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Concepts for BIONICLE Page's Link: Concepts Gallery

A bit of the missing content for the Gallery:

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Above is a story bible for the Bionicle stone-legend, and some concept sketches of the Amaja circles.

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Above are two early Bionicle Mata-Nui concepts


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Above: dawn of Bionicle concept poster, and an animation. Unable to acquire a LARGE version of the poster and unsure if there is a larger option available.


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"This concept poster was done in 2006 trying to envision what the battle in Karda Nui between the Toa and the brotherhood of Makuta would look like. ...He is being chased by an evil looking craft or creature looking like a blend between an “M” for Makuta and a manta ray. ...The fight takes place just next to the “great fall” the water pouring into Karda Nui." Features Av-Matoran spectators.


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Above Concepts (7-10): early Toa biomes

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non-canon Bionicle "Heroes" game cover concepts

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Deputy Toa

A Deputy Toa is the second-in-command of a Toa team. They serve as confidantes to their team leaders and fulfill the role themselves when their leaders are unavailable.

Known Toa

Kopaka, the deputy leader of the Toa Nuva
Nokama led the Toa Hordika during Vakama's defection

Trivia

  • While most of the Toa team leaders are Toa of Fire, Toa deputies have represented many different elements.
  • Lesovikk was the overall commander of the Toa Cordak,[OGDi: Mar 29 2008, 08.06 AM] while Nikila was considered as the tactical leader.[OGDi: Apr 1 2008, 09:21 PM]



The Crossing

Chapter 1

Strakk slammed his Ice Axe on the table so hard that the stone plate splintered with a sharp crack. The sound made Metus wince.

“No!” said Strakk. “No. Definitely not.”

Metus frowned. The Agori villager had been acting as trainer of warriors and promoter of matches for many years. He was used to dealing with stubborn warriors, but most of them weren’t as quick-tempered as Strakk. He should have expected it, though. Especially for a Glatorian like Strakk, everything was about profit. It was a running joke in the village of Iconox that Strakk wouldn’t even open his eyes in the morning unless it would benefit him somehow. For a moment, Metus considered giving up. Then he thought twice: Strakk’s agreement was very important to him.

“You owe me a favor,” Metus told him. “Where would you be without me? And how often do I ask a favor of you?”

“Hm, there was that match against Kiina last month,” Strakk replied. “And at your request I helped with the training of that bully, who then completely forgot it was just a practice match and sent me into a healer’s barracks for weeks. Oh, and then there was…”

“All right, all right,” snapped Metus. “You don’t need to tell me the story of your life. This is a quick and easy job, won’t take longer than a week, and it’ll be well paid. Do you want it or not?”

Metus was lying, of course. He had to lie often when negotiating with his fighters. The job he had offered Strakk would be neither quick nor easy. The village of Iconox had to send a shipment of the valuable metal Exsidian to the village of Vulcanus, payment for a match a fighter named Gelu had lost. Under normal circumstances the carriage would take the shortest route, southeast through the Dunes of Treason and then directly to the Fire village. Not the safest route in the world, but one that was used very often. In recent weeks, though, a group of barbaric nomads called the Bone Hunters had changed the dunes into a lethal trap. For reasons they hadn’t revealed, they were about to sever trading connections between villages, particularly those with the Water Tribe village, Tajun. The result was that every caravan that moved through the desert was in danger. Worse, the Bone Hunters weren’t content with simply robbing the goods – they also killed the coachmen. But Iconox didn’t have a choice; the carriage had to be sent on its way. If they refused to pay after a lost battle, their fighters would no longer be welcome in the arenas of Bara Magna. So now it was about finding a route on which they could transport their goods safely all the way to Vulcanus.

“Well, let’s see,” said Strakk. “You want to send a fully loaded carriage eastward through the Black Spike Mountains, over the Dark Falls and then through Creep Canyon. Every single one of these places is more dangerous than a Sand Bat with sunburn. And you want me to guard this cargo on its way. Did I get that straight?”

“Yes,” Metus nodded.

“No,” said Strakk. “I’m a Glatorian. I fight for my village if it needs something from another and I’m paid well for it. I’m no guard or guide or errand boy. I fight against other Glatorian in an arena. I don’t fight against Bone Hunters. They have a nasty habit of killing everyone who fights them.”

