This is a tale passed between the Agori of Bara Magna to the Matoran of the Great Spirit Mata Nui, a story that had its origins only a short time before their coexistence with each other on the reformed Spherus Magna. It is a tale of three warriors – an outcast, a champion, and a veteran – and the very brief meeting between them. Although the arena system of commerce is no longer used by the Agori, the Glatorian still take the lesson that this tale teaches to heart; the Skrall tribe, however, will no longer hear of its telling. It is a story of honor, respect, and courage, in their truest forms.
It was a cold night in the great desert of Bara Magna; even though it was a sea of everlasting sand, lit by a relentless sun, it became a frosty, lifeless place when that mighty orb sank and the moon raised its baleful color high into the sky. A lonely pallor was cast over the whole land at night; a ghostly radiance illuminating all of existence beneath it, even the small figure seated next to a bright spot of light.
His white, scratched armor gleamed dully from the glow of his fire. Gelu - the tracker, the escort of numerous convoys across the windswept and perilous sands - reclined easily in his oasis of light amidst the chilly and dim environment. He was out of work, now, and as he sat there, contemplating the stars above him, he shifted uneasily. Thoughts of the Agori settlement of Tesara, thoughts which jeered at his loneliness, flooded over him. It was the closest settlement to him, yet he couldn’t reach it during the day, and he didn’t want to take the risk of travelling at night. Although he was a seasoned Glatorian, and now an even greater caravan escort, the Bone Hunters had been on the rise, recently.
The campfire burned low as he scanned the grayish-tan visa with his solemn eyes. Bone Hunters had to sleep sometime, Gelu thought, but that thought was slowly being pushed aside by another that raised the question that perhaps, to them, rest only meant a long-awaited death. Looking up at the stars again, he pondered the entirety of life on Bara Magna. He knew he would be a fool to say that it wasn’t miserable, although there were those that disagreed; those that were driven by the vague promise of hope. Gelu remembered the young Tajun Glatorian, the one who always knew that, somewhere, anywhere out there, there was a better place than this sandpit. Somewhere that the Agori could be given purpose; where the Glatorian didn’t have to fence each other in and destroy each other. Somewhere....
His eyes began to droop and his consciousness began floating off. Suddenly, something grabbed him back into awareness - a stench, a smell. Something here was not right.
Vorox, he thought. The beautiful thing about the high desert wind was that a range of smells could be carried to the nostrils of such experienced trackers as Gelu. Slowly, silently, he shifted his position to get a better understanding of his surroundings. Not seeing anything, he grabbed his twin Exsidian broadswords, still glancing this way and that for any sign of the preying waste-landers. He had to act fast, if he wanted to avoid any trouble. And then again, perhaps some profit could be made from the savages. It wasn’t that Gelu was a slaver - he detested that practice - but the way he saw it, they were absolute nuisances to everyone else. In a way, it was an acceptable substitution to taking other Agori, who were both more intelligent and more valuable.
Without a moment to lose, a brilliant scheme came to him. He dashed behind a nearby dune, but not before he threw open one of his supply packs and made an effort to scatter a bit of it on the ground. From a distance, he watched and waited, suffering the chills of the moonlit desert night.
It wasn’t long before success was granted to him - one lone Vorox wandered into the camp, sniffed the air, and began picking through the supply pack. Better one than three, Gelu thought. He readied his swords and got everything in place - a fist-sized roll of linen bandages was readied in his hand, as he prepared to launch it at the opposite dune. The plan was almost too perfect - sometimes, Gelu wondered, if he weren’t a caravan escort and if his moral viewpoints weren’t holding him back, how good of a slaver he’d be.
But he caught himself in mid-thought - what was he doing, stalling like that? The roll was gripped in his fist and his arm was cocked back behind his head. A nerve inside of him made him hesitate - and just as suddenly as he had realized the presence of that hesitation, something unusual happened. The Vorox stopped what it was doing, reared up, and emitted a guttural cry. Gelu ducked down, startled by the scavenger’s strange behavior. He readied himself for anything, as he grabbed his swords and checked his footing. He grimaced, as the last of the piercing notes died in the cold nocturnal air. So much for having to deal with only one...
He could hear the sand being kicked up as five other Vorox skidded into the camp. They chattered to themselves for awhile, and then grew silent. Now, other footsteps could be heard - heavier, almost familiar footsteps. The prattling started up again, but was joined by a gruff voice which spoke the same broken dialect as the Vorox did. The strange thing to Gelu, however, was that the voice, even in such primitive utterances, carried with it the accent used by those of Vulcanus. He decided to take a quick peek over the dune at the strange communion.
Among the Agori, it is said that whenever one wanders too far into the desert or stays in the sun for too long, one sees mirages. Gelu was beginning to wonder if such trickery of the eyes was happening to him. What he saw baffled him - an assembly of six Vorox, hunched around the fire - tamed, for that matter - and, seated at the head of the meeting, a familiar figure. He was so recognizable that Gelu almost wanted to call out to him in friendly greeting, and yet there was something odd about this person altogether.
