It was morning at Order HQ, and BroBob was seated in a dark room, sitting with his face in his hands. He was completely silent, however was snapped out of it when his phone started vibrating on a desk, prompting him to grab it. He looked at the screen for one second and sighed, absolutely dreading answering the call. He let out another sigh as he answered the phone, and brought it to his ear.
“Brometheus says hello.”
“BroBob, its Curtis. The Old Man is here asking me what’s happening with Zuko at the Orc Enclave.”
“Brometheus doesn’t even know how to answer this question, Curtis.”
“What do you mean? What’s going on?”
“…Izano has been arrested.”
“That pork crackling asshole managed to get himself arrested… on his second night there.”
“…I can’t believe it.”
“You and Brometheus both… what should we do?”
“I don’t know what we should do, but I know what we shouldn’t do.”
“Tell your Pops about this?”
“You catch on fast.”
“You flatter Brometheus.”
Meanwhile in the Enclave, Zuko was seated in a dark, dingy cell which was stained with untold amounts of blood, had the bones belonging to previous inhabitants, and an almighty stench. Shackles bound his ankles and wrists together, and he was doing his best not to think about the smell. Having spent the night in the cell, Zuko was wondering what exactly was going to happen to him, as well as when.
“That damn Third Chancellor.” Zuko said as he spat and cursed Doh. “If it was not for that fucking promise I made with him, I would have just stayed out of what happened last night.”
“Yes, well if you had done that, things would have turned out to be a lot more difficult.” A familiar voice stated.
Zuko’s head shot towards his cell door as he looked to see if the Chancellor was actually there. It took a second for things to click, and when they did, Zuko looked down at the armour he was wearing.
“Good morning, Third Chancellor.” Zuko virtually spat again.
“Well, that is a rather harsh tone of voice.”
“Well, being imprisoned can do that a person.”
“Good point.” Doh said as he chuckled.
“So what do you want, Third Chancellor?”
“What do I want? I am contacting you with the intention of helping you.”
“You say that, yet in all likelihood, this current turn of events was all due to you.”
“Well, that is the absolute truth.” Doh admitted rather readily. “You did however leave me with no choice but to hurry things along, with your three day deadline to get things moving and such.”
“You did not even take a single day!” Zuko boomed.
“There was only a maximum time limit, so you can’t hold that against me. Anyway, I suspect that we do not have the time to chit chat like this; I’ll be proceeding with the help. As you are likely well aware, as Orcs, we are a war loving, war mongering people who value combat strength above pretty much all else. This means that we have a whole host of laws and customs that make little sense to other races, but are wonderfully apt and relevant to us.”
“And you plan on using one such law to help me?”
“Not just you, but the Princess as well.” Doh said with a tone that made Zuko want to squash him beneath his fist.
“What is this law, and how will it help us?”
“In ancient times, when our war with the Elves was an active and brutal one, we needed every available Orc Warrior available to fight at the drop of a hat, due to us being so woefully outnumbered by our Elven brethren. That meant that we had a… pardon system, which allowed powerful Warriors who had committed crimes to gain a full pardon and return to the battlefield.”
“Wait, seriously?” Zuko asked, somewhat stunned. “So a serial rapist could get a pardon, fight, and then go back to raping because he could always get out?”
“Well, in the beginning it was like that, however restrictions and the like came into effect to regulate its use, so to speak. The final version of the law allowed one pardon per person, and if the person who had been pardoned once again broke the law in a deliberate or conscious manner, they were immediately sentenced to death.”
“Well okay then… how do you plan on having us use this law?”
“Quite simple really, you and the Princess will simply request to be subjected to the Gauntlet of Guilt at your hearing.”
“Wait, that is it?”
“Yes, that’s it. The law hasn’t actually been abolished – only forgotten. It is the right of anybody who has been arrested to request the Gauntlet when they are summoned to our Court and formally charged.”
“If that has always been the case, why are there people in these prison cells? Why has a get out of jail free card been forgotten?”
“That’s because of how grueling the Gauntlet itself is. If the request is granted, then the one subjected to the Gauntlet must fight against waves of Warriors in a true gauntlet fashion. Each wave is progressively stronger than the previous one, and once the Gauntlet begins, there is no stopping it. Participants must either win, or die. The risks are high, but the allure of freedom and a second chance were once too great to pass up.”
“I am guessing that this law was forgotten during those stretches during which combat was not all that prevalent.”
“It was forgotten because apart from those Warriors that were absolutely top class, everybody else got slaughtered.” Doh said rather bluntly. “However that will not happen to you or the Princess. Well, it won’t happen to the Princess, at the very least.”
“You are a bastard.” Zuko said with a sigh. “So, when last was the Gauntlet last attempted?”
“Well over five centuries ago.”
“…and when was the last successful Gauntlet attempt?”
“Almost twice as long as the last attempt.”
“Of course it was…” Zuko said with a slight sigh. “So, is the Gauntlet based on numbers, or time?”
“I would say both. Trying to fend the Warriors off and survive isn’t quite possible, because they keep coming. That said, if you are able to defeat all of them, the Gauntlet ends.”
“Are there any alternatives that we can undertake?”
“Unfortunately not, Izano Zuko. This was the only option I could think of that could not only free the Princess, but also give her a chance at making her dreams come true. Anyway, I will be pushing to have yours and the Princess’ Court appearance happen as soon as possible. The War Chef is not happy with his daughter being imprisoned, so he will likely want to get this over with as quickly as possible. I’m not making any promises, but hopefully within the next few days or so, you we can have this entire thing done. I will be in touch, Izano Zuko.”
Immediately afterwards, the Third Chancellor’s voice went silent, and Zuko looked down at the armour he was wearing, just wondering how many Enchantments and secrets this Ceremonial Warlock Armour actually held. The day was filled with silence and solitude, as Zuko remained in his cell and did not move or make a sound. He had no idea how long he sat in the cell as he did, however he eventually heard the sound of footsteps, as a few people approached his cell. It was unlocked, and once the cell door swung open, the sight of a small guard of honour greeted Zuko, and moments later, he was actually greeted by Prince Kwanda who walked through it. He gestured for the door to be closed, and after a brief protest, his orders were followed and the door was closed. He stood directly in front of Zuko and just looked at him, before actually sitting on the small toilet that was opposite Zuko.
“I hope you were not waiting for me to offer you my seat, Prince Kwanda.”
“Not at all.” The Prince replied. “I mean, I am the reason you are currently in here, after all.”
“Hmph.” Zuko snorted as he took a deep breath. “So Prince, what can I do for you?”
“…Agent Zuko.” Kwanda said as he looked at the shackled Agent. “Do you know what the greatest problems we have as Orcs are?”
“Stubbornness, reluctance and refusal. We stubbornly believe that we can continue living as we have been, we are reluctant to try new things and we refuse to even listen to people who claim otherwise. We still cook almost exclusively with fire, use torches to light our homes and our streets, forge and build everything by hand and still adhere to laws and customs that even make the way we fight obsolete. We are a fighting people Agent Zuko, and if we can no longer be effective at the only thing we are known for, then it is only a matter of time before we are wiped out.”
Prince Kwanda was being surprisingly open with Zuko, despite speaking to him properly for the very first time. Zuko wasn’t all that interested in responding to what was being said, which was just as well, seeing as Kwanda was intent on speaking until he was finished.
“While we refuse to accept the fact that we have to change, beyond our walls, people far more Magically inclined than us have embraced technology, and use it to fight along with Magic. If those people decided to attack us, it would not be pretty. What my sister said last night about us needing to change in order to survive was not wrong, and to be completely honest with you, I do admit that the changes she wishes to bring forth are necessary.”
“Then why go as far as poison your own brother?” Zuko asked, having suddenly decided to participate in the discussion.
“Because Zamah has stubbornly decided that she is the only one who can bring change. She refuses to see the bigger picture, and no amount of debate and discussion has been able to sway her stance even a bit! Yes, women are heavily restricted in our current structure and need a form of emancipation, I agree. Yes, we need to make peace with other Clans and tribes. Yes, we need to look over our laws and amend or abolish those that require that to happen, however those aren’t the only problems we face. We are woefully analog in an increasingly digital world, and we need to adapt in order to survive!”
“And the Princess will not be able to bring about those changes?”
“No! Or rather, not fast enough. If these rigid, patriarchal old Orcs are told to accept two major changes at once, that would only lead to disaster. It would be nigh on impossible enough getting them to follow a female Chief, but then having that same Chief tell them to accept technology would simply be asking our Horde to fragment, and possibly even turn on itself.”
“Orcs respect strength, do they not? If the Princess shows herself to be strong enough, surely the older Orcs would submit to her rule.”
“That is a possibility; however dealing in the realm of possibilities at this point in time is not smart. What we can say for certain is that the command to change will be adhered to far easier if it comes from me.”
“It just sounds to me as though you are claiming that the changes you seek in implement are more important or urgent than the ones the Princess does.”
“They are not more important, but they certainly are more urgent. Even though I say that, the main issue here isn’t the changes so much, more than it is the voice and the person who tries to bring about the change. Both my sister and I can make these people change; however there will be far less resistance to these changes if I am the one to institute them.”
“So in order to achieve that, you are willing to kill off your own family?”
