One Of The Good Ones
One of the Good Ones
by Eneasz Brodski
When you’re a child, the Heresy seems about as attractive as kissing girls. Who cares about a bunch of bad words as long as there’s books to read and your parents are happy? Why did adults make such a big deal about dumb stuff? If they didn’t care so much about who couldn’t say what, maybe they’d have more time to play with their kids.
As a youngling I stayed up late to see my dad come home from work, even though I’d get in trouble for it if I was caught. I was supposed to be well-rested for school, but he worked so much that I only ever saw him on Sundays and holidays, and that wasn’t enough. I lay in my dark room, covers off so I wouldn’t get warm and drowsy, eyes open so I wouldn’t drift off, and waited for ages to hear the clomping of his boots up the apartment stairs. I learned not to sneak out immediately—I had to wait for my mother to greet him. I waited first for the sound of the front door opening, then closing, then my mother’s footsteps moving from the bedroom to the kitchen. Only then was it safe to ease my bedroom door open, creep to the end of the hallway, and peak around the corner. Usually my dad would be hunched over the kitchen table, wearily starting in on dinner, while my mother rubbed ointment into his mottled shoulders and back.
I marveled at him. Even slumped over, he looked like a mountain, and I was the sparrow-fox sheltering in the valley he made.
Not long after we lost mom to the Heresy, I stopped staying up. Several nights of watching my father slumped over an open tin can, shoveling cold beans between his tusks with one hand while rubbing knots out of his shoulder with the other, was enough. I knew he’d be angry I saw that, saw the mountain wearing away. Though I didn’t know the word “dignity” at that age, I could still feel shame for violating his.
He ground away his life, his time with us, in exchange for my university acceptance letter and the tuition it demanded. When that letter finally arrived and we tore the envelope open, his eyes shone with pride. We both knew I would make it worth his work. I wouldn’t be a typical orc, content with manual labor and violence—“Dumb lives without value,” in his words. I would be better. I would be the envy of them all.
I was not the envy of them all.
Two years in and I was on academic probation, with this semester my last chance. My father was still proud only because I forged my grade reports, with my girlfriend’s help. Soon he’d find out. I wasn’t any different from any other orc.
Only Wren kept me going. She saw what my father dreamed, and she believed I would reach it. So tonight, a Friday night when most of campus was gearing up for a weekend of parties and dancing, I sat third row, aisle seat, pen and pad out, stomach sour with anxiety, ready for Mystarch Loelath’s guest lecture. This was a free lecture for any student of the Arcane, and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hear a leading Arcanist speak. Maybe it would help.
It had to help.
A grad student took the stage. The wispy elfman began introductions using a standard voice-amplification charm, but I wasn’t paying attention. The aisles were clearing, and still no Wren. I was keenly aware of the vacant seat beside me, saved for her. No one dared ask about it. They saw an orc and quickly moved on. They probably wondered what an orc was doing in an Arcanology lecture. Whatever, I didn’t care, I was worried about Wren. Was she OK? I should have picked her up from the elf-dorms and walked to the lecture with her. I was rude to not have offered.
“Orcs are good.”
It was an assertion, a statement presented as fact, dropped by the introducing grad student. I didn’t even register it for a second. When it sunk in I lost my focus, stopped scanning the auditorium, stopped even breathing. Because I immediately knew it to be Heresy.
That line wasn’t in my assigned Verse. I’d never heard it before. Even so, it had to be Heresy. It wasn’t false, exactly. It was just… wrong. That’s how the Corruptor gets you. Technically not-false statements, often ones that are seductive to a particular listener, building an edifice of technically-not-falsehoods to create what is, in aggregate, the Heresy.
I felt the entire auditorium holding its breath with me. The wrongness of that statement stuck out so badly that I didn’t even hear the next couple sentences, which was a small saving grace. The temperature declined with each line, just a touch, as the first stirring of Void responded to the incantation. That’s the other sign of Heresy. Abnormal drops in temperature, darkening of lights, odd breezes indoors. Sometimes disembodied weeping and blood seeping from walls, according to survivors of major breaches. But by then it’s too late.
“HERESY!” shouted a voice at last, breaking the spell. An elfwoman jumped up from the fourth row. “Verse Fourteen!” She thrust an accusing finger at the speaker. My gaze snapped to the elfman on stage, his eyes wide.
