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Odyssey to the Northlands, Part I: Igniting Ice

Odyssey Northlands Igniting Ice

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#1 Offline Maganar

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Posted Jun 16 2014 - 09:19 PM

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Preface – The Traces of War

Rise Above the Traces of War…

 

“‘Kuan-yin sighed a deep sigh, and recited the following poem:

Long ago performed in vain prodigies of valour.

In his blackness of heart he upset the Heavenly Peach Banquet;

In mad rashness he dared to rob the Patriarch of Tao.

A hundred thousand heavenly troops could not overcome him;

He terrorized the realm of Heaven throughout its nine spheres.

At last in Buddha Tathāgata he met his match.

Will he ever again be set at large and win back his renown?

‘Who is it,’ a voice came from inside the mountain, ‘who recites verses that tell of my misdoings?’” – Monkey, an abridged translation by Arthur Waley of Journey to the West by Wu Ch’êng-ên

 

            War leaves behind a trace.  It is easily noticed.

            We are not talking about dead bodies or destroyed cities.  We are not talking about cratered streets or pockmarked walls.  We are talking about the soldiers that live on.  We are talking about the confused and violent factions that settle into an uneasy peace.

            War leaves behind a trace.  It can be felt hanging in the air like a taught bowstring.  It is a palpable tension that obstinately persists in the hearts and minds of those who fought in a conflict that has now ended.  It is found in the displaced refugees that beg for asylum.

            On Bara Magna, fifteen thousand years have passed since the Core War, but Glatorian and Agori are long-lived.  As a consequence, their feuds and grudges are equally long-lived.  Each Tribe has isolated itself from the others and they all harbor a mutual distrust.

            Worse yet are the mercenaries.  Most Glatorian were unable to find places in society as village protectors and arena combatants.  These despondent individuals have formed roving bands that perform the only service they are skilled in: war.  This has been a serious impediment to the establishment of the arena combat system that has been developed in order to avoid future conflict on scales that could endanger entire communities in the way conflicts did during the Core War.

            Nevertheless, evil is comparatively quick to rebound.  The Skrall beyond the Black Spike Mountains have unified a few of these Glatorian mercenary bands with a singular and cryptic goal.  The new fighting force, known only as the Harvest Faction, has turned to slave driving in the name of the Skrall Empire.  Their attacks have taken them south of the Black Spike Mountains and their advance appears relentless.

            Unfortunately, the Core War has left each Tribe unsympathetic to the plights of the others.  As the Ice Tribe suffers from casualties and abductions on a grand scale, the other Tribes turn a blind eye to the Skrall’s most recent project.  Yet, there is a distinct possibility that this conflict could have a dire impact on the future of all Tribes if it is left unchecked.

            Soldiers live on.  Peace is uneasy.  Tensions persist.  Grudges remain.  Refugees beg.  Vagabonds rove.  The Harvest Faction advances.

            This is the trace that war leaves behind.

 

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Edited by Maganar, Jun 20 2014 - 06:40 PM.

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#2 Offline Maganar

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Posted Jun 18 2014 - 12:48 PM

Odyssey: Igniting Ice

…Kindle the Fires of Change…

 

Prologue – “Condemnation”

“Sadna shook her head.  ‘Killing isn’t free.  It takes something out of you every time you do it.  You get their life; they get a piece of your soul.  It’s always a trade.’” – Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

 

An icy gale blasted the land, but only the howling of the wind could be heard from within the ice cave. No fire was lit in the ice cave, despite its frigidity.  The one who dwelled within was not the type to require heat.  As a matter of fact, he actively despised it.

                The Ice Lord remained motionless, frozen in place just like the glacial land around him.  That’s how he remained until the Glatorian entered, at least.

                “You asked to see me, Lord of Ice?”

                “Ocucko.  How good of you to answer the call to arms.”

                The Glatorian was a prime specimen among the members of his species.  His white outer armor betrayed very little of the blue underneath.  Rather than a full helmet, he wore a wide-brimmed piece of headgear made of incredibly resilient alloys.  Strapped to his head, it allowed him to withstand massive impact from above without sacrificing spatial awareness the way a full helmet would.  It also tended to cause glancing blows to deflect rather than snag as they might on a more traditional helmet.  Held in his hands were an elemental launcher and a broadsword.  If the Ice Lord was correct, he may perhaps be not just a fine specimen, but the consummate Glatorian.  The ultimate soldier.

                “Ice Lord?”

                “The war hinges on the great, Ocucko.  Those like you.  And I think you are ready to become something greater.  My champion in this war.”

                The Glatorian tilted his head down.  The headgear’s wide brim largely obscured his expression when he did this.  He squinted his eyes and frowned, displaying even greater suspicion than his similarly suggestive body language.  “Champion.  I’d like to know just what you mean.  I haven’t made it this far in the war by trusting everything I see.  I need details… but I’m interested.  Anything I can do for my people.  I want to help them.”

                A soft grating sound, like the sound of a glacier’s slow movement, issued from the Ice Lord.  He was laughing.  “Of course you want to.  Hand me your sword, Ocucko.”

                Ocucko acquiesced… but not without tightening his grip on the elemental launcher.  No risks.  No trust.  He had lost too much already to risk anything or trust anyone.  Not even an element lord.  Not even the one that supposedly had his peoples’ interests held close to his frozen heart.

                The Ice Lord strode to a pool of the substance that had sparked the war.  Energized protodermis.   A well of it rose up in the center of the cave.  He dropped the broadsword into it.  It promptly melted.

                “That was supposed to prove something?  I’m unimpressed.”

                Ocucko had spoken too soon.  A different weapon, freshly created, was ejected from the pool.  It landed on the ground and skidded across the cavern.  The Glatorian strode over and picked it up.

                It weighed little more than a feather now, despite its increased size.  Its density was… well, it was impossibly low.  But this silver liquid did the impossible.  Rather than a broadsword, it now looked like some serrated blade meant to be strapped to one’s arm.  Given its size, this would have broken his arm if he were to try and fight with it that way under normal circumstances, but the illogically low weight remedied that.

                “You have my interest now.  But I still don’t see where we’re headed.  It could of just as well disappeared forever beneath the surface.”

                “No.  It wouldn’t have.  I sensed an aura about you, Ocucko.  So, while you were in the battlefield, I sent for a few Agori to gather from your tent a number of possessions that define you.  Things that might as well be one with you, you might say.  Items you’ve collected over the years and have become connected to, like your sword.  None of them were destroyed when exposed to the substance.  I believe you have an appointment with it.”

                “An appointment with death?”

                “Come now, have some faith.  These tests confirmed my suspicions.  I have no doubts that it will not kill you.”

                The rim of Ocucko’s helmet dipped as he shook his head from side to side.  “Not what I meant.  This silvery slime has been nothing but a curse on our people. Trying to keep a grip on it as it slips right between our clenched fingers has brought us into this war.  I’ve seen too many die.  If I become some overpowered warlord, the other Tribes will never consent to peace unless they can get an equivalent. And when we can’t replicate it for them and just end up vaporizing a half-dozen of their best Glatorian, they’ll think we were being purposefully deceitful – and then they’ll never stop fighting until one Tribe or the other is wiped out!  I’ll fight until I die to protect the Ice Tribe… but I won’t do this.  I won’t become the hanging shadow of death and a harbinger of genocide.”

                “Very poetic.  But there is more than one path to peace.  If you become something that cannot be taken down and then you – as a shadow of death for any who would harm the people of the Ice Tribe – hold the line… your dream can be fulfilled.  I will grant you anything you request that you believe will aid you in any way.  There can be peace through our victory over all others.”

                Ocucko stared morosely at the frosty ground beneath his feet.  It glowed faintly from the underlying energized protodermis.  He thought about what he’d seen.  The other Glatorian that had fallen.  All the friends he’d had, all the women he might have fallen in love with in a world where peace was possible.   But that was all a fleeting dream for him.

                But it didn’t have to be for anyone else.

                He could be the sacrifice.  The one that would forgo a life of relative innocence in order to allow everyone else to have that chance.  He could be a guardian, not just a soldier.  Or he might be right.  It might be the doom of them all.

                He stared at the floor for a very long time.  And the Ice Lord waited patiently.  Ice knows better than to rush things along; it knows that every glacier reaches its destination, given enough time.  Ocucko thought of every soul that had died under his own blade whilst defending another Tribe; he thought of all the people the Ice Tribe had lost… and he thought about how little love was left in the world.  And what a world without it might be like.

 

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Edited by Maganar, Jun 18 2014 - 12:50 PM.

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#3 Offline Maganar

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Posted Jun 20 2014 - 07:04 PM

Chapter 1 – “Fiery Ice”

 

          Heat rising in waves.

                Volcanic fumes bursting from fissures in the ground.

                A land that might as well have been on fire.  The Flaming Wastes – a land due south of even the Fire Tribe’s territory these many ages after the end of the Core War.

                The Iron Canyon was inhospitable enough… but when you are talking about a place that lies beyond the point where the Iron Canyon winds off into level ground, a place where the sun is obscured by a perpetual low-hanging smog of noxious volcanic gases and ash, a place where vehicles and pack animals must be abandoned seeing as that they would sink into the fine volcanic ash that covers the ground… that is the very definition of “inhospitable.”

                Ocucko leapt down into the arena from the raised pedestal.  Scorching soils teased his feet with prickles of the occasional burning sensation even through his boots.  The tall, featureless walls guaranteed there was no way out now that he had jumped in.  Not until after the victor had been decided and a ladder lowered.

                A snarl and a growl issued from somewhere on the other side of the arena, the two sounds overlapping.  A Spikit, Ocucko realized.  So no Glatorian to kill today.  Yet.  Ah well, he thought.  Not even a land full of as many lawless desperadoes as this one has enough Glatorian to keep up with the desire for amusement of these sick-minded maniacs.

                The audience was minimal.  Just a few barbaric thugs that placed bets on who came out the arena alive.  No one who had bet on Ocucko had ever lost.  Of course, considering these arenas were called the Kill Pits for a reason, the fact that he was still alive made it quite clear that he hadn’t ever lost.  Ocucko had spent some time here, fighting whatever the ringleaders of this operation could think up.  He knew he wasn’t the only resident Glatorian, but he was pretty sure he was the only original one still alive after all this time.  Even the best among the others had eventually fallen within time, due to an eventual spontaneous error if nothing else.  And when you fall in the Kill Pits of the Flaming Wastes… you never get up again.

                The Spikit clambered over a wall and crashed into the arena.  Before it could even react, Ocucko was racing to meet it.  With a jab, he plunged his oversized armblade, a relic of the Core War, deep into the throat of the Spikit’s left head.  He pulled it out in a swift motion that ended in a 360° spin.  As he finished the maneuver, he was already lifting his shardslinger, another weapon he’d had since the Core War.  The shardslinger had the appearance of a crossbow, but it fired exsidian shards as long as Ocucko’s forearm.  Without hesitation, he fired a shot at the remaining head.  With a sickening thunk, the shard hit home and embedded itself between the eyes of the Spikit’s right head.  It fell to the ground, dead, without having even had a chance to defend itself against the unstoppable Ice Glatorian’s wrath.

                Knowing the nature of the gladiatorial operation running in the Kill Pits, Ocucko was certain that some nasty trick was still in store.  It was never this simple.  As the small crowd staring down from the tops of the walls far above him clamored for more bloodshed, he knew they would be acquiesced.

                As he waited for the fulfillment of their request, his thoughts strayed back to the Core War.  Back to the decisions he’d made that had led him to his current plight.

 

                “These results were… unexpected.  Regardless, you still fit the role perfectly.  You are the ideal champion for my… our cause.  You have everything you asked me to grant you.  Now return to the battlefield and change the course of this pointless war.”

                Ocucko had accepted the offer.  He knew he would never forgive himself if there had been a way to get the remaining Ice Tribe warriors out of this war without any more casualties and if he had then turned that chance down.

                Ocucko had willingly leapt into a pit of energized protodermis.  Surprisingly, he had not been transformed, but he felt power surge through his veins.  He swam up to the surface and clambered out, but something was different about the substance.  It no longer seemed so volatile or… energized.  It had been reverted to nothing more than liquid protodermis.  It was as if he had absorbed the energy directly into his body, bypassing both of the formerly witnessed eventualities of either total disintegration or transformation.

                Soon afterward, he discovered he could control ice and snow in just the manner that the Ice Lord did.   However, his ability was considerably less potent.  He could freeze a given target, but not produce a blizzard the way the Ice Lord could.  It was deemed too risky to attempt to expose him yet again to potentially fatal substance, so he remained in this state.  At first, his abilities were unpredictable and difficult to control.  After awhile, the Ice Lord volunteered to use his control over elemental ice energies to try and stabilize Ocucko’s own powers.  Once that had taken place, Ocucko possessed the control he needed.

               He baffled all the Ice Tribe’s scholars.  According to all prior knowledge, he should have either been completely transformed or utterly disintegrated.  Some conjectured that he was fated to an appointment with this substance… but that that time may have not yet come.  It would only be at that time that the transformation would occur, they claimed.  Nevertheless, no one could discern the truth.

              Ocucko was an anomaly.  No one was able to provide a satisfactory explanation.  Ocucko didn’t care.  He had a purpose in this world and he didn’t care about the specifics.  Little did he know that he would one day discover the truth, many thousands of years down the road.  For that matter, it would also be many years before Ocucko would learn that the Ice Lord had lied about experimenting with objects that “defined Ocucko” prior to their meeting in the ice cave.  In actuality, submerging Ocucko’s sword had been the first and only such experiment and the Ice Lord had posited that existence of earlier experiments with the sole intention of assuaging Ocucko’s fears.