“Absolutely not, Agent. Voh is not dead, and his life is not in any danger. The poison he ingested was flashy, but not life threatening. Also, please do not misunderstand, Agent Zuko; I will not be taking the lives of anybody. My father will live out the remainder of his life and die naturally, and my sister will not be ‘taken out’ either. They are both my dear family members and I love them with all my heart.”
“Then what is the end goal of all this?”
“A situation in which we can all live, Agent. Anyway, I have rambled on for far too long – I came to inform you that at the insistence of the Chancellor, you and the Princess will be formally charged tomorrow morning. Despite you forcing your way into a family matter, I will suggest that the charges to be leveled at you be dropped so that when you receive whatever it is that you came here for, you are able to leave.”
“Please, do not do me any favours, Prince.”
“Oh, this won’t be for you, Agent Zuko. You are an Agent of the Empire, after all. If you take part in all this, it could cause major problems for us.”
Prince Kwanda then stood up, and smoothed his clothing slowly.
“This will be your final night within our prison, Agent Zuko. Please bear with it for a bit longer. I will see to it that you are given some proper food, as well.”
The Prince opened the door himself and walked out of Zuko’s cell. Once the door was closed, Zuko couldn’t help but feel slightly impressed with the fact that the Prince sat down on a toilet and had that little discussion with him. As he promised, the Prince saw to it that decent looking food was delivered to Zuko’s cell, and despite there being no conceivable reason to do so, Zuko was still weary of being poisoned by Kwanda like Voh was. He remained seated in his cell for the remainder of the day, even falling asleep in an upright position. Fairly early the next day, there was a heavy banging sound on the door, and moments later, the same door flung open rather forcefully. Two guards walked in to find Zuko wide awake and staring at them. Conversation was kept to a minimum, with the only words spoken being commands and soon enough, Zuko was being led out of the prison by chains that were connected to his shackles. The walk to wherever they were going was painfully slow and after what felt like an age, Zuko was placed in the back of a wagon of sorts. He was then transported via that wagon to an area within the Enclave that was far enough away from anything to be classified as the middle of nowhere, yet still closer than the mine that he travelled to the other day. After the wagon came to a stop, Zuko was taken inside a rather large building, and after being led to a waiting room of sorts, he saw Princess Zamah sitting on a bench with her wrists and ankles also bound by the shackles. Whilst he was still clad in the armour and cape, she had been stripped of her armour, and looked like a genuine convict. He walked forward without being prompted to by his escorts, and plopped himself down on the bench opposite her. The Princess, who was dressed in rags that looked similar to Zuko’s bandages, looked up at him and scoffed slightly.
“…so, they confiscated your stuff, huh.”
“Of course they did.” Zamah responded. “What kind of prison would it be if they allowed a prisoner to keep her arms and armour?”
“Good point.” Zuko said with a roll of the eyes. “Prince Voh is okay. His life is not in any danger, and he should recover fully.”
“I know.” Zamah said as she exhaled slowly. She looked at Zuko, recognising that he said that to her in the event that she had not heard and had been tearing herself apart. “Thank you.”
“Sure thing.” Zuko did with a shrug. “How did they end up treating you?”
“Yeah, well they wanted to treat me like a regular detainee and not give me any preferential treatment on account of who I am. In the end though, they treated me well enough. How about you? You’re still in your armour and everything.”
“…trust me; this armour is still on because it wanted to stay on. I had more large, burly Orcs than I care to count groping me as they tried their hardest to pull the armour off.” Zuko said with a roll of the eyes and a shake of the head. “Things almost got serious in that damn prison.”
While it didn’t last for long, Zamah’s laughter filled the waiting room, and when it died down, silence quickly replaced it. They both looked at each other, and Zamah, who still had something of a smile on her face broke the silence.
“Izano Zuko… why have you involved yourself in all this? The events of that night gave you a chance to remain neutral and let things fall where they may.”
“Sometimes, there are decisions in life that we have to take, regardless of how much sense they make or do not make.”
“What? What are you even saying?”
Zuko could not elaborate on what he had said as the door swung open, and out strode an Orc that was dressed in clothing that was similar to Third Chancellor Doh.
“Princess, Agent… we are ready for you.” He said simply.
The two of them stood up as their respective escorts came into view. They had not relinquished their holds on the chains of the two prisoners, and a few moments later, they led the shuffling pair through the door which instead of leading to a room of any sort, led to an outside court of sorts. This court however was far more akin an Arena. The ring was a massive, circular blood caked sunken marble floor, and there were an untold number of rows with seating for spectators. There was what appeared to be VIP seating right at the top, however Zuko and Zamah were so far down that he couldn’t tell. All of a sudden, a platform floated down gently, and on this platform were The Third Chancellor, the War Chief, Princes Kwanda and Stixx, as well as another Orc dressed like Doh. The Chancellor was standing before a massive tome that was closed and floating in front of him, and had his own staff in hand. Once the platform came to a stop, Zamah looked up at her father who refused to even look in her direction.
“Seeing as we are all here.” Third Chancellor Doh said. “Let us get this business underway. Princess Zamah, you have been charged with the attempted murder of Princes Kwanda and Voh, and contravening the Blood Law. How do you plead?”
The Third Chancellor wasn’t wasting any time whatsoever. Zamah looked at him, then at Prince Kwanda with a glare, before looking directly at the War Chief and answering emphatically.
The tone of her answer caused the War Chief to look his daughter in the eyes, as if he was searching for the truth within them. They looked at each other for the longest time, before the old Orc closed his eyes as he exhaled, as if he was sighing with relief or something.
“Very well. And you, Agent Izano Zuko, have been charged with assault on a guard and obstruction of justice as you prevented that guard from detaining the Princess. How do you plead?”
“Unlike the Princess over here, I am actually as guilty as can be.” Zuko said with a slight shrug.
“Very well.” The Third Chancellor said “In that case—”
“Third Chancellor, I have something to say, if I may.” Prince Kwanda said as he interrupted the lanky Orc. “I would like to suggest that we drop the charges against the Agent. If we were to do that, it might smooth over problems caused by the arrest in the first place.”
“No thank you.” Zuko said, rejecting the suggestion emphatically. “Instead, I would rather speak directly with the War Chief, if he would permit me to do so.”
“What?” Kwanda asked incredulously. “What kind of protocol is that? Has a prisoner ever spoken directly to the War Chief?”
“I’ll allow it.” The Chief boldly declared as he took a few steps towards the edge of the platform. “Please speak, Izano Zuko.”
“Thank you, War Chief. To get straight to the point, I have a request. I ask that you permit both the Princess and me to partake in the Gauntlet of Guilt.”
“The Gauntlet of what now?” Prince Kwanda asked.
“What the fuck is that?” Prince Stixx boomed. “This guy is making stuff up to try and escape punishment!”
“Silence!” The War Chief roared to his son before looking back at Zuko. “I am not familiar with this Gauntlet. What is it?”
“It is an old and forgotten Orcish custom which gave the strong a second chance at freedom.”
“Really?” The Chief asked as he looked back at the Third Chancellor. “Doh.”
“Yes, War Chief.”
The Chancellor raised his staff, and the tome opened, and started flipping through its own pages. The higher he raised the staff, the faster the pages turned, and Doh was making a real show of this. His face was contorted with staged concentration, and when he ‘found’ what he was looking for, he banged the bottom of his staff on the platform, causing the page he was on not to flip.
“I’ve found it, War Chief!”
“Is that so? What does it say?”
“It states that criminals were able to request the Gauntlet of Guilt with the objective of earning a full pardon.”
“What?!” Prince Kwanda boomed this time.
“Seriously?!” Stixx eloquently added.
“I realise that neither of us has been convicted of anything yet, however I believe we do not have the time to dilly dally and wait for the outcome of an investigation and a trial.”
“I made the suggestion that you are released and all charges against you be dropped, but you turned the offer down!”
“While I appreciate the offer Prince, I still cannot accept it. War Chief, I ask that you grant me this one request and allow the Princess and I to participate in the Gauntlet.”
“Hey! Why do you keep bringing me into this? I pleaded not guilty!”
“Quite simply War Chief, I am guilty and no amount of denial from me will change that. My insistence on the Princess and I taking it together stems from a selfish desire of mine.”
“What?!” Zamah roared now.
“I simply cannot allow the Princess to go down for something she did not do. While I will be fighting for my freedom, we will both be fighting for her innocence.”
There was silence in the Arena as Zuko’s words were digested. Zamah’s eyes were golf ball sized as she just stared at Zuko. The War Chief was unable to hide his shock as well, but he quickly looked at Doh, seeking more of an explanation.
“Yes, Sir.” Doh said, as if reading his mind. “According to this text, a Gauntlet of Guilt is a marathon fight, in which a single prisoner faces waves of warriors and captured beasts, until either the time runs out, the warriors are all killed, or the prisoner fighting them is killed. If the participant survives, they are granted their freedom in a form of a pardon, as well as one wish that was supposed to be granted if it was realistically possible to do so.”
“What? A Wish that is to be granted?!”
“That’s right, Prince Kwanda.” Doh said.
“Bullshit!” Stixx declared.
“Be quiet, both of you.” The war Chief scolded. “Doh… you are the Minister of Justice… is this a legitimate thing?”
“Yes, War Chief.”
“Then I have absolutely no reason not to grant this request, Izano Zuko. However, I have a stipulation; seeing as the request is for the both of you to take part that means everything should be doubled. Twice the length, the waves, double everything. If you are willing to accept that, I will grant your request.”