“What?” He choked in panicked confusion. “I just--” But already the orc deacon on duty had broken forward, charging up the stairs at a dead sprint to the podium. I don’t know why he didn’t draw his revolver, maybe too much risk of hitting an innocent. With a scared-rabbit yelp the grad student leapt down into the audience. He bolted to the nearest aisle, the one that led past me.
Someone sitting behind me slapped my shoulder, shouted “Go!”
I had just been sitting there. Yes, I was an orc, but I’d never been in a real fight in my life, not even a schoolyard scrap. I was like every elf there, really. I didn’t expect to just be going to class, earning my degree, and suddenly have my world break into violence.
The slap reminded me, startled me, shamed me, all at once, without any time for actual thought. I burst to my feet and lunged for the elfman hurtling past. My palm touched his bicep, my big clumsy fingers completely encircling it. It barely slowed him, he shrugged and twisted and my grip slid down his forearm. I tripped into the aisle, latching onto his wrist. I yanked and crashed into him, and then we were on the ground. I grabbed wherever I could, trying to hug this squirming jumble of limbs and elbows. Shouts filled the hall around us. I could feel him wriggling from my grasp.
Then the deacon was on the elfman, his knee in between the kid’s shoulder blades. He twisted one delicate arm back in his muscled orc grip, and barked at me to get the handcuffs from his belt. Tears streamed from the kid’s eyes, his mouth agape in pain, and just like that it was over.
“So, what’d ya hear, kid?” The sergeant-deacon straddled the chair backwards, looking over the papers on the table between us. He set his giant mug of coffee to the side, he hadn’t made eye contact with me yet. He was an orc too, deep creases around his eyes and worry lines in his forehead. I’d been in holding for over an hour. Now that the initial interrogation of the heretic had finished, those of us who’d been exposed could be processed.
“Orcs are good,” I replied, with only slight hesitation. The Heretical words echoed in my head after I said them in overlapping, alien whispers, slowly dying away into unintelligible susurrations.
The sergeant finally looked up at me. “You’ve done this before, huh?” He looked back down and flipped open my file before I had a chance to answer.
“Yes. Verses 23 and 24 when I was eight, and the first few lines of Verse 7 when I was fourteen.” I did a very good job of not thinking of them as I said this. I could only take so many creepy whisper-echoes per day.
He nodded, and kept reading. The light in the room wasn’t great, one of the Perpetual Light globes on the wall was burnt out, and another half-dimmed. (The name was a marketing gimmick). He seemed used to it though, barely squinting as he scanned my file. I wondered how he knew this wasn’t my first time. Was it that I hadn’t asked if it was safe to tell him? But by my age everyone should know that only a deacon that’s already been hardened to the Verse in question would ask about it.
“Oh, hell, I’m sorry kid.” He looked up from the file and tried to give me a sympathetic look. It came out as a grimace, but I understood his intent. He must’ve gotten to the part about my mother, which would have been noted in the section detailing my exposure to V23 and V24. I gave him a nod, because what else could I do?
“Well,” he continued after another minute. “Nothing else, today? Just those three words?”
“Yeah, the rest kinda blew past me after I heard those, you know?”
“Yes. How did that make you feel?”
I’d been dreading that question. I still wasn’t sure how to answer even after mulling over it for an hour. A silence developed, as I waffled between words. The sergeant-deacon let it deepen, watching my face.
“Surprised. And relieved. Then scared. With a sort of… longing, I guess?”
“I see.” He jotted down some notes, which would end up on my permanent record.
“Is that bad? Relief and longing seem bad. Am I… falling…?” I didn’t finish the sentence. Falling to heresy. I wished I could see what he’d written down. I shouldn’t have told him about the relief and longing.
“You’re still telling us the truth about how you feel, aren’t you? That’s not something that falling people do. You’re still very safe.” Oh good. Still, I didn’t reply. Should I tell him I was afraid to talk to him? Was my hesitancy to tell him a sign of my doubt?
He looked up at me from his notes. “Hey, come on, us deacons know half a dozen full Verses. Some of the inquisitors know ten.” I guess he thought it would be reassuring to remind me. “Sure, you had an exposure to a bad hook, but you’ll make it through. You have a preferred confessor?”
I shook my head. I hadn’t gotten familiar with any of the clergy on campus yet, I had too much to do with my classes. And with all the time I spent with Wren'ava. OK, fine, it was mostly all the time with Wren'ava. I smiled. The hours disappeared when I was with her. Then I realized how dopey that must look, and wiped the smile off my face.