Metus had to admit that Strakk was right. No one dealt with Bone Hunters if it could be avoided. Their mounts, called Rock Steeds, possessed rows of sharp teeth and scary, scorpion-like stinger tails. Their sense of smell was so fine they could sense a foe from miles away. And regarding the Hunters themselves, they hadn’t survived millennia in the Wastelands by being friendly. They were ruthless, violent and greedy. If they possessed any virtues, then it was their endurance – they rarely gave up a chase – and their thoroughness – after an attack there was nothing left standing. The Agori left Strakk’s shelter. The Glatorian followed him and kept talking.

“And don’t forget the Skrall – you remember them, don’t you – huge, black-armored, turning people to mincemeat just for fun? Who do you think lives up in the Black Spike Mountains?”

“Calm down,” said Metus. “Listen. We’ve hired the best.”

Metus pointed toward the fully loaded carriage. On the coachman’s seat sat an Iconox Agori – Kirbold – and a green-armored Agori from the village of Tesara. On the Sand Stalker next to the carriage sat a Glatorian Strakk identified as Gresh.

“Since when does Tesara send their Glatorian and Agori to help Iconox?” Strakk asked.

“Since the Bone Hunters’ attacks are starting to get them, too,” answered Metus. “They want to find out themselves whether this new route works. If that’s the case, they can use it too. The Agori’s name is Tarduk. He’s said to know the wilderness.”

Metus turned around and stared at Strakk.

“Iconox wants one of their Glatorian to join this tour – you’ll surely understand why. If you agree, I am sure I could manage to get you some matches in Vulcanus… to show everyone what heroism you will show here.”

Strakk laughed out loud. “I know everything about heroes. They’re the ones who get buried in holes in the ground. And when they’re lucky, someone will place a marker in the earth above their heads. But I’m not unreasonable… not much. So I shall go… for double the reward.”

Metus swallowed hard. That would mean Iconox would have to get a lot of weapons, armor and supplies for Strakk. But he obviously didn’t have any other choice. If Iconox were to neglect their payment duty to Vulcanus, the whole system of solving conflicts between villages by Glatorian matches would be at risk. In the end, that would mean he would lose his job.

“Deal,” the trainer said. “I will explain it somehow to the village elder. Get ready for departure.”

“I’m already ready,” Strakk said, smiling. “See to it that my prize is prepared quickly. I’ll soon be back to get it.”

Only if you’re lucky, Metus thought. And where you’re going, you may need more than luck.

Sometime after sunrise, the carriage departed with its guards. Gresh would’ve liked to depart immediately at dawn, but Strakk had insisted on taking as much Thornax Launcher ammunition and extra weaponry as possible. Gresh was of the opinion that they should move out with as little baggage as possible, so they could cross the desert more quickly.

“Oh, I know many traders that traveled with light baggage,” Strakk had replied. “That way they found death much faster. Listen, little one, Bone Hunters care only about one thing: can you kill them faster than they can kill you? If the answer is yes, then maybe – maybe – you’ll have a chance of getting away with your life.”

“So you think we should engage them?” Gresh asked.

“No, no,” Strakk replied. “I think we shouldn’t even make this trip. But if it has to be done, we’ll do it the clever way. We strike first, and we don’t run headlong at them. Instead, we’ll outmaneuver them and use strategy.”

Strakk didn’t know Gresh very well. They had met once out in the Wastelands and rode together for some time to Vulcanus. Back then they had had a small skirmish with Bone Hunters, but got away without too much trouble. Since then Strakk watched his back carefully. Bone Hunters had a long memory, especially when it came to their enemies. He’d also learned from that trip that he didn’t like Gresh very much. The Tesaran fighter was young and strong, but a little too honor-bound for his liking. The only Glatorian Strakk had ever really gotten along with was Malum, one of the fighters from Vulcanus. Even after he was exiled from his village for trying to kill Strakk in the arena, Strakk still respected him. As far as Strakk was concerned, Malum’s exile was only more proof of how little the villagers of Vulcanus knew about the life of a Glatorian.

Strakk moved his steed closer to the carriage. The two-headed Spikit that was pulling the it kept all four eyes fixed on the bumpy path ahead. The Glatorian hoped the carriage was loaded with enough food. Even though a Spikit was a tough and enduring beast of burden, it would consume everything in its vicinity when it got hungry – including the carriage it was pulling, and everyone who was unfortunate enough to be sitting inside it.

