Art by jabberox
Steel & Thunder
“Are we there yet?” I hear Nathaniel ask for the hundredth time since we started walking this morning.
“No,” Elisabeth growls from the front of the group. “Now stop asking.”
“Yes, dear,” Nate sighs.
Corrine and I share a look, no doubt thinking the same thing: What does she see in him?
“We’re almost there,” Adam says from his position in front next to Liss (short for Elisabeth). “We should have just made it past the orc camps.” The people in the last town told us the orcs in the area were mostly peaceful, but we still wanted to play it safe and steer clear. I’ve also never actually met an orc before, so I’m not entirely sure I believe them.
Where we come from, there aren’t any orcs. Or many non-humans at all. Growing up, I learned there were orcs on the mainland in the south and east, but everything I knew came from the stories I heard. They didn’t exactly paint a pretty picture: lots of fighting, blood, and death. Sometimes they were a race obsessed with honor, other times creatures who would invade your land and raze your fields. So yeah, holding my breath on that one.
The current marching order has become our default travel formation. Adam, Liss, and I are the muscle, though those two have me beat in that department lately. They stay on guard in front while I take the rear, with our two squishy magic users sandwiched in the middle. I don’t mind—Corrine is surprisingly fun to talk to—but sometimes Nate is just so fucking irritating. I swear he does it on purpose. That’s what happens when you agree to travel halfway around the world with someone you barely know.
The five of us have been traveling together for a month now (two if you count that godsawful boat ride), and even rang in the new year together just a few weeks ago, making all sorts of plans as a group. Our goals as exploring adventurers are still a little undefined at this point, but after wandering up and down the coast taking odd jobs for weeks, we finally got a lead on something good in Holbrooke, the last town we stayed in. Apparently, a few years back, an earthquake uncovered some elven ruins in the mountains. Most people stayed away because of the orcs, but the rumors of there being something magical and powerful inside were enough to sway us. The desperation to do anything besides making a delivery or killing a giant rat may have contributed as well. That was four days ago.
I’m not sure what awaits us once we get to the ruins, but I trust my team to be able to handle it. Well, most of them at least. I’ve known Adam forever: tall, blonde, muscular, your classic golden boy who was nearly always the top of our class. I say nearly because the two of us were usually engaged in a friendly competition over...everything—sports, archery, sword fighting. Once, in the middle of a school day, we both jumped in a lake just to see who could hold their breath the longest. We met Liss when we entered the knight academy after finishing school. She’s maybe an inch or two shorter than Adam with fiery red hair that she normally dyes brown and cuts short. Since that’s not really possible out in the forest, she’s taken to wearing a hood over it. I’m just a couple of inches shorter than she is, clocking in at around 5’10” last time I checked. My black hair is currently shaggier than I like it, and I’ve got the beginnings of a beard from the three days we’ve been out here.
Corrine and Nathaniel joined us only a few days before we got on the boat. I was the one who noticed Corrine in the tavern, not that it was hard to spot the tall blonde pigtailed woman dressed like a nun. After asking me not to call her that, she told me she was looking for a group to make the journey across the ocean with for her “missionary work.” She seemed a little weird, but there was a healthy amount of fear and disgust over the establishment we were sitting in, so I knew she wasn’t totally out of her mind. Other than some Bible-study and group prayers, I haven’t seen her do much missionary-ing, but she says that “helping out anyone in the name of God is good work.”
We met Nate the following night in the same tavern after he answered an ad Adam posted. We were getting desperate for a magic user, but I still told Adam we might want to rethink going with the obvious mage-school dropout. His robe is dirty, his brown hair messy, and he seems to have perpetual stubble, even after spending days in the forest. He’s also just a little taller than I am, which wouldn’t be something I’d ever pay attention to if he didn’t point it out over and over and over.
At some point during the boat ride, Liss and Nate started fucking. A month on the water with only your hand is no fun, and it’s not like I have any experience myself to speak of, so I didn’t blame her for taking care of what she needed to. I was just surprised it continued once we were back on solid land, and there were more viable candidates around. A lot more viable. I mean, he’s been a fine wizard, I guess.
“Are you sure we didn’t pass it?” He’s just so fucking annoying.
“I think I see it.” Liss points as we pass a hill to reveal the base of the mountain. A few more paces and I’m able to see what she means, spotting a cave in the distance. Large boulders sit on either side of it, huge cracks split the ground and mountainside, but there’s still a clear path—as if the rocks have been moved intentionally.