“I recommend at least two hours every week for the next month, but your confessor will know better. You’ve done this before, so you got a leg up on most of the kids out there.” He gestured at the door, indicating the holding area I’d come from.
“OK.” I didn’t stand up, though. Most of the clergy at the university were elves, with a few dwarves. No orcs. Not that that was a bad thing. Just that… “How did you take it?” I asked. “When you first heard?”
He raised an eyebrow in question.
“When you heard that… ‘Orcs are good.’ ” Again, the whispering echoes after.
He leaned back slowly, and adjusted his suspenders. He thought for a bit, before answering.
“That wasn’t very impactful for me, personally. I guess I already believed that. Or that orcs are as good as any other race, overall.”
Exasperation washed over me. Of course he would think that. No real orc would doubt that orcs are great.
“But kid, just because the Heresy says ‘Orcs are good,’ that doesn’t mean that they aren’t. You know that’s how The Corruptor cloaks his lies.”
I nodded mutely, my gaze down at the table. The sergeant-deacon sighed.
“Look, I know it’s hard. The lies of the Heresy are subtle. If you need an orc to talk to--” he pulled a card from his wallet and handed it to me. “I can make some time. Not today, of course, but otherwise… just ask for me. Now go on, I got a lot of work to do before I can call it a night.” I think he put a warmth into his tone in the last part. Or tried to, at least.
As I passed through the station on my way out it struck me again how many orcs worked here. The students grouped to one side were nearly all elves and dwarves, with a few fae. The bodies of authority and force around them were nearly all orcs. Not just the deacons and the cops. The detectives and admins too. Even the janitors. Two worlds in one room.
I tossed the sergeant-deacon’s card into the trash bin by the door as I left.
Wren'ava met me outside the station and I fell into her embrace immediately. Technically I engulfed her, but she was the emotional support in this hug. Relief and warmth flooded through me in her embrace. I didn’t realize how scared and alone I’d been until she was back, and I was whole again.
We disentangled and headed back to her dorm, as usual. She didn’t feel safe staying in the orc dorms. We talked on the way about the breach. I did most of the talking actually, since she’d been running late and fortunately missed it. She was a good listener, always knowing when to let me run on at length, and when to interject with questions or comments or affirmations. When we arrived at her dorm-room she pulled me into a kiss, stripped off my clothes, and took me to bed.
We failed to set the alarm clock, and overslept the next day. The morning sun charged in over the windowsill while we rushed to pull on our clothes. As she dashed on some makeup I gathered her books and notepads, trying to stay busy, trying to keep my mind from wandering so soon after an exposure. And yet, the thoughts kept creeping back in, like rats hiding in shadows, clicking-darting when my back was turned. Like termites burrowing through supports I couldn’t see.
Wren locked the door behind us as we left. The burrowing became an itching question. I turned away from it as much as I could, but the question wasn’t fair, because it was a legitimate question. It was a question of basic respect, and I found I really wanted to ask it. I needed to ask it. It wasn’t kind to either Wren or me to just sit and stew on it, it would poison us if I didn’t ask. And besides, Wren obviously had feelings for me, and I was an orc, so there was no harm in asking.
“Wren, do you think orcs are good?” I asked. I don’t think my voice came out strained, I managed to deliver it quite naturally. Despite the tightness in my chest, and the feeling of bands cinching down on it.
“Of course there’s good orcs,” she replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “What brings this up?”
“I know there’s good orcs,” I said, though honestly I wasn’t actually sure if I knew that. I swallowed and pressed on. “I mean, as a whole, is the orc race a good race or an evil race? We’re kinda famous for the whole subjugation thing.” I didn’t bother to gesture around me. Two centuries ago this had been an elf country, before Kagnar had forged the New Imperium.
Wren shot me a sidelong glance, her eyebrow quirked. “It’s a bad question. There’s good people and bad people of every race. It’s what people do that makes them good or bad.”
I wanted to say ‘but you don’t come to my dorm after dark,’ except I couldn’t, because I knew damn well why she didn’t come to my dorm after dark, and if I was an elf I’d do the same as her. An orc isn’t in danger from an elf. Any assault would be a tall order. It was basic common sense, and I sure as hell didn’t want to make her feel bad for trying to keep herself safe. Should she put herself at risk because some Heretical verse claimed orcs were good? For what, to prevent some oh-so-put-upon orc’s feelings from being hurt, when she has to live with violence and fear and orcs and hate and Heresy and every day and because orcs are good??