“So, Tarduk,” he said to the Tesaran Agori holding the reins, “I heard you’ve done your share of exploring.”

“Sure,” the villager replied. “I collect artifacts – old armor, weapons, scrolls, small fragments of history. I spend a lot of time looking around ruins and searching for things.”

“That sounds… different,” Strakk said. And really, really boring, the Glatorian thought to himself.

“I’ve always wanted to see the Black Spike Mountains,” Tarduk continued. “I bet there’s a lot of treasure to be found there!”

“Wait a second, you’re the guide,” said Strakk. “But you’ve never been to where we’re going?”

“Nope,” Tarduk responded, smiling.

“Then why…” Strakk began.

“He was the only one who was willing to go there,” Kirbold said, “So he got the job.”

“Don’t talk so much,” Gresh said quietly. “Our voices carry far. We don’t have to let every Bone Hunter in the whole area know that we’re coming.”

“You’re an optimist, my friend,” said Strakk. “If they’re out in the Wastelands – and they are – then they’ve known we’re on the way since the moment we left Iconox. At best, we can hope that they don’t know what we’re carrying.”

“And if they do know?” Gresh asked.

Strakk pointed towards the Thornax Launcher Gresh was carrying.

“Then I hope you know how to use that, little one.”

To the untrained eye, Bara Magna might look like any desert. Certainly, there was sand in almost every direction as far as the eye could see, shaped into dunes by the wind or spread like a soft blanket over the sleeping earth. When the wind whips over the vast stretches of the Wastelands, the sand whirls around at such high speeds that even Glatorian armor can’t provide enough protection. And then there’s the heat, of course. Bara Magna’s sun burns hot, and around noon it reaches such high temperatures that only Bone Hunters and the desperate Agori traders hunted by them can be found in the sands. During the worst part of the day the sand is so hot that one touch can cause burns. Everyone who gets lost without water in the desert plateau will be dead within a day. Then, at evening, the sun disappears as suddenly as a torch is extinguished. The temperature sinks rapidly and the Agori must crowd together around their campfires. The desert becomes – if this is even possible – twice as dangerous in darkness. Nocturnal predators come out of their caves or from under their rocks, where they hide during the heat of the day. The Bone Hunters are getting bolder, sometimes getting close enough to a village to take out a sentry that has strayed too far from the torches. There is an old Agori saying: “At least you see death coming in daylight.” At night unfortunately, you are not so lucky. For those, however, who know Bara Magna well, the desert is much more than just a vast wasteland of barren, sandy plains.

Many do remember that, in earlier times, more waterways flowed than just the Skrall River, across green fields. They remember how the village of Tesara wasn’t just an oasis, but part of a giant jungle that stretched over the entire continent. They still hear the cries of sea birds from the ocean that existed far to the south. All that changed about 100,000 years ago, when a terrible disaster changed the planet forever. After that there was no more time for memories of what once was: one was completely occupied with just surviving each new day. Still – while the carriage moved through the sand, Strakk thought of how things had once been. He wasn’t originally from Iconox, but from a land far to the north. He had been on a scouting patrol when the disaster that is now referred to simply as “The Shattering” had occurred, and he had suddenly been cut off from his homeland. He stayed in Iconox while the world around him changed: jungles transformed into desert, the ice melted in the horrible heat. He wasn’t sure if anyone would be able to survive the disaster. But there were survivors, including himself – and since then, his entire life was just about surviving.

Strakk glanced over his shoulder. Iconox was no longer visible. He reined his Sand Stalker to a halt. “Good, now we’re far enough away,” he said. “Now we can stop.”

Gresh slowed his mount down a little and looked at Strakk, puzzled. “What are you talking about?”

“What do you think?” Strakk said. “You didn’t seriously believe we were going to drag this whole load all the way across the Black Spike Mountains, did you? Did you honestly believe my talk of stirring sand and fighting down Bone Hunters from earlier? If so, then you really have spent too much time in the sun.”

“But that’s our job,” Gresh replied.

Strakk snorted. “Good. Then I’ll explain to you how this works. The Agori will get out of the carriage. We take all the Exsidian metal, hide it, and shatter the carriage. Then we’ll tell the people in Iconox we were attacked by Bone Hunters who stole our cargo.”

The two Agori shared a look. Tarduk shrugged as if he wanted to say, “I don’t understand it either.”

“And then?” Gresh asked.