                He had accepted the Ice Lord’s offer and made several requests.  He wanted a ranged weapon that did not use elemental power, as that would be redundant with his newfound abilities.  A shardslinger fit that requirement.  One of the most challenging weapons to master, but also the most lethal one that any known weaponsmith could produce.  The shards could pierce armor and, if the hit was in the right location, instantly kill the target.  No second chances.

                He had also requested to be placed in command of a pack of the Ice Tribe’s most relentless trained iron wolves.  The warrior Surel had recently domesticated them as beasts of war and Ocucko wanted to use them to make sure nothing escaped his hunts.

                But one thing never left Ocucko’s mind.  When the Ice Lord has stabilized Ocucko’s elemental ice powers, it seemed like that had not been all that the Ice Lord was doing to Ocucko. To him, it had felt as if the Ice Lord had been doing something… more.

                The Ice Lord had put a hand on Ocucko’s chest.  He stood motionless for some time, and Ocucko began to wonder if the Ice Lord was actually doing something meaningful, or just thinking while he held his hand up to Ocucko.  But then Ocucko felt something change.  It was as is something was freezing in his brain, closing off once-extant connections.  Entire worlds of possibility were extinguished.  And he felt his heart freezing over as if coated in a layer of ice.

                And when it had ended, he knew the Ice Lord had granted his darkest wish… but what else had he done?

               

                Breaking free of the memories and returning to the present, Ocucko glanced down at the armblade that had once been a broadsword.  ‘Frostfire,’ was what he had christened it.  When he stabbed the blade into ice, the ice seemed to melt as if struck with a fiery lance.  But when touched, it was always freezing cold no matter the temperature around it.  Clearly, he thought, I chose an apt name.

                The shardslinger in his other hand had undergone a few modifications over time.  A shield had been affixed to its topside, preventing enemy attacks from damaging the mechanical components within while also giving him a tool to block with.  Additionally, two long blades now protruded from each side, hanging back at an angle.  The served a dual purpose.  For one thing, he could injure opponents by smacking them with the cutting edge of these blades.  More importantly, they were attached to the reloading mechanism, now inaccessibly hidden underneath the shield.  By pulling them forward, he could prime the launcher for its next shot until the reserve of exsidian shards in the device ran out.  Since it was capable of holding around fifteen shards in the cartridge below, that was hardly a concern except in the most extended of firefights.

                A winch dropped a cage, which broke open on impact, into the arena.  Trapped inside had been two Vorox with elemental launchers.  The guys running this show must have gotten a deal with a salvage team, Ocucko realized.  Those weapons come from the Core War… from my glory days.  Then he sneered aloud, disgusted with the path his own thoughts were taking.  As if there had been anything glorious about it.

                Ocucko quickly discovered what element these launchers had been tied to.  Balls of flame burst forth and pulverized volcanic rocks all around him, spewing an acrid ash into the air.  He tilted his head down and allowed his helmet to deflect a couple shots, but his inability to see in this posture allowed the two Vorox to land hits on both of his weapons.  The exsidian shard launcher glowed with heat and he was forced to drop it to prevent his hands from burning.  Frostfire, as always, remained as cold as ice in complete disregard to the elemental bolts from the launchers.

                Ocucko charged to meet his foes.  He stabbed with the Frostfire, but the Vorox parried the blow with his tribal spear.  As the two weapons deflected each other, Ocucko used his now-empty hand that had previously held the launcher to take a swing at the Vorox.  The punch collided with the unsuspecting creature’s face and it reeled over, falling onto its back.  Ocucko slammed his bodyweight into the Vorox, pinning it to the ground.  As the Vorox grappled with Ocucko to try and flip over and reverse their positions, Ocucko continually looked over his shoulder, keeping an eye on the other Vorox, which seemed to be biding its time.  The Vorox pinned to the ground began lashing outwards with its stinger tail. As Ocucko began to take painful blows to the chest, the other Vorox seized the opportunity and fired the elemental launcher at Ocucko, hoping to hit him while he remained incapacitated by the other Vorox with which he was currently wrestling.

                Ocucko reveled in the fact that the second Vorox had fallen for the trap.  As soon as the shot rang out, he released all pressure on the Vorox under him and allowed himself to be thrown to the ground – and out of harm’s way.  The other Vorox, however, was struck by the flaming blasts of the elemental launcher used by its partner.  Seared by the extreme heat, it flailed in agony and died.

                Realizing how devious Ocucko could be, the other Vorox threw the elemental launcher clean out of ring, making sure that it could never be used against him again for the duration of the fight.  Then it scrambled toward Ocucko with a speed so superhuman that even Ocucko was unable to get clear.

                The Vorox tossed Ocucko to the ground and he felt claws raking his armor.  He heaved himself back onto his feet, throwing the Vorox off of him.  As he looked down, he realized that the straps keeping Frostfire on his arm had come undone.  He was now unarmed.

                The Vorox was back on its feet.  It jumped high into the air and came crashing down on Ocucko, but Ocucko used this tactic against the Vorox.  He swiped his arms in front of himself, pushing the airborne creature to his right where it crashed to the ground rather than landing on top of Ocucko as it had intended.  The collision still caused Ocucko to stumble, but he regained his footing too quickly for the Vorox to take advantage.  Ocucko then dropped onto the Vorox’s exposed backside, pinning its stinger tail to its back and removing that advantage.  He reached over the Vorox’s shoulders and throttled the pseudo-intelligent being, squeezing his hands around its throat.  It thrashed violently for an extended period of time to the crowd’s amusement, until it finally suffocated.  Only when the creature had gone motionless did Ocucko release the pressure and let go.

                Find peace, Ocucko thought.  I feel your pain, for I am every bit as much of a monster as you.  I am a killer.  I am a savage.  I am a purposeless monster… a monster who can’t even feel love anymore.  Yes, that’s what it had been, hadn’t it…

 

                It was only a few weeks after the Ice Lord had “stabilized” his new powers.  He’d felt something… different about himself ever since the change, but he couldn’t place it.  Something gone, something missing that left him feeling empty.  Something that had once been there, but that was now gone, gone, gone… what was it?

                And then he’d pinpointed it.

                He realized he’d felt strangest when talking to women.  Even stranger than he normally had felt after the stabilization.  He couldn’t… he couldn’t feel love.  But it wasn’t even love in general, it was that particular, romantic type of love.

                Not in the sense that he couldn’t care; he could love life (not that he found anything lovable about it with all the chaos and destruction), he could love the wonders of the world around him (except it was slowly being destroyed by the Core War), he could show filial love for his friends (not that he had much of what one might call friends when their daily job was to kill anything without Ice Tribe armor that moved), but he couldn’t have a romantic connection with anyone.  It had been blocked off in his mind as some sort of byproduct of the Ice Lord’s intervention.  Or had it been intentional?  Was that even possible?  Ocucko dismissed the possibility after lengthy consideration, but it still troubled him.

                It’s not like he’d been attracted to much anyone in the first place; he’d just fallen into a social norm of carrying himself in a different manner when interacting with allies of the opposite gender.  And it had suddenly seemed more forced, more fake, after that day.

                At first he’d feared that this might only be the start.  That soon he might lose more emotions until he became hollow and purposeless.  After all, what made that particular emotion so unique or important?  But he never did.  It was just that one aspect of life.  It wasn't as if Ocucko held some poetic belief that this emotion was necessary to make life relevant; Ocucko felt it was completely possible to lead a full life without that facet of existence whatsoever, but the very concept that he was lacking a part of his humanity that he had once possessed… that was the part that haunted him.

                And the other problem was that he’d been having trouble finding fulfillment in the first place.  Every day of battle made him wearier and emptier, and he couldn’t see an end.  Unlike others, he didn’t feel any pride about his actions, just mild disgust.  Which was ironic, considering that he was so much more skilled than most of his peers.

                Losing one more path to fulfillment, losing one more way to not feel so empty, losing that last thing within him that he’d hoped might be an avenue to some sort of meaning in his life… That had a profound effect.

                It had nagged at him every day, for years, centuries…

 

               Millenia, even. It haunted him even at this very moment in this barbaric gladiatorial battle in the middle of the Flaming Wastes.  Ocucko considered the facts as he climbed the ladder that was lowered into the arena.  No one could ever know if his decision had been the most honorable one.  He had tried very hard to be the sacrifice for the greater good, but it hadn’t worked.  The only thing anyone could ever know was that whatever he had attempted had failed.  The war had continued and the Shattering had occurred.  And the Ice Lord had changed him - changed him far too much.

                Of course, he’d given up on his task before the Shattering had taken place.  In time, he had realized that he had been the one who was right, not the Ice Lord.  Every day that passed, the only thing that changed was the number of enemies slain, not the number of people saved.  And those enemies were people, too.  His imbuement with the elemental power had just led to more death, not to a saving grace.

                And so he wandered the wastes.  Periodically, the Ice Lord tracked him down.  Called him a coward and turncoat.  But Ocucko was done with his part in this war.

                “You were right about one thing, Ice Lord,” Ocucko had once challenged.  “This sure was a pointless war.  You lied about the rest, though.”

                As he drifted further from icy lands, he found that his elemental control waned.  After the Shattering, he decided he wanted to be like other people.  And so he went to least icy place he could find – a place where he would be fully incapable of utilizing his powers.  The Flaming Wastes.

                For a while it was alright.  But then he realized he couldn’t make it in life because everyone refused to interact with him.  To the people of the Flaming Wastes, he was little more than the glacial till left behind when the icy floes of the Ice Tribe’s army had retreated.  And rumors circulated about how he had been a monstrosity that savaged foes, an emotionless berserker for the Ice Lord.  He was viewed as a perpetrator against all civilization – an icon to represent what had caused the Shattering.  No one remembered that he had been one of the few soldiers that had quit fighting before the Shattering.  One of the few that had not helped to cause that catastrophic disaster.  Those that truly were responsible for it were the very ones that ironically alienated him.  In a way, though, it did make sense: they needed a scapegoat for their own guilt.

                When the hopelessness of it all sank in – how nothing he had done had been able to prevent an outcome as disastrous as the Shattering, how so many had still died, how he had agreed to be changed into something different – he began to believe in the rumors himself. He began to see himself as the monster they said he was.  And so he entered the Kill Pits when that disturbing operation had started up.  These days, the Flaming Wastes were nothing more than a land of barbarism.  As far as Ocucko was concerned, that made him fit in perfectly.

                And there was something else.  The odds of dying while in the Kill Pits… well, the name said it all.  He’d felt so ashamed after a few particular incidents – one of which wiped out a squad of his most trusted friends – that he’d wanted to die.  But arbitrarily killing himself seemed so pointless.  The Kill Pits were a solution.  They were a way to die in combat – a way to die that was, perhaps, a way to die with honor… even if the Flaming Wastes were a rather dishonorable place.

               Ocucko found himself with no purpose after he had been so thoroughly blinded by loss.  The loss of the people he had wanted to protect, the loss of Spherus Magna, the loss of that one simple emotion.  When he looked back on his life… he couldn’t find anything worth remembering.  He wanted to flee everything about his past.

              Run away.  Become no one.  Find nowhere.

              Be nothing.

 

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Edited by Maganar, Jun 20 2014 - 07:10 PM.

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#4 Offline Maganar

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Posted Jun 23 2014 - 09:25 PM

Chapter 2 – “The Ice Calls to its Own”

 

          He was back there again.  In that Great-Being-forsaken land lost in the depths of glacial wastes.

                Or at least that’s where his mind was.

 

                Ocucko studied his surroundings.  He appeared to be in a palace made of ice.  Alone.

                He strode up to a series of icy pillars that rose up before him.  Only as he began to stroke the surface of one of them was he finally addressed.

                “Ocucko!”  The icy ire of the voice’s owner was unmistakable.

                “Ice Lord,” Ocucko returned before even fully turning around to face the being.  “Why am I here?  Or at least some part of me.  Last I remembered I was drifting into sleep on my cot in my quarters.”

                “Is that what you call it?  Your quarters?  Because it’s little more than a cell last I checked.  Don’t be a fool.  You are nothing.  You have fallen into a desperate and hopeless anonymity from which you delude yourself into believing you are a fallen guardian of justice by fighting like a primitive creature in the Flaming Wastes.  And in doing so, you have become that very primitive creature.”

                “Very eloquent.  Except you forget that you were the only one who ever saw anything in me to begin with.  The only one who was so drastically wrong.”

                “Pathetic.  After I granted you everything you requested, you blame me for your defection and failure.  But there is another reason your mind has strayed to this place.”

                “Explain.”

                “Destiny is calling upon you, however hard you may try to hide from it with your self-imposed seclusion in the Flaming Wastes.  The lands to the far north are calling upon you again.”

                “The northlands can rot in their own frozen torpor!  What do you mean – ‘they call?’”

                “We never really ascertained just when you were truly destined for that energized substance, Ocucko, did we?  I believe your true appointment with it has yet to come… and come soon it will.  Your destiny is what prevented you from being incinerated upon contact.”

                “How would you know?”

