouble.
"I'm going to go talk to him."
There was an immediate outcry. "Are you mad?" Taras demanded, steely fire still smoldering in his eyes. "I wouldn't trust Saruman if he'd been dead and buried for three Ages, and now he's been meddling with Death itself - "
"I didn't say - "
"What other explanation is there? That orc - "
"He was dead, Valar take it! And now we know why, and even he says he's ... going wrong again, and you want to go have a nice friendly chat?" Wlore jerked her head in terse agreement, and Tuima folded her arms and pinned Eicys with a `don't-be-an-idiot' stare.
"Yes," snapped Eicys. "I do. And I am. Goodbye." And she whirled and stomped away into the brush.
The Immies stared. Then Taras slid his sword out of its sheath. "I'm going after her," he said.
Dilly coughed. Taras turned to look at her. "You don't think I should?" he asked. He looked bewildered and betrayed, and therefore angry.
"Eicys has been able to take care of herself around orcs for a month. She'll be fine," said Dilly.
Taras' lips tightened. His whole upbringing dictated that he was responsible for the group's safety, and that orcs in general - and deathless uruks in particular - definitely construed a threat to that safety.
"Look, Taras..." Dilly paused. "Hey, do you guys mind if I talk to Taras for a bit?" she asked rather awkwardly, cursing the way she couldn't even stand up for a normal conversation.
The Immies looked at each other and drifted off. Cebu hesitated for a while before leaving, wound up tight as a child's top with anxiety over Eicys.
Dilly was anxious, too, but she thought something ought to be sorted out first. "Can't you give him a break?" she asked as Taras sat down next to her.
The Gondorian blinked. "Dilly. It's an orc."
"Hey, I'm not saying you have to be best friends or anything, but Ungrath saved all our lives. Give him a little credit."
"And ignore the fact that he just threatened your friend?"
Dilly looked troubled, but said, "If all that had happened to you, wouldn't you be on edge? Come on, Taras - he died to get us out. We wouldn't have lasted three seconds without him."
"I could've - "
"Yes, probably. But you weren't there." Dilly looked at Taras narrowly. "You're still beating yourself up about that, aren't you?" she asked.
"What? No! I just... I..." Taras looked away. "I didn't want to leave you alone, you know," he whispered.
"I know," she said. "But you didn't - I already told you. Ungrath took care of us."
"But - you..." He gestured to her shoulder.
"He was busy saving Tuima and Wlore. And two seconds later he'd picked me up with one hand and was fighting off orcs with the other, and then he held them all off while we escaped. He isn't the most... pleasant sorta guy, but Eicys knows him best and she trusts him - can't you?"
"You can't trust someone just because you think you know them," said Taras, his voice ominously toneless.
Dilly paused. A little half-smile crossed her face, broken by a grimace as she reached over to take Taras' hand. He immediately shifted closer so that she wouldn't strain her shoulder. Dilly looked down at his long-fingered hand wrapped around her smaller one, and with that smile still playing across her face she said, "I trusted you, didn't I?"
She looked up and the smile broadened. Taras was looking thoroughly startled. He obviously hadn't considered it that way before. After a moment he opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out. Dilly closed her eyes contentedly and lay back, marveling at how dense men could be at times.
* * * * * *
Ungrath didn't move for a long, long time. He knew perfectly well what he had to do, but he was almost paralyzed with not wanting to. Eventually, though, he pulled himself to his feet, kicked an abandoned greave out of the way, and knelt down by the pool for a drink before he left. It was surprisingly deep, an endless celestial blue beneath its silvery sheen. Ungrath paused, staring at the water.
The surface was mirror-smooth, but it wasn't his face reflected in it.
Saruman the White gazed out calmly at his creation, smiling that cold, satisfied smile that was Ungrath's first - and worst - memory.
Ungrath yelled in shock, and a ripple crossed the image, though there was no wind. It dissipated to show a village of crude stone huts surrounding a muddy rut of a street, and wild-looking men standing in a group, fighting. The image changed again, to a young woman with paper-white skin and inky hair, her eyes as dark as tragedy, desperately trying to ward off an onrushing scimitar that looked just like Ungrath's. And then her hair swirled over her face in an ebony tide, and the red smoky light of torches gleamed out of the blackness. There was a dark room, deep underground, dominated by a massive, bloodstained table. Torchlight gleamed on iron chains, and a brazier full of herbs gave off dark, greasy smoke.
