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The orc messenger with the scarred face hiked toward Highmaul's gates, struggling her way up stone steps half her height.

Highmaul’s ogres stopped to watch her. Rank brutes leered at her from the darkness looming over the path to the summit. Wealthier Gorians looked out from mound-homes ornamented with trophies from their dead enemies.

Another observer watched the messenger’s approach from a tower, disgust filling both of his minds. This orc trod atop the mountain the ogres' blood families had shaped over lifetimes, pressing and tearing the very rock until it became city and palace and fortress and home.

Still, she had been permitted on the lift to Highmaul's second rise with a wordless lowering of spears. It was custom to treat lone visitors with curiosity. They could always be killed later.

When the lift shivered to a stop, the messenger saw a dozen haggard orc slaves manning the pulleys. They slunk off one by one, casting glances at her over their shoulders.

The messenger peered farther up the mountain. Just visible, jutting forth from Highmaul's peak, was the outline of a vast balcony—the Throne of the Imperator, where dwelled the ogres' sorcerer king—but it was a long climb from where she stood, breathing hard in the dusty open between filthy-smelling slave hovels. Her nose crinkled.

A cadre of enormous, elegantly robed ogres tromped toward her, moving with surprising quickness. The tallest and largest among them (clearly hurrying to be first on the scene) was near in seconds, reeling to a stop like a downhill pushcart regaining control. He reeked of grease and animal fat mixed with perfume, though his straw-colored, sleeveless robes were immaculate. (They had been cleaned more recently than his body.) The ogre's huge belly hung out of his clothing, and he hefted it with one hand to scrub beneath, not breaking eye contact with the messenger.

His voice was silken. "I am High Councilor Vareg. I speak for the king. You may share your message until I am through with my meal, and then you may depart Highmaul with your soft bones intact."

So saying, he produced a pungent-scented hunk of elekk shoulder and took one crunching bite, spraying webs of white fat. It was half-gone, meat and bone alike, and he immediately pursed his lips for another bite, a proven means to elicit haste.

The messenger looked at each of the ogres in turn. "I bring a message from Grommash Hellscream, warchief of the Iron Horde, to  all ogres of Nagrand." She paused. "If you wish to draw breath upon Draenor one day longer, you will earn your lives."

The ogres—all of the ogres—laughed. By the time they were finished, grit was trickling off of the lift in response.

"Oh?" Vareg demurred, worrying gristle out of his yellow teeth with a fingernail, not looking at her. "Speak further. How?"

The messenger stretched out her words, annoyed. "Crawl before the Iron Horde with your eyes down. Empty your coffers into our hands. Roll on your bellies and beg. I do not care. Prove your worth, or be made extinct." The last word came out in a snarl.

Vareg leaned forward, body curling as though he would fall upon her like a cave-in. "Little one, we hold a hundred orc families in chains." He gestured with the chunk of meat at a slave plodding behind a feed cart. "Hellscream may not value your life, but will he behave so flippantly with theirs?"

The messenger looked straight up at the ogre. "They are dead already."

She turned to leave.

Her phrasing was particular. ( Prove your worth, not submit or surrender.) The orcs of the Iron Horde were confident enough to be impudent, but they made no precise demands for tribute or territory restored. The ultimatum was open ended. Agency was the listener's. 

The sorcerer king had phrased similar demands so himself.

Imperator Mar'gok, two-headed sorcerer king of the Highmaul, he whose ancestors had tamed avalanche and wind to build the first keeps and colonnades and reservoirs upon wild Nagrand, did not move from his balcony.

The imperator had been watching the day unfold at a distance, his vision stretched down to Highmaul's streets through a lens of carved quartz. Four natural eyes normally provided him with plenty to take in, but the hours he'd spent staring had begun to make one of his heads swim. (Was there more to see? Should he stop?) It was strange feeling conflict within his minds, when he had always felt his brains working together as two legs should.

Mar'gok squinted, trying to imagine how one of his subjects—a two-eyed, one-headed, one-brained ogre—would peer down at the splendor of the city. Would he focus his entire gaze, all his thoughts, on a single point at a time? It would be impossible to rule that way. Everything would seem blurry.

Mar'gok saw the baggy blobs of his councilors walk back from their meeting, stopping among the gardens (likely to argue). Then he watched the russet-brown dot of the messenger as she left.

***

The attack was not long off. (Such a message was always delivered as an afterthought, not a prelude.)