                “Something is about to happen,” the Ice Lord continued, ignoring the question.  “I believe the fulfillment of your story is yet to occur, but it will occur soon.  Many powerful forces will be involved.  That is what the icy gales whisper in my ear these days.  A new age is coming.  And you must return to the land from whence you came.”

                “The land I despise!  I turned my back on it in disgust.  If I return it will likely be with little more intention than to raze the entire place!  Let me go and tend to my mindless warmongering in the Kill Pits; at least there I can forget the innumerable sins I have committed in the misguided name of ‘peace through victory.’  And even more so the losses I endured as I strode that path.”

                “Ocucko… I don’t think you understand.  I did not bring your mind here.  It came on its own.  You cannot resist this.  Even your own subconscious recognizes the inevitability of what will come to pass.”

                Ocucko pondered what information had been exchanged in the dialogue up to this point.  Perhaps his connection with the Ice Lord, combined with some shift of energy in this tempestuous time, had temporarily allowed his subconscious to project itself onto the canvas of the Ice Lord’s mind.  Or maybe this entire episode was occurring within his mind and this representation before him had no connection to the actual Ice Lord.  He had no way of knowing.  After some thought, he continued “If fate is bringing me back to the north, then the balance of power is about to shift.”

                “Whenever the great are involved, Ocucko, such is the case.”

                “Don’t compliment me!  I had enough of that in the Core War.  Be wary, Ice Lord.  If you are correct, a maelstrom is brewing and your domain lies at its center.”

                Suddenly Ocucko’s surroundings seemed to warp and shift.  The dream was breaking up.  Still, he heard the Ice Lord say one last thing.  “No, Ocucko.  My domain is not at its center.  You are.”

                The vision ended.

 

                A hand was shaking Ocucko awake.

                Before even opening his eyes, Ocucko allowed his hand to reflexively dart to where he predicted this person's throat would be located.  He squeezed down tight and opened his eyes as he heard a choking sound.  A lifetime of battle had shaped him into a being that instinctively defended itself.  Realizing that the being was an unarmed Ice Tribe Glatorian, he released the pressure and levered himself upright in order to look at the guest he had just assaulted.  Then the thought struck him.

                A guest.  He had a guest; some Ice Tribe Glatorian had come to this wasteland to meet him.  That thought in itself was almost beyond comprehension.  What did anyone want with him?

                The Ice Tribe Glatorian quit gasping and resumed normal respiration.  “Sun and sand!  You’re just as volatile as they claimed you were!”

                Ocucko eyed the newcomer.  “Ocucko of the Flaming Wastes,” he introduced himself as he gave a curt nod in acknowledgment of this person’s presence, “but it seems as if you might know that already.  Who are you and why did you choose to sneak up on me?  Of all the foolish actions in the world, that ranks near the top.”

                “Tell me about it,” the Glatorian muttered.  He took a deep breath to regain his composure, then started speaking with what almost seemed to be an air of professionalism.  “My name’s Nardohi and I have an offer for you.  A commission, if you will.  I’ve come a long way, but I think you’re the only one who can help.”

                Ocucko laughed derisively.  “And what makes you think I plan on ending my slaughters here in the Kill Pits in order to aid one insignificant Glatorian of my former Tribe?”

                “Nothing.  But that isn’t going to stop me from trying to convince you.  Will you at least listen?”

                Ocucko had to admit that he at least had respect for Nardohi’s temerity, if nothing else.  “Out of curiosity, yes.  I want to know what sort of spikit spittle it was that you tread through that left you so incredibly desperate that you came, of all the individuals on this world, to me.  But don’t get your hopes up.”

                “Very well.  Much has come to pass during your isolation in the Flaming Wastes.  The Skrall have set themselves up far north of even the Black Spike Mountains.”

                “The northlands,” Ocucko spat.

                “Exactly.  They enslaved many of the people in that area.  Very little word came from that part of the world and there was little we knew and even less we could do to help.  But that has changed.  The northlands were originally able to hold back the advances, but the people that live there are now unable to stem the tide of attackers.  Worse yet, the Skrall are sending slavers farther south than ever before for reasons unknown to us.  They want to get their hands on Agori and Glatorian that are endemic to our region for some specific purpose that we don’t know.  They have a ring of non-Skrall that perform raids in the regions of our Tribes.  We call them the Harvest Faction.”

                “Get to the point.  Why would I involve myself?”

                “The Harvest Faction is up to something big.  With the aid of the Skrall they are overwhelming the people of the northlands and, like I said, they’re now targeting us in the south as well.  It can’t be good and they need to be stopped for two reasons.  One: they’re enslaving our associates and our friends.  Two: their operation is presumably something that will grant the Skrall some strategic advantage and they may attempt to conquer other regions.  Their advance has to be halted before they become tyrannical overlords of massive tracts of land.  It’s bad enough that they’ve taken as much land as they have, but no one has intervened because nobody intends on doing any fighting simply out of charity with resources as scarce as they have been ever since the Shattering.”

                “You want to stop a carefully coordinated slaving operation that the Skrall have going?  You’re even crazier than I first presumed!  While the Tribes cower in fear of any real military engagements on their own lands after the Shattering and institute a laughable gladiator-based system of using champions to solve disputes, you expect them to march deep into the northlands to take on this… Harvest Faction?”

                “Absolutely not.  Despite the obvious and potentially imminent threat it poses, I am fully aware that the Tribal leaders have deluded themselves into turning a blind eye to the necessity for action.  There will be no armies marching north – ”

               Ocucko interrupted.  ”At least you’ve got brains enough to see how worthless those gutless fools are.  Go on.”

               Nardohi continued, unfazed.  “But, see, there are outspoken individuals who see the need to act.  A strike team could be organized to destroy the Harvest Faction’s base; kill the leaders.  Take that organization out of the equation and force the Skrall to look for alternatives or give up on whatever they have planned.  But that team would need a leader.  Someone with military experience, knowledge of frozen lands like the northlands, and the capability to motivate people on a nearly impossible task.  In other words, it would need you.”

                “Let’s stop blending reality with daydreams and speculation, shall we?” Ocucko sneered.  “Essentially, you are proposing a suicide mission.  You hope to take out a large consortium of powerful warriors using nothing more than a minimal task force led by me, who is, according to many sources, a homicidal maniac – not the inspirational leader you’re claiming I am.”

                Nardohi winced slightly at the accusation.  “True… all true, yes,” he opened uncomfortably.  “But I believe in you and I know that you were guided onto this sad pathway by what were originally honorable intentions.  Most have forgotten why you made the choices that you did, Ocucko, by I’ve followed rumors indicating that you never meant for any of this to happen.  If other people had been as forward-thinking as you had been in quitting the War, we might have avoided the Shattering.”

                “It doesn’t matter why I made my choices!  It only matters that I have committed atrocities that I will never find redemption for,” Ocucko contested.

                “Then what I’ve heard is true.  Come with me!  This can be your redemption.”

                The downward tilt of the rim of Ocucko’s headgear lifted slightly.  He looked this Nardohi character, whoever he was, right in the eye.  The fool was grinning.  To him, everything worked out, it would all be so simple and straightforward…  How naïve.

                He had no idea what he was dealing with.  Or who.

                Ocucko felt a surge of rage.  With nearly inconceivable speed, he launched himself at this person who had dared to intrude on his violent, hermetic, self-imposed exile.  Ocucko lifted Nardohi off of the ground and pinned his neck to the wall with his right forearm, ready to snuff the breath right out of this fool’s body.  But he didn’t.  Not yet.  There was one thing he simply had to know.

                “What is it with you!  Why have you gone so far on a whim of a plan that would most likely be the end of you and any who agreed to go along with you?  It’s not simply because you see a need to act; it can’t be!  This has to be something personal.  Why!”

                Nardohi had a panicked exression; his muscles were clenched with tension, yet his eyes were glazed with reluctant acceptance.  Ocucko recognized it within an instant; he’d seen it so many times in the Core War.  It was the look in a soldier’s eyes when they realized they had fallen for that one fatal feint, stepped into that one lethal trap.  It was the look that you only saw right as people realized they had made the mistake that would cost them their life.  Yet, Nardohi still croaked out a response.

                “Because of her.  They took her and they aren’t going to stop.”

                “Who?”

                “A… Adani.  They took her in the last raid.  She was just on a patrol out beyond Iconox and they… they got her.  I lost her, but it’s only the start.  How many others will suffer the same loss I have?  And I have to try to get her back!  She’s all that matters anymore!”

                So that was it.  He wasn’t just a fool, he was a lovestruck fool.  That was possibly the last thing Ocucko had the patience to put up with; he couldn’t even empathize with this Glatorian's plight ever since his… changes.  Ocucko tensed his arm, preparing to squeeze the life out of this stupid, stupid Glatorian…

                …but then he stopped.  He was in that place again, that place where the memories came back, far too fast and far too painful.

 

                A male Ice Glatorian, stretched out on the ice, inert, never to move again.  His broken body now nothing more than a testament to the cruelty of war.

                His lover kneels beside him, lamenting his passing.  She screams unintelligible sounds at the uncompassionate tundra around her, beating her fists on the permafrost-laced ground.

                And he, Ocucko, watches.  This is what he had wanted to stop in the first place.  This is what he had wanted to end.  But as long as the war continued, so would these sights…

 

                He had accepted the Ice Lord’s twisted gifts in order to try and create a world where people like Nardohi could love  - whether that love be for a thing, a place, a cause, or a special someone - without fear of… stuff like this.  What Nardohi had just experienced.  Ocucko had set out because there was so very little love left in the world and he had wanted to safeguard that tiny bit that still remained.

                And now he was about to kill what he had meant to protect, destroy this one inextinguishable spark of hope that had refused to give up on his love even in a world as twisted as Bara Magna after the Shattering.

                No, he couldn’t do that.  He had once been better than this.  And he could be again.

                He released the pressure and watched as Nardohi slumped to the floor, unprepared for the release.

                “Have it your way,” Ocucko grumbled.  “I accept the offer.”

                “Wha…”

                “You’re right – on all matters.  This is a chance to finally make amends for all the wrongs I have committed, probably my only chance.  We’ll need not just some of this land’s greatest fighters, but also some of its best specialists in diverse fields ranging from stealth and subterfuge to vehicles and siege weaponry.  An odyssey to the northlands awaits us.”

                And, for that matter, Ocucko added mentally, my destiny as well.  Whatever it may be.

                Ocucko studied the slack-jawed and clearly confused Glatorian, who had yet to say a word in reply, or even rise off of the floor for that matter.  “Come on, we might as well head out now before I change my mind.  There’s no time like the present when it comes to changing the course of history.”

 

................................................................................

 

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Edited by Maganar, Jun 23 2014 - 09:26 PM.

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I AM OFFICIALLY BACK! :D After 18 months on hiatus, I have returned, but I have spent that time well.  If you want to see how it was spent, click on the banner to start reading the result or click on the linky-link below to get further information off of the review topic.


#5 Offline Maganar

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Posted Jun 27 2014 - 12:39 AM

Chapter 3 – “Smoky Dealings”

 

               Ocucko and Nardohi had crossed hostile land where soot choked the air as they proceeded north.  Orienteering became easy as the Iron Canyon began to rise up on either side.  It provided a clear orientation facing straight toward Fire Tribe territory.  Ocucko had asked Nardohi to lead.  It had been too long since he’d last left the Flaming Wastes and he would rather that Nardohi lead them towards the destination he had chosen: Vulcanus.  They traveled lightly, only bringing with them some basic gear in a pair of sacks and their weapons.  Nardohi carried a warhammer and had the distinctive white armor of an Ice Tribe Glatorian.  He admitted to having worked with a security detail for hazardous mineral extraction operations in Iconox.

                The ashen shapes of Vulcanus’ outskirts were starting to rise up in the distance.  “Regardless of the abundance of heat in this village, don’t expect our welcome to be warm,” Ocucko warned.

                Nardohi gave him a querulous look.  “Why’s that?”

                “Because of me.  No one in their right mind would let me into their home without keeping a close eye.  I carry a weapon banned in any respectable arena and I possess more of a notoriety than a fame.  Just let me handle the talking.”

                “What – you afraid I’ll get them angry?”

                “Oh, they’ll be plenty angry when they figure out who I am.  It’s just that we need to tread carefully here and it’s better if one person does all the talking.  And they will definitely want to hear a firsthand account from me, so I might as well do all the talking.”

                “Fair enough.  I’ll keep my mouth shut and play along with anything you do.  I just have one question: how exactly are we going to find any potential recruits?”

                “We’ll start by watching their rookies as they perform their training exercises.  As for making a choice… trust me: I have eons of combat experience and I can tell who has what it takes if I get a good look at them in action.  Then it’s just a matter of making sure he or she and all their buddies are committed to dealing with all the social ramifications of recruiting a Tribe’s hometown Glatorian for a mission that could get all its members killed.”

                “You made it sound so easy until that cynical comment at the end.”

                Ocucko huffed with impatience.  “It’s straightforward enough, but nothing about any part of this journey will be easy.  If you thought I would make things right as soon as you found me, you’ve got another thing entirely coming your way.  This is only going to get harder, tougher, and bloodier as it goes on.”

 

                “Hold it right there!  Weapons of that nature are not permitted in Vulcanus.”

                The guard called out to Ocucko, gesturing in the direction of the shardslinger.  Ocucko glanced at his weapon.  “I was afraid of this.”