“In a few weeks we’ll return and dig the load out,” Strakk gloated. “We’ll divide it among ourselves and then go our separate ways again. And no one gets hurt.”

“Except the people of Iconox when Vulcanus thinks they don’t want to pay their debts,” Gresh said. He pointed casually with his Thornax Launcher at Strakk.

“Now we’re going to do the following. You ride a little ahead of us. And should you try to leave us behind, then rest assured that you won’t get far.”

“Are you completely out of your mind?!” bellowed Strakk. “There is a fortune to be made here!”

Gresh gestured with his launcher. “Go, now! We’ve got a job to do, that’s how it is. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Strakk glared at Gresh, but spurred on his Sand Stalker. Riding past the carriage, he muttered: “Dozens of Glatorian on this world, and they had to give me the only one who cares about doing the right thing.”

Gresh ignored him and turned to Tarduk. “Do you have any idea what’s waiting ahead of us? I hate surprises.”

“Anything might be ahead of us,” Tarduk replied. “In earlier times, this had been a quiet corner of the desert, until the Vorox infested the Dunes of Treason. They drove out a lot of Sand Bats and dune snakes, and even giant cave scorpions, into the north. The desert between here and the Black Spike Mountains is full of them.”

“But that’s not the worst part,” Kirbold said. “Have you ever been to the Sea of Liquid Sand?”

Gresh nodded. The “sea” was located south of the village of Vulcanus. It looked like any other desert track, but in reality most of it was a soft mud that swallowed all living things that tried to cross it. It was possible to get through, if one was clever or lucky enough. But most who tried it now rested at the bottom of the Sea.

“Scattered spots of liquid sand also exist here,” Kirbold said. “There aren’t many, but there are spots in the sand that are just as treacherous as the Sea… maybe even worse. You don’t see them until you are right in the middle of them and then…”

“Did you hear that, Strakk?” Gresh asked.

“Why wouldn’t I listen to such wonderful news?” the Ice Glatorian shot back. “I’m really glad you asked me to ride ahead.”

“Keep your eyes open,” Gresh said. “We’ll make it.”

“Sure you’ll make it,” Strakk said. “Just wait until I sink into the sand and when you do… stop. Simple.”

They rode in silence for some time. Before them the Black Spike Mountains towered in all their majesty. Even when Bara Magna had been a lush green place, this mountain range supplied was the subject of numerous legends and rumors. Some of them were just the usual Agori talk – travelers who were journeying through the mountains and never returned. More convincing stories, however, were those about villagers who returned, but who weren’t right in the head ever again. Gresh gave Kirbold a quick glance.

“Why exactly were you chosen for this job?”

“I mined this metal,” came the answer. “It’s perfectly suited for patching equipment. Doesn’t rust and is very wear-resistant.”

“That doesn’t really answer my question.”

“I dug it out. I dragged it up. Others will use it, but I found it. I feel that it’s my responsibility. Should the cargo be in danger, I want to be there.”

Gresh nodded. He had already heard crazier things. More than one Glatorian would never let anyone else tinker with his weapon or launcher for a very similar reason. The sun would soon be high in the sky.

Gresh pointed towards a ledge. “Let’s set up our camp beneath that until the worst of the heat is over.” Kirbold and Tarduk steered the carriage under the ledge, then carefully fed the Spikit before they themselves ate something. Strakk sat down in the sand and closed his eyes, while Gresh kept a careful eye on the desert.

“What do you think is up there?” Kirbold asked Tarduk.

“Who knows?” the Tesaran Agori responded, smiling. “There may have lived an entire civilization in these mountains that we’ve never heard of. They may have left behind equipment, tools, maybe even records of their history. For someone like me, that is a treasure chest just waiting to be opened.”

“No, I mean… do you think there are monsters up there?”

“I do… if you regard Skrall as monsters.”

Kirbold lowered his gaze towards the sand.

“No, I don’t think they’re monsters. But if they ever were to attack us… well, then I don’t know where we could hide.”

Late in the afternoon, they resumed their journey. Strakk watched a Sand Bat explod out of a dune to throw itself onto a Sand Fox and then drag it underground. The Spikit saw the same and grunted in anger and fear.

“I hate those things,” Strakk said. “You never know where they are until they’re right in front of you.”

“Giant scorpions are even worse,” Tarduk said. Despite the heat he shivered. “I’ve seen them several times while searching for artifacts in caves.”