He wore the red armor of Vulcanus, but it was heavily pitted and slightly sun-bleached in some areas. Atop his head, on top of his own helmet, was tied the skull of a Vorox - one more jagged and spiny than those of the rest of the Vorox present. He had the claws of a behemoth-like desert creature tied to his upper arms, hunkered over his shoulders. Across his waist was tied a belt of Thornax vines, with a dagger made out of the helm of a Skrall thrust through it. He held a shield of that same hated tribe in one hand; in the other, he held aloft a spear with the head of a Rock Steed mounted on it. His appearance was mighty and the Vorox seemed to respect - nay, fear him.
He and Gelu had met before.
His name was Malum.
Crouching down, he himself inspected the contents of the bag, eyeing the canteen of water and a small sack of food rations. He rose again, turned this way and that, and whistled out loud, as to signal someone. Gelu did not know what to think of Malum, in this new state - no one knew what had become of him. However - at least from what Gelu could see - he was somehow able to make peace with the Vorox and tame them. Perhaps, he thought, he might’ve changed with all that sun on him.
Facing the decision of whether or not to confront him, he heard the crunch of sand underneath foot nearby - Malum had sent Vorox to scout the area around the camp. Putting all fears beside him, Gelu threw his swords away from him, towards a blank area near the fire, which no one seemed to be occupying. He rose slowly, with his hands above his head. The Vorox noted him and froze, drawing their swords to the ready. Gelu merely walked forward, slowly.
“Easy,” he said. “I don’t want any trouble.”
Malum waved his hand and the Vorox backed down. He cleared a spot on the ground for himself, and then one for Gelu, beckoning the escort to join him. As Gelu sat down, Malum fished through the pack, hoping for something to eat. Not finding anything to his pleasure, he set the pack down beside him, leaned back, and lowered his eyes to sleep. Gelu sat and watched him, a bit impatiently. Well, it’s better than sitting away from the fire, if anything, he thought.
Ten minutes passed. Half an hour followed it. Finally, after a full hour must’ve passed, Gelu truly felt his patience running thin and his hunger rising. He reached for the pack, but the sleeping Malum caught hold and held fast to it. One eye slowly opened, as Gelu sat stunned by the unexpected reflexes.
“Only one hour? Too impatient; you must achieve patience to win the battle.”
“One hour? How is anyone supposed to contain their hunger for that long?”
Malum sighed and sat up, the various implements of his armor clanking as he did so.
“Only the truest of warriors can withstand such a test. I see you need much training, still.”
“I’m not in the arena, anymore. Anyways, what do you want with my things?”
“Is it not obvious that my warriors and I require food and warmth ourselves to survive?”
“Oh, I thought you were a true warrior - didn’t realize you needed those things, too.”
Malum smirked at this. He spoke again, returning to his business.
“I seek the Justicar. Perhaps you know of him?”
The words hung in the air for a moment, as if no ears had accepted the inquiry and it was left to die alone. The silence ended softly, as Gelu spoke up.
“He’s the leading Skrall competitor,” he explained. “When neither Stronius nor Branar are in the ring, he is, and Tuma puts every resource that Roxtus has on the betting table.”
“This, I know. And they say that he is unbeatable....?”
“Yes - and that’s the truth, too. He nearly killed Vastus during the last match I saw. I ended up having to drag a shipment of driftwood all the way to Roxtus, just for that little spectacle. And that’s the first time Vastus has lost in awhile.”
“No one is unbeatable, Gelu. Learn this, if anything. All can become conquered; he who cannot become conquered is already dead and beyond us.”
Gelu shrugged at Malum.
“Look,” he said, “I’ve got to admit, the day we threw you out of Vulcanus, you managed to land some pretty good punches on me.”
If Malum still had the willpower and good nature left in him to smile at this, he would.
“But you know my job, so you must know how conditioned I am. Essentially I could walk back into the ring right now and get pretty high up in the ranks pretty quickly – if I didn’t have to manage my way through all the Skrall dominators.” Gelu shifted a bit, as he managed to get a food pack open. Malum showed no sign of caring whether or not Gelu touched them, now.
“But the Justicar? He stands taller than anyone else in the ring,” Gelu continued. “His whole body’s covered, either with plate-blacksteel or spikes – spikes as big as your fist. His helmet’s virtually a chunk of blacksteel with an eye-slit cut into it.”
“Does he use a Thonax launcher?”
“No – not that I’ve seen, at least. He only uses sword and shield, but the size of them alone is staggering.”
Malum seemed to make a note of this fact as he ran his hands over the Rock Steed skull.
“Well, maybe not to me.”
Gelu eyed him cautiously.
“And just what do you think you’re up to?”
“Does not Outcast keep to his own? Or do I distinguish a tone of anxiousness in your voice?”
“I just want to know, alright? This sounds like it could be a good conversation starter with the traders. Especially back home at Iconox – it’s either gossip, or they won’t say a stray word otherwise.”
