A human asks for my name.
“Greggurr,” I say.
He squints and curls his lip, annoyed. “I’m just going to put down Gregory.”
He writes down “Gregory” in Common. He doesn’t understand that it’s two syllables, with the second sounding close to a growl. The spelling doesn’t matter, the sound does. But this way, nobody’s ever going to get it right.
But they never get it right anyway.
I am too young to understand what I see.
Two people. People like me. Bigger than I am. One looks at the other with fear. Its hands are up in defense. I know this one. It’s been near me. Taking care of me. Feeding me.
The other holds something big and sharp. Takes this big thing and uses it to carve away parts of the other one.
I cry. This is wrong. Something is very wrong here.
The one I know falls to the ground.The other approaches and grabs me.
It smiles and says something I don’t understand, then carries me away with it.
I should have stopped crying. I should have hidden. I should have stayed still.
I am young. Maybe as young as I can remember. Young enough to live without consequences, to be given no power or act without permission.
My brother Kratak pushes my shoulder to wake me up. “Greggurr!” He says it in the loudest whisper. At that point, he shouldn’t even bother.
“Greggurr, it’s time!”
“Time for what?”
“Our first raid!”
I bolt upright, a grin on my face.
We’ve been waiting for this day. Finally old enough to go out with a proper gang and get food and money for ourselves. One step closer to being a real threat.
It’s a small time raid, and not even worth the label. There’s a group of Kenku that likes to socialize not too far from our den. And it’s about time we get what we deserve from them. That’s what they need to learn about getting too close.
That’s how it’s always been with us.
It goes as well as we can expect. They learn to fear us, and they give over their rations and their trinkets. It’s enough for us to lounge on for a week or more. And there’s nothing better than that.
That’s how it works. When you don’t have enough, you take from someone else who does. When you have enough, you can relax. That’s what it means to be a Bugbear.
The older Kratak and I get, the more options we have for getting money and food. Sometimes we just bully smaller things into giving us what they have and letting them scrounge again. Sometimes we take quick mercenary jobs that involve scaring some folks or killing a few others. I hear tales of smaller races being too scared to even fight after seeing the heads we put on stakes in honor of Hruggek.
Good. Let them be afraid. Fear empties their pockets.
Kratak and I are inseparable and efficient when we’re motivated. And nothing beats sleeping all day when we’re not.
But things change when a hobgoblin comes by our den and says he needs our help. He’s willing to give us gold, weapons, and he’ll let us keep the severed heads of the enemies to pay tribute with. It’s hard to say no to such an offer.
It’s a formality anyway. We have to accept the offer, thanks to Magubliyet’s conquest of our gods. But the bribe is good enough to make sure we put effort into the job.
He tells us that we’re going to attack at night to send a message. When the word spreads of what we do here…people will know to fear us and to lay down arms against the conquest of these hobgoblins. He gives us directions and the requisite arms. We’re more than prepared. We move into position at dusk and wait until midnight to strike. Kratak and I move as one.
It’s a small dwarven village. A few shops, a few homes, one central square. Nothing to remember. Nothing lasting enough to lament forgetting. Surely someone is proud of it, but they’re not going to be a problem much longer.
There are guards, but Kratak and I make sure to take care of them first. The other bugbears in our gang move from house to house, silently slaughtering the dwarves inside. When all the guards are dead, Kratak and I start taking valuables from the homes of the dead.
It’s no good to any of them anymore, so we might as well have it.
The job goes smoothly. Most of the dwarves are killed and our more fearsome warriors take out the elite guards, taking their heads as trophies in the ensuing battle.
It’s time to finish up. The others begin setting fire to the wooden homes, cleaning up our own mess.
Kratak and I check one more cottage.
A dwarf woman and her daughter are inside, eyes lit with fear and dread. Kratak steps forward and pulls the daughter from the mother, shoving her aside.
“You take care of her,” he says to me with a grin. “I want to hear this one cower in the name of Hruggek.”
I look at the dwarven girl.