“We accept without hesitation, War Chief.”
“Very good then. And you, Third Chancellor, I have a stipulation for you as well – no permanent losses. I will not lose good warriors due to a squabble that has gone too far, do you understand me?”
“Completely, War Chief.”
“How quickly can you make this Gauntlet happen?”
“Leave it to me, War Chief. It all depends on when the two participants will be able to do it.”
“Well, I do not know about the Princess, but I can—”
“We’ll do it tomorrow.” Zamah bullishly declared.
“Huh?” Zuko blurted out as he looked at Zamah.
“Don’t huh me! You’ve been making decisions for the both of us without even consulting me! We’re doing it tomorrow!”
“I will not have every decision about my future made for me as though I am an idiot or a child! Besides, I am a Princess! If anybody should be making all of the decisions here, it’s me!”
“What was that?!” Zuko boomed. “Your wrists and ankles are shackled, just like mine! In here, you are no better than me!”
“Sorry to interrupt you two.” The Third Chancellor interjected. “However I must know – are you willing to do this tomorrow, Agent?”
“Huh? Oh, absolutely. I was going to suggest tomorrow myself.” Zuko said with a deadpan voice and a shrug.
“Then why did you make such a fuss about it?!” Zamah bellowed as she glared at Zuko.
“Because you have a special talent for pissing me off!!” Zuko boomed back.
Everybody else in the Arena felt like an awkward third wheel as the two bickered – an act that lasted until they were placed in the special holding cell that was made especially for Gauntlet participants. For somebody who just discovered this along with everybody else, Doh was awfully intimate the rules that were to be followed as far as this brutal ritual was concerned. Due to Zuko and Zamah having been placed in the cell rather early in the day, they decided to stop bickering briefly and try to have some sort of discussion regarding the upcoming Gauntlet.
“How did you know about this ridiculous Gauntlet, Izano Zuko?” Zamah asked.
“General Orc Knowledge, I guess.” Zuko said with a shrug.
“Do you think me an idiot?” Zamah said with a scowl.
“I feel like there is no right answer to that question, Princess.”
“And I feel like you have to die.” Zamah retorted as she leaned her back against the wall. “Is there any point in strategising?”
“I would say no.” Zuko said with a shake of the head. “If anything, I would say that we have to blow the opponents away as quickly as possible. The quicker we get rid of them, the better.”
“I can’t say I don’t agree with that suggestion, but why do you say that?”
“If we try to bide our time and save our strength, we will be overrun by determined fighters who are intent on knocking over the Princess and gaining notoriety. Also taking into account the fact that due to us taking this thing together, this piece of shit Gauntlet is twice as long – taking our time would be futile.”
“Alright. Any other tips or bits of advice?”
“Seeing as this is not a death battle, it may be more difficult. I have no idea what kind of Wards or Spells may or may not be cast on the Arena, so we should probably spend just a little bit of time getting acquainted with the battlefield before going absolutely nuts on it.”
“I see. Good idea.”
There was a lull in conversation as Zuko spent some time thinking about whether or not there was anything else to add. His knowledge of the Gauntlet was not as impressive as he may have made it seem, so he was thinking if he could come up with anything else. He was interrupted by Zamah who broke the silence.
“So I heard that Kwanda came to see you yesterday.” She said plainly. “What did you two talk about?”
Zuko looked at Zamah for a little bit. They were both sitting on the same bench; however there was a fair bit of distance between them. Despite that, he could clearly see the look of mild concern on her face and he sighed slightly before answering her.
“The Prince came to tell me that he was going to suggest the charges leveled against me be dropped and that I be allowed to go free. I told him that was not necessary.”
“He did it anyway.” Zamah stated as if Zuko wasn’t there when it happened. “But you turned him down.”
“I did… if I had taken him up on his offer, then I would not have been able to have gotten the both of us this chance. He also spoke to me about his hopes and dreams I guess.”
“His hopes and dreams?”
“Yeah. He told me about why he was willing to go to the lengths that he has gone to in order to secure the position of War Chief.”
“He did. He told me about how he wanted to drag your Horde into the future and modernise it. He told me that it was for the sake of the survival of your rigid and old fashioned Sky led Horde.”
“And do you believe him?”
“Is my opinion really important?”
“I’m asking you if you think he’s in the right.” Zamah said as she looked at the ground.
“More in the right than you?” Zuko asked, to which he got no reply, prompting him to continue. “I do not think that either of you are wrong, to be honest.”
“What?” Zamah replied as she looked back at Zuko.
“This is by far the most backwards Horde I have ever seen, and I feel like that is because of the relative peace and solitude you guys have been living in. Other Hordes have been forced to adapt due to living circumstances, while you all have been allowed to stagnate and remain as you are. You are both right about the Horde and your Clan needing to change, but you are both making what could have been simple extremely convoluted.” Zuko said with a shrug.
“…what do you mean?” Zamah asked in practically a whisper.
“You two have placed too much emphasis and importance on the Spear and Warhammer. I have a hunch that this was all set up to show you that.”
“Set up? What are you talking about?”
“Nothing, really. I am just rambling, I guess.” Zuko said as he looked up at the ceiling, initiating yet another lull.
The pair sat in silence, as if they were both in deep contemplation. Neither one of them was quite sure how long the silence lasted, but it was broken by Zamah once again.
“He was such a cry baby when we were kids.” She said without warning.
“Who? Prince Kwanda?”
“Yeah.” She said with a nod. “He used to stick to me like glue, holding my hand and hiding behind me all the time. He was frail and weaker than most as a child, and as his big sister, I was always taking care of him, shielding him from danger, getting into fights for him… if something would scare him in the middle of the night, I’d often wake up with him in my bed. He used to be so dependent on me – him and my other brothers. But around adolescence, he started pulling away from me – I guess that coincided with him getting a stronger body and more confidence. He started training in the ways of the Shaman with the now Third Chancellor, and became colder and distant.”
“And before you knew it, things became as they are now?”
“Yeah.” Zamah said with a nod. “Part of me thinks the situation being like this is Kwanda’s way of rebelling against me. I was really strict with him, Stixx and Voh, so maybe this is their revenge or something.”
“…if that is the case, and I have been swept up in something as stupid as that, I am going to be pissed.” Zuko said with a grunt.
The discussion was interrupted by the arrival of food. As the food was brought into the cell, elsewhere within the Enclave, the War Chief was seated at a large table along with Stixx and Kwanda. The tension was so unbelievably thick, that it would have required a whole host of knives to make even a small incision in it. They had been seated and eating in absolute silence and neither Prince knew how to try and break the silence.
“Kwanda.” The War Chief called, surprisingly being the first to speak.
“F-Father!” Kwanda responded.
“This spat ends tomorrow. Whatever happens, both you and Zamah must accept the results. This has gone on far too long, and because of my own failings as a father, it has gotten to the point where one of my children is recovering from an attempted poisoning. It’s enough, now.”
“I SAID IT’S ENOUGH NOW!!” The War Chief boomed as he brought his fist down onto the table and said fist went straight through. “This all ends tomorrow!”
As the cracks appeared on the table, the War Chief stood up and stormed off. Kwanda and Stixx just looked at the hole in the table, before Prince Stixx looked at his older brother.
“What do we do?”
“We win tomorrow, and that’s all there is to it.” Kwanda said before looking at his food again. “Third Chancellor.”
“Yes, my Prince?” Doh said as he appeared from the shadows.
“Make sure that the waves comprise of the best warriors we can get. Since she won’t be killed, we can afford to send the strongest at her.”
“As you wish, my Prince.” Doh said as he disappeared into the darkness again.
Back at the prison cell, Zuko and Zamah finished off the last of the food. Zuko had been reluctant to even touch the food, however considering that he would need all the energy he get, at least from a physical stand point, he decided to bite the bullet and just eat. Thankfully, he didn’t feel any after effects and the like, and sat in the darkening cell.
“Izano Zuko.” Zamah said.
“What is it?”
“I’m going to ask you this question again, and this time, don’t evade it and just answer me directly… why are you doing all this? Why are you helping me?”
Zuko looked at Zamah and saw that he was likely not going to be able to give non answers and get away with it any longer. He took a moment to consider how to answer her without giving away the finer details of his deal with the Third Chancellor, and spoke once he thought he had found the correct way to answer.”
“…because you need help.” Zuko said simply with a bit of a shrug.
Zamah just looked at him in silence for a bit, before looking down at the floor. Much to Zuko’s relief, that answer seemed to do it for Zamah, and as he took a deep breath and began to wind down, he was interrupted by Zamah’s voice.
“Tell me more about Orcs from Ntsizwa.” She said as she settled down and got as comfortable as she could on the bench. “How are we so backwards compared to them?”
“…well.” Zuko said with a slight sigh as he thought. “Well, for starters, the Sky Clan Orcs from Ntsizwa have shared a mutually beneficial working relationship with Dwarves.”