Malum reclined back, as he relaxed in the campfire’s warmth and let out a long, peaceful sigh.
“I do this for revenge, Iconi.”
“Revenge? What did he ever do to you?”
“Several times as I’ve passed over the dunes of this vast place, the Skrall have attacked me, for no reason but for plunder. They are worse than the Bone Hunters, now – the Bone Hunters, they will only raid caravans, as you would know, but the Skrall have become hostile to anyone traversing the same path that they are. Not only that, but the current situation of every arena across the face of Bara Magna also worries me. I know it sounds strange, but I still care for the Agori.”
“Why would you? We hurled you out of Vulcanus, no different than what we’d do with a Bone Hunter.”
“Because, Gelu, it is a lesson learned only by thinking greatly and deeply over time. Take the largest Agori settlement here, if you would care for me to lecture. They have already established a system of pit-fighting in order to trade by using the Glatorian, instead of killing each other themselves. One race of Agori believes that they are to be above all else, to unite all of Bara Magna underneath their banner, but only as subjects, not equals. To begin this ‘great crusade’, if you will, they place their highly trained and conditioned warriors into the ring. Now, because none of the other tribes are winning matches, all of the resources being traded are going only to this dominating tribe. The worst part about all of this is that, soon, either the Agori will refuse to trade with the Skrall at all and be killed for it, or they give in and are made slaves.”
“But you can’t possibly beat the Justicar! You’d be better off trying to track down every single Bone Hunter on the loose and bring them to justice.” Gelu waved his hand through the air, emphasizing his outlook on the seemingly ridiculous proposal.
“A lot of things can be willed in life – perhaps some of them can be accomplished, if willed strong enough.”
“But you earnestly think you can defeat him? He’s not only among the race of the best fighters of Bara Magna, but he’s the best among the best!” Frustration upon his face now joined Gelu’s hand motions. “Are you even listening to what I’m saying, anymore?”
Malum sighed, his face growing weary.
“The only one I listen to anymore is Certavus, for he guides and protects me still.”
“Yes; I know that, even though he is gone from this world, perhaps resting in the afterlife, he continues to watch over us, as he did those he trained in the arena. He was our father, Gelu.”
Awe filled the features of the Iconian’s face, as he remained unmoving, due to the outcast’s last remark. It was difficult to argue with a warrior who considered the best arena fighter in Bara Magna’s history as some sort of ethereal deity of combat mastery.
“Of course, but…the Book is lost. How do you really know that he’s ‘watching over’ you, anyway?”
“If it can be believed, it can be willed. Strong belief leads into the creation of an idea, an idea that cannot die or be rendered useless.” Malum stared into the dying flames. “It is an enigma which cannot even be considered unless you live within these sands, in this barren wilderness. I feel that, had it not been for that idea of Certavus watching over me, protecting me, I would’ve died several times over. And the Book has been found, by the by, although I don’t believe I’ll need it.”
“How do you know you won’t?”
Malum, deciding that the conversation was nearing its end, slowly stood, brushing himself off and gathering his weapons.
“I don’t read.”
As he stalked away, the unnoticed Vorox tagging along with him, Gelu called out to him.
“To the winds, Vulcani!”
He stopped in his tracks and turned to Gelu.
“Thank you, Iconi; however, I wish it be that you stay out of this feud. See to it that you complete your job - and hold out for more than just one hour!”
Gelu sat back down and stared at the fire as Malum continued on his way. He could see that the outcast’s vigilantism would soon be carried out, as determined as he was. Putting it off of his mind, he nestled down next to the fire and began to fall asleep. A much needed rest, indeed, he thought.
The night was the busiest time for the city of Roxtus. There were ‘special’ matches being held in the arena, which usually consisted of a slave-warrior fighting a Spikit, or two groups of various, illegally imprisoned Glatorian fighting to the death. This, of course, drew the merchants - namely the Bone Hunters and slavers - en masse to witness the more gruesome entertainment. The rest of Bara Magna had disagreed with Tuma; they believed in the more humane ways of the arena, such as fair play, no fatalities, and good sportsmanship. Tuma, on the other hand, had more capitalistic ideas. The welfare of Roxtus was practically at its highest with the income from these anarchic, outlandish exhibitions.
He stood there, in a chamber with a broad casement overlooking the city’s arena. The entertainment that night spotlighted an enslaved Glatorian from Tajun fighting a starved Iron Wolf, which the Skrall had managed to capture with some difficulty. Tuma observed the match, hands gripping the rails and a smile on his face. Glatorian didn’t matter - the more that Roxtus could afford to get rid of, the better.
As the Tajun Glatorian began to lose and the voracious cheers of the arena erupted, Tuma left the balcony and retreated to the room behind it. It was dim, but slightly lit by a lone torch. A tall, black and red figure reclined on a fur-covered couch on the far wall.
“How is the match tonight, my lord?”