“There’s an easy way of avoiding such encounters,” Strakk said.

“How?”

“Stop wandering around in caves,” the Glatorian replied.

“I can’t stand dune snakes,” Kirbold remarked. “You want to know why?”

“Why?” Strakk said.

“Because they are everywhere around us.”

Gresh’s Sand Stalker suddenly reeled in panic, followed by Strakk’s. The Spikit tore at the reins and made efforts to break free. However, Kirbold managed to hold the beast under control. Everywhere around them the dunes moved, the poisonous snakes slithering just beneath the surface of the sand. It looked like a sea of waves rolling under the dunes, but it was neither a peaceful nor comforting sight. The bite of one of these serpents could lead to death within seconds, not to mention the snakes were absolutely fearless. They wouldn’t hesitate for a second to attack something larger than themselves. “We must have ridden right into a nest!” Strakk said. “What do we do now?”

Gresh tried desperately to get his Sand Stalker under control again.

“When your mount topples, jump off or you’ll be trapped beneath it.”

“Thanks, I certainly would never have thought of that,” Strakk growled. “If you had just listened to me…”

“Look!” Tarduk yelled. “A path!”

He was right. Somewhere to the right there was a strip of sand that wasn’t moving. It was clear to all of them that this was the best and only way out of danger.

“Let’s go!” shouted Gresh, who had already turned his Sand Stalker into the direction of the passage.

Strakk was already ahead of him, letting his mount jump over half a dozen snakes that had darted out of the sand. Behind the two Glatorian, Kirbold urged the Spikit forward. Strakk was now a good distance ahead of the group and didn’t look back. Suddenly his Sand Stalker toppled over. The next moment, he was up to his waist in liquid sand.

“Help!” he cried.

“We can’t help him,” Kirbold claimed. “If we get too close we’ll sink, too.”

“He’s a Glatorian. I can’t leave him behind,” Gresh said. “We can ride around the liquid sand and pull him out.”

“Not without riding through the snakes,” retorted Tarduk.

“It seems we don’t have a choice,” Kirbold said. “It’s either him or us.”

Chapter 2

Gresh had no time to think. In several seconds, the sand had almost devoured Strakk, and the snakes had gradually formed circles around the caravan. The only escape was through the soft sand, but the trailer was heavy as stone. Suddenly he had an idea. It was about as crazy as suicide, but there was a small chance of success. Everything depended on how high Gresh could jump and how fast his Stalker was, as well as his knowledge of the dunes. If even one element of the plan failed, none of them would escape alive.

“Tarduk! I need the rope that’s attached to the Exsidian! Now!” shouted Gresh.

The Agori quickly cut the rope and tossed it toward Gresh.

“Whatever happens now, nobody separate!” ordered Gresh. “Keep each other in sight and don’t talk, okay?”

Kirbold and Tarduk obeyed. Neither of them spoke a word. On the other side, they were approaching the dune snakes. Gresh took the rope, tied it to his Sand Stalker and galloped off. He had to execute each step with precision. Upon reaching the bank of soft sand, he forced his steed to jump. In that same instant, he hurled the rope over the treacherous sands in Strakk’s direction. Strakk caught the rope, and he was yanked free from the trap by Gresh’s Stalker.

“You saved me!” Strakk cried, delighted and surprised. “I can’t believe it!

“I had to,” said Gresh. “Now get back to the caravan.”

“Are you crazy?!” Strakk cried. “You want to go back into the jaws of the dune snakes? I care about Exsidian, but I won’t risk my life for it.”

“Not even if it means you won’t get paid?” replied Gresh.

“No way!" Strakk shook his head.

“I haven’t got time to argue,” said Gresh. “You can have half my payment if you help me.”

Strakk's eyes shone with eagerness. “What are you waiting for? Let's go!”

Strakk jumped from the smooth sand and grabbed onto the harness of his Sand Stalker, hoping that their mounts wouldn’t be caught by the serpents’ fangs. But instead of going back to the caravan, Gresh and Strakk both started spinning around. The Agori looked at the Glatorian in silence, both wondering if Gresh had lost his mind.

“Is there a reason for why we’re doing this?” Strakk asked.

“Yes,” said Gresh. “Dune Snakes are blind on the surface, right? So they don’t use sight when hunting.”

“They use hearing,” Strakk guessed. “So we're making noise.”