Howls echoed through Mar'gok's streets from every direction, as though Draenor itself had been surrounded by wolves. Beyond the western parapets, spheres of smoke and flame tumbled through the air toward glorious Highmaul. If they impacted the outer walls, drum towers would topple, clogging pathways down the mountain. The forces of Highmaul's upper rises would be cut off from supporting the lower; the lifts were too slow. Relief forces rushing through the breach were likely to lose their footing among the rubble and get slaughtered in droves, their bodies transforming from instruments of war to hurdles for their fellows.

Or the Iron Horde would bound up the eastern sculpture path on the backs of their deft wolves, whose jaws would drip red as they bit open ogres' stomachs. Highmaul's eastern line of defense was nearly all brutes, and they had a habit of responding to charges by tossing their spears aside in the hope of cracking puny jawbones in their hands before dying. (Had they been lashed recently?)

What if the orcs sped past their lines and gained access to the slave pens? Could they arm the slaves, raise a revolt?

The risks were many. Imperator Mar'gok contemplated them as the patter of arrows grew audible on his balcony. He decided—commanded.

He had ordered all slaves to be barricaded in their pens; any who were unruly were to be slaughtered on the spot. The bodies, lent to flies, would be locked inside with the living.

The lowest tier of Highmaul, where dwelled smaller, poorer, unproven Gorians, would receive the immediate assault. Mar'gok ordered a throng of sentinels there, seasoned warriors, to halt their enemies' ascent. The sentinels carried the imperator's standard of purple and gold, and their bellowing shook rocks from the hills.

At the vanguard, red-skinned Gorian magic breakers charged unharmed through their enemies' glowing spells, crumpling orcish bodies beneath the sweeps of mighty clubs and stomping throats flat. Yet more of the Iron Horde came on.

Ragtag Warsong riders fought side by side with other orcs: painted howlers who decorated their faces in whirls of blood, squads of helmeted infantry without a hint of muscle exposed beneath sooty steel plates, maimed fanatics sworn to the gladiator Kargath, with blades in place of their hands. The only characteristic they all seemed to share was an insignia, a spiky red scrawl adorning banners and shields.

And weapons. Every drop of ingenuity in the Iron Horde had gone toward its means of killing. (How had they invented so much so quickly? It was as if generations of progress had fallen into their laps.)

Teams of orcs, straining behind their catapult chains, sent wheels of fire screeching through the sky, setting alight ogre flesh and melting walls into mortar.

In the orcs' hands, dual-pointed blades spun like wheels; steel wagons, staggering forward on spiderlike legs, carried soldiers over the moats that had once made Mar'gok's city so impregnable. The Iron Horde was surrounding Highmaul's defenders, even on the narrow pathways that ogres filled shoulder to shoulder.

Five orcs stood inside a metal ram topped with a fire-spewing fist, charging up a livestock path toward the city. Ogres fell before the ram like great burning effigies until it squelched to a stop against one hammer-wielding brute in a gush of sparks. He toppled off the path with half of his chest bored through and the exit hole sputtering ash.

The orcs took no prisoners. Even atop Imperator's Rise, at the pinnacle of Highmaul, the smoke and charnel scent of dying ogres reached both sets of Mar'gok's nostrils. His belly burbled eagerly.

***

As the Iron Horde ate up his city from its toes, the sorcerer king of the Highmaul stood far above the carnage, surrounded by the wrought shale pillars of his first great project, the halls of the Gorthenon.

Mar'gok's council spanned the wide floor. They were great, ancient ogres, hunched like resting tigers or posing godlike atop huge stones they'd carried up several flights. At a respectful distance from the council, stock-still rows of military advisors and champions waited, bearing bludgeons and worn armor. A few exhibited the strange red, blue, or gray coloration and archaic tattoos that marked them as magic breakers, warriors subjected to rituals and training that rendered them immune to spell schools, a decree the sorcerer king had levied on one in twenty Gorians during his reign. The breakers' faint success in holding back the Iron Horde was evident in their posture; they looked fully prepared to spring from the discussion and maim Highmaul's enemies at a moment's notice.

There were no places to sit. Several councilors paced the Gorthenon's floor, orbiting the imperator, the largest ogre among them, a gargantuan creature whose muscle and fat took turns dominating his image. A long horn punched up from his right head; a purple sash puddled around his feet. Beneath his hoods, Mar'gok's jaws were clenched in study. He held callused palms open toward the assembly.