“If you would get off of your black, metal haunches and see for yourself, Axior, you’d be much more pleased.”
He stalked around the chamber, eyeing the lounging Justicar.
“That seems to be your problem, Axior. You’ve been under my command ever since the War; I’ve practically raised you into the warrior that you are now. You are the Justicar - a title not lightly given. I expect you,” he punctuated, as he put his clawed hand down on the arm of the couch, “to be both Roxtus’s and my own personal medium, showing us all that it will be the Skrall alone who rule this miserable sandpit and its pitiful Agori. And yet you merely sit there, expecting me to satiate and watch over you.”
Axior chuckled, as he sat up.
“My lord, I am sorry that I offend you so,” he began, “but I need my rest as well. Why is it that you do not fight in the arena? Surely with your great power-”
Tuma wheeled on him.
“A wretch such as you would not understand my class. We are meant to think, not to get our hands dirty, such as you are. And you’ve rested quite long enough - you’ve already missed out on three matches through the week. Laziness, Axior, is a downfall. You’re a lazy, spoiled brat, Axior.”
This time, Axior stood to his full height - about as tall as Tuma himself, even though the latter was of the Elite class. A menacing look was in the fighter’s eye and the edge of his voice was deadly.
“You do know, my lord, I can kill you at any time. I can kill you even now.” Tuma’s stance shifted a little. “I have no problem with you not being here.”
“And this is why I am in charge of Roxtus - you can’t think beyond swinging a sword. After you strike me down, the whole of Roxtus will see what you have done and come after you, on charges of treason. They know that I am the leader, Axior. Not you. They only respect you as a thing.”
Axior’s glance shifted downwards, as the realization dawned upon him that Tuma was right.
“Don’t think you can try to outrun or outfight your brothers, Axior.”
“But what am I to do, caged up in this place?! You blame me for being lazy, but no one wants to fight me! I say that we abandon all of this...polite behavior, this sentimental slop, and begin raiding the cities again!”
Tuma seemed to contemplate this, as, pushing Axior out of the way, he took his own seat on the couch and rested his chin in his hand.
“It is true, Axior, that the other tribes have been....reluctant to face us, after we raided Atero. But we cannot openly attack them, yet - it may not look like it, but they still remain strong enough to drive us off. Still, there must be something for you to do...it’s no good, having a champion sit around and decay; on top of that, you are starting to annoy me with your presence...”
They could both hear the lusty cheers of mayhem and violence occurring outside. The next match, Tuma surmised, would be the nightly special event, which was the Pit of Sand Vipers.
Just at that moment, a Roxtian Agori, escorted by two guards, entered the chamber, holding a stone slab.
“L-lord Tuma,” he said, shakily, “this was just delivered to us by a...a pack of Vorox.”
“Well...no, sire. They attacked us and- and dropped this on their retreat.”
“There,” Tuma said, taking the tablet and turning to Axior, “there’s your solution. The Vorox population could certainly use a good check...why don’t you go out and destroy the lot of them, and be sure to bring me back a few for the arena. I could use them.”
Tuma dismissed the Agori and the guards, and turned his attention to the message. Time seemed to stand still for a few moments, as he read the slab. Axior could barely read, so he focused on the sounds of the crowd outside; his attention would’ve been wasted on trying to decipher the message. After what seemed several long moments, Tuma let out a long, thoughtful sigh. He turned to Axior again.
“The Vorox can wait. It seems that you’ve already found a combatant.”
Now, the Justicar’s eyes lit up.
“Who is it? Where?”
“You will meet him at the place where Atero once stood - or, at least, whatever remains of it now. Your opponent will be the Vorox chieftain.”
Axior’s laugh boomed, resounding throughout the room and down the halls of Roxtus.
“The Vorox chieftain wants to fight me, the champion of the Skrall? The champion of all of Bara Magna? Hah! I am offended by such an offer - shall I fight such lowly scum as that?”
“Be careful with words, Axior - you have no use for them. I would advise that you take this offer up, for if you can defeat the Vorox and bring them under our total control, then the whole of Bara Magna would respect us even more. They would not dare defy the tribe that tamed and defeated their feral cousins...”
Tuma rose and walked back over to the balcony, beckoning Axior to join him. The Pit of Sand Vipers event was coming to a close, as the last of ten Glatorian pathetically held his own against the slithering, deadly ground. It was a most interesting event, the main purpose of which, outside of raw entertainment, was to contrast the reaction time of the average Glatorian against that of the desert’s most pestilent inhabitant. Tuma absolutely loved it, as it also demonstrated how weak most Glatorian were against mere Sand Vipers. Turning to Axior, he spoke again.
“Gather three platoons and begin your journey tonight towards the south. You will meet this chieftain at Arena Magna and defeat him in battle. Use the Skrall to your advantage - there is no doubt that he will bring with him all of the Vorox tribe. Do not fail me, Axior, or you may lose your current position, title, and familiar state of being alive.”