                “We need to confiscate that if you’re entering the village proper.  You can pick it when you leave.  Just let me know which exit you’re taking so I can have it transferred to the monitored weaponry repository there.  You’re also going to have to have our village leader check you over before you leave to determine your intentions.  We learned long ago that weapons like that can be a sign of Undercutter activity, if not the Syndicate themselves.”  Ocucko made a mental note to keep an eye out for any groups going by those names.  He didn’t know any of the major power players after his extended isolation.

                “We were planning on speaking with your leader, anyway,” Ocucko explained as he relinquished the weapon.  “Send for him, will you?”

                “That shouldn’t be necessary.  Raanu is currently at his normal quarters and is available to speak with.  You don’t need an appointment if you’re just requesting his clearance on a local matter.”

                “There’re two problems with that.  The first is that this isn’t exactly a local matter, but I’m still not about to wait around for some appointment while administrators spin their wheels.  The second is that Raanu might have… an unpredictable reaction… if I were to approach him unannounced.  It’ll be better if you send a runner to tell him that I would like to speak with him.”

                The guard nodded and addressed an Agori.  The smaller being sped off into Vulcanus to find Raanu.

                “Unpredictable reaction?” Nardohi inquired.

                Ocucko waved Nardohi aside so that the guard wouldn't hear their conversation.  “Yeah… I don’t want him to think I came here to assassinate him.  There’s still a lot of deep tensions between the Fire Tribe and yours truly.  It was their Tribe that suffered the most casualties at my hands during the Core War.  I’m just glad these guards here aren’t familiar with my appearance, or we’d be deep into hostilities already.”

                “If you were expecting a welcome this hostile, why didn’t we head to other places to start our recruiting?”

                “If the Harvest Faction has the potential to cause as much chaos as you have implied, we’re going to need everyone we can get on this mission.  It seems illogical that the Skrall would be sending slavers as far south as you’ve claimed.  They have something specific planned; you’re right on that much.  That means we need some of the best, and the Fire Tribe might just be able to provide what we need.  I faced their warriors in the war.  They fight with a certain breed of fury we might just need.”

                “But surely there must be others we could get!" Nardohi protested.  "We don’t need the Fire Tribe –”

                “That’s the train of thought that brought on the Core War," Ocucko interrupted.

                “What?" Nardohi replied, appalled.  "There’s quite a leap of logic between thinking a group isn’t needed and openly slaughtering them to monopolize resources on behalf of the Element Lords!”

                “Yeah, you could say that.  But extremist opinions like those start small.  They seem so irrelevant at first… but one step at a time you start to lose track of the little compromises in your moral reasoning that you keep making in order to keep moving on.  And then you do something you’ll regret for an eternity.”

                “Spare me the melodrama," Nardohi answered dismissively.  "I’m speaking in the interest of practicality here –”

                “Don’t question me on this!” Ocucko spat.  “This isn’t open for debate!  If you want me to run this operation, then you’ll follow my advice and I’m telling you that if we Glatorian don’t learn to stand together, then we’ll all die on our own!  Maybe to the Harvest Faction.  Maybe to the Skrall.  But I think it’s more likely we’ll die at each other’s hands soon enough if we don’t learn that everyone is important to greater whole.  That’s what almost happened once in the Core War and I lived through that nightmare! I’ve already made these mistakes and moved past them.  You hear me?”

                Nardohi could see the logic to Ocucko's argument, but it lacked the power to convince anyone when the person it was coming from was Ocucko.  All the same, Nardohi never got a chance to tell Ocucko how hypocritical this argument about unity and the importance of every life seemed when it was coming from someone who had spent the last few millennia killing anyone who he was asked to fight without any rhyme or reason to the brutality.  A Fire Tribe Glatorian came around the corner, Thornax launcher raised.  “That’s far enough, Ocucko!  I’m not going to have you plundering Vulcanus the way you used to sack our encampments!  What under the blazing sun made you crawl out from under whatever rock you’d found to cause more trouble after so long?” It only took Ocucko a moment to recognize the former enemy before him.

 

                Silent warriors creeping forward.

                Elemental launchers readied and weapons at hand.

               Fire Tribe warriors unaware.  Easy targets.

               The howl of a trained iron wolf pierces the night; chaos erupts.

               Tents burning, iron wolves pouncing Fire Tribe Glatorian before they even unsheathe their weapons, a crystalline tang of ice shards –

               - and screaming.  So much screaming.

              And one Fire Tribe warrior stands despite the inevitable odds.  He wields burning torches, holds back the advance, allows the few survivors to escape before he himself disappears into the night.

             Ackar.

 

             Ocucko attempted to devise some sort of meaningful greeting.  “Ackar.  Seems the War left you better off than most, for what it’s worth.”

             “It’s worth nothing coming from your mouth!” Ackar retaliated furiously.

             “Ackar!" Ocucko barked in annoyance.  "I didn’t come just to bask in the enmity you have for me.  I just want to go to the arena.  I know your rules; I’m not going to break any.  I’ve already handed over my illegal weapon; ask your guard if you don’t believe me.”

            Ackar narrowed his eyes.  “What are you up to, Ocucko?  Because you most definitely are up to something; I can feel it already.”

            Ocucko let a sly grin creep across his face; then he grabbed the rim of his headgear and tipped it in a gesture of salutation.  “It would be my pleasure to explain.”

 

            Raanu and Ackar were at Ocucko’s right side, Nardohi remained on the left.  They watched the candidates enter the arena for training practice.  Ocucko had convinced them to at least allow him to witness a training session… at a tradeoff.  Ocucko would be expected to enter the ring near the end and offer professional training for the Fire Tribe rookies.  In return, he could have one of their Glatorian to bring on his quest – with a catch.  He’d have to convince whichever Glatorian he’d chosen to come along willingly – and he could only attempt to convince one.  Ocucko expected this was how they intended to extort him into giving their Glatorian free training from an outside source; they were expecting he would fail to convince anyone.  Maybe, Ocucko thought.  But maybe I can find someone to work with here.  Someone with a sense of justice who is desperate to stop the Harvest Faction.  None of the candidates here were aware of why their skills were being reviewed today.  They had only been told to display their skills as best they could because a guest trainer from the Ice Tribe was visiting.

            Ocucko was aware that part of this arrangement was simply the Fire Tribe attempting to protect its reputation.  It would look bad if they simply turned down a group that intended to take on a menace that threatened all the Tribes.  Meanwhile, due to their position so far south, the Harvest Faction seemed to be a distant threat to the Tribal leader Raanu and his current first Glatorian, Ackar.  They’d rather have other Tribes commit individuals and resources to deal with the problem.  By allowing Ocucko to at least watch the candidates train, they could at least hold him accountable for being unable to convince a Glatorian to come along with him, rather than owning up to their own unwillingness to commit warriors or resources.

           Ackar pointed at a lumbering warrior in the midst of a heated brawl somewhere in the center of the arena.  “You should consider Malum.  He fights with unparalleled fury.  I’ll give you some space.  Raanu and I need to take a moment to make sure we’ve thought of everything.”  The two Fire Tribe members stepped off into an alcove to talk in private.

Ackar glanced out of the archway furtively, trying to make sure that Ocucko couldn’t hear.  “Where is Hesmit?” he asked in an undertone.

          “I distracted her by rushing the next caravan to Tesara out of here and insisting that she bolster the escort forces until it clears the Vorox den.  I told her she could meet the guest trainer afterwards, but if we rush him along, we may be able to get him to pick a candidate and go before she returns.”

          “The Vorox den isn’t that far out,” Ackar ruefully pointed out.

          Raanu sighed.  “She was very eager for the opportunity we are going to have to deny her for her own safety, unfortunately.  I had to assign her to a task that made it seem feasible that she might be able to return before Ocucko leaves, otherwise she wouldn’t have agreed.  She seems to suspect we’re up to something, but I don’t think she taken a guess at anything as grand as their true purpose.”

          “We can at least give the Great Beings thanks for that much.”

          “Yes," Raanu agreed.  "If she actually knew that they intended to take on the Harvest Faction, there’d be no way to convince her not to join them.  Then we’d lose her and have to choose a new rookie to train as your eventual replacement for first Glatorian.  We just need to get him to choose another Glatorian, or get him to give up, before she returns.  She'll be gone faster than a snuffed flame otherwise.”

          “Do you think this Nardohi figure knows what we’re up to?  He hasn’t been in isolation for ages in the way Ocucko has.”

          “It’s not general knowledge among the other Tribes that you’ve begun training a successor.  He surely knows who Hesmit is, but I doubt he knows enough to realize she is the perfect match for their task, nor that we have a reason to keep her out of this.”

          “Let’s hope you’re right.”

 

         “Um… Ocucko,” Nardohi began, looking over his shoulder.  “I think the Fire Tribe leader is up to something.  With Ackar over there – see them?”

         Ocucko continued to keep his eyes fixed on the arena as he leaned on the railing of the observation balcony, but he had also been studying the alcove where the red-clad pair was deep in discussion.  “I noticed, too.  Don’t look at them.  We need to stall until they come clean, but that won’t work if they know that we are aware they are hiding something.”

         “Do you think they want to take you down now that they think your guard is down?”

         “Ackar’s not stupid even if he has a hot temper and he knows me too well to think I'd ever let my guard down.  I never do, not even in my sleep.”

         “Right.  I guess I learned that the hard way,” Nardohi admitted, wincing at the memory.

         “My guess is that they’re hiding something.  I just can’t figure out why."

         “Then what do we do for now?”

         Ocucko gave Nardohi a disappointed look, as if the answer should have been obvious.  “What I said I’d do: train their rookies.”

         “But they aren’t keeping their end of the bargain!  They’re hiding something.”

         “Just because they aren’t going to honor their promises does not mean I won’t.  I said I would train their rookies… so I will.”

         Ocucko grabbed a Thornax launcher from a weapon stand and stalked up to the edge of Vulcanus Arena.  “Now,” he whispered to himself with an impish grin. “Who wants to get humiliated first?”  Not a moment later, he threw himself into the arena.

 

Chapter 4 – “Vulcanus”

 

          A spritely female Fire Tribe Glatorian sprinted into the antechamber just beyond Vulcanus Arena.  Her armor was atypical for a Fire Tribe Glatorian.  It did not have any orange or yellow, nor did it even have much very much red.  Most of it was a matte black, with markings and highlights in dark red.  “Alright, where’s the guest trainer?  Uh, Ackar?”

        “Wha… Hesmit?”Ackar worriedly exclaimed. “I thought you were escorting the caravan!”

        “I did.  I asked the driver to speed things up so that I could get back quickly.”  She looked around, then repeated “So… guest trainer?”

        “He ended up a bit rushed, I’m afraid.  I’m sorry, Hesmit, but he just left to return to Iconox.”

        Hesmit shot a glare in Ackar's direction.  “I thought you were going to make sure he stayed here until I got back!  What do you mean, he left?”

        “I’m not sure.  He just… had to leave quickly.  You know how those Ice Tribe types are; all that sunlight reflecting off of the ice must fry their brains.  He just left without a word.”

        “He ‘just left without a word?’  Why didn’t you think to stop him?”  She began to move toward the arena’s entrance.  “I better get to the arena and ask if anyone else noticed which way he went, maybe I can catch up with –”

        “No!”  Ackar blurted.  “Um… there was an accident in the arena and…”

        “An accident?  But I can hear Glatorians practicing in there.”  Nothing was stopping Hesmit at this point; she had to know the details.  Too quickly for Ackar to stop her, she slipped out of the antechamber and to the edge of the arena.  With only a cursory glance at the charred rock laced with molten veins that passed for Vulcanus arena, she turned around and asked “Ackar, what are you playing at?  The guest trainer is still here.”

        “Oh!  He is?  I must have been mistaken.”  An undertone of concern marred his words.

        Hesmit suspiciously glanced at Ackar in her peripheral vision.  “Is something wrong?”

        “…No, Hesmit.  Nothing.”

 

       “Control!” Ocucko shouted.  “You need to put an end to the battle with your own temper before you can put an end to the battle with your opponent!”

       Malum’s only response was to charge forward yet again with renewed fury, bellowing in rage.  Ocucko simply leapt clear and allowed Malum to stumble uncontrollably past the area where Ocucko had just been standing.  Without even turning to face his opponent, Ocucko swung his arm behind him and Frostfire connected with Malum’s backside. Combined with his momentum from charging forward blindly, Malum was launched onto the ground.

       “Not one to take advice, are you?”  Ocucko taunted.  “Really, you’re attacking so mindlessly a Vorox could outwit you!  Put the anger aside and focus on your task.”

       “What task?  All I have to do is lay you flat on the ground to end this!”  Malum retorted as he rose to his feet once again.

       “Yet  you fail miserably in your attempt to accomplish even that!”  Useless. Ocucko thought.  He can’t see the bigger picture for the life of him.  There’s no way he would fight the Harvest Faction for the greater good; he’s only concerned with glory.  A second thought occurred to Ocucko.  Not that I would want someone like him on the team in the first place. “Your attacks are undisciplined and poorly honed.”

        “You think a Vorox could outwit me, huh?  I’m far more deadly than one of those vermin.  I’ll  leave you more mangled than any one of them could ever hope to by the time this is over!”

        Ocucko exhaled sharply.  “Malum!  Your inability to control yourself is getting pathetic.  Even if you could defeat me – which you can’t – torturing a defeated opponent is not permitted by your arena’s rules.  Nonsensical trash like that is never permitted in organized arenas – well, except for in certain places I’ve been,” Ocucko said, thinking of the Kill Pits and the total lack of rules and, for that matter, the lack of basic humanity in that place.  “Be glad you’ve never seen those places.”