Of all in the room, only High Councilor Vareg looked more eager.

"Our primalists will shatter the north slope," he spat. "The north peak will fall, and it will slide down upon them and squish their small heads all at once." The grease on his face twinkled.

As they listened to Vareg, a few of the council members looked ready to swallow his blood, but most, particularly the magic breakers, stamped in agreement. This was a hall of both governance and violence; those who disagreed too long would bash in one another's skulls to support their points. Finding common ground was crucial.

Mar'gok growled, his voices echoing in the chamber. "No."

Impatient, hungry (low-born) Vareg, his thoughts ever on rising, rising, rising, looked as though he had been sent to die in the coliseum.

Staring at Vareg with one head while the other scanned the council crowd, Mar'gok let their mumbles dwindle. "The orcs and their weapons are too great in number. They will not be destroyed in one strike, and you risk the foundation of the city. No. Our legions at the front will retreat to the Path of Victors and force them to ascend. If they need ropes to climb our steps, they can be slowed."

Highmaul had squashed every attempt to settle within leagues of her majesty. The enemy would be tired from marching, riding. A true siege of the city could take days. (The Iron Horde's supply trains would need to be substantial.)

Vareg was powerful, a mage-lord with many victories and an unusual knack for both disobedience and survival. "By letting them enter the city, you give them the initiative. Even if we cripple their supplies or cut their ropes, they will leave our warriors with little hope of escape."

"Escape?" mused Mar'gok. "You think, then, that Highmaul will fall?"

Silence.

Mar'gok rolled a stone in his palm. It had been worn smooth by his calluses. "You think"—he clicked one tongue—"preventing deaths among our army is more valuable than preventing the death of Highmaul?" No one had said so, but no one spoke up to deny it.

The pitch of Vareg's voice rose. "Imperator, you are far from the battlefield. You cannot see our soldiers or our enemies. If you will not let us bring down the mountain, then let us meet them with our full force. If we retreat, our losses will be great. You will regret each after we have won."

Vareg's words echoed, and most of the councilors moved away from him to stand beside their imperator, their support no quieter for being wordless. Noticing them, Vareg looked even more irate. "The orcs are so small that they will not even be able to remove our dead!" he snarled.

Mar'gok's faces remained outwardly stolid. "Perhaps it is simpler than I thought. Join me, and use your vast knowledge of the Iron Horde to bring us victory."

"Join… you, Imperator? You will fight?"

"No. While our forces pull back and stymie the orcs, we travel to the Iron Horde warchief and make him show us peace. By sending his messenger, Grommash Hellscream has all but promised us safe passage."

A few centurions and one additional magic breaker would serve as the imperator's personal guard; he did not dare borrow more from the front lines. Swiveling his heads toward the magic breakers, Mar'gok boomed, "The strongest among you will accompany me."

Mar'gok was dismayed to see a blue-marked breaker, covered in messy runes that looked as though they had been scraped onto his body with a rock, promptly shoved forward by his fellows. Apparently, the breaker shared his imperator's dismay.

"Imperator," he intoned gravely, "I have crushed four shaman skulls tonight. I am not fit to trade sweet words. Let me stay and fight for the glory of Highmaul!"

"What is your name, breaker?" Mar'gok asked, slowly, softly, as though speaking to a meal.

"Ko'ragh, Imperator."

"Ko'ragh," Mar'gok continued. "You may not stay. Your death will buy Highmaul less than your life. Further"—Mar'gok cut off the possibility of objection, and the breaker's maw slapped shut—"the time and manner of your death are your imperator's to choose. Do you understand?" At that, Ko'ragh saluted, one meaty fist thumping his chest.

Vareg—never one to let others be the focus of attention for more than a moment—was quick to raise his voice. "And how will I serve, Imperator?"

Mar'gok allowed himself to show smiles. "You will drag my cart."

The high councilor gaped openmouthed. A few in the assembly chuckled nervously, the sound like two rocks dragging against each other.

The imperator had long encouraged his council to show non-violent dissent at any time: they merely had to spit at his feet. None of his living councilors ever expressed disagreement in the discourteous fashion he suggested, but the offer had been made nonetheless. He was magnanimous.

Mar'gok looked pointedly at his bare toes, then back at the assemblage. Roiling fire passed by a window, spraying hot melted pebbles onto the rise. He furrowed the brows of his left face, then his right.

The imperator looked down at his feet again. No spit.

Code of Rule