“Yeah… while not at the flashy level of humans, Dwarves are technologically adept, and have used that gift to aid the Orcs. Dwarves have robotic creations known as Automatons that have served as guards for centuries. These things however are not only difficult to make, but require an untold amount of time and resources to build and maintain, so just as they were about to abandon the art of making them, a deal was struck with the Orcs. Orcs were to provide the materials the Dwarves needed to make their machines, however in turn; the Dwarves were to provide assistance with their war efforts and more. Special Orc units, powered by Dwarven arms and armour were formed, and they greatly increased the combat ability of those Orcs. They even developed a special exoskeleton type contraption for Orcs that had lost a limb or two in a battle. Those Orcs would have the remainder of their limbs cut off, and were then forcefully melded with the exo—”
Zuko, who was rattling off Lore like a historian, was suddenly cut off by the sound of snoring. He looked to his left and saw Zamah, fast asleep on the bench and no longer listening. Zuko suddenly had the strongest urge to punch the side of her head and forcefully wake her up. He decided against it however, and settled down to sleep himself.
“You are very good at pacifying the Princess, Izano Zuko.” A familiar voice declared.
“…of course you were listening in.” Zuko said, sounding rather disgruntled. “I do not like having my conversations listened in on.”
“Forgive me, but I was waiting for the right time to speak. Anyway, you did a very good job earlier in court.”
“No, you were far more impressive than I was with your acting. You even added an extra rule about a wish being granted… you are lucky that nobody tried looking in that book and reading that ‘text’.”
“If they were to have checked, they would have found the bit about the wish being granted being written there.”
“Wait, so that was always part of the Gauntlet?”
“Not at all.” The Third Chancellor said. “However being Minister of Justice does come with some perks.”
“Especially when there is not anybody around that can dispute your version of things.”
“Exactly. Anyway, I am getting in touch purely to warn you… things will get likely get very sticky tomorrow. Just as you said earlier, speed will be the key here, and the quicker the two of you dispatch the warriors, the better. There will be ten waves, consisting of—”
“Hold on, just as I said earlier? How long have you been listening in on my conversations?”
“That isn’t the important thing here, Izano Zuko. Crap, you interrupted me at the wrong time. I have to go. Just hammer the point about speed into the Princess. I will see you tomorrow – until then.”
The Third Chancellor then went silent, and Zuko grunted in frustration. He did not remain awake for that much longer, and soon enough, he too was fast asleep. Morning came, and Zamah awoke with a slight start, her eyes shooting open rather than fluttering open. Her eyes were met by the sight of Zuko’s crossed arms, and it took but a moment for to realise why.
‘I was wondering why the back of my head was warm!’ She thought to herself as she tried to slowly slide away and pull her head off of Zuko’s thigh.
She succeeded and eventually created enough space between the two of them, eyeing Zuko carefully to see if he was awake or not. His eyes appeared to be closed so she took that to mean that he was indeed asleep. It wasn’t long however before the sound of approaching steps made Zuko sit up straight and look as though he had been awake long enough to have felt Zamah move away from him, however he said nothing as two Orcs dressed like the Third Chancellor’s assistants from the day before stood at the cell door.
“We are to escort you two to the Arena floor.”
The two men had no chains or the like, so it was clear that Zuko and Zamah would be allowed to shuffle along without being dragged along. The cell door was opened, and they were let out and led to the Arena floor where they were greeted by an absolutely spectacular sight. The Arena was filled to bursting with Orcs, Trolls and Ogres, all in seated in the chairs and benches that circled the ring. The cheer that rang out the moment they saw the Princess was almost deafening, and it started from a very specific part of the crowd and radiated throughout the entire building. Zuko realised that there was a ceiling and that this was in fact a dome, and he asked himself how he did not notice any of this yesterday. The pair wasn’t allowed to get swept up in the moment however, as the platform from yesterday lowered itself once more. Standing on it were the same people, and the War Chief raised his hand, resulting in the cheers dying down and it became so quiet, the proverbial pin could be heard if dropped.
“We are here…” The Third Chancellor said in a surprisingly booming voice as he stepped towards the edge of the platform. “…we are here to witness the revival of an ancient custom of the Orcish people. A custom that stays true to our belief of placing strength before anything and everything else. A custom that will see our Princess fight to prove that she is the strongest, and that regardless of the accusations leveled against her, she will rise above them and prove she is as pure and innocent as she is powerful. We are here to witness history in the making, as for the first time in over five centuries; the Gauntlet of Guilt is being attempted!”
There was a brief yet thunderous cheer from the audience, however that too was short lived as the War Chief raised his hand again, allowing Doh to continue.
“We will also be witnessing a number of firsts in the history of the Gauntlet. For the first time, a woman will be participating in it. For the first time, it will be attempted by two people, and for the first time, it is being attempted by people who have yet to be convicted! As such, our fair and just War Chief has decided that things must be altered in order to make things fair. Double the participants mean double the difficulty! Ten waves of twenty foes, six hours long instead of three, foes becoming stronger with each passing wave! Despite his own daughter being the one involved, the War Chief refuses to make things easier for her!”
This announcement was also met with a massive cheer. This was allowed to go on for a bit longer before the War Chief stopped it.
“The Princess is not alone in this however, as beside her stands a man who is not of Orcish blood, and has not even been within our walls for seven days, yet stands with our Princess, ready and willing to fight alongside her. He is the reason for the feast we had the other day, and despite being the War Chief’s Honoured Guest, he too gets ready to face the fire of the Gauntlet.”
The War Chief then stepped forward himself and looked at both Zuko and his daughter. His gaze focused mostly on Zuko as thoughts ran through his head.
‘I don’t know why you have insisted on this course Izano Zuko, but if it will help end this war between my children and help Zamah in a way that I couldn’t, then I leave everything to you.’
The War Chief nodded slightly at Zuko, who caught the nod reciprocated ever so slightly. The Orc then looked at his daughter before walking away from the edge. The Third Chancellor looked down at the two combatants down below and grinned.
“It has been far too long since this Arena last saw fresh blood and combat!” Doh boomed. “It is all up to you two how much of the blood it is about to see is yours, and how much belongs to those sent in to fight you! Now, without any further delay, let us get this Gauntlet of Guilt underway!”
The crowd roared in happiness as the platform began to rise up towards the VIP seats. Zuko and Zamah stood in there, still shackled and without any weapons. Zamah didn’t even have any armour on, while Zuko was at least covered in that respect. There were gates all around the arena floor, all spiked and all caked in dry blood. There were also sections of the wall that surrounded the sunken pit of the Arena that had long, jagged spikes. The ground shook a little bit as the heavy cogs that opened the spiked gates started turning slowly to let the wave join them.
“It looks like we are going to have to slum it out for the first round or so, until we are able to break free of these damn shackles. I will keep the incoming foes at bay for a bit with ranged attacks, and then—”
Zuko was interrupted by Zamah letting out a grunt and then pulling her arms apart, snapping the chains that held the shackles together to pieces, before quickly doing the same with her legs. She let out yet another grunt before bringing her hands down by her sides for the first time in a few days.
“That feels so much better.” She said with a slight sigh of relief. “Anyway, you were saying something?” She said as she looked at Zuko.
“…yeah, uh, speed. As I said yesterday, speed is the key here, Princess. We cannot allow these fools to pile up on us, or we will be in deep trouble.”
“Gotcha.” Zamah said as she started going through some stretches.
Zuko just watched her, wondering if these stretches were genuine, or purely for show.
“Also, the numbers are going to be insane. If we have to face twenty opponents every thirty-six odd minutes, this could get troublesome the closer we get to the final three or so waves.”
While Zuko was still talking, the gates opened completely and before he knew, Orcs of various builds and heights, clad in mostly heavy to medium armour started filing out from the two gates. The moment all twenty were on the Arena floor, one of the larger Orcs let out a ferocious War Cry, signaling the start of the Gauntlet of Guilt. Zuko, who had clenched his fists and was drawing out about as much Mana as he could and sent it directly to his arms and legs as his cape fluttered – revealing the Warlock Armour and bandaged limbs beneath it.
“Here they come, Princess! Prepare yourse—”
Zuko was unable to finish his sentence as the Princess finished her stretches, and pushed off from where she was standing. The force with which she did so actually generated a ridiculous gust of wind that caught Zuko by surprise, and with each step she took, she closed the gap between herself and the twenty warriors. Even without a weapon in hand, she went directly into the heart of the group, throwing a punch so unbelievably vicious that it tore through the air. The sound her fist made when it clattered into the face of the Orc that let out the War Cry was immense and sent him flying backwards into the Orcs behind him. No sooner had that punch landed that she was already attacking another Orc, twisting her body and driving the top of her foot into the neck of a shorter Orc to her left. Continuing the spin caused by her momentum, Zamah quickly stepped on the ground with her right foot and then drove her left foot deep into the stomach of another warrior, before pulling that same foot out and then instantly driving her knee into his face. She sensed an incoming blow and dashed to her right, nimbly evading it before grabbing the pole of the axe that had swung by and pulling on it. The warrior was violently pulled forward, and then felt the back of Zamah’s fist crashing into his face so hard, he flipped over. Whilst that warrior was still flipping, Zamah reached forward and grabbed the face of an Orc between her hands and jumped up, driving her forehead into that face. The Orc grunted before feeling a combination of two knees being driven into his gut in quick succession, breaking through the plate that was supposed to have protected him from such blows. As that Orc was pushed away, Zamah dashed forwards to where the first Orc had landed, ducking below weapons that had been swung by two Orcs before standing up and attacking them both, throwing punches and kicks while alternating between the two Orcs. She wasn’t sure how many blows she got in before they fell, but she quickly grabbed their weapons and turned around to block two more attacks. The clubs she had grabbed blocked the two vertical slashes that came from above, and once that was over with, Zamah stood up and absolutely smashed the Orcs that had attacked her, sending them flying. She then threw both clubs in the direction of another Orc, with one smacking him in the face and another getting him in the body, sending him flying painfully as well. Just then, the large Orc that she attacked first appeared from behind her, and she deftly dashed to her right as a massive sword cleaved the space she had just vacated. She then leapt up and smashed her fist into his face once more, before driving her knee into the side of his head and sending him crashing to the ground. She grabbed him by his plaited goatee and proceeded to smash his face repeatedly with her fist until his body fell limp, and once that happened, she stood up to her full height and looked at the rest of the group with a glare so intense, people all the way up in the cheap seats at the top could feel it.