        “After all the humiliation you’ve caused me today, I don’t care!  I just need to show everyone that you’re wrong about me by beating you into the ground!  I’ll kill you, you Spikit-spittle-coated weak – ”

        A rope connecting two weights – a bola – slammed into Malum’s side.  As the rotating rope connected with his body, the weights continued forward and wrapped around his body, effectively tying him up within the matter of a second.  He fell to the ground, incapacitated and writhing.

         “Sorry, Malum,” a female Glatorian apologized as she appeared on the scene.  The black and dark red coloration of her armor gave Ocucko the impression that she was an ember from a dying fire.  She continued.  “But the outsider is right.  The rules forbid such actions.”

         “This doesn’t concern you Hesmit!” Malum raged.

         “I think you’ve been with the trainer long enough.  It’s my turn now.”  She kneeled down beside him and began to unwrap him from the bola she had thrown.  Ocucko noticed she had a straight-bladed, two-edged sword to complement the bola.  Larger than a shortsword, yet smaller and far thinner than a broadsword.  It was the weapon of choice one would expect from a generalist, trained in numerous different modes of attack and schools of combat, making that person unwilling to use a weapon that would restrict him or her to a specific method of fighting.

         “Fine.  But teach him a lesson.  He doesn’t have any respect.”  Malum sauntered off.  Meanwhile, Hesmit turned to face Ocucko.  “My apologies on behalf of Malum’s temper.  Who are you exactly?”

        “I’m a trainer that currently has a… special arrangement with the Fire Tribe.  I’ll evaluate your abilities and explain any potential areas for improvement to start.  If you’re good enough, we might make a… further arrangement.”

        Hesmit narrowed her eyes.  “Sorry, but… didn’t Ackar mention me if you were looking for skilled Glatorian?”

        “…No?  He just mentioned Malum, but if he’s the best in Vulcanus – all I can say is that things have changed in my time gone.  But I have been gone a long time.  If you think you have it what takes, prove it to me.”

        A hurt look crossed Hesmit eyes.  “Well, then let’s just start.”

        At the very moment she finished the sentence, Ocucko raised his Thornax launcher with untraceable speed, then fired.  With no time to react, Hesmit was struck in the helmet and crumpled to the ground from the sheer force of the impact.  Ocucko moved forward to request that she acknowledge defeat, but Hesmit had a surprise in store for him.

        Just as he was about to lower his blade in front of her face, she levered herself back upright and hurled her sword, point-first, in his direction.  He was hit in the torso, but his armor held.  Regardless, the impact was sufficient to make him stumble away from Hesmit and to give her a chance to start swinging her bola over her head in preparation for a throw.

        With a practiced hand, she let the bola sail.  Ocucko was unprepared for the breadth of the arc as the weights swung widely.  He jumped clear of the incoming rope to prevent himself from becoming entangled, but one of the two weights struck him in the chest and threw him onto his back.

        At this point, Hesmit could have ended the battle if only she still had her sword.  Seeing as that Ocucko had disadvantaged her at the start of the battle by forcing her into the desperate act of flinging her sword at him, she was forced decide between running for her weapon or tackling Ocucko to preserve her advantage.  She chose to wrestle with him.

        Hesmit threw herself onto Ocucko and brought her fist down onto his face.  As he recoiled, she unstrapped Frostfire from his arm.

        At this point, Ocucko reached up and wrenched her helmet off to leave her head exposed.  Then he butted her face with the rim of his helmet.  Pain blossomed through Hesmit’s unprotected head and she fell off of him.  As he hurriedly rose back to his feet, Hesmit scrambled clear and snatched her sword and helmet back.  As both fell back into their starting positions, rearmed and ready to engage each other once again, Hesmit snapped “That shot was unfair!  You hadn’t acknowledged the start of a battle.”

         “Fairness is irrelevant when the only goal is to win.  I at least waited until you said you were ready to start, even if not one second longer.  That’s more than others will grant you.”

         “Like who?”

         “Oh… I don’t know…” Ocucko began.  Then he decided to test something out.  “Perhaps… the Harvest Faction?”

         “Then neither will I!”  Only now did Ocucko realize that Hesmit had been keeping a Thornax launcher strapped to her back which she had just now removed.

          As the Thornax fruit sailed toward his face, Ocucko couldn't hide his surprise at this unexpected attack. Nevertheless, he simply deflected it with a flick of his head which caused it to glance off of the rim of his helmet.

          “Wha-?  Not fair!”

          “Little is, Glatorian.  But you’ve got spirit… and learn fast, too," Ocucko responded, impressed.

           He charged at her with Frostfire raised, only to find it parried.   A flurry of blows were exchanged as Hesmit and Ocucko each jockeyed for an advantage in this tense duel.  The few spectators that had come to witness what had started out as a mundane training session were now enraptured.

           Quickly, Ocucko noticed that Hesmit was a master at holding her own ground.  She never gave up an inch of the charred rock that lined the floor of Vulcanus’ arena.  For that matter, she rarely advanced, either; instead, she simply allowed Ocucko to wear himself down on her unsurpassed defensive posturing.  Frostfire, though unnaturally light due to its transformation, was bulky.  Her defensive tactics made it impossible for him to land a blow with his large weapon.  This finally gave Ocucko an idea after multiple volleys of fruitlessly exchanged blows.  He pounded his blade down heavily against Hesmit’s and put his bodyweight into it.  As she struggled to hold her ground rather than fall back, she invested all her energy into pushing against him.  Ocucko them stepped to the side and released the pressure, allowing Hesmit to stumble forward.  Without giving her the chance to regain her footing, he elbowed her in the side and then whacked the flat of his blade across her back to knock her over and into the ground.  He lowered Frostfire over her neck with a speed that would have been impossible without Frostfire’s low weight.  “A surprisingly good fight.  I have an offer if you will concede and let us move on.”

          “I give up.  You’re too good.”

          “Alright.”  He removed Frostfire from its position over her throat and then offered her a hand.  She took it to get up.  “Now what’s this offer?”

          “I made a deal with Ackar despite an old rivalry between us.  I would train the Fire Tribe’s dwindling supply of rookies if he would allow me to bring one with me on a journey I am about to take.  I have been given one restriction, though.  Whoever I choose must willingly agree to come along and I can only choose to extend this offer to a single person.  You fought valiantly and you learned quickly.  You generally fight fair, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but more importantly, you didn’t give in when I fought dirty.  All of these traits would come in handy on the mission I have planned.  I’ve made up my mind and I’m choosing you - it's you and your skills that I want.  You just need to tell me whether you are willing to come along or not.  I’m warning you, there is very likely we will lose good Glatorian, because we’re going to take on - ”

          “The Harvest Faction?” she interrupted, drawing the connection.  Ocucko nodded.  He was unprepared for her next words.  Or word.

          “ACKAR!”

 

................................................................................

 

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#6 Offline Maganar

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Posted Jun 30 2014 - 09:59 PM

Chapter 5 – “Insurgent Ice, Resurgent Fire”

 

          “You had no right to keep me away from that Ice Tribe Glatorian!” Hesmit incensed.  “Just because you want to cower in our little ashen hole while the other Tribes are abducted by the Harvest–”

          “Don’t ever call me a coward!” Ackar exploded.  “I have been in a war.  You have no idea what horrors we are avoiding by staying out of a conflict with the Harvest Faction!”

          “Really?” Hesmit countered angrily.  “If left unchecked, the Harvest Faction will bring its atrocities right to the gates of our village.  Those ‘horrors’ are coming back whether you like it or not!  I’ve never asked you to come with me.  I wouldn’t ask that of anyone who didn’t want to.  I’m just asking that you give me the right to make my own decisions on whether or not I will do the right thing.  But that’s irrelevant.  I plan to leave tomorrow at dawn with them and then I won’t have to worry about you trying to protect me from my own choices just because you don’t agree with them!”

          “Whatever was it that made you lose your desire to fight for your Tribe?  Malum would be a poor substitute as a first Glatorian when I step down.  We need you!”

          “And the other Tribes need us all, you selfish sand rat!”

          Clearly, Ackar thought, exchanging incendiary remarks is getting us nowhere.  Time for a different approach if I want to convince Hesmit to stay.  “Fine.  But you’ll need to watch your back around Ocucko.  He’s one of the slipperiest and most dishonorable warriors that got left behind after the end of the Core War.”

          “…says the veteran.”  Hesmit crossed her arms over her chest.

          “What do you know about him?  I take it pretty much nothing.”

          “You aren’t making any progress without examples.  We’re done here.”

          “But I do have examples.  Plenty.”

          Hesmit narrowed her eyes.  An unsure look fleeted over her face, barely visible under her helmet, but Ackar noticed.  He’d known her since she was a rookie and had been her trainer since her debut training session.  By now, he could pick apart any of her mannerisms.  He knew he was on the right track.  He didn’t wait for a response.

          “Ocucko was the Ice Lord’s pet warrior.  He once raided a camp where I was stationed.  Dead of night.  Pounced us with a small team of Glatorian and a complement of trained Iron Wolves.  We drastically outnumbered them, but they had him.  Ocucko tore through our tents and mercilessly slaughtered half our soldiers before I managed to get a full retreat in effect.

          “But we were soldiers, so I could understand that one.  But some of the other things... it is said he tore through what was the village proper of the Jungle Tribe at the time.  He indiscriminately cut down everything in his way, armed or otherwise.  Soldier or villager.

          “He was known to have used any method to win a battle.  He let a pack of iron wolves loose near the only source of water for a Water Tribe invasion party, regardless of the civilian refugees they were escorting.  He let them slowly die of thirst until they gave in and retreated.

          “But worst of all, they say in hushed rumors that the Ice Lord did something dreadful to his own toy monstrosity.  They claim he took away Ocucko’s ability to feel emotion, or suppressed specific emotions.  I don’t know the details.  But I do know that his methods seemed like the calculated actions of a heartless killer.”

          Torches crackled and cinders drifted through the air.  Hesmit remained silent and looked away from Ackar, diverting her gaze to study the swirling embers falling from a torch.  Fire was prone to change and shift, correcting itself as it danced over combusting fuel.

          But perhaps ice was incorrigible.

 

          Ocucko eyed Hesmit warily.  This recruiting attempt was turning out much more complicated than he had expected.  And he’d expected it to be quite complicated.

Hesmit admitted to having had an ongoing desire to aid the other Tribes in their plight against the Harvest Faction.  She had insisted that they send Glatorian to act as guards, hoping that the intimidating display of unity would halt the attacks.  She tried to explain that fewer repairs after northern attacks would leave them less in need of resources and the reduced strain would help all villages, Vulcanus included, not to mention that the ethically correct thing to do was to help the other villages in a time of such desperate need.  Unfortunately, the rest of the Fire Tribe did not share this view and she was expected to one day take Ackar’s place as first Glatorian.  Ackar had been trying to keep Hesmit away from Ocucko when he heard about the Ice Tribe Glatorians’ intentions.

          To complicate matters, Ackar had exposed a number of unpleasant truths about Ocucko.  Ocucko had explained to Hesmit the justifications he had for his actions: how he had thought it would actually bring peace, that he had been opposed to the Ice Lord’s intentions before finally submitting himself to Elemental Lord’s will, that he had regretted it all, and that this current quest was, in part, a personal attempt at redemption.  He explained how he had to listen to the screaming of the dying Glatorians of every Tribe, his own and the others, every night as he tried to find sleep.  But Ackar had gotten his say first and first impressions are often the most compelling.

          Presently, Hesmit had a blank expression and was crouched on top of rock in Vulcanus arena, watching molten substances drip from the iconic slanted pillar on the far end of the arena.  It was clear she was deep in thought.  After a considerable wait, she hopped off and strode up to Ocucko.

          “I’ve always believed that it is not the past but the present that matters,” she began.  “I’ll judge your character on the fact that you have risen from seclusion to fight for the greater good today and not on the fact that you committed atrocities in what was a time of pointless war, a time during which every faction involved was fighting for the avarice and greed of a few petty Elemental Lords, even if they had been led to believe otherwise, as you claim you were.  You’re my only chance to establish justice in the here and now by defeating the Harvest Faction, even if that means I must forget your past sins.  I have but one test.”

          Ocucko huffed in annoyance, but he reined in his impatience.  “Well, that’s more leniency than I’d dared to hope for.  You’ve passed fair judgment over me and given me a chance to prove my goodwill even after hearing about my worst side.  The least I can do is hear you out.  What’s this about a test?”

          “We recently won a match against the Water Tribe that should have given us access to a recently uncovered set of resources.  We needed those to repair our main aqueduct from the nearest spring, seeing as that it was recently damaged by a band of Vorox.”

          “A spring, in this volcanic region?” Ocucko asked incredulously.  “And where do we come in?”

          Hesmit ruefully grimaced.  “It’s more of a fumarole than a spring, but it provides water nonetheless.  As for the problem, I was out on an escort job for a caravan and Ackar was recovering from an injury at the time, so Malum had to win the fight.  Unfortunately, after what was a fair win, he lost his temper following an onlooker’s taunts and then broke arena conduct.  They still called off the victory and the resources were given to the Water Tribe.”

          “After my training session with Malum, I’m not entirely surprised at this development.  How can I help, though, if the battle is over?”