“Exactly,” Gresh smiled. “It works, see?”

Strakk looked back. The snakes no longer surrounded the caravan, but now they were heading towards the Glatorian.

“Yiiiii!” Strakk shouted.

“Over here!” Shouted Gresh.

The Tesaran Glatorian rode over the soft sand, with Strakk right behind him. Gresh's mount jumped back over the deadly sand, with Strakk’s managing to do the same. The hungry Dune Snakes were unable to avoid the sand trap, which absorbed them without giving them a single moment to escape.

“Good thinking” admitted Strakk. “Using one trap against another. Although it cost you half your pay...”

Several hours later, the travelers arrived at the foot of the Black Spike Mountains. They found a path between the rocks so narrow that only one rider could fit through at a time. Gresh had Strakk go first, while he himself covered the rear. Strakk showed little enthusiasm for this proposal, but Gresh explained that if someone had been following since Iconox, they would not plan a frontal ambush, but an attack from behind.

“You never know,” said Strakk. “I’ve seen traps in places where no one would’ve ever expected. But you’re too young to remember that.”

“When was that exactly?”

“During the war. At a time when Bara Magna was part of a larger world... long before The Shattering...”

Gresh had heard little of the war that changed the world 100,000 years ago. Other Glatorian were reluctant to talk about it. Apparently they just wanted to forget all memories of that event.

“Enlighten me,” said Gresh. “What has that got to do with this?”

“The Black Spike Mountains were one of the few places where there were no battles,” Strakk said.

“No one wanted to fight here?” said Gresh.

“No one dared to approach this place,” said Strakk. “Check out these rocks. I bet there are many deposits of precious metals and who knows what else. Do you think anyone would want to extract it? Not even the Skrall were foolish enough to come here.”

At the mention of the Skrall, Gresh strengthened his grip on the reins of his mount. It was no secret that the Rock Tribe was not from the desert regions of Bara Magna. Their home was among a land of volcanoes in the far north. They had lived there for many centuries, protected by their warriors, the Skrall. Not long ago, the Skrall and Rock Tribe appeared in the south, inhabiting the Black Spike Mountains and the surrounding land. When they founded Roxtus, it quickly became the largest village on Bara Magna. It was rumored that they had moved to the area running to escape something far more dangerous than even they themselves were, but with no evidence, the real reason remained a mystery. It soon became evident that the newcomers were not dependent on forging friendships with other tribes. Although they sent warriors to battle in the arena, any sane Glatorian knew not to try and face them. Anyone who had to deal with them would face the leader of their tribe, Tuma, who would rather the Skrall simply take what they wanted. However, the Skrall almost always followed the rules during arena matches. The fighting system in the arena was not a problem for them- the Skrall were lovers of battle, and no Glatorian had yet managed to defeat them. Gresh knew this better than most: not long ago, he lost a duel against a Skrall warrior in the Vulcanus arena. This Skrall was willing to break the rules while fighting in the arena, and had another Glatorian not intervened, the encounter would have been the last thing Gresh had done in his life. The memory brought him shame. Tesara had had its chance at victory, and he had failed them… Gresh pushed the memory aside. It was not the time to be thinking of the past. He and his companions had just entered the territory of the Rock Tribe. The only bad thing that could happen now was if they were attacked by Skrall.

“Look!” Kirbold said suddenly, pointing to the top of a hill.

Gresh looked up. The Glatorian saw three Skrall on the edge of the summit. However, as soon as he got a better look, he realized they were simply helmets and pieces of armor hanging on stilts above the sand.

“They're only puppets,” Gresh said. “Probably to help deter uninvited guests.”

“Look at them more closely,” Strakk said.

“I did look at them. So what?”

“They’re not pieces of Skrall armor. One is red, another is blue, and the third is green. Where do you think they came from? They’re the spoils of dead Glatorian.”

“I don’t think so,” said Gresh.

“Go ahead, don’t believe me, rookie,” laughed Strakk. “They came to find the end of their lives.”

“You should remain silent,” a voice whispered.

The Glatorian turned quickly, raising their Thornax Launchers toward where the ominous words had come from. Tarduk grabbed the reins of the Spikit, preparing to flee if necessary. Kirbold crouched down in case there were any enemy projectiles.