As we get closer, the details get less fuzzy, and I can make out some of the stonework carved around the entrance. I’ve never actually seen elven ruins before, so I don’t know if this is what they usually look like. There’s a smooth column along each side of the cave, but they’ve got to be purely decorative.
We stop just outside the entrance. The cave is dark—duh, it’s a cave—but that’s not an issue since Adam is already grabbing a torch and flint from his pack. There are letters along the top of the entrance—Corrine calls them runes—but I can’t read them. I swear it feels like I’ve seen them before, which is weird because, again, this is a first for me. For all of us, actually.
“Okay, I’m taking point,” Adam tells the rest of us. He’s technically the leader of our group. I’m second in command, though Liss might argue differently. “Once we’re inside, Nate and Corrine will start checking for magic. Elf ruins aren’t known for their traps, but David and Liss, keep your eyes peeled for anything I might miss.” He reaches in his pack for another torch, handing it to me once it’s lit. “Ready?”
“Ready,” we agree in unison. Adam draws his sword and in we go.
The walls of the cave are smooth, like the floor and ceiling. They’re plain at first, but as we move deeper inside, I see carvings along them. At first, it’s just more of the oddly familiar script I saw outside, but soon there are small figures, and then full-on faces, very detailed and obviously elven.
I don’t get much info on who they are, mostly because I still can’t read any of this. I’m trying to take in the details on the walls but also everything else since you never know when there might be a trap or a secret passage. These places have those, right? But so far, it’s just been one long hallway. I look back periodically and watch the cave entrance growing smaller behind us. I also hear some kind of ringing or buzzing in my ear.
“Hold.” Adam slows down. It looks like we’ve reached the end of the hallway and the entrance to a larger room. Adam and Elisabeth enter first, the orange-yellow light from the torch illuminating the room around them. “I think we’re good.”
The rest of us enter the room carefully. It’s pretty big. You could probably fit three or four dozen people in here. I count one, two...eight walls, including the one we entered from. They go very high, each one carved from floor to ceiling in intricate designs. I see words, figures, entire scenes depicted, the light making the details harder to see as they vanish into the darkness above. But what really pulls focus is across from us, facing the entrance. Without being prompted, Adam steps closer and holds up his torch.
In the center of the wall is a large, very detailed sculpture of a man. I guess I’m not sure sculpture is the right word. Is it a relief? I didn’t really pay that much attention in art class. It's a part of the wall, but it also seems to be coming off the wall. He’s tall, though I guess I’m not sure if he’s meant to be life-sized or not. He’s in a robe, arms at his side, with short slightly curled hair and a full beard. He’s also got pointed ears, so not a human, but an elf.
“Do you guys hear that?” I rub my ear in irritation. The ringing worsened when we walked inside, and it’s making it hard to focus.
“David, get over here so we can get a better look at this.” Liss points next to Adam.
“Hold on.” Somehow, my ear and the wall aren’t the only things grabbing my attention in the room.
In the center of the room is a raised platform with a large pedestal, a brazier on the floor on either side. As I step forward, the buzzing in my ear grows, but it’s not so bad that I can’t light the two with my torch. As soon as the second one is lit, eight smaller braziers along the wall light up by themselves. The sudden illumination makes everyone jump, Liss even drawing her sword. No one says anything, waiting to see if we just sprang a trap.
“Shouldn’t you be telling us about things like magical lights?” Liss gripes, sheathing her weapon.
“Sorry,” Nate sighs before muttering a spell.
“I think that’s Zeus.” Corrine’s voice echoes through the chamber, startling herself. We all stare at her and then back at the wall.
The elf is flanked on either side up and down by clouds, each of them thundering with lightning. Strewn among the clouds and lightning are dozens of eagles, each carved so intricately I can make out the individual feathers from here. I’ve heard the name Zeus, but my family has never been terribly religious and wasn’t exactly interested in learning about someone else’s. But I’ll take Corrine’s word for it—she is the “missionary” after all. And if we’re looking at a god, I guess he might be life-sized after all.
“He’s not usually depicted as an elf though.” She steps past me, looking confused.
“The only other magical thing in the room is inside that box,” Nathaniel announces to the rest of us and points to the pedestal in the center of the room.
“Fuck, I think that’s where that sound is coming from too.” It hurts a little to even look at it.
“What are you talking about?” Adam uses the floor to put out his torch now that the room is lit.
“Seriously, does no one else hear that?” I put my own torch out and rub at my ears again.
“No.” Elisabeth moves forward. “What are you hearing?”