          “A caravan is about to pass by with the salvage loaded onboard.  They’re heading through the Great Southern Dune Field.”

          “That’s just south of Creep Canyon and a short ways north of here, isn’t it?”

          “Right.  It’s the only area with proper-looking sand dunes that lies anywhere near Vulcanus.  Mostly we just get rocks, canyons, and lava as far as the terrain goes.  Anyway, we need to subdue the guards and take it by force or this entire village is going to go dry.  I know that’s technically illegal, but the other villages won’t press the issue because it was a controversial call in the first place.  We were in greater need and had won fairly before things turned sour.”

          Ocucko nodded curtly, indicating he had no more questions.  “I’ll grab my launcher.”

          “No, you won’t.  If you really are taking this journey to redeem yourself, you won’t take the risk that the guards may not surrender even when confronted with a lethal weapon.  You’ll borrow a Thornax launcher.  These guards are honorable Water Tribe Glatorians that think they’re doing the right thing by defending the caravan.  Just like you claim you thought you were by fighting for the right in the Core War.  You won’t run the risk of endangering their lives.  We’ll go in as a team and defeat them by any non-lethal means.  We won’t be able to afford the same luxury with the Harvest Faction, but we can spare the lives of these Glatorian.  If that’s too much trouble, too much about your true motivations will be left unclear and I’m walking out on your offer.”

          Hesmit didn’t need to have bothered with issuing an ultimatum.  Ocucko was convinced by the time Hesmit had compared the caravan guards’ intentions with his own intentions long ago.  “That’s a clear objective.  Let’s get your village those resources.  It’ll be our little parting gift to Vulcanus before you head out.”

          Ocucko looked pointedly at the exit, indicating to Hesmit that she should lead the way, and they turned and left the arena.

 

................................................................................

 

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#7 Offline Maganar

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Posted Jul 08 2014 - 12:16 AM

Chapter 6 – “The Trial of Fire”

 

                Ocucko had asked that Nardohi stayed behind.  He didn’t know Nardohi well enough to trust him much yet and he didn’t want to take any risks in proving himself to Hesmit.  He wanted to make sure that his past had been put far behind him, and any rash actions from the Ice Tribe rookie could jeopardize that.  Ocucko made a mental note to try to get to know Nardohi better.  Trust would be necessary to take on an enemy that had them as outmatched and outnumbered as what they were supposed to be going up against.

                The Great Southern Dune Field, true to Hesmit’s word, was actually a sandy desert with proper dunes in contrast to the other locales surrounding Vulcanus.  That said, it was still markedly different in appearance from the renowned Dunes of Treason.  The sand here was mixed with volcanic ash, which gave it a ghostly gray hue rather than the more familiar yellow dunes elsewhere on Bara Magna.  The wheels of the supply wagons on the caravan would sink down into these ashy sands much more than the feet of the rock steeds… an advantage that Ocucko would be sure to exploit.

                As the pair crested the next dune on their rock steeds, the caravan came into view.  There were four covered wagons.  “That’ll be them,” Hesmit announced.  “Ready?”

                Ocucko nodded.  “You have a plan?”

                A fleeting look of doubt crossed over her face, but it was followed by steadfast resolve.  “No.  Is that a problem?”

                “No…” Ocucko began, then grinned slyly.  “Because I do.”

                Hesmit rolled her eyes.  “Hah.  Very funny.  When did you come up with it?”

                “On the way.  I always think ahead.  You’ll do well to learn from these habits of mine, but we can discuss that at a later time.  Here’s what I’ve got in mind.”  Ocucko pointed to the back end of the caravan.  “You pull up from behind and fire a few Thornax shots to get their attention.  Keep the pressure on them, but give them a little headstart.  We want them to try and outrun you.  They won’t succeed if you give it your all; those sand stalkers pulling the covered wagons are overburdened and the wheels are sinking into sand quite a bit so they won’t be able to flee very effectively.  So toy with them a little bit.”

                Hesmit nodded approvingly, staring out toward the caravan.  “Alright, I’m liking this plan; I get to have a little fun messing with their minds.  What’s next?”

                Ocucko pointed along the route the caravan was taking.  “Once you have them all barreling on forward and they think that the attack is coming from behind, I’ll pull around a dune ahead of them and block them off.  Hopefully, this will cause the wagons to all veer off in different directions as they react to the unexpected source of trouble.  While they try to reorder themselves after the chaos, we’ll board the wagons one by one.  By using the advantage of speed that our unburdened rock steeds have we should be able to find the one with the resources your village needs before they all recover from the chaos.”

                “You mean that Vulcanus needs.”

                Ocucko gave her a questioning look.  “…yes?”

                “Just saying, I’m about to leave and I’m not exactly proud of how they have ignored the Harvest Faction threat.”

                “You can’t blame them for wanting to feel safe.  Telling themselves that they’ll be fine as long as they let the slavers do their thing in the north is a nice escape from the actual gravity of the situation, foolish and shortsighted as that may be.”

                “Fair enough.  I know that they’re still good people; that’s why I’m doing this for them.  Anyway, I assume the last step is to take out the guards on the caravan we need and hijack it all the way back to Vulcanus?”

                “Naturally,” he confirmed.  “Now, go on in and start this raid.”

 

                Hesmit kicked her rock steed in the sides a couple of times until it raised its speed to a comfortable trot.  It didn’t take long for the Water Tribe warriors watching the flank to notice her approach.  The Glatorian on the covered wagon called a companion over and the two positioned themselves on the open back of the covered wagon with Thornax launchers at the ready.  Hesmit lifted herself into a crouch on the rock steed’s back, a signature move of Ackar’s that she had picked up a while back.  Clutching the reins in one hand, she lifted her sword in the other and waved it over her head.  If that wasn’t a clear enough indication of her intentions to attack, she yelled “Hiya-ya-yaaa!”  Immediately thereafter, two Thornax fruit sailed past and the caravan accelerated to as high of a speed as their heavy burden allowed.  Hesmit lowered back down onto her rock steed’s back to make herself a smaller target.

                Hesmit sheathed her sword and reached for her Thornax launcher.  She fired off fruit from a sack on the rock steed’s saddle as quickly as she could reload it.  She knew she wasn’t a very good Thornax shot.  As far as ranged weaponry went, she tended to stick to her bola, but she had been forced to forsake it for this task.  It would be impossible to use from the back of a rock steed or the interior of a covered wagon; she was going to have to make do with a Thornax launcher.  With this inexperience combined with her rock steed’s gallop and the distance to her target, she knew she was destined to miss.  Blinding clouds of ash kicked up by the sand stalkers pulling the covered wagons only served exacerbate the situation.  It was just a matter of inciting sufficient panic to allow Ocucko to scatter them from in front.  If my shots are completely inaccurate, she figured, I might as well at least make them frequent!

                Suddenly, she heard a burst of frantic shouts and the individual covered wagons began to veer off in different directions, two to the left and two to the right.  Everything was going according to plan.  As the dust cleared, she saw Ocucko riding side-saddle in order to make himself as hard a target to hit as he possibly could.  Riding side-saddle, or hanging off one side of the animal, required skills that Hemit herself had never learnt; animal riding wasn’t a priority for a future first Glatorian who would spend her life in the arena.  She saw him chase after the covered wagons on the left.  That meant she would have to search the wagons on the right.  She spurred her rock steed to its maximum running speed and it quickly narrowed the distance to the nearest covered wagon.  She barely noticed as a Thornax fruit grazed her shoulder.

                Hesmit knew most boarders attempted to mount speeding wagons from the front end.  She guided her mount left, feigning as if she intended to overtake the wagon in order to board it in the expected manner.  The driver swerved the covered wagon to the left at breakneck speed in an attempt to give Hesmit the canvas-coated side of the wagon, but she simply fell back while simultaneously rising into a crouch once again.  The guards on this wagon had likewise expected a more orthodox attack and had rushed to the front, leaving the back of the wagon open for Hesmit.  As she had intended all along, she leapt onto the back of the wagon, sword raised.  As she recognized the armor of the two Glatorian that spun around in shock to face her, she realized this was the wagon she had harassed in the first place in her attempt to panic the caravan.

                It was only in retrospect that Hesmit realized how intimidating she must have appeared.  The sun had been to her back as she had mounted the wagon.  The unprepared Water Glatorian would have heard a resounding thud as her boots made contact with the wagon’s heavy wooden floor in the direction opposite of where they had expected the attack to come from.  Then they would have turned to see a confident lone warrior, weapon lifted, silhouetted by the blinding the sun.

                Hesmit wasted no time and launched herself at the nearer Glatorian, a male.  She collided with him and the two crashed to the floor due to the violent bucking of this primitive animal-drawn vehicle’s floor.  Hesmit bashed the Glatorian over the helmet twice with the hilt of her sword in an attempt to stun the thrashing opponent, but then felt a weapon connect with her side.  As she was thrown off of the first Glatorian, she grunted and looked up to see a female Water Tribe Glatorian rising over her and preparing to lower her weapon.

                Hemit reacted quickly and swung her sword up to parry the blow; then she reached up as the enemy stumbled from the combination of the recoil from the parry and the bouncing of the floor.  Hesmit grabbed the opponent’s hand and threw her to the floor.  Hesmit and the other Glatorian now both struggled to their feet on the unstable floor.

The male Glatorian raised his weapon over his head and came at Hesmit, but she swung a wide arc with sword and caught him in the shins before he had the chance to deliver his blow.  He clumsily crashed into Hesmit and then rolled off of her and skidded across the floor and out of the wagon.

Hesmit once again found herself on the floor looking up at the female Water Tribe Glatorian, but this time they were the only two fighters left on the covered wagon.  As the foe once again prepared to attack, Hesmit didn’t even bother to attempt to block the blow to destabilize her opponent.  She rolled to the side and instead used the split-second gained to reach for her Thornax launcher.  Hesmit narrowly avoided the attack, but she stuck to her intended plan and grabbed onto the opponent’s weapon.  As the foe tried to lift her weapon for another attack, she also inadvertently lifted Hesmit to her feet.  Hesmit then unloaded the Thornax launcher into the Water Tribe Glatorian at point blank range.  From such a short distance, the shot delivered more than enough force to stun its target.  Hesmit picked up her enemy before she had the chance to recover and shoved her off the wagon’s back end.

                Hesmit then rushed to the front and threw the Agori drivers out of their seats and steadied the sand stalkers to an even trot to reduce bouncing while she rummaged through the contents of the wagon to see if this was indeed the one with the right cargo.

 

                Ocucko glanced over his shoulder to see Hesmit flanking the wagons to the right, exactly as they’d planned.  The ones on the left were all his.  He continued to hang off of the right side of his rock steed.  By tensing and flexing his limbs to match the gallop of his mount, he could use this side-saddle position to steady his aim with the Thornax launcher.  From atop the beast, his accuracy would have been at the mercy of its bouncing gait.

                His careening rock steed was overtaking the nearest covered wagon without much difficulty.  He pounded on past it and continued toward the foremost covered wagon, narrowly avoiding a volley of Thornax fire from the wagon he had just passed.  He predicted that the guards would have expected him to go first for the one near the back before taking on the other wagon.  If that was correct, they would consequently be unprepared as he used his advantage of speed to pass up the overworked sand stalkers.

                As he pulled up beside the unsuspecting driver of the leading covered wagon, he loosed a Thornax fruit.  With the accuracy he had firing from his current position, he was able to hit his target right in the helmet and the Agori was knocked from his perch.  Ocucko only watched for a moment as the driver flailed and fell into the sand to the wagon’s right; yelling, but relatively uninjured.

                Ocucko threw himself toward the wagon and succeeded in grabbing the edge of the driving platform.  He quickly found himself hanging over the edge of the rickety covered wagon as it violently bucked.  A Water Glatorian guard loomed above, but the opponent was knocked off his feet and fell right past Ocucko and into the sand below as the wagon received a forceful thrust forward.  As Ocucko lifted himself up and clambered aboard the wagon, he realized what had happened.  The covered wagon, now driverless, had slowed down and the wagon behind it had pounded forward at the same pace, leading to a collision.  That’s what had thrown the Water Glatorian over the edge.

Before entering the canvas-covered part of the wagon, Ocucko snapped the sand stalkers’ reins a couple times to keep them moving.  The wagon continued to careen forward at an excessive velocity.

                As he leapt inside, he saw a male and a female Glatorian with armor indicative of the Jungle Tribe.  They must have been hired out as supplementary guards.  The Jungle Tribe had probably been promised payment in the form of a fraction of the caravan’s cargo.

                The two opponents immediately found themselves considerably disadvantaged.  Ocucko swung Frostfire in a wide arc with wild abandon.  In the narrow confines underneath the canopy of the covered wagon, there was little room to maneuver and the Jungle Tribe warriors were forced to back up towards the open rear of the wagon.  As the two enemies caught on to Ocucko’s intentions, the female Glatorian rushed at Ocucko as a final attempt to prevent him from winning.  Her risky charge was destined for failure.  Ocucko smacked her mid-stride and she gasped as she was thrown backwards.  Her body collided with the other Glatorian’s and they both tumbled out of the wagon.

                Ocucko quickly discovered that the wagon he had just taken did not possess the cargo they were looking for.  The crates were packed with volcanic rocks.  This was all low-grade construction material, not the critically-important alloys Hesmit had indicated.