As the dawn began to rise, the desert saw several hundred Skrall leave for the ruins of Atero with Axior at the head, marching off for victory.
The Skrall had already overrun Atero and decimated much of it, which severely strained the tension between them and the other tribes. It was in great disorder - however, since very little of the foundation had been eradicated, it had not yet plunged into the immense Sand Falls, which it was built over. The sandstone structures that were strewn about the area – statues of arena victors, pillars, plaques, memorials, whatever remained of vendor booths and personal quarters – marked the northern raiders’ march on the arena-city. Now, the blazing sun seared its burning anger and radiance down upon the ghost of the desert’s capital, setting its course and vanquishing the chilly horror of the night. But what was about to commence this day would be a terrific fright in and of itself.
Dawn passed, and Axior and his troops had arrived an hour before, now making camp within the desolate place. The ruins were completely empty. By noontide, they were getting impatient for the fight to begin. Of the Vorox chieftain, there was no sign. Some of the Skrall began to state, quite spitefully, that it was a trap, wherein the Vorox could easily topple one of the barely surviving sandstone structures on top of them, or perhaps a mockery to be made of Axior and the whole of Roxtus’s warrior class by inviting them to a challenge and leaving them to wander for hours in the hot sun. Axior himself, however, knew that the Vorox were not that intelligent, and remained with patient expectations. As another hour passed, however, he himself was bored of waiting for the chieftain.
Finally, Axior’s designated opponent showed himself, much to the Skrall’s surprise. They weren’t sure what was more intriguing - that he was extremely late or that this challenger was not even a Vorox at all. Tagging along behind him, as if Tuma had planned what he’d said, was a formidable force consisting of a great deal of Vorox and a few of the Zesk. The two opposing leaders walked up to each other, dragging their armaments behind them, eventually meeting in the middle of the barren Arena Magna. It seemed like days had passed during their approach towards one another.
Axior really was an impressive sight. He stood taller than Malum, and he was much broader, as well. In one hand was a giant, black great-sword; in the other was a triangular shield, equally as massive. His whole body was covered in thick, blacksteel armor, with spikes jutting out at the crucial places of vulnerability. All in all, he was a midnight black tower of steel and pain, a colossus of brutality.
But Malum was not easily intimidated. He was quite a barbaric sight, himself; a few of the Skrall looked hesitant to face him. But this was a match between only two warriors - the champion of the ring and the champion of the wastelands.
It was Axior who broke the tense silence, with his harsh, grating voice.
“What kind of chieftain are you? You are not even of the Vorox.”
“No,” replied Malum, “I’m not. But these are my people - they obey me, now.”
Axior smirked, toeing the sand underneath his feet with his armor-clad boot.
“So if I were to kill you, they would answer to me?”
“You must be mistaken, Justicar - they don’t answer to that low of scum.”
“Strong words, for a mere outcast. It’s a shame that you won’t be able to talk that smart after we’re through here.”
Axior shoved Malum with such a force that it would have sent an Agori soaring backwards, yet Malum remained firmly planted, as a tree against a strong wind.
“You take care of what words escape your tongue today, Roxti. Those who speak highly of themselves will scrounge the ground for scraps of food, and become their enemies’ servants.” Malum warned.
Axior chuckled. “You are already a servant to fools, Vulcani. You lead these beasts as if you have a place in the world, but really you are no better than they are in this wasteland. “
Malum shifted his stance a bit. “I beg to differ,” he said, as he began to bring his skull-mace around in a wide, sweeping arc, “you are the fool as you stand there, you dirt-sucking invalid.”
His swing was true, and the ghostly arena rang with the sound of bone cracking against the metal helmet of Axior. The Skrall were in an uproar as the preliminary strike was dealt. They filled one half of the arena floor, at Axior’s back; however, they were not the only audience there, as hundreds of Vorox occupied the opposing half, behind Malum.
Axior was on the ground, supporting himself with one arm. He had dropped his sword and his shield was useless to him, in the position that he was in; through the blinking lights that flew across his eyes, he could see Malum, just standing there. Why didn’t the outcast attack? Now was a better opportunity than ever to finish the Skrall off.
He began to rise again, swaying this way and that, throwing curses into the air.
“How....how dare you attack me in an unsporting manner; you thief, you dog!”
“Really? Did you come up with that charge yourself, or is that what all the Glatorian you’ve ever faced in the arena said to you?”
Axior snarled and lunged towards him, cleaving downwards with his huge sword. Malum moved skillfully out of the way and came right back at him, jabbing at the Skrall with the spear-point of his strange but grisly weapon. Axior backed off, and then slammed into Malum with his shield. The points of the steel barricade dug into Malum’s armor, causing him to yelp in pain and crumple to the ground. He raised his battered Skrall shield into the air, hoping to fend off an attack, but Axior merely swatted it out of the way. As the Justicar prepared for the killing blow, Malum ripped off his belt and thrust the sharpened Skrall helmet into Axior’s breastplate, managing to cause some damage. As the Skrall shuffled backwards in pain, howling, Malum swung his weapon again and scored him a blow into the stomach.