Looking up at the rocky hillside, the party saw a red-armored Glatorian. Strakk and Gresh recognized him immediately as Malum. At one time his name was spoken with great respect, but Malum's wild temperament had caused problems. During a match in the arena, he had tried to kill a Glatorian who had conceded. For that crime, he was banished from the village of Vulcanus. Since then, the desert had become his home.

“Well, well, look who it is,” Strakk said. “And I thought you were eating Sand Bats.”

“Do something!” whispered Kirbold. “He’s after the Exsidian!”

“Don't worry,” said Strakk. “Who would look for Exsidian in an area so remote? And besides, if Malum wanted it, he would have taken it before we entered the mountains. Right, old friend?”

Malum looked at Strakk with a cold stare. “I've never been your friend.”

“What do you want?” asked Gresh.

“I warn you,” Malum answered. “The Skrall have become more ambitious. Many of them are in the mountains, chasing something, or someone. Maybe you. And you should listen to their talk of Tajun.”

“Why would you care?” spat Strakk. “Will you regret it if we’re killed by the Skrall before you can take your revenge on us?”

The dark smile on the Malum's face didn’t say anything good.

“To be honest... yes.”

Raanu, leader of the village of Vulcanus, had grave concerns. Without Malum, his village had just one experienced Glatorian available. There were several potential candidates to take Malum’s place, but they were young, and inexperienced. Regardless, the recent Glatorian duel with Iconox had ended in victory for Vulcanus. Iconox had to pay in Exsidian, but the precious metal had not yet arrived, and Raanu had just discovered why. “Through the Spike Mountains? Are they crazy?”

Metus, Glatorian trainer of Iconox, spread his hands. “You know that with the Bone Hunters...”

“I know about the Bone Hunters,” Raanu interrupted. “I've heard that excuse before. But my people have justly earned the victory in the arena. If Iconox cannot deliver its payment...”

“Vulcanus will not be willing to pay up if Iconox wins the next fight,” Metus concluded.

“And if that happens, Metus... our system will collapse before our eyes. By stopping the practice of settling disputes with Glatorian warriors, we can expect only one thing: war.”

Metus gave the Vulcanus leader’s words some thought. Undoubtedly Raanu was right. Centuries ago it was made clear the Agori could not afford an armed conflict between tribes. Nobody wanted to remember the nightmare of destruction left by the last war. Thus, all disputes between tribes were settled with Glatorian. However, this system was based on mutual trust. The result of a duel in the arena was not subject to discussion and was absolutely accepted by all. If a village broke the rules or didn’t pay as agreed, the others would do the same.

“I hope that those Glatorian I hired for Iconox don’t disappoint me,” he said softly. “If the Bone Hunters or even the Skrall intercept that shipment ... we're in trouble.”

Malum vanished as quickly as he had come, disappearing into the rocks with the ease of someone who had been born among the mountains. Gresh didn’t even want to know where Malum had gone, but he did not take the former Glatorian’s warning lightly.

“Skrall...” Tarduk said. “I once tried to unearth some artifacts near Roxtus ... bad idea, I know. I barely escaped. Had I been caught, I would have been a corpse.”

The road through the Black Spike Mountains to the east was still visible, but only barely so, due to little use over the years. The fresh mountain air brought some relief to the trip, especially for Strakk, who occasionally had to turn back down the mountain to help push the caravan uphill. The silence was broken only by the sound of the hooves of the Stalkers, the whistling of the wind passing between the peaks and the tranquil sound of wagon wheels. A sharp cry like that of a Mountain Striker made both Glatorian jump. A second cry made Strakk turn his gaze to the sky. Mountain Strikers were birds of prey whose wingspan could be as wide as five feet. Their claws could tear through armor as easily as an Agori could tear through dry parchment. They hunted mostly small animals, but if driven to great hunger, they wouldn’t hesitate to attack opponents much larger than themselves. Strakk and Gresh prepared to fire their weapons, hoping not to meet anything more dangerous than a Mountain Striker.

“I didn’t see anything. Do you think it was really just a Striker?” Strakk asked, his voice barely audible.

“It sounded more like a signal,” said Gresh.

“Skrall?”

“Exactly. Bone Hunters do not haunt these fields.”

Strakk shook his head.

“And if they made that signal, then the Bone Hunters are smarter than I thought.”

“What do we do?” Tarduk asked. “Try to escape? Or should we be ready to fight?”

“We heard his signal. That means they're close. Too late to escape,” Strakk said. “Well rookie, you always wanted