                Ocucko clambered into the driver’s seat of the covered wagon.  He would probably not be able to get his rock steed back on his own.  They were trained to return upon hearing a whistle that Fire Tribe members knew.  He snapped the reins until the sand stalkers rose to their top speed.  He noticed that two covered wagons had returned to their original route and one had wandered far off and stopped.  That must have been Hesmit’s first target.  Then he saw Hesmit on her rock steed.  She was making a break for the two wagons that had returned to the envoy.  He guided his wagon toward the same location.

                Hesmit saw Ocucko in the wagon’s driver seat.  He quickly waved one arm in a sharp side-to-side motion – the gesture they had agreed upon to indicate that they had not yet uncovered the cargo.  He heard Hesmit issue a series of loud whistles and before he knew it his rock steed was galloping next to his covered wagon.  Well trained, Ocucko thought.

                It didn’t take long to make it to the next covered wagon and Hesmit and Ocucko, now reunited, found no guards on the next wagon.  The Water Tribe had concentrated their guards in the front and rear wagons of the caravan in order to make it nearly impossible to board the wagons as long as the envoy kept itself in the original order.  Unfortunately for them, Ocucko and Hesmit had scattered the wagons and broken up its orderly structure.  Now they were vulnerable.

                Hesmit recognized the cargo immediately.  It was exactly what they had come to get.  After tossing the driver out, Hesmit took the reins and Ocucko stood in the open rear to guard their flank.  One of the Water Tribe Glatorian had unhooked a sand stalker from its wagon and was now riding bareback to confront the hijackers, but it was a futile gesture.  Alone and badly beaten, Ocucko had only to fire a Thornax fruit at the sand stalker’s head.  The creature was startled and rose up onto his hind legs, braying loudly.  The Glatorian was thrown off.

                Ocucko came forward and lowered himself into the seat beside Hesmit.  As he glanced at the two rock steeds that were easily keeping pace with them, he began to chuckle to himself bemusedly.

                “What?” Hesmit asked as she looked to see Ocucko smiling to himself.  “Has the sand started to tickle under your armor or did you just figure out how silly you look without a respectable Glatorian helmet?”

                “Hey!”  Ocucko cried out.  “This wide-brimmed helmet has many advantages.  Not the least among those is that it keeps the sun out of my eyes so that I can actually see my opponent on a day like this.  And that it can deflect Thornax fire more effectively, as you discovered firsthand in the arena.  I could go on all day.”

                “No, really, though.  What’s so amusing?”

Ocucko sighed.  “Truthfully?  I haven’t been able to something like this where I can look back and feel proud of my actions for a long time.  No enemy fatalities, no one lost, a good cause to fight for…  Our task in the northlands will not be so clear-cut.  We will have to kill members of the Harvest Faction and the Skrall army.  We may even lose people, though it’s my goal to keep that from happening regardless of what I keep hearing about our odds of success.  We will be doing the honorable and right thing in taking them down, but it will not be pretty – have no delusions about that.  Just for today, though, I might be able to fall asleep without being ashamed of myself.  The last time I was able to do that...”  Ocucko shook his head.  "It's been too long."

                “If that’s how you feel about this endeavor, then I’m happy to help.  You’ve convinced me that I can trust whoever it is that you are now, regardless of whatever you are remembered for.  It will be my pleasure to aid you in your quest to the north.”

                Ocucko leaned back and tilted down the brim of his helmet to block out the sunlight and give himself a chance to sleep.  “Welcome to the team, Hesmit,” he murmured.

 

Chapter 7 – “Atero”

 

                Leaving Vulcanus had not been the most pleasant occasion.  Ackar was livid, Raanu was worried, and Hesmit was stoic.  She’d made up her mind and didn’t want to hear their complaints.  As far as she was concerned, they had brought this upon themselves when they had neglected to aid the northern villages.  Meanwhile, Ackar and Raanu were forced to begrudgingly accept the resources that Hesmit and Ocucko provided.

                The threesome set a course for Atero on sand stalkers rented with Hesmit’s ample savings as Vulcanus’ second Glatorian.  The plan was to buy the supplies that would be needed for the journey as soon as they got to Atero.  Ocucko expected they would need a resilient vehicle, preferably something along the lines of a disused war machine.  He was worried that the price on such an investment would be too much, but Nardohi insisted that he could pay for it.  Nardohi had made a substantial sum in the trade of precious minerals mined just beyond Iconox by acting as a high-risk situation guard.  Few Glatorian wanted to risk the hazardous weather on the high peaks in order to be employed as guards.  Nardohi had been able to name his price, and he hadn’t set a low one.  He had preemptively transferred his funds from Iconox to a repository in Atero before heading into the Flaming Wastes to enlist Ocucko.

                Ocucko learned quite a bit about Nardohi in their campfire discussions, just as he had hoped to.  He realized that Nardohi was not as naïve as he had originally led Ocucko to believe in the Flaming Wastes.  He was simply desperate.  He had a few dramatic stories about heroics he had performed in his job as a mining guard.  Ocucko didn’t know for sure whether or not they were true, but they sounded legitimate enough.  Ocucko knew that the risks of being a mining guard included many of the things Nardohi described.

                Nardohi and Hesmit also filled him in on more details about the current political situation.  Contact with the northlands had been largely cut off.  Settlements up there were most likely in dire situations as they held off assaults from the Skrall or their Harvest Faction puppets.  However, the intervals between slave drives to the south indicated that the slavers were making long trips to get there.  That meant it was unlikely the northlands had completely fallen and the Skrall and Harvest Faction were probably largely restricted to the northernmost areas even now.  This did raise the question as to why the Harvest Faction wanted slaves from the south in particular rather than continuing to prey on the northlanders that had yet to fall.  There had to be some reason, but only unconvincing conjectural explanations had been proposed.

                Nardohi and Hesmit both sought to end the slaving raids that were now stretching into the south.  If the northlanders were still resisting as expected, then the Skrall advance had to be pushed back for their sake as well.  There were rumors of a place far into the northlands named Refuge or Asylum or Sanctuary or… something like that.  It was said that it was taking in refugees and fugitive slaves and that it had yet to fall to the Skrall and Harvest Faction.  Some even claimed it was larger and more diverse than Atero in the south.  If that place did indeed exist, those people had to be saved.  The Harvest Faction and Skrall would undoubtedly drive them from their homes, enslave them all, or exterminate the problematic populace if things continued as they currently were.

                After a few nights on the open desert, they made it to Atero.

 

                “Well, this would seem to be the place,” Ocucko announced.  Before them was a sandy clearing among the tents and cloth canopies of the salvage bazaar.  They had followed the directions of a few merchants to locate the lot that belonged to an Agori who specialized in repairing and selling ancient motor vehicles.  He’d started out as a lowly freelance salvage worker, but had become a legend in Atero’s merchant community after striking it rich by finding a cache of disused (and, at that time, inoperable) war machines from the Core War.  After expending every bit of his meager savings and taking out a dangerously high-interest loan from a shady Jungle Tribe artifact broker, he managed to repair the vehicles.  By charging exorbitant sums for the incredibly rare technology, he had made up the difference and become rich.

                “Ugh, talk about uuuuugly!  These battered wrecks probably have sand rat nests in their underbellies,” Hesmit scoffed.  “Are you sure this is what we came for, given the prices these things are supposed to accrue?”

                Ocucko was ready with an answer.  “Definitely.  The only reason these look so ugly is because they are just what we need: resilient.  They’ve lasted ages and they’ll still hold up to a lot of punishment.  You’ve never seen these in action, but I recognize them.  They’re deadly.”

                “I can handle the cost and I trust your judgment,” Nardohi started.  “Just figure out which one we need and I’ll make sure the seller doesn’t extort us out of money we could use on something else, but this gets priority even if it costs nearly everything.  They say the Harvest Faction has deadly motor vehicles – plenty of Kaxium-class ones – and we need something that can face up against that.”

                Before they were able to find the merchant, a number of Glatorian with various different colorations indicative of diverse Tribes marched over to meet them.  “Travelers, hold still a moment!” the one in the lead, a Glatorian with Fire Tribe armor and a spear, cried.  “We need to speak with you!”

                “That’s not happening,” Ocucko grunted.  He had a fairly good idea where this was headed.  “No, we’re not handing over our valuables and you will regret attempting to take them without our consent.  I guarantee that.”

                The lead Glatorian clenched his jaw.  “My apologies!  We’re not thieves like those unrepentant so-called scavengers that roam the wastes – ”

                “Enough,” Ocucko cut in.  “We’re not looking for a fight.  For right now, at least.”

                The Glatorian seemed taken aback.  “I apologize!  I must have made the wrong impression: we’re with the security staff of the Free City of Atero and we wanted to warn you about a danger that’s been brought to our attention.”

                “Make it quick,” Ocucko snapped.  As embarrassed as he was at having misjudged them, Ocucko was not about to start making apologies.

                “We were recently tipped off that a Vorox has been hiding in our streets for many years and has remained unnoticed.  As soon as we heard, we sent a team into that district to exterminate the vermin.  We found our entire team, defeated.”

                “I’m sorry for you loss,” Nardohi mused.

                “No, it wasn’t like that!  The Vorox had tied them up.  We just… wanted to keep you informed.”

                Hesmit looked unsure of these guards.  “You mean to say your entire team was subdued by a single Vorox?  A Vorox you tried to kill and who subsequently spared all you men?  A Vorox who’d remained unnoticed for years – meaning he hadn’t been causing any trouble – and who doesn’t seem interested in bloodshed?  What’s the security threat we need to be knowing about?”  Even as the guards began to squirm with discomfort, Hesmit didn't cease her line of questioning until her point had been made.

                “Well, it’s not exactly like that – I mean, it’s a Vorox after all – you know how they always resort to violence sooner or later and you see it’s, uh, it’s – ”

                “Ugh, shut up,” Ocucko brushed off the guard.  “I can see where this is headed.  Vorox have a reputation for lawlessness, so everyone finding out that it was roaming the streets and that you hadn’t done anything about it in years made you look bad.  Now that it’s humiliating your troops, you look worse.  Now you tell any armed visitors you see in hopes that someone will play the hero and take care of this thorn in your side that you can’t handle because you lack the skill!  Get lost already.  We have more important things to do than listen to your whining,” Ocucko sneered without any attempt to veil his derision.

                “I, uh, we’ll be going,” the guard said, rounding up his people and backing off.

                “You do that,” Ocucko muttered once the guard and his people were out of earshot.

A yellow-armored Agori exited a tent set up just across from the vehicles.  “Why, hello!”  He greeted.  “Let me see:  three heavily-armed Glatorians staring intently at my merchandise, one of them carrying a weapon from the same era as these beauties that I maintain and sell.  You lead me to believe that you came here specifically to see me, am I not right?”

                “Dektor, I presume?” Hesmit inquired.

                “I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’  And that’s also a ‘yes’ to your question if you hadn’t gathered!”  He emitted a slight snort of laughter, apparently amused with his own choice of wording.  “I can guarantee you that these vehicles are quality merchandise, not substitutes cobbled together by parts acquired from those thieving scavengers.”  Ocucko made a mental note that scavengers were of ill repute and known for theft in modern society; the city guard had scorned them first and now Dektor was as well.  He still found it amusing that even this Dektor was trying so hard to distance himself from the scavengers – he had clearly once been one himself and Ocucko was sure Dektor must still employ scavengers to obtain replacement parts usable material for the upkeep of his vehicles.  “Now, do you have any ideas about the specifics of the vehicle you want?”

                “I can see a few from here, but what all do you have in the manner of Thornatus class vehicles?”  Ocucko asked.

                “Let’s see what I can do for you, my esteemed clients!  I’m sure there is something here that will suit your needs.” He beckoned to them and approached a line of large vehicles – Thornatus class.  “What will you need this vehicle for?”

                “We’re heading north, far north.  It has to be able to handle the terrain beyond the Black Spike and White Quartz Mountains and it needs to be capable of taking hits.  Firepower is less important than structural strength.  I was looking for a Thornatus V4 variant.”

                “You’re lucky you came to me – but then again, of course you knew you had to come to the best, which my vehicles most certainly are –”

                “If you’re looking for battered relics.  Impress me,” Hesmit challenged.  “I’ll bet you half my monthly salary as second Glatorian those are just pieced together from junk stolen by scavengers.”  She left out the part where she’d just quit that job.

                “Ah, you won’t remain a skeptic for long!  How about these two?  Treads for rocky and snowy terrain, spacious passenger decks, are these what you’re looking for?”

                “You’re the one with the experience, boss, even if I’ve been making snarky comments,” Hesmit admitted.  “What do you think?”

                “The one on the left is a Thornatus V4 anti-infantry assault platform.  It’s nice, but we’d need to remove some of the weapons emplacements to accommodate passengers if we take along a team the size I’m expecting plus their gear, ammunition, and supplies.  It also is lacking a few things that the other one has… and those are some things we could use.  The one on the right is a Thornatus V4 troop transport.  I find it more appealing.  It won’t require major renovations and it has a type of ramming grille we used to call a sledgehammer grille, designed to tear its way through objects on impact, buildings included.  That would be invaluable.  I’m also guessing it’ll run faster than the assault platform despite the fact that troop transport variants are among the bulkiest Thornatus vehicles.  Much of that bulk is engine space so that it can apply excessive torque to the treads; not to mention that the other one is overburdened in elemental launcher emplacements.  That troop transport has an elemental rock launcher on the high platform.  If fired too frequently within a short amount of time, it might become temporarily discharged and unable to be fired, but it will still be able to fire off considerably lengthy volleys before it reaches that point.”