Annoyance quickly evolved into rage as Axior blindly swatted the air with his weapons. He managed only to cuff Malum across the face with the huge, curved pommel of his sword. As the Vulcanian fell to the ground once again, Axior tossed away his shield and grabbed his sword with both of his hands. Another downward slice was aimed at Malum, but the red-clad warrior unexpectedly rolled out of the way and underneath the Justicar, nearly sweeping him off of his feet. He quickly picked himself up and hefted his hammer; he saw a golden opportunity to strike at Axior, now that he was behind him. Axior tried to turn around but before he could, Malum swung his hammer again and caught him behind the knee, causing him to kneel down in pain. From there, Malum grabbed the elongated point of the traditional Skrall helmet that Axior wore - he never got why they were designed like that - and, holding the helmet in one hand, he brought the hammer down hard upon Axior’s head.
After the ringing metal sound had subsided, the Justicar realized what had just happened. He was prone on the ground, with his weapons laying several feet from him. The lights returned to his eyes, spinning and flashing around, ensuing nausea and extreme agony. He tried to roll over, but his thick armor was painful where the protrusions dug into his own body. Barely managing to get up, he scanned the area around him for the things of the most immediate importance to him: his sword, his shield, and Malum attacking him. He retrieved his arms, but of Malum, there was no sign. Axior held his sword high above his head and yelled.
“Hah! Some chieftain of lowly waste-landers you are, Malum! Show yourself, or I deem you a coward and my Skrall army shall run you down!”
Only the uproar of chaos replied to him. Both the Skrall and the Vorox had erupted into open combat by this point; the sounds of battle echoed so badly throughout the ruined arena that it was deafening. Yet Axior wondered if Malum had been an apparition all along, some lost soul who had died in the heat and loneliness of the desert and had come back to torture those who would accept his invitation - his snare - to the ruined Arena Magna.
In his pondering, Axior spied deep foot tracks in the sand. From his viewpoint, they led to one of the arena’s caved-in walls; he decided to leave the rabble and follow Malum outside.
So, he had ran away from him. Some brave-talking chieftain he was - he couldn’t even finish an enemy off. Now, Axior would show him true pain and suffering, and the Vulcani would feel real cowardice. How convenient, he surmised, for Malum to choose an area immediately outside of Arena Magna to fight - that was where the perilous sand falls were.
He was standing on a barren, rocky cliff, now, still with no sign of Malum. It was broad enough to maneuver but combat would be tricky - at least he had the benefit of traction. The footprints continued in the sand. Axior stalked forward, very slowly - his enemy could jump out at him at any time.
Behind some of the rubble, Malum observed the Skrall making his way cautiously around the outside. He wasn’t going to assault him from surprise - true, he could use this advantage and push him over the falls, but Malum wanted his victory to be fair, at least.
A sound next to the outcast made him turn in surprise, fearful that one of the Skrall troopers had found him. It was only Gelu, who had somehow sneaked his way into the arena and hid next to Malum. He brandished a small, Exsidian dagger in his mouth, in a sort of cliché, renegade fashion. Crouching down next to Malum, he removed the knife from his mouth and joined him in spying on Axior.
“Thought I’d miss the fight, eh Vulcani?”
“Get out of here, Gelu.”
“No, I’m not letting you get killed by that...thing. Besides, if you do take him down, some has to bring the news to the villages.”
Malum glared at Gelu, until he got the message.
“Alright! But I’m still hanging around. You can’t chase me out of here completely, outcast!”
Gelu snaked behind him for a moment, and then was gone. Malum had to admit, the envoy did have good speed and stealth, which was required for the job. Then again, he reconsidered, that was probably why he left the arena so early - those were the only skills that he had. Clearing all thoughts from his mind, Malum turned his attention back to the situation at hand; as Axior came near, he slowly rose, hammer and shield in his hands.
The giant, armored Skrall lashed out with his sword, filled with hatred and malice. He used any means possible, now, to bring Malum down. Jabbing wildly with his sword, he pushed Malum back, and then kicked up the sand into his face. As his opponent scratched at his own eyes, Axior took the advantage and crushed him with a heaving blow from his massive shield.
Malum now lay on the ground, badly hurt and his shield cracked down the middle. It was useless to him, now - with all his might, he hurled it towards Axior, but with a flash of the giant sword, it was rent in two. He scrambled around on the ground, still clutching his hammer, trying to find a way to defend himself. Hefting it in both hands, he wildly swung it back and forth, fending off most of the blows, but Axior somehow managed to get past his scattered defense and stab him in the shoulder.
A howl of agony erupted from Malum. He kicked his foot out hard against one of Axior’s armored, steel boots, but was immediately met with pain. There was a final stroke coming down towards Malum, but, mustering all of the will power that was left in him, he managed to lung his head towards Axior’s chest and ram him at full force with the Vorox skull which was tied atop his helmet.