Ungrath shoved himself violently away from the pool, but pain was already curling around him in white-hot tendrils. He gritted his teeth, but this time it didn't end. Waves of agony ripped through him again and again; he was curled up on the grass, screaming, screaming till he thought his throat would tear, completely blind with pain.
And the water's smooth surface rippled serenely through a series of images...
A young man, just out of boyhood, with bloody fists, with torchlight and terror reflected in his eyes. Eicys, streaked with black gore, sobbing uncontrollably. The wizard like a gleam of cold flame, leaning on his staff and telling his orc-captain to keep the body. Bright sunlight in a stone quarry. And then again the dark room and now the scent of herbs and fear was tangible in the air.
Ungrath had no more breath for screaming; he gasped, choked at the smell of herbs, gasped again. The smoky image of Orthanc's torture chamber faded, turned again to the young man, and as the darkness of death clouded his terrified eyes, it slowly disappeared.
* * * * * *
Eicys was pushing her way through a thicket when all around her the trees seemed to tense. Half an instant later she was hit by a veritable wall of sound. It tore through her ears in keening bursts of agony: the reckless screams of an animal in pain. But Eicys recognized the guttural undertone to the roar...
"Ungrath!" she yelled, battling frantically with the clutching branches. "I'm coming! Hold on!"
The cry cut off suddenly. With her heart in her mouth, Eicys tore free of the undergrowth and burst into a beautiful, silent clearing.
Ungrath was curled next to a silver pool, looking strangely small without his armor. His breath came in great shuddering gasps and his shoulders shook. He moaned faintly and tried to get up; muscles shifted beneath his ragged tunic as he forced himself onto hands and knees, then collapsed again, face-down.
Eicys rushed forward and grabbed his shoulder. He shrugged her off and once again struggled onto hands and knees, his head hanging with exhaustion.
Then he lifted it, and looked at her.
A strangled cry of shock was ripped from Eicys' throat. She fell over backwards, gasping, and scrabbled away desperately when he reached out a hand. There was an unpleasant dark fog eating away at the corners of her eyesight, but she managed to gather together enough presence of mind to choke out a terrified, "Who are you?"
"What?" The word was hoarse. "Eicys - "
"Get away!" Eicys cried in a kind of gasping shriek. More of the black fog intruded on her vision as he stood up, staggered, fell over again. Of all the idiotic - I think I'm going to faint! Eicys squeezed her eyes tight shut and gritted her teeth. When the world stopped spinning she opened her eyes again and looked at the person in front of her.
He was horribly ugly - for a human. For an orc, he was... well, un-orclike, which is the best thing a member of that race could aspire to. Smooth brown skin had replaced mottled grey-red. His teeth were oversized and pointed, and his nose looked half-crushed, but it was definitely a human face.
And he had Ungrath's eyes.
"Ungrath?" she quavered. "That's not you, is it?"
"It's me," he panted. "You a'right?"
"I'm fine," lied Eicys, her voice a little too high. "You just... startled me..." She shook her head to clear it. "It's really you? What happened?"
"I dunno," he mumbled. "I thought tha'... tha' I... was..." He trailed off. He was staring at his hands, eyes huge. "Oh, Valar," he breathed, the first time Eicys had ever heard the word from an orc.
Except Ungrath wasn't an orc anymore.
Still staring at his hands as if transfixed, Ungrath's next question came out with an edge of desperation. "What's goin' on?" he choked, and now he was looking down at himself, frantically touching chest, face, limbs. "What's goin' on?" he demanded again, wildly.
Eicys crawled over and put her arms around him. Ungrath went rigid.
"It's okay," murmured Eicys. "It's okay, Ungrath."
"I dunno what's happening," he mumbled, still stiff and shaking.
"It doesn't matter," she said. "Everything's going to be fine. It's all okay."
Ungrath shuddered, but Eicys felt him slowly turning back from cold iron to warm flesh. She hugged him tighter, reassuringly, and he shuddered again but tentatively put his arms around her and gathered her close.
Eicys stayed that way, tucked beneath his chin with her face against his chest and her hands barely able to meet at his back, even though his armor was gone. She felt quiet, warm, and blissfully safe. It had been so long since she felt really safe... But she was surprised that Ungrath would let it go on so long. Usually he jumped at the merest touch.
Then she became aware of a wet patch on her shoulder, and went stiff out of sheer amazement. Ungrath let go of her hastily and dragged a harsh hand over his eyes, but Eicys had seen enough.
Ungrath was crying.