                Both of the Thornatus V4 vehicles were in many ways similar to the more modern Thornatus V7.  They had the same basic chassis structure, but it was overall larger in scale and, unlike the V7, it was not a convertible.  The front wheels were locked into a position equivalent to the V7’s attack position – the position with the front drive assemblage pushed outwards.  Ocucko wanted this because it would allow for many passengers.

                Dektor gave them a price estimate for both vehicles.  The troop transport, as Ocucko had expected, was about half again the price of the firing platform variant, but he asked Nardohi to buy the V4 troop transport anyway.  Nardohi then contested the decision.

                “Should we really be paying more for less firepower?”

                “Didn’t we agree beforehand that…” Ocucko trailed off as he saw Nardohi wink at him.  That’s when Ocucko caught on that Nardohi really was going to get the troop transport; he was just trying to get Dektor to drop the price.  He was doing precisely what he had said he would – preventing them from getting extorted out of money that could be used on additional supplies.

                After a lengthy ersatz argument between Ocucko and Nardohi, Dektor interrupted with an offer to get them to make a purchase; he would sell the troop transport at the cost of the weapon platform variant.  Nardohi immediately agreed.  He and Dektor then moved into the tent to discuss funds transfers.

                “Quite the shrewd businessman, isn’t he?” Ocucko commented of Nardohi now that Dektor was out of earshot.

                “I hear quite a few Ice Tribe members have become skilled in such skills of trade and business these days due to the mineral wealth around Iconox,” Hesmit answered.  “The people of the Ice Tribe are the ones you usually go to for your business needs, especially if you want quality goods and official documentation.  Not like those scavengers that most likely steal half that trash they sell.”

                Again, the hate for scavengers.  Ocucko wasn’t sure if theft was common these days, but it seemed like scavengers were frequently blamed for such crimes.  He thought it was odd that people would look down on scavengers on a world as broken as this one – a world were reusing and repairing the so-called “junk” and “trash” should be the name of the game.  All he could figure was that maybe there was some truth to these claims of theft and that had tarnished the reputations of all scavengers.  He suddenly realized just how little he understood about the workings of society since he’d disappeared into exile.

                “I wouldn’t have known.  I’ve been away for too long.”

                “Gosh, I just realized – you’ve never seen Atero in all its glory after all that time in the Wastes, have you?  It’s become a real symbol of unity after having been a neutral ground during the length of the Core War and then surviving the Shattering.  Have you ever been here before?”  Ocucko shook his head.  “Afraid not,” he declared.

                “Well, come on, then, you ancient outsider!  It’s time someone showed you the wonders of the Free City of Atero.  Those two will be chatting about money for a while.  We have the time.”


Edited by Maganar, Jul 08 2014 - 12:18 AM.

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#8 Offline Maganar

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Posted Sep 24 2014 - 10:47 PM

Chapter 8 – “Rek”

 

                Ocucko and Hesmit were standing on the bridge that led to the main entrance to Atero.  Ocucko had noticed the cascading sheets of sand the plummeted over the cliff face when they had first entered the city, but it was only now that he was able to truly appreciate its magnificence.  “Quite something, isn’t it?” Hesmit prodded.

                “For so long I had hidden myself away in my little corner of the world.  I’d forgotten the sort of twisted beauty that this world has held onto even as it persevered through the Shattering.  It’s broken and battered, but its home… for all of us.  And the land itself seems reluctant to forget how beautiful it had once been.”

                Ocucko watched for a considerable time as the sand continued to inexorably plunge over the escarpment.  There was something mesmerizing about beholding a natural phenomenon of such proportions.  Eventually, they turned and headed back into the city.  Only then did Ocucko notice how much time had passed.  The sun was starting to set and the shadows had begun to slant off into the distance.

                They detoured through a series of dilapidated alleyways.  Ocucko wanted to see everything he had been missing as he had remained secluded.  He didn’t just want to see the great marvels produced by the famous and rich citizens of Atero.  He wanted to see the everyday individuals struggling to maintain a meager existence in the same manner that the Tribal villages were in their respective regions of Bara Magna.  Hesmit and Ocucko discussed their plans for the mission as they walked.

                “…Ice Warrior!”

                A harsh, grating whisper resounded from a darkened alley to their left.  Hesmit startled and Ocucko raised his shardslinger.  “Someone talking to me?” Ocucko responded in an accusatory tone.  The alleyway they were currently in acted as a connector between two merchant sectors.  At this late hour, there was no one to be seen.  The alley seemed empty, but apparently someone was in the branch just around the corner…

                Ocucko pointed his shardslinger around the corner and then proceeded to look around it himself.  He could see a silhouette.  He stepped into full view, but kept his shardslinger raised and he remained a considerable distance away from the darkened form.  Hesmit followed his example.

                “Yes.  Want talk.  Me had follow.  Heard yous talkings.  Yous wants kill Faction.  I want kill Faction.  We same thinkings.”
                Ocucko had some difficulty interpreting the broken attempt to speak the Agori language.  “…you want to help us take down the Harvest Faction?”  He lowered his shardslinger.

                “Yes!  I fight goodly!  Can help.”

                “Can’t you speak properly?  You sound like an uncultured Vorox.”

                With a roar, the shape launched itself at Ocucko.  Shocked by the distance it covered with a single leap, Ocucko had no opportunity to react.  He found himself pinned to the ground, but the face looming over him…

                …was a Vorox’s.

                “No insult Voroxs!  I Vorox!  All yous others thinks much gooder than Voroxs!  Ragh!”  The Vorox lifted off of Ocucko, but hissed to show his displeasure.  His armor had the typical tan coloration that all Vorox possessed, but there were a few ornate tribal markings made with a green pigment.  He also carried a tribal spear of the same design as those that most Vorox carried.

                “By the Great Beings!  I didn’t know there were Vorox that could speak,” Hesmit conceded.

                “Wait, Vorox!  Are you the one that took down the posse of guards a little while back?”

“Yes!  Stupids Tribeskinds comes blunder through me places in big city. Shoutings, makings noises, callings me stupid Vorox and insultings and tryings to get me to fights.  Stupids, stupids, stupids!  Me love fight!  But me know trap if see trap; me no stupid!  Try bringings big number Tribeskinds and kills me!  Me angry, but no attack loud-style like me know they wants me to attack.  No, no, no… me take alls downs sneak-style, tie up, laugh at, stupids Tribeskinds!  No respect for Voroxs from Tribeskinds likes stupids Tribeskinds there.  Was easy to take alls downs.  They no has fightskills likes me – easy!”

                “Yeah, I guess you were the one we warned about,” Ocucko stated.  “Could you explain who you are and how you learned to speak Agori?”

                “Voroxs more smarter than yous alls thinked!  Or not.  Voroxs falled big way.  Once very good, Voroxs!  Me been Voroxs leader.  They me followed.  Me tried telled Voroxs we needs get Tribes help even if Tribes hates Voroxs; thinks Voroxs alls stupids.  Must become very good level again; no do alone.  But stupid underling sayed that we no need others.  Others leaved us to falled from very good level of life after big SkyCrash.  He sayed we needed take revenge for having Tribes leaved us to falled from very good level. He – ”

                “Wait, let me get this straight.  You were once a leader among your people and you tried to convince them to cooperate with the other Tribes regardless of discrimination, but one of your followers disagreed.  He said you should all exact your revenge upon the Glatorian for having been abandoned after the Shattering?” Ocucko clarified.

                “Bah!  Yes; just sayed this.  Yous calls Voroxs stupids even if yous no gets things sayed right at yous!  But he no alone.  Most alls Voroxs agreeds with him.  He me attack and he’s underlings too many.  I no choices.  Had to run.  Fury at he!  He stupid!  He want kill alls others Tribes.  Launch attack – many die both Voroxs and Tribeskinds.  Stupid reason for die.  Die happens to alls, but no stupid die unless you stupid be!  He make all Voroxs dies stupids.  I worked very much to try get Tribes help.  Learned Tribeskinds talkings.  Me use Tribeskind talking now!  He no know Tribeskind talk.  He talk like animal – like alls Voroxs have since Tribes leaveds Voroxs to falled from very high level after big SkyCrash.  But worst part is Faction!  Make forward going no possible.”

                “I’m not sure I got all that,” Ocucko admitted.  The Vorox seemed to take offense, but Hesmit interrupted.  “The Vorox said that his underling disagreed with his plans to cooperate with the Tribes.  Instead, this other Vorox wanted to exterminate all the other Tribes in a pointless quest for vengeance.  Our, uh, associate here was overwhelmed and had to flee – ” she glanced at the Vorox and added “after what I’m certain was a valiant battle - ” the Vorox grinned at that “ – and has come here.  Due to his plans at Tribal cooperation, he knew the Agori language unlike the other Vorox – ” she gave another glance at the Vorox – “which were all very stupid.”

                “Yes!  Yes, yes!  Me like Fire Warrior lady!  She not stupid like underlings that wants kills alls Tribeskinds!”

                “Ok, I get that now.  What was this about the Harvest Faction interfering?”

                “Faction want Tribeskinds for some reason.  Me no know why.  But Factions also wants Voroxs.  Me know why that.  Needs very strong beings.  Uses Voroxs like true animals.  Chains Voroxs, makes Voroxs drags big weight for some big plan of danger.  As long as Factions slaves Voroxs and takes aways, Voroxs no sees big idea!  Thinks alls wills alway hates Voroxs; thinks Voroxs stupids.  Faction make Voroxs hates alls thinkers beings.  Me be happy if Voroxs just no attacks Tribeskinds and dies stupids.  Me want Voroxs to become very high level again.  Me just know no likely that.  Kill Faction… can stop Voroxs from so much hate.  Then no try kill all Tribeskinds, just Tribeskinds that come to Voroxs homes.  Even if work to get Tribeskinds and Voroxs together no be over, it be started if Faction die.  Then Voroxs no alls die in stupid attack.”

                “I see.  So Harvest Faction slavers have demoralized your people and they no longer see any hope for once more reaching that ‘very good level’ your people had before the Shattering,” Ocucko explained, more to himself than anyone else.  “Taking down the Harvest Faction probably wouldn’t be enough to stop the Vorox from attacking Agori and Glatorian on sight, but it would probably be enough to keep them from becoming the aggressors and making a suicidal attack on the Tribal villages.  Let me help you explain yourself a little better: by ‘get to very good level’ you mean ‘rise to greatness’ and your attempt to get the Tribes to help uplift the Vorox to the same technological level would be a ‘work in progress’ if we took out the Harvest Faction.”

                “Yes!  Voroxs rise to greatness be work in progress if Faction die.  Yous gives me hope.  Yous helps me use Tribeskind talking to say what me want.  That starting Voroxs and Tribeskinds working together like me alway want!  Yous and me is making Voroxs rise to greatness a work in progress right now!”  The Vorox began to hop up and down and spin around, making some sort of enthusiastic growling noise, apparently in celebration of this breakthrough in communication.

                Ocucko considered the options.  Accepting the Vorox could prove to be unnecessary luggage on what was going to be a difficult mission.  Regardless, the Vorox clearly had an idea of right and wrong and he was determined to provide assistance.  Not to mention, Vorox were known to be dangerous fighters and this one was abnormally skilled even for most Vorox – he’d taken out an entire squad of Atero’s guards on his own and claimed it had been easy.  Ocucko couldn’t contest that claim: the Vorox had to have been in complete control of the fight in order to defeat multiple opponents without even seriously injuring one of them in the process.  Additionally, he’d been a Sand Tribe leader, a position earned and held only through physical prowess and skill in battle.  He consulted with Hesmit.  “Do you think we should let him join?”

                “Can we really keep him?”  Her face lit up.  “I think he’s cute.  Well, and really deadly too.  He’s that sort of ‘cute’ that you want to keep an eye on unless you want a dagger in your back, but I’m fine with that.”  She addressed the Vorox.  “What’s your name?”

                “Me is – ”  The following sounded like a growl… something along the lines of “Rrghuek.”

                “Uh… I’m not sure I can call you that all the time.  The closest I can easily manage is ‘Rek.’” Ocucko complained.

                “’Rek’ is good!  Oh!  Me know one more thing yous needs!  Big, big thing yous needs.  Me know… what word yous gives me? Great!  That it.  Me know most great machine man in all of big city!”  the Vorox shouted, spreading his arms wide.

                “You know the best… driver?… in Atero?”

                “Yes!  Me also know how get he come.  Me think yous needs he from talkings me heard.  Yous will needs he for yous big machine.”

                “Really?” Ocucko smiled.  “You’re full of surprises.  How do we get to him?”

                “’We.’  That good word.  Me must know that for Tribeskind talking.”

                “Um… sorry.  Could you answer my question, please?”

                “Ah!  Yes!  To him get, we needs fights!”

                Ocucko shook his head and sighed.  “Nothing’s ever easy these days, is it?”

                “Me you tell why.  Come; it be fun!”  He bounced off down the alleyway.

                Before following, Ocucko turned to give Hesmit a wide-eyed look of exasperation, but Hesmit only smiled.  “What?  I told you he was cute!”  With that, the threesome slunk off into the shadows, ready for whatever trials lie in store for them on their arduous journey.  Ocucko knew this was only the beginning, but if he could keep finding allies like these...

              Ocucko let himself feel hope for the first time in millennia.

 

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END PART ONE

 

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