The Skrall staggered backwards, stunned that he was unable to defeat this pesky outcast once again. Perhaps, he thought, his own pride had got the best of him, and he’d underestimated both his opponent and this situation. Malum had used this chance to recover and put some distance between him and Axior. Suddenly, an idea formed in the Skrall’s mind, as he observed the surrounding landscape. A pillar - one of the spires which once stood high over the arena - had fallen, and now was teetering on the edge of the cliff, jutting straight out over the falls. A cruel smile flickered underneath the jet black helmet.
Axior took up his attack upon Malum again. They were both weary from battle, now - their eyes were haggard and their movements were sluggish. Malum, much to Axior’s delight, allowed the Skrall to push him back towards the fallen spire. The Justicar laughed aloud as Malum stepped on the shifty surface.
“You may have reached higher ground, Vulcani,” he said, “but I still have the upper hand!”
Axior tossed his shield aside and struck the sandstone with his sword; Malum, in reaction, began shuffling backwards, careful not to miss a step. Again and again, Axior chipped at the spire, hoping to break it off with sheer force, but nothing seemed to work. By the time that Malum was a good ways away from him, he decided to give up his efforts and pursue his quarry.
The outcast was now dangerously suspended over the sand falls, yet still standing on two feet. As Axior moved closer and closer towards him, he could feel the spire shaking, almost ready to snap. Malum smiled, content with his luck. He allowed Axior to budge just close enough to be able to kill him, and, holding his hammer out, spoke.
“Go on, Axior, kill me! Defeat your opponent - look, I am still armed, even! It will be fair!”
The Justicar could see nothing but a haze of red anger. The only audible sounds were the rushing of the falls and his heavy breathing.
“I will do more than defeat you, Vulcani! I will tear you into two halves and spread your entrails across the desert, so that they may be consumed! Your body shall never be found!”
“Neither shall yours, Justicar - and your fate shall be even worse!”
Followed with a bellowing war-cry, the huge black sword came careening down towards Malum. In just a split second, however, time seemed to stop moving.
Malum leapt up and over Axior as the sword came cleaving down; he pushed off of the blacksteel helment in a mighty spring. Heaving the hammer high into the air, he sailed over the Justicar, as the spire began dropping. As soon as he landed, he slammed his weapon into the base of the rock.
Axior, plunging to his doom, glanced back at Malum, before the murky, crushing sand veiled him from sight forever.
Victory tasted neither sweet nor bitter in the outcast’s mouth - it was over, and that was that. He lay on the ground beside the cliff, limbs sprawled out and his face towards the shining sun. It was soon eclipsed, however, by Gelu hovering over him. A look of worry upon the white Glatorian’s face was soon replaced by a smile.
“I told you that hanging around would be a good idea.”
“At least I don’t need saving, Iconi,” he said, “but that Skrall may need some
Gelu strode over to the edge and peered down. He let out a whistle of amazement.
“No more Justicar for Roxtus, then, I suppose.”
“All for the better.”
Malum tried to sit up, but he recoiled with pain; Gelu rushed over and helped him to stand. The outcast, once he was back on his feet, gazed all around him at the ruin and decay, and then down at his hammer. As he looked decisively between the wreck and the weapon, a long moment of silence drifted over the two Glatorian. Finally, Malum took his hammer in both hands, twisted back, and lobbed it into the falls. Gelu stood there, stunned, as Malum began trekking back into the arena.
“Don’t worry about it,” he called back, “I’ll get another one.”
Both the Skrall and Vorox had left the vicinity, but not before leaving behind evidence of their scuffle. Here and there were scattered fragments of bone from the weapons of the Vorox, chipped and broken shields from the Skrall, and several hundred footprints in the sand. Gelu picked up a piece of shield and inspected it.
“Either they had a bit of a scuffle,” he said, thoughtfully, “or they were dancing quite aggressively.”
“Don’t be a fool, Gelu.” Malum said back. “They probably dragged the bodies out, if there were any survivors.”
“Do you think there were any left?”
“I have my doubts, but I’m sure some Vorox remain, at least. You know as well as I do, though, the tensions between the Skrall and the Vorox. If they had the chance, they’d wipe each other off the face of this land.”
Malum began rummaging around on the ground, in search of something.
“Is that why you brought the tribe with you?”
“To be honest with you, Gelu, they followed me here. I wasn’t anticipating nearly half of the Skrall army being here, though, so my thanks goes out to them.” He looked up at Gelu and pointed a finger in the general direction of the desert. “I didn’t ask them to come along, they knew. They’re more than barbaric animals, Gelu.”
The white Glatorian nodded, and Malum continued scrounging around. After awhile, Gelu asked him:
“What are you looking for?”
“Found any good knives lying around?”
But before he received an answer, Malum plucked something out of the ground and strode over to what little was left of the arena stands. Above this section towered another spire, still intact. When he reached it, after climbing the broken steps into the stands, he dug the Vorox-made knife he found into the sand stone, and began carving words.