There’s nothing I can do to make her more afraid of me. She’s curled into a corner, crying and whimpering. There’s nothing left to scare her into becoming.
I watch Kratak kick and shove the mother. He beats her in the side and belly with a club, then threatens her with a dagger to the chin.
He expects me to do the same to the daughter, but I’m just standing still.
And something snaps inside me. All these things that happened today. All the money and food I’ve taken from these other people. They would have gone to different bullies on the same day. If I wasn’t here, this dwarven girl would still be cowering in the corner. If I hadn’t come along on this job, those dwarven leaders would still have their heads on spikes outside our den.
I kneel next to the girl and I tell her to run and speak stories of our terror, but she doesn’t move. She just cries and awaits her death.
She doesn’t understand me.
I tap my club to the ground to get her attention and point outside. She looks over at her mother, then runs.
I’ll never see her again.
Sometimes, when I dream, I see the figures from those early days. The nurturing one and the one with a blade.
Except after that night, the dwarven woman is the one who’s cut down, and Kratak is the one who steals me away.
Kratak and I are given the last name Dwarvesbane for our accomplishments on the job. The first major operation we’ve pulled off together. He wears it with pride, but it means nothing to me. They won’t notice me if I’m standing still.
It makes me wonder how much more will happen if I take the path of least resistance. How much more will happen without me, but in my name?
Twelve heads on spikes.
Five hundred and forty-two gold pieces.
And no one notices that I haven’t killed anyone.
We’re on our way through town, looking for a group of pipsqueaks to bully into giving us their food or booze. Barring that, we’ll buy it the with money from our various jobs, but nobody wants to spend it.
Kratak tells me all about how much he’s enjoying himself. But there’s something else on his mind.
“You ever think about what’ll happen when we die?” he asks.
“I try not to,” I say.
“They say we get to fight orcs,” he says. “Under Magubliyet.”
“Perfect, right?” He grins at me. “That’s why I want to get even better at fighting. I want to take out as many orcs as I can.”
“For a god that forced Hruggek and Grankhul to do his will?”
He shrugs. “We force little shitheads to give us their stuff because we’re bigger and stronger. If that’s how it works for us, that’s how it works for gods too, right? I don’t have a problem with it.”
But I do.
When it comes time to leave, I make sure they can’t find me.
They can’t see me if I’m standing still.
I never see Kratak again.
I linger in the town of Darromar after my old gang leaves. But I need money, so I have to take jobs where I can. With the skills that I have, it seems a waste to wash dishes or sell produce.
Not that anyone would buy cabbage from a bugbear.
People still cower in fear at the sight of me. As they should with any of us. There’s nothing changing that.
I hear a rumor that someone in power needs someone else captured and brought for judgement. It ain’t killing. But it ain’t cleaning either. So I take the job myself.
The target is a human who owes a lot of money to another man and he’s very easy to sneak up on. When I pounce, he begs for mercy, asks me not to cut off his head, to think of his family.
So I pick him up by the collar and drag him back to my client.
What the client does with the target is none of my concern. I’m just making sure that nobody gets away. Besides, if I didn’t do it, someone else would have come for him anyway.
Somebody less careful. Someone like Kratak.
I move from town to town, taking jobs as a bounty hunter for a few years. I pick up Common pretty quickly. I learn that some targets respond better to charm than intimidation. A little bit of charisma goes a long way, and I use that to get better jobs. I get my best results in a city called Everlund. A place big enough to really get lost in.
Sometimes I see gangs of bugbears or goblins rolling through town, but I never recognize any. Early on I thank Hruggek for my luck, but then I think that maybe I’m not a bugbear in that sense anymore.
If I forsake the use of force, then don’t they have the right to forsake me?
And for that matter, will Magubliyet still want my soul in his army when I die?
The human sighs. “And your last name? For the record of course.”
“Dwarvesbane,” I say.
“Greggurr Dwarvesbane?” the human asks. “Curious title.”