As a roar erupted within the dome after a brief moment of stunned silence, the War Chief looked on open-mouthed and still silent. He then looked over at Doh and closed his mouth before speaking.
“Third Chancellor… what I said about death…”
“Please be at ease, War Chief. I have placed special Wards that sense how close to death a combatant is… once they cross a certain threshold, they will be teleported out of the Arena floor and to a prepared infirmary. Also, if they remain unconscious for a certain amount of time, they are teleported out as well.”
Kwanda and Stixx also watched on, and unlike their father, they were not the least bit surprised by Zamah’s ridiculous speed and strength. They knew that she was a monster, and just shook their heads slightly.
“Within the blink of an eye, she took down half of the first wave. That strength is ridiculous.” Stixx said.
“Yes, but if we managed to secure the right warriors, she will not triumph.” Kwanda responded in a hushed tone.
Down on the floor, Zuko had just managed to break his own chains, and had watched on in silence as Zamah decimated ten Orcs in a matter of moments.
“Well, this confirms it.” Zuko said to himself. “That bitch is a monster.”
Just then, Zuko spread his legs, bent his knees and thrust his open hands out at an angle, hunkering down as he let out a thunderous roar that was accompanied by two stomps. His cape fluttered about violently as Mana swirled in and around his body while his eyes also glowed brightly. The remaining warriors of the first wave had gotten over the shock of Zamah going to town on them, and were in the process of charging her. All of a sudden, the ground beneath their feet seemed to sink below them, creating a ditch and having them lose their footing and fall over. As this happened, Zamah was on them with knees and fists crashing into two of the warriors and taking them out immediately. She quickly grabbed both of their weapons as she landed on the ground, swinging the sword and axe combination and cleaving through armour plating and chainmail shirts and sending blood squirting all over the place. She was a whirlwind of swinging steel and the warriors that were within range of those weapons getting sliced to shreds. As an attack came in from behind, a square pillar burst out from the floor and flew past Zamah’s back. It actually intercepted the swing, however it didn’t stop it. While it may have only delayed the attack, it gave Zamah all the time she needed to dodge, swing one of the weapons hard, smash through the pillar and absolutely bash the Orc’s side with the back of the axe and send him flying off. As the three warriors she had sliced and diced fell to the ground in bloody heaps, the other one bounced a few times before crashing into a spike free part of the wall. The remaining four warriors all decided to attack Zamah together, flanking her from all sides. The moment that they stepped into range, spikes thrust out from the ground and impaled them at various points on their bodies. The spikes all pierced the flesh of the exposed skin, and before they could break free, Zamah unleashed a spinning attack, smashing the sides of their heads with the back of the axe once again and sending them all flying.
When the last of the warriors hit the floor and stopped moving, a massive cheer erupted from the crowd, who seemingly didn’t care that the person they were cheering for was accused of trying to kill her younger brothers in a blatant attempt to secure the position of War Chief for herself. She just turned around and walked towards where Zuko was standing and noticed how he was posed as if he had been doing weird exercises the whole time. As she reached him, she smirked somewhat.
“So, was that quick enough for you, Agent?” She asked.
“Absolutely, Princess. However, may I make a suggestion?”
“Huh? What is it?”
“That you focus purely on offense, and leave your protection to me.”
“Leave defense to you? So that weird stuff that came out from the ground was your doing?”
“Yes, it was. I will take care of watching your back, so you no longer need to fight on your toes and the balls of your feet. Let us use that monstrous strength to take care of these guys as quickly as possible.”
“Alright, let’s do it.” Zamah agreed as she nodded.
Just then, all of the incapacitated warriors glowed, and then disappeared into thin air. Zamah and Zuko looked at each other, before Zuko spoke.
“This is just a guess, but I think that was the work of a Spell or a Ward – possibly to keep those men from dying.”
“I agree.” Zamah said, watching as the gates began to open once more. “I think I have a way of testing whether or not that theory of yours is accurate.”
“Yeah… just watch my back as you promised.”
“No problem.” Zuko said with a nod.
Zamah turned to face the two gates that were opening again, and right behind her, Zuko started drawing out Mana once again while assuming the stance. Zamah tightened her grip on both her weapons as she stood right in front of him, and to those who were watching, the image of the two just seemed to fit. There was something of a dust nova that pulsed out from Zuko’s feet which appeared to have been caused by his Mana, and as the second wave of warriors that were similar to the first appeared, Zamah set off. She wasn’t running as quickly as she was before, but was still rapid however when she reached the warriors, she switched things up, planting her feet on the ground hard and tightening the grip on the weapons even more. Suddenly, her arms flexed and her legs flexed through the rags they were covered by, and she thrust the sword right into the stomach of an approaching Orc, before swinging the axe directly for his head and seemingly cleaving it clean off. The moment that it happened, his entire body glowed and disappeared, much like the previous ones.
“Your theory seems to be right!” Zamah boomed as she moved on to the next victim, swinging her weapons either together or alternating between them, with each swing carrying a death blow.
Each time there was an attack aimed at her, the ground around her would morph and change either into a pillar, a wall or a set of spikes that would slow the attack down or some cases stop it completely. Behind Zamah, Zuko was stomping, thrusting and clapping away. Whilst almost everybody in the Arena had absolutely no idea what he was doing, there was one man who was looking on, absolutely flabbergasted.
“…D-Dance of Gul’Rhaka.” The Third Chancellor said more to himself than anybody else. “I heard that the Earth Djinn had disappeared a few decades ago along with its siblings… to think that Gul’Rhaka has been tamed by this man? No! Wait… this only proves that he can do the Dance and manipulate the ground a little bit… that’s all.”
“What are you mumbling about, Third Chancellor?” The War Chief asked as he looked at Doh.
“N-Nothing, War Chief.” Doh replied as he tried to look and sound as normal as possible.
By the time Doh had looked back down at the Arena floor, Zamah had whittled the group of twenty warriors down to around two, and she made short work of them. As the assembled crowd went nuts again, Zamah made her way back to where Zuko was standing. They had taken care of two waves in less than ten minutes, and while that was mostly due to Zamah’s insane strength, Zuko taking care of the defensive responsibilities meant that she was able to be at her destructive best.
“How are you feeling?” Zuko asked as she reached him.
“I’m fine.” She responded as she wiped away some blood on her face with the back of her hand.
“Things are likely going to get more difficult from here on out.”
“I agree… you should be on your toes as well – they might end up targeting you.”
“Do not worry about me, and just attack.”
The doors opened far quicker than they did the previous two times, as if whatever had been opening them before had finally warmed up or something, and out strode ten Orc warriors that were clad in leather armour from gate, and ten Trolls as well. The tall, lanky and absolutely hideous creatures were in armour that was similar to their Orc counterparts, but seemed to be even lighter than theirs. Zamah and Zuko looked at their opponents, before looking at each other.
“I sense trouble.” Zuko said.
“These Trolls are going to be troublesome, Izano Zuko.”
“I know… I just said that.” Zuko said as he looked at Zamah. “More than just being fast, they are agile and move like their bones ad joints are liquid.”
“I suggest that we divide and conquer – take care of the Orcs first, and then go after the Trolls.”
“Alright… I will create some separation; you take out as many Orcs as you can, and then we take it from there.”
The little strategy meeting was over and Zamah was charging the enemies in a flash. As she did, Zuko stomped on the ground with both feet, clapping his hands as he did, and then thrust his arms straight up, palms facing the sky. As this happened, a thick wall shot out from between the two groups of enemies, splitting them almost perfectly in half. As soon as it did, Zamah forced her way into the group of Orcs. These Orcs were clearly of a different level to the first batch, and not only that, their attire and short swords just screamed of speed. Zamah in turn had to alter her approach and pretty much revert back to the style she had adopted during the first part of the previous wave, fighting on her toes and utilising her speed. In an effort to support her properly, Zuko had clenched his fists while extending his index and forefingers, before pointing them upwards and erecting three more walks, as if in an effort to box the Trolls in. He then clapped his now open hands together, spread them out wide and then clenched his fists slowly, his arms shaking violently as he bent his fingers. The walls became thinner as an untold number of spikes suddenly jutted out from the three walls that were most recently created. Those three walls suddenly disintegrated, revealing the downright creepy shapes that the Trolls had contorted and twisted themselves into in order to avoid the spikes. A few of them had been caught by the tip of a few spikes, but none of them had been injured gravely. A few of the Trolls then untwisted themselves so to speak, before springing forth and charging towards Zuko. He clapped his hands together after stomping his right foot into the ground, and a wall appeared. The three Trolls had all made their way over and around the wall only to find Zuko directly behind it. He stomped both feet into the ground hard and extended his right fist directly into the midriff of the Troll that was vaulting over the wall. The blow was particularly hard, as he also thrust Mana out from his hand at the moment of impact, which actually sent the Troll flying straight up.