“I dunno, like a really high-pitched screech?” I shut one eye and rub my ear as if that’ll help block out the sound. The rest of the group converges on the pedestal while I stay put. Getting closer to that box makes my head hurt.
“Looks like it’s made of lead,” Nate says before tapping the box with his staff. “It's pretty rusted and banged up. Probably meant to block out whatever magic thing David is hearing.”
“What happens if we open it?” It’s not gonna make my head explode, is it?
“Dunno. Wanna find out?” Nate grins and lifts his staff high to strike the box.
“Hold on. Maybe we should—” Adam cuts himself off when he hears the same thing I do: footsteps. Heavy ones, coming down the hall toward us. Shit. “David, on my right; Cor, Nate, get behind us.”
I move to stand in formation, ignoring the throbbing pain in my head as I get closer to the lead box. I drop my pack and bedroll from my back and kick it to the side of the chamber, the others doing the same with their heavier gear. Corrine starts to speak the words to a spell, and a second later, my body tingles as the magic bolsters my strength. We all pull out our weapons as the footsteps quickly get loud enough for everyone to hear, and they’re moving toward us fast.
I can feel everyone around me tense up as a group of orcs bursts into the room, swords drawn. A total of seven pour in, all green skin and leather armor, weapons aimed steadily in our direction. After a tense moment of both groups eyeing the other warily, the leader (I mean, he’s the one in front at least) shouts something at us. Unfortunately, since none of us speak Orcish, it just sounds like a lot of growls and grunts.
Adam and I share a confused look, and he turns back to the leader. “We can’t… Are you able to speak Common?”
The orc narrows his eyes at us and huffs, looking very displeased. He opens his mouth to respond. “Who—”
And that’s when all hell breaks loose.
“IGNI!” A fireball the size of my fist flies over my left shoulder, landing near three orcs on our right who leap out of the way as it explodes.
“Dammit!” Adam shouts, annoyed but having no real choice but to leap toward the enemy leader while he’s distracted.
Liss and I are right behind him, each taking on a group of orcs on either side. Nate’s little stunt, while stupid, did manage to take out at least one of my group, who looks to be out cold with some nasty burns. The other two might be a little singed, but mostly they just look pissed off. I hear the sounds of grunts and metal on metal to my left, and I’ve got to hope that my team is able to handle things themselves for now.
I grip the sword tightly in my hand, ignoring the constant ringing in my ears and waiting for one or both of them to attack me. I really wish I’d brought that second sword. These two are big muscle-y motherfuckers: a man and a woman. Strong doesn’t mean graceful though, and when one of them runs at me, it isn’t too difficult to dodge and send him flying to the floor with a well-placed kick.
Just as it looks like his friend is going to lunge at me, a high-pitched scream has us both turning our heads. I find the source, Corrine, running around the back of the room with an orc in pursuit. The rest of the team fares no better, with Liss pinned to the wall by one orc and Nate being literally pinned to the floor by another. Adam himself is being wrestled to the ground by the leader who is growling something at him that I can’t make out from here.
“Hey!” I shout at the orc on Adam and rush him, and fuck is he big. Taller than Adam and with shoulders wider than I’ve ever seen on a human. I attempt to tackle him, but he doesn’t even stumble as I bounce into his side. Ugh, have I lost that much weight?
I pick myself up and grab my sword, ready to try again, but the orc doesn’t give me the chance. Dropping Adam, he barrels into me, shoulder checking me across the room and right into the pedestal. As searing pain shoots through my head, I look up to see a blurry green figure looking down at me, and then everything goes black.
I dream that I'm flying over an endless ocean. Dark clouds fill the sky above me, stretching on forever. The seas and winds are calm, at least until the rain begins to fall. It starts slowly, barely a trickle, but soon it’s torrential with lighting streaking across the skies and thunder so loud my body shakes. The lightning begins to strike faster, moving closer and closer, until with a loud crack, my vision is blinded by white.
“I think he’s waking up.” That sounds like Corrine.
“Mmmmff.” I slowly open my eyes, the blurry world coming back into focus. I wipe a hand down my face and sit up. “What happened? Where are we?”
“A jail cell,” Nate answers. “The orcs took us back to their city.”
“City? I thought it was just a small camp?” I rub my head. Feels like I’ve got a nasty bruise.
“Nope, it’s a whole-ass city.” Nate shrugs.
“Pretty impressive, actually,” Corrine adds.
“Where are Adam and Liss?” I look around the cell, realizing they aren’t with us. We’re in a small cell with no furniture to speak of, the three of us sitting on the ground. The walls are all made of solid stone except one. Instead, it has a set of metal bars with a door.