I put on a smile. “Well you know how it goes! You can build every fence in town, you can keep the bandits out for a year, but you go and step on ONE dwarf!”
That’s what I tell everyone.
I don’t have to chase jobs anymore. The clients come to me. I’ve become one of the better bounty hunters in Everlund.
I spend my days off duty relaxing, drinking, and gambling. Learning to speak Common wasn’t too hard, and eventually I pick up on the reading and writing too. I keep a room at an inn on retainer.
I spend plenty of nights with strangers in my bed, never regretting any of them. But never hoping for more than one night either. I pick up on what cues people to swoon and flirt just as well as what makes them cower and cringe.
And one night, a tiefling walks into my local pub. He says he has a job for me. He’s broad. Big. Tall horns and a large body. And a smile that melts many a heart, I’m sure.
He reaches out his hand. “A pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“Please,” I say, shaking his. “The name’s Greggurr.”
“Greggurr it is,” he says, pronouncing it perfectly. “And your last name?”
“Dwarvesbane,” I say.
“Curious,” his voice is low and smooth. “How does a bugbear get a name like that?”
I feed him the same old story. It gets a chuckle out of him.
“I understand. You want to keep the real reason private.”
My smile falters. “You don’t know it, do you?”
“I don’t,” he says. “But I can tell a lie when I hear it. I could find out, if I really wanted to. But that’s an invasion of privacy I’m not quite willing to perform yet. I want to build a mutual respect with you, Greggurr.”
“You’re not just some tiefling, are you?” I ask.
“I’ve had targets who’ve gotten into trouble with Devils before,” I say. “I know what happens when normal people make mistakes in front of them.”
“That’s why I have a very special job for you, Greggurr.”
I set my drink down. “What’s the reward for this job?”
He smiles wider, fire in his eyes. It might be a trick of the light, or a bit of tiefling magic. Or it might be more. “Power,” he says and produces a bit of magic flame in his palm. “I’m looking for a little more devotion in my corner.”
I lean closer and lower my voice. “And what if I don’t want power?”
“Then what would you want instead?” He winks. “Don’t limit yourself to worldly desires.”
And I understand. This is not a tiefling. This is a demon. A devil. A being of evil, not unlike the others I was raised among.
And he wants more than than an ally. He wants a warlock.
For anybody else, I wouldn’t be willing to make such a desperate bargain. I’m sure plenty of folks would tell me I’m making the wrong choice now. But here’s somebody who can fix my problem.
“Maybe when I die, I want a ticket somewhere else than Magubliyet’s place,” I say, barely audible. “Maybe I’m willing to cut ties with Hruggek and Grankhul too.”
“That can be arranged,” he says.
And he leans forward and kisses me. Too quick for anyone else to notice.
“Maybe we should discuss the terms somewhere private.”
“I have a room here,” I say. “As private as private gets in this city.”
I tell people that I became a warlock by sheer accident.
That a fiend walked up to me while I was drunk at my usual tavern. That I had a quick fling with a handsome gent, and agreed to a pact I was too plastered to even hear properly. And the next morning I had arcane power at my behest. To a certain extent, that’s true. Maybe a little less drunk, maybe a little less quick.
I don’t tell them what really happened in that room. That’s between me and my patron.
Some warlocks want power. Some of them are deluded into believing they can overcome their own patrons and unseat them from their authority. Some of them want political gain or dominion over the minds of others.
I’m not so stupid.
The truth is: My patron was going to end up with a pact that night and it just so happened to be with me. His wishes were going to be the same. In the big picture, that warlock fulfilling that pact doesn’t matter. Empires will rise and fall. Gods will wage war with each other. I’m just another bugbear.
If there’s anything that life has taught me so far, it’s that inaction is itself a form of action. You can shave against the grain, you can defy the stars as much as you want. But in the big picture, you’re still a speck. You might as well make life as comfortable as you can for yourself.
I’m not the kind of guy who goes around waving a banner or selling someone else’s soul to become a king. I’m happy to be in the background, invisible. Standing still.