There was a collective gasp as Zuko suddenly raised his arms and successfully blocked both attacks. These Trolls were not armed like the ones that had been equipped with short spears the other night. Instead, their insanely long finger nails-cum-claws pursed together and grew longer, forming thick black daggers of some sort. The wall suddenly crumbled and Zuko leapt backwards, looking behind him to see what was going on with Zamah, who was jumping around and slashing at the Orcs that she was fighting. The other Trolls by now were also charging Zuko, who was sliding towards them. He quickly landed on the ground and began running towards Zamah, who noticed him coming.
“Switch!” He boomed, and Zamah immediately caught on to what he meant.
Zuko stopped running, sliding towards Zamah and just as he was about to stop, he stomped down hard with both feet. He then raised his hands without clapping them, and something of a mini wall appeared. Zamah jumped from where she was standing after evading an attack, landed on the wall and then leapt off of it, flying high into the air. After remaining airborne for what seemed like an age, she pressed both of her weapons together and pointed them towards the ground. Zuko’s pursuers noticed her too late as she drove the sword and axe into the heads of two Trolls. Just as they disappeared, the weapons smashed into the ground, actually splitting it and causing the Trolls that were approaching her to lose their footing.
“Princess, smash some chunks in the air!”
Zamah quickly jabbed the sword and Axe into the ground, before forcing both weapons out into the air. This sent rather large chunks into the ground and between her and the Trolls. While some chose to spread and evade them, three decided to run right through which turned out to be a mistake as those chunks suddenly turned to spikes and pierced their large heads. Three more disappeared, and Zamah was now faced with four conscious Trolls. Zuko now had to concentrate on the Orcs that were quicker than the Trolls, but far less agile. The two of them were actually able to dispatch the remaining foes with less difficulty than before, and quickly came to the realisation that they were both suited to fighting against specific foes in the group. Once the final one disappeared, Zamah and Zuko ended up meeting in the middle of the Arena floor.
“Good work.” Zuko said with a nod.
“You too.” Zamah said, reciprocating the nod.
She was covered in quite the coating of sweat, and had started controlling her breathing. Zuko noticed this, and then looked towards the gates.
“Now that we have figured out which enemies are best for us to take on, let us quickly get rid of them.”
“Sure thing.” Zamah said with a nod. “Trolls may be nimble, but being so lanky does little for their speed. I’ll take care of them.”
They were then interrupted by the sound of the gates opening once more. As the foes ran out, neither Zuko nor Zamah stood on ceremony and waited for them to assemble completely as they charged their respective groups before they could join up and work together. This turned out to be a good decision, as they were able to take care of the fourth wave even quicker than they were the third wave. They both made their way back to the middle of the floor, where Zamah wiped away sweat and blood while focusing on her breathing a little bit. There was no talking this time while they waiting, and when the gates opened, the ground began to shake as if something big was coming – and it was. Ten Trolls emerged from one gate, but then four Ogres emerged from the other one. The crowd, which had largely tuned out by the combatants went silent this time, and the War Chief looked at Doh.
“Why only four of them?”
“These Trolls are a little over two times stronger than the average Orc warrior, War Chief.”
Down on the floor, Zuko and Zamah looked on as the massive, lumbering masses of power congregated and looked at the Trolls.
“Before they communicate and come up with plans, we attack! I go for the Ogres and keep them busy; you take out the Trolls and then come help me. Please be quick Princess, I get the feeling those giant clubs could turn me into paste with very little effort.”
There was no confirmation between the two as they set off, splitting as they got closer to their opponents. Zuko once again raised a wall between the two groups but this time, he made it about as thick as he could manage. He then stopped in his tracks and started stomping repeatedly; alternating between his left and right foot, all the while punching the air with his extended arms after each stomp. This resulted in bits of the ruined floor breaking off and shooting towards the Ogres. The intention of this attack was to draw the attention of the simple minded Ogres, and it did just that.
“If anything, them being stupid makes them easy to manipulate.” Zuko said to himself as all four started charging him. “That said… now what?”
The hulking behemoths were slow as well as simple, however despite not being stupid, Zuko wasn’t exactly quick in his current guise. With his possessions being with his Robes, Zuko spared a moment to glare hard at the Third Chancellor, who noticed it and uncomfortably looked around before pointing at himself. That glare was all Zuko had time for unfortunately, as he was suddenly beset with Ogres. Their huge frames and ridiculously large weapons cast a shadow that almost covered his entire body. He suddenly bent his knees a little, raised his arms and let out a thunderous roar as Mana burst out from his body like water from a splitting fire hose. The head of the massive wooden club smashed down into Zuko’s natural Mana shield with such power, the ground beneath his feet caved, and he was forced down a few inches into it. Upon that happening, the ground around his ankles was suddenly blown away as Mana swirled around them. His eyes glowed as he let out another roar and forced the weapon to the side, the ground shaking as the heavy head landed on it.
“S… So fucking heavy.” He remarked to himself as he looked up to see the other three Ogres all swinging.
He suddenly saw the club wielding arm of the Ogre at the back drop, accompanied by a wail of pain. He then heard a few more wails, but couldn’t quite see what had happened as weapons were on course to turn him to mush. He let out a roar as he stomped his feet again, but this time instead of blocking, twisted his hips, raised his fists and smashed the first incoming club away with as much strength as he could muster. He didn’t stop there however, as he suddenly turned and twisted his body in the opposite direction to smash the weapon away, which he did. The First Ogre tried to raise its weapon to smash Zuko, it found itself in immense pain, wailing loudly as the pain spread and its weapon dropped to the floor. Soon afterwards, things went dark as it hit the ground, and not long after that, the other Ogres were also incapacitated on the ground. Zuko looked at Zamah to see her wielding two of the short swords that the Orcs from the previous wave had been wielding. She walked up to Zuko, blood dripping from the swords and all over her rags.
“…thanks.” Zuko said as he was now breathing a tad heavier. “I really should have spent more time in that damn pool. How are you holding up?”
“I’m still standing. You?”
“I cannot really feel my arms, and I have been pumping so much Mana out through the soles of my feet that they may start bleeding soon. But other than that, no complaints.”
“Why aren’t you using Magic, though? We could definitely use some.”
“I am not actually a Mage, Princess.” Zuko said as the next wave made its way out of the gates.
Zuko quickly skated around Zamah’s questions as he just ran forward, with her following suit. The larger weapons were strapped to her back using some leather and cloth she ripped off from a Troll’s armour, and she was running with speed towards her enemies. Her gait looked somewhat ragged and she was running with her mouth open. She cut right into the Trolls and when she did, any signs or hints of fatigue melted away. She did her best to dispatch the Trolls as quickly as possible, with the loud crashes and vibrating ground reminders of Zuko’s plight. Despite not being a Mage, he was still by far the physically inferior of the pair and Zamah had resigned herself to using as much energy as she had to so she could go and help him. Once she was done with the Trolls, she quickly made her towards Zuko, who was once again surrounded by Ogres. Forfeiting power and focusing purely on blistering speed, Zamah targeted the joints of the Ogres – ankles, backs of knees, elbows and so on. The Ogres were not clad in any armour, and this meant that these areas were accessible. She worked as quickly as she could to get finish the Ogres off, and by the time she had, Zuko was standing within yet another crater, surrounded by Ogre Clubs. His arms hung limp, and his breathing was also ragged. Parrying the heavy blows had taken its toll on him, however when he saw Zamah looking at him, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and stood up straight, before exiting the crater. He walked up to the Princess, took a deep breath and nodded at her.
“Thanks.” Zuko reached out and patted Zamah on the shoulder, before looking at her. “How are you feeling?”
“I hope the next two waves are filled with strong Shamans who use Magic, and Magic alone. No more fucking Ogres.”
“No more fucking Ogres.” Zuko said with a nod.
“No more fucking Ogres!”
“No more fucking Ogres!”
The two gladiators seemed to be psyching themselves up with the chant, as if drawing strength from their belief and pure hope that no Ogres would be emerging from the gate. The crowd that had been going nuts, cheering for Zamah all throughout the Gauntlet continued to do so even when the ground started to shake again. While they maintained their optimism and enthusiasm, Zamah and Zuko looked towards the gates which were now open. Ogres started pouring out from both gates, and both Zuko’s and Zamah’s faces were absolutely drenched in incredulity as eight Ogres stood there staring at them.
“…twice the number of fucking Ogres.”
“Fucking TWICE!!” Zamah boomed.
She looked at Zuko who looked back at her and shrugged with a sigh.
“Come on, Princess… stamina issues aside, after taking down these damn Ogres, we will only have one more wave of enemies to defeat. Let’s do this.”
Zuko extended his fist to his left, clenched and side on. Zamah looked down at the proffered fist, and just walked off.”
“What?! You bitch!” Zuko boomed before letting out a roar and powering his way towards the Ogres.