“After you went down, Adam and Liss kept fighting,” Corrine explains. “They… got pretty banged up. The guards said they were taking them to a healer.”
“Yeah, right,” Nate scoffs.
“Fuck.” For once, I agree with Nate. We need to get out of here and find them—now. “What about you guys? Are you okay? Can you cast something and get us outta here? And what did they do with all our stuff?” Not just my sword, but my armor and pack are gone too.
“Not at the moment.” Corrine frowns and holds up her shackled wrists.
“Anti-magic bracers.” Nate shows me his matching pair. “Neither of us can cast anything as long as these are on.”
“Shit.” How the hell are we going to get out of here? I’m the only one whose hands are free. “What do we do? What happens now?”
“They said someone would be back to talk to us.” Corrine frowns again. “But that was over an hour ago.”
“We’re never getting out of here.” Nate slumps down.
Like hell we aren’t. I stand up and dust myself off. My clothes are in surprisingly good condition considering our situation. I wouldn’t have expected our captors to be gentle with my unconscious body. I’m missing my leather armor though, and Corrine and Nate don’t have their robes, just the shirt and pants they wear underneath. I think it’s safe to assume they took all our weapons and other belongings. First thing to do is to find out what they intend to do with us.
I stand and walk to the cell bars, too close together to stick more than an arm out. We’re outside, and the sun is behind us, our cell casting a shadow into the empty cell opposite us. I can’t see anything else, though I do hear the telltale sounds of people in the distance, so it seems we are in a city. Then I hear heavy footsteps not far from us.
“Hello?” I call out, hoping it’s one of the guards.
“What are you doing?” Nate questions behind me.
“Finding out what’s going on.” I hold my face near the bars and shout again. “Hello? Is someone there?”
Sure enough, the footsteps get louder, and I almost jump back in surprise when someone with vibrant green skin comes into view. Right. Orcs. He’s a big guy too, with a shaved head, full beard, and a pair of tusks that go nearly up to his nose. I straighten up, feeling dwarfed by his size. The two of us just stare at each other for a minute before I finally have to break the silence.
“Where are our friends?” I don’t hide the resentment in my voice.
“Healer.” The orc narrows his eyes when he answers me.
“When will they be back?” The orc only shrugs in response. Real helpful, this guy. “Fine, do you know how long you’re planning on keeping us in this—” I stop and gesture at the cell around me. “—wonderful place?”
“Sorry,” the orc responds flatly. “Other cells being fixed.”
I roll my eyes at the bad joke. Either this guy doesn’t want to say much or isn’t smart enough to know how. Common isn’t his first language. “Is there someone else I can talk to, buddy?”
The orc sighs, looking annoyed before stomping off. Hopefully to get someone capable of saying words with more than two syllables. I hear what sounds like a door, so he must have gone inside.
“Well, that was helpful,” Nate mocks.
I ignore him, verbally at least, turning around to lean against the bars and flip him off. I’m doing more than you are, dick. It’s about ten minutes before I hear the door again followed by more footsteps. Expecting to see my new friend, I’m surprised by the sight of a different orc. He’s not as tall and certainly not as muscular, the skinniest orc I’ve seen so far. His skin tone is a little darker than I’ve seen so far, and he’s got short, slicked back, dark red hair and no beard. He’s also wearing clothes way nicer than I would have expected for anyone around these parts, the kind you’d see on stuck up rich people back home.
“It is good to see you are awake, Mister…” He speaks Common a lot better than I would have expected too, but the way he’s precise with his pronunciation tells me it’s still not his first language. Does he have an accent? He’s waiting for me to finish for him.
“Just David.” No reason this guy needs to know my full name.
“I see. Mr. David.” He adjusts his glasses before his dark green eyes settle on me. “I am terribly sorry for the delay; we do not get many situations of this nature, and it took me longer to prepare than I expected. I am Naruk Redwish, and I will be acting as your legal advocate. In a few days, once your companions are healed, the five of you will be brought before a member of the tribal council for a hearing on your crimes. Given the circumstances and evidence against you, I am going to recommend presenting a signed an admission of guilt, then we—”
“Hold the fuck on—guilty of what? Why the hell are we even being held here? What gives you the authority? What did we even do?” The words spill out of my mouth like a petulant child.