I snapped out of it, coming to a stop so suddenly I nearly fell. I would have fallen, but a supernatural force supported me, kept me on my feet. Not a good force. Fear clenched my guts. Damn. It was happening. My mind had been seized briefly, my thoughts warped into a maelstrom of anxiety and confusion. I’d let the Heresy in, I’d ruminated on the thoughts, and they had begun to germinate. I had to stop this.
I missed what Wren'ava had said during my fugue, and we’d arrived at the lecture hall now. I nodded noncommittally and handed over her book bag. She tossed her arms around my neck and stood up on her tiptoes to plant a kiss on my lips before we parted. Normally that lifted my heart for hours, but today it felt awkward.
Of course she noticed, because she’s wonderful like that.
“Don’t worry,” she said reassuringly, looking deep into my eyes. Her subdued smile filled her with a soft glow. “You’re one of the good ones.”
I said nothing.
Back in my own room I paced, discontent with Wren’s answer. That’s when it occurred to me that I was, AGAIN, dwelling on the literal words of the Heresy. The worst possible thing one could do after an exposure. The Heresy had found a toehold in my brain, and every rumination tightened its grip. Made it easier to fully overwhelm me. That was The Trap. I needed to get to a confessor soon and start hardening myself against that verse. Until then, it was vital to keep my mind on other matters.
I quickly flipped open a Theoretical Arcana textbook to divert myself. The subject always took every ounce of my concentration to comprehend it. As an orc, it meant studying long hours every day, and losing weekends to it. I had to work twice as hard as an elf to do half as much. Sure it wasn’t fair, but life isn’t fair. It just meant that I--
I stopped short, realizing where this was going. I’d lost my focus on studying, my thoughts drifting towards The Trap. I even recognized shades of influence from Verse 7. That was how the Heresy got you--the more pieces you heard, the more it spread tendrils between itself, forming webs in your mind. I would have to re-harden myself against V7 now. Dammit, that stupid exposure would take dozens of hours away from my studies in the coming months.
I closed the textbook. It wasn’t helping. I flipped open a fiction paperback instead, a thriller, and managed to lose myself in that until it was time for my next class. A waste of hours, but it was too dangerous to risk further rumination. I would get that confessor appointment tomorrow.
When I arrived at my Composition class (required), several acquaintances (friends?) were waiting for me, smiles on their faces. They gathered round, clapped me on the back, congratulated me.
“What the heck?” I asked. “What’s up?”
“Dude, it’s all over campus. You tackled the Heretic. He might’ve gotten away, and you just -BAM- slammed him right down.”
“Well, it wasn’t exactly like--”
“You’re a bad-ass! ‘Not in THIS school, punk!’”
I should have protested that, but at this point I was feeling pretty good. Was this what being a hero was like? Because it was pretty darn sweet.
Two raps cut off whatever I would have said, as the instructor called for order.
“Take your seats guys, we’re about to start,” professor D’iellun spoke. Not an orc himself, but he taught Orcish Composition here. We took our seats as he continued, “But before we do, I think it’s important to acknowledge yesterday’s events. As I’m sure you’ve all heard, there was a Heretical Breach prior to Mystarch Loelath’s presentation. There were no casualties to violence or madness, fortunately, as it was quickly contained. This was in large part due to the brave actions of a young orc in this very room, a fellow classmate of yours, who helped apprehend the Heretic as he fled. Gorrak, if you’d stand up?”
For a second I just sat there, eyes wide.
D’iellun gestured at me, and smiled. “Come on, no need to be modest.”
I slowly stood, scanning the room as I did. I hadn’t actually done anything good, or important. I’d just grabbed a scared elfman and hung on. I outweighed him by well over a hundred pounds. It was violent, and scary, and--
Led by the professor, the room broke into applause. Not raucous or wild, just a loud, earnest, show of appreciation. My eyes darted between faces, most of them smiling. Not sure what else to do, I gave a little half bow, and sat back down.
As the clapping died away I heard a murmured voice behind me, caught out by the drop in applause. Not every word, but I caught the end of it.
“...why you want orcs around. Diversity is good.”
I swallowed heavily, and pulled out my notepad. It remained untouched though, as I didn’t hear one full sentence the professor said that whole hour. All I could think about was that burst of violence yesterday, and the reason others wanted me around.
This is roughly the first quarter of One Of The Good Ones. Paid subscribers can read the full story, and comment. Get 25% off until Christmas 2022.