Unlike the previous rounds, Zamah and Zuko were not able to split the work, and had to tackle the foes together. Without even saying anything, it was understood that Zuko was to draw attention and Zamah was to attack. The issue this time was that there were so many of them, and Zuko had been struggling with the previous, so the fight threatened to go south – and it did. It started off alright, as the pair took down an Ogre, and then another one, and that gave them confidence. As they began to work over the third Ogre, Zamah suddenly found herself surrounded by Ogres, and while her legs felt almost uncharacteristically heavy, that was when she knew they were in trouble. She battled to get out from the Ogre box, and the sound of Zuko battling against the two that weren’t around became louder and seemingly more animated. This spurred Zamah on, and by the time she had managed to trick her way out, she managed to get the perfect view of Zuko’s entire upper torso getting smashed by the head of a club and sent flying back. He then crashed into a non-spiked part of the wall with a loud crash, and an explosion of dust.
“IZANO ZUKO!!!!” Zamah boomed in concern as she looked in Zuko’s direction.
Just as she was about to run towards him, her legs gave out – buckling before forcing her to take a knee. Just then, a pair of clubs started flying towards her, and as the swings got closer, the crowd drew breath simultaneously. Suddenly, Zamah flew up from beneath the weapons, kneeling on a growing square pillar. Said pillar did not last long however, and it crumbled almost immediately after she broke though. Another pillar snaked its way towards her, and she immediately understood what it was there for. She placed her feet on its surface, and pushed off with as much force as she could. She absolutely flew towards the Ogres that Zuko failed at fighting off, and drawing on the last reserves of Stamina she had, Zamah sliced and diced her way up the Ogres, dancing around them both as blood sprayed forth, and at the end of the attack, they fell face first into the ground. Zamah then fell down onto her knees as her vision became somewhat blurry and her breathing was absolutely ragged. She looked to her left to see if Zuko had emerged from the hole in the wall, but he had not. She then looked at the Ogres that were approaching her.
‘Damn…’ Zamah thought to herself. ‘I should have remembered that Izano Zuko was fighting injured. But would that have made a difference? Even if he was fresh, I’m still exhausted.’
Zamah continued eyeing the incoming Ogres, before looking down at the ground and watching sweat drip profusely from her face and head. Her heartbeat was the only thing she could hear, and she looked up at the Ogres with a smirk.
‘I was hoping to have to use this in the next wave, but it looks like I have to do it now. I have to finish things quickly, so that I can finish things in the next round as soon as possible.’
Zamah let out a breath as she closed her eyes, and almost immediately, a physical manifestation of her energy started swirling around her body, much like Zuko’s Mana had been doing all throughout the Gauntlet. This swirling went from being gentle, to suddenly becoming a lot more violent and forceful. A strong gust of wind blew out from where she was kneeling, coupled with a red flash of light that lasted for a few seconds. She then stood up slowly, with something of a red glow or aura enveloping her body. She opened her eyes looked at the Ogres, and within the blink of an eye she disappeared from where she was standing. She reappeared behind each of the Ogre’s back, before disappearing again and eventually ended up back in the same spot. A seam suddenly appeared, running down from their heads down to their groins. That seam started glowing red, and all of the Ogres split in half before glowing and disappearing. Their blood still decorated the ruined mess that was the floor, and Zamah looked towards the wall that Zuko had crashed into. She started walking slowly towards it, as if she was trying to conserve energy. She couldn’t hear anything other than her own thoughts and her heartbeat as she made her way over to him.
“The Princess’ Frenzy is still as amazing as the first time I saw it.” The Third Chancellor said with a slight shake of the head. “It is the complete opposite of a Frenzy, and she remains calm and in control the entire time.”
“While I agree with that Doh, for her to use it now is an unbelievable gamble.”
“I agree, War Chief. If this gamble pays out, she wins. If it doesn’t, well…”
Just then, both the War Chief and the Third Chancellor noticed that Kwanda was nowhere to be seen.
“Where is your brother, Stixx?” The Chief asked.
“I don’t know, Father. Maybe he went to the bathroom.” Stixx replied with a suspicious looking shrug.
The two older men thought nothing of as they looked back down. The rumbling of the gates signaled the beginning of the tenth and final wave, and interrupted Zamah’s trek towards Zuko. She turned and looked to see if there were to be eight Ogres again, however she and the entire Arena were absolutely flabbergasted when they saw Prince Kwanda emerging from one gate, and an Ogre Lord emerging from the other. The Ogre Lord was a massive, heavily armoured creature with a huge sword placed on his shoulders. He let out a massive roar, as Prince Kwanda approached, dressed to the gills in Warlock Armour that wasn’t dissimilar to Zuko’s, and slowly reached for his bladed staff. Zamah didn’t allow the shock to delay her however, because she was running on a time limit. She set off towards her younger brother, the ground splitting and separating beneath her rapidly moving feet in real time, reaching the Prince within the blink of an eye. Luckily for him, he had his staff in his hands and was able to parry the blow, albeit in an ungainly, Mage-like manner. He flew to his right; however Kwanda pointed the staff in front of him and immediately slowed down. From there, he pointed the blade of the staff at himself and was immediately covered from head to toe in what appeared to be a shield comprising of lightning strikes. He then pointed the blade in front of him, and a rectangular lightning shield appeared in front of him as well. He did all this with ridiculous speed and that was just as well, because Zamah was on him and swinging. All of the shields he had cast were cut through like melted butter, but did their job in protecting him. He was once again sent flying, but once again, he cycled through the Spells. This was all happening at break-neck speed, and those who were able to follow what was happening with their eyes were dead silent. Up on the platform, Doh was shaking his head again.
“Prince Kwanda is equally as ridiculous as that sister of his.” He said. “Already reached the level of casting Spells without the incantation, and physically strong enough to not get cleaved in half by the Princess’ attacks.”
“He’s also using his head to fight, prolonging the battle in an effort to see out Zamah’s Frenzy and then capitalise. Normally, a father would be proud to see that he has sired such genius… however, that is a privilege I am not destined to receive.”
As Zamah and Kwanda continued to battle, they had begun to produce blue and red flashes as they clashed on the ground and in the air. Despite being praised for his unbelievable combat abilities for a Shaman; Kwanda was not winning this fight. In fact, he had multiple lacerations, his armour was being torn to shreds, and he was bleeding from his mouth. The fact of the matter was that he wasn’t a warrior, he was a Shaman – a Mage, and this was beginning to show. Something else that was beginning to show was the abject desperation on Zamah’s face, as she tried her absolute hardest to damage Kwanda enough to have him disappear. Both siblings were embroiled in a race to beat the clock, and this had absolutely everybody in the Arena captivated and silent. Unfortunately for Zodwa and the crew, who had sneaked in to watch, Zamah seemed to run out of time before Kwanda ran out of juice and just as she attempted to launch another attack at Kwanda, her body seized up then the glow from her eyes and body disappeared. Kwanda did not let the opportunity slip by and raised his bladed staff high, before it glowed brightly and produced two lightning bolts that joined onto the blade, creating a Trident of sorts. The trident was brought down onto Zamah and sent her crashing into the jagged ground below with an almighty bang. There was silence within the Arena as Kwanda gently floated to the ground. In the brief exchange he had with his sister which didn’t even last a minute, Kwanda had been beaten and bruised worse than he had been by anybody else in a competitive setting, and it showed. He hunched over, placed his hands on his knees and retched as he vomited blood onto the floor. Once that was done, he spent a few minutes breathing hard, trying to replenish the oxygen his body had lost. He stood up straight and looked towards the spot his sister had crash landed and shook his head slowly.
“Fuck… I was about fifteen seconds away from exploding.” Kwanda said as he picked up his staff and started walking towards Zamah.
The Ogre was standing by, yet to make a sound or move a muscle, and as Prince Kwanda got closer to the Princess, a yell of both pain and exertion filled the dome. The Princess forced the issue and stood up, her legs shaky like those of a newborn Tusker. She looked at Kwanda with eyes filled with all the grit and determination one who aspired to be War Chief would have and her eyes were met with the same amount of determination and grit.
“Why are you down here, Kwanda?” Zamah asked tiredly.
“Princess… sister… I ask you once more, will you not join me and serve our people as their Shaman when I become War Chief?” Kwanda pleaded.
“We’ve had this discussion so many times, Kwanda!” Zamah replied. “My answer from back then is my answer now.”
“Why?!” Kwanda boomed. “Why must you be so stubborn and refuse to see my point of view?!”
“Right back at you!” Zamah boomed back. “You constantly speak about how both of the changes we want to bring are urgent, yet you want to institute yours from the position of War Chief, and mine should be instituted as the Shaman! Don’t you see how that doesn’t change a fucking thing?!”
“Surely you understand why things must be this way! The changes will still made – both yours and mine! Why can’t you see that messenger is as important as the messenger, that the voice—”
“DON’T YOU DARE BRING UP THE VOICE ARGUMENT AGAIN!!!”
“You see?! Talking to you is like talking to a tunnel vision idiot who doesn’t understand that the world is bigger than the walls of this Enclave! You are NOT that stupid – why must you insist on thinking like one?!”
“When will you stop looking down on me, you brat?!”
“When will you stop being so stubborn and fucking listen?!”
The spirited debate was happening right in front of the War Chief, the Third Chancellor as well as tens of thousands of Enclave inhabitants. The battle appeared to have changed from a Gauntlet for freedom, to a squabble between siblings, and even Doh sighed and shook his head, feeling embarrassed for the War Chief. Just as it seemed as though things were going to escalate once more, the sound of rock falling suddenly drew the attention of everybody seated in the dome. From the hole in the wall, Izano Zuko emerged, looking broken and raggedy as hell. His right arm hung limp, and not only did it look like he was struggling to breath, but he was also barely able to walk, dragging a leg behind him as he limped his way forward.