“Are you being serious?” Any cheerfulness in his tone has vanished. “Trespassing, destruction of property, attacking a group of seven rangers. From what I understand, you barely even attempted to speak with them, just drew your swords and blasted fire everywhere.” I turn to glare at Nate, who sheepishly ignores my eyes. “Three of our best officers are currently at the same healer as your friends being treated for burns and other injuries. Now, I am not quite sure what your group thought you were doing, but I can tell you that your options on what you do next are very limited.”
My mind starts reeling at his words. What the fuck have we gotten into? “What… What happens after the hearing?”
“Well, no matter what I think you can expect to do some time behind bars.” I hear Corrine gasp behind me. “Most likely, if you accept your guilt, you can expect imprisonment for no more than six months. However, if you decide to argue a defense—and I would not recommend it—you may be looking at a few years at minimum if you were to lose.” Naruk speaks plainly as he lays everything on the table.
“Six months?!” Corrine sounds like she’s near tears.
“Holy shit,” Nate barely whispers.
“Those are our only options? Months or years in jail? That’s not… Please, it was just a misunderstanding.” Okay, that sounded a little pathetic.
“Misunderstandings do not typically end with someone having their arms and torso covered in serious burns, Mister David.” He says my name with a hint of disdain.
“There has to be something else.” Six months in an orc prison? Would we even survive that? I mean, look at where they're keeping us now. I’m pretty sure that puddle in the corner is Nate’s piss.
“I am not sure what you would have me do.” He looks put out.
“Aren’t you guys supposed to be all about fighting and battle? Survival of the fittest? Isn’t there some other way we can resolve this?” I am totally just pulling stuff out of my ass now.
“Do you not feel that being knocked unconscious and waking up in a jail cell already did that?” Good to see sarcasm is a universal language.
“That was hardly a fair fight. Too many people in one room, and it’s not like either side was prepared for it.” Not to mention the loud piercing sound shooting through my head. “We certainly didn’t go in there expecting to fight a bunch of fucking orcs. I just want a rematch.” He flinches at the word fucking. I really need to learn to watch my mouth sometimes. But orcs love a fight, right? I’m trying to mentally comb through every story about orcs I’ve ever been told. Even the fairy tales. There’s something on the tip of my tongue...
He looks even more annoyed now. “What exactly do you think we—”
“Trial by combat!” That’s the term I was looking for! Maybe it was a bard singing in a tavern or a story one of the old generals at the academy told…I just remember a story about an orc king ordering two of his subjects to fight to the death to resolve something. Strength and honor and blood and blah blah.
“Trial by…” He sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Why would you think we—” He cuts himself off, suddenly lost in thought. “Actually, there may be...something. The Nagul Uzu'gor. I think in your language it would be called…” He pauses, looking for the words. “The Ritual of Steel and Thunder.”
“What is it?” Those words may as well be gibberish to me.
“A trial by combat, as requested.” His tone is... I’m not sure. It’s not annoyed, but it also isn’t friendly. “The captive fights his captor, in this case the captain of the group you attacked. He would first have to accept the challenge—which he is not required to do—and if he did and you won, you and the rest of your party would go free. However, if you lost…” He smiles at me darkly, letting the unspoken answer hang in the air. Death. It’s a fight to the death. “Your friends would also still be brought before the council.”
I squeeze the cell bars, thinking. Six months versus a fight to the death? The two hardly seem equal. But could we even make it that long in an orc prison? No one knows we’re here or where here is, exactly. Hell, most people don’t even know I’m on this side of the world. “But if I win, that’s it? All five of us are free? We get all our stuff back too?”
“Likely minus some fines, but ritual or no, you would receive your belongings back once you and your friends are released.” He nods his head.
I wish I had Adam and Liss here to talk to. I could use some advice. They’d probably fight better than me too. If they’re even still alive right now. No, I can’t... I won’t let us die in here. I can do this. I may not be as strong as I used to be, but I’m still a good fighter. Hell, I was handling those orcs in the ruins better than anyone else before I got knocked out, and there won’t be a stupid magic box giving me a headache this time either. “I’ll do it.” Another gasp from Corrine.
“Are you sure?” Naruk eyes me up and down. “There is no backing out once it has begun.”
“I’m sure.” My voice is confident because I’m confident. I got this.
“Very well. I will let the rangers know. If the captain accepts your challenge, someone will be out to collect you to begin preparations. Good luck.” His tone is less creepy and back to friendly, and he gives me a smile and a small bow before turning to leave.
I exhale once he is out of earshot, running my hand through my hair.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Nate asks, worry evident in his voice.
I take another breath, mustering up my most confident smile before nodding at Nate and Corrine. “Yeah. I’m getting us out of here.”
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