Gelu stood back and watched, his stomach rumbling, begging for food. Hold out for longer...
After awhile, he decided to follow Malum into the stands to see what he was doing. As the last rune was carved, Gelu reached the top. Malum brushed the sand off of the rock, and stood back. Gelu could see that the same message was written in three different scripts - the common Agori writing, the untidy scrawl of the Bone Hunters (which was slightly different), and the archaic pictograms of the Vorox. The message read as follows:
HERE I FOUGHT AND HERE I DIED
I HAVE OPPRESSED THIS EMPTY LAND FOR TOO LONG IN LIFE
NOW I WILL HAUNT IT BEYOND THE VEIL OF DEATH
THOSE WHO HEAR MY NAME TREMBLE BEFORE ME
LEAVE THIS HALLOWED PLACE
OR YOU TOO SHALL PERISH NEATH THE SANDS
Malum began walking off again, as Gelu was still reading the inscription. The outcast did not get very far, however, before Gelu caught up with him.
“Hold for a moment - so does this make you the new Justicar, now?”
“If I am, then I resign the title, with no successor.” He continued walking along, not even glancing at the Iconian following him. “No, Gelu, let it die here. No more shall that name be used.”
“Where are you going, now?”
“Back to the desert, back with my tribe.”
“Your tribe? So you’ve officially adopted them?”
“I doubt that Raanu would welcome me with open arms again.”
“True...but surely, since you’ve defeated Axior-”
“There’s no use telling them who defeated him - so long as he is no longer a terror to the arena, then my duty is completed, and I may return from whence I came. There is a change to soon come to this land, Gelu. I can feel it. Soon, the Glatorian will no longer need to aimlessly fight each other, and the Agori will no longer squabble over the scraps of their former lives. Hope is coming, Gelu. Real hope.”
“By defeating Roxtus’s finest, I have begun to show the Agori that they have this real hope. It is a minute victory, in the grand scheme of things, yes - but they must be able to see that they, too, can overcome the Skrall and make change in the world, even before this new hope comes.”
Gelu hadn’t realized it, but they’d been walking for some time, now - they were well away from Arena Magna and the sand falls. Several Vorox, appearing out of nowhere, had also begun to follow them, almost matching Malum’s every step and stride. It was nearing evening, now, as the sky turned from the vibrant blue of midday to a soft shade of peach. The desert birds that winged overhead began to turn towards the cliffs near Tajun, where their homes were. Gelu considered going there, as well, to tell everyone about the good news. But something did worry him...
“What evidence will they have that Axior has been defeated, Malum?”
“None. There is no evidence. Not even of the weapon that killed him.”
“Then how will they know that I’m telling the truth?”
“Outside of asking Roxtus, they must have faith in the fact that it is true.”
“Faith? What kind of an absurdity is that!”
“These are desperate times, Gelu - the Agori are willing to believe anything even remotely beneficial to them, especially the defeat of a murderer and a cheater. Even so, if they are to ask Tuma on the matter, he would be sorely wounded, because his champion fighter is missing, presumably dead. Trust in it, Gelu, for faith is the first steps into hope. Hoping leads to the action of doing, and doing thus leads into what you originally put faith in to become true.”
The high desert wind picked up, once again, and sand started flying this way and that. Malum stopped and turned to Gelu, put a heavy hand upon his shoulder, and spoke:
“Certavus watch over thee, Gelu. May you have luck with the people of the Agori. And if not, then to the winds with your fate, and may it land upon fertile ground.”
Before Gelu could return the benediction, the red warrior stepped away from him and was lost in a screen of dust, as a sand storm began to develop. Soon, Gelu could not see him any longer, and had to shut his eyes and lie flat on the ground for protection.
When the wraithlike winds subsided and the dust no longer whipped through the air, the white Glatorian rose, his armor now encrusted with sand. The sky was now a dark, velvety purple, with streaks of bright red through them. There was no sign of Malum or his Vorox - not even foot prints, as the raging sandstorm had already covered them up. Deciding that there was nothing left for him here, Gelu set off towards Tajun.
During the following night, several Tajunian Agori became skeptical of this ex-Glatorian, who had just arrived in their city. They highly questioned the news that he brought, though some were willing to accept it immediately. Those who did believe went on to gossip about it with the traders and merchants from the other villages, who, in return, brought the news back to their respective homes in haste.
Several of Tuma’s insurgents also caught wind of the rumor. All the way through to the following morning and the day after, the city of Roxtus was in an uproar. In his rage, Tuma personally slew three of his own servants and had all of the Vorox who were being held in the cells executed immediately.
The following night found Gelu escorting a new caravan of trade supplies out of Vulcanus, en route to Tesera. As he looked up into the starry sky, he wondered about that hope, and how soon it would come - but little did he know of his immediate future, as a fabled mask, wreathed in flame, came careening down towards the cold deserts of Bara Magna.
Edited by Tom Mc. Israel, Oct 29 2011 - 11:20 PM.