“H-Holy fucking shit…” Zuko wheezed, actually speaking with his mouth this time. “You two are both as idiotic as each other. Both of you are placing too much emphasis on something that does not require it, and that is making the both of you blind to what is important.”
“Izano Zuko!” Zamah boomed with barely contained relief.
“You be quiet and listen to me – both of you. First, you stupid Prince… You talk a really good game, and your intentions really are good… but your actions, the way you do things… so fucking inefficient. You could have had this entire situation wrapped up with things getting to this point. You idiot.”
The entire Arena was stunned to silence yet again as Zuko outright called the Prince an idiot.
“And you!” Zuko said as he looked at Zamah. “Your stubbornness and poor planning have also led you down a harsh and lonely path which has left you alienated from your idiot brothers. You wanted to bring about change for the marginalised within this Horde, felt that the position of War Chief was necessary to achieve that goal and coveted the position as if it was the only way to do it. You two have come to complicated solutions individually when you could have come to a simple one together.”
Zuko hobbled until he was barely standing in front of the Ogre Lord and sneered through the somewhat loosely hanging bandages at the massive being.
“Listen to me Princess, and listen well; you wish to change things but you currently live in a society which will not allow you to get the power and gravitas necessary to bring about that change, so you the way I see it, you have two options. Use superior strength to remove all things and people that stand between you and that power, obtain it by force, and in turn, institute your changes by force, and enact your will on the society that refused you in the first place. Destroy what is currently there, and then rebuild it according to your will.”
Zuko’s chilling voice, coupled with what he was saying sent shivers down the spines of nigh on everybody there.
“Your other choice is just as simple; if those around you refuse to accept you and your desire lead then leave. Leave and build yourself a place in which you may lead, and in which you may thrive and grow. Instead of trying to change a way of thinking that has been entrenched over generations of living, create something from scratch that you can lead into the future! That is the current situation, and the power to choose the option that suits both you and those you wish to lead is within your hands! But you have to CHOOSE! Choose a path, commit to it and stake absolutely everything you have, including your life, your soul, your very being, and with all of those in your hands in, do what you have to in order to achieve that which you wish to achieve.”
As Zuko said this, he stomped both feet down on the ground, clenching both fists and let out a roar that filled more than a few people with dread. His eyes were filled with a bright, earth coloured light that shone incredibly. His cape was fluttering violently behind him, and something appeared to be trying to force its way out from the Warlock Armour. The bandages around his mouth had become loose, and Zuko was bearing his teeth as he roared, and after taking a deep breath, he clenched them hard before speaking.
“Listen to me, Princess. We a born onto this Plane of Existence with our fate firmly within our own grasp. The only question we are faced with is whether or not we are willing to pay the required price in order to obtain what it is that we want. As I stand here, I have been paying the high price of achieving my ambition for nearly my entire life, and I continue to pay it now as I stand here before you! If you truly wish to achieve greatness, put your money where your mouth is – put your life on the line, venture into the realm of the strong and make your dreams come true with your own strength!!! It is simple enough is it not? Huh?! Zamaaaaaaahhhh?!!!”
As Zuko virtually gurgled out Zamah’s name, he let out an almighty roar as Mana so pure and so powerful shot out from his body; it actually ripped the bandages on his arms and legs to shreds, exposing the flesh beneath. The wet gurgle of a roar resonated throughout the dome, and only the Third Chancellor was actually able to see what was going on. As something continued to try and burst out from Zuko’s back, the silhouette Mana formed above him. Six large, practically translucent legs landed on the ground, with three on either side of Zuko. A large, long, armoured body with a thick, fat tail and lizard-like horned head all followed as they came into view, and Doh’s eyes grew wide as he actually received the confirmation he had been speaking of to himself before.
“G-Gul’Rhaka… the Djinn of the Earth, the Sand Salamander… He’s trying to force his way out from inside Izano Zuko? What is going on here?!”
Just as Doh said that, a flash of gold light drew his attention towards Zamah, who was now completely enveloped in a golden light, similar to the red one that surrounded her body during her Frenzy. Her demeanor was still calm, and she just remained silent as the light turned to a pulsing aura that looked akin to thing Doh had seen in the city referred to as a lava lamp. Unable to comprehend what was going on, he looked towards the War Chief for some sort of guidance or clarity.
“Zamah is using Frenzy again.” The older man said as if sensing the intention behind the gaze. He was maintaining a rather strong poker face, despite seeing ratherincredible.
“What do you mean?! She already used Frenzy! She’s currently suffering from Recoil! Her cells are spent! How can she–”
“She’s using her Life Force to fuel the Frenzy. As she stands like that, she is shaving time off of her life.”
“…what?” Doh said in absolute shock.
“I can’t believe it.” The War Chief said, sounding somewhat surprised. “That man’s words… they reached her splendidly, and she really is putting her life on the line to achieve her dreams.”
Just then, the silhouette of Gul’Rhaka let out an absolutely bone chilling roar, causing the Third Chancellor to look at Zuko. Zuko raised his left hand slowly as he grinned, before letting out a horrifying and wet soundinf laugh.
“…Hand of Gul’Rhaka.”
Zuko clenched his fist, and a stone hand suddenly burst out from beneath the ground around the Ogre Lord. Five massive fingers and a hand suddenly grabbed the Ogre and squeezed hard before it could even do anything. The Ogre roared as it tried to break free, but all that happened was that it was dragged into the ground, glowing and disappearing before being killed.
This all happened surprisingly quickly, and even though it stunned the dome to complete silence, there wasn’t any time for anybody to digest the one-hit-kill of the Ogre that was at least ten times stronger than a regular Orc warrior as Zamah was already on the move, slowly walking towards her brother who had been in something of a funk since Zuko had called him an idiot. He looked up at his sister with something of a look of fear. The fear quickly changed to determination, and then to anger as he let out a roar and got up to his feet. He pointed his staff towards Zamah and in no time at all, it became a Trident again. This turned out to be useless, as he looked down at his torso and found both of the short swords protruding from it. The moment he looked towards his sister, he was met by a slap so unbelievably hard, he absolutely smashed into the ground with a thud so sickening, it made everybody gasp in unison.
“…that was for Voh, you idiot.” Zamah said with a scowl and a scolding tone that Kwanda had heard all too frequently while growing up.
He then proceeded to lose consciousness, and moments later, glowed before disappearing. Despite it taking a moment to click, the Prince’s disappearance signaled the end of the Gauntlet of Guilt, with Zuko and Zamah winning, and in turn winning the pardon and the wish. The Third Chancellor suddenly started speaking as the platform came into view as it lowered.
“People of the Nkunzi Horde, Princess Zamah and Agent Izano Zuko have emerged victorious, and have thus won the prizes that were on offer!!!”
The crowd went absolutely nuts, chanting and singing Zamah’s name as her Life Fueled Frenzy died down and melted away. She took a deep breath, looked up towards the sky and fist pumped as she roared for all that she was worth. This in turn made the crowd cheer even louder, and even as the platform came to a stop, they were allowed to cheer for a little while longer. Soon afterwards though, the war Chief raised his hand which was the universal signal for them to quiet down or risk being smashed to bits by his Warhammer.
“Well done, Princess Zamah.” The War Chief said with a smile. “You have overcome the waves of enemies and together with your companion, have won. As per the rules of the ritual, you are entitled to your freedom and a single wish. Have you decided on a wish, or do you require some time to think?”
“No, I can answer you right away, War Chief. My wish is multifaceted, but simple enough. I seek above anything else, your blessing.”
“Yes, your blessing. I need land, I need territory… I wish to leave this Horde, tame the tribes beyond the Mafinyila Mountains, raise my own banner, and become War Chief of my own Horde. Instead of battling with my own blood for it, I think there is wisdom in building my own thing from the ground up.”
“It won’t be easy starting something new from scratch.” The War Priest said, ignoring the surprise and shock of the rest of the Arena.
“Nothing worth doing ever is, War Chief.”
“You also do realise that if you do this, you will be relinquishing any claim you have to being Chief in the future, right? Even if the four of us were to die, you would be unable to come back and assume the duties of War Chief.”
“So long as I do not relinquish the right to be your daughter, I do not mind, War Chief.”
The old man took a moment to look at Zamah with a slightly pained look in his eyes, and then looked at the half dead looking Zuko.
“You have no problem with using your wish to make this come true?”
“Even if I have a wish of my own, I will donate it to the Princess so she can use it.” Zuko said in a ragged sounding voice.
“Very well… then as the War Chief of this Horde, and in accordance of the laws of this ritual, I hereby decree that—”
“Wait, War Chief! Forgive the interruption, but I have one more add on to the wish… I request a grace period in which members of your Horde may join mine without fear of persecution.”
“We can iron out the details later, Zamah. For now, I commit myself to granting you your wish, and declare you a free woman and a War Chief.”
Just then, Zodwa and all the other servants suddenly let cheers of absolute elation, and Zamah looked down at the ground as she actually cried tears of joy. Zuko just fell on his behind, and no sooner had that happened, did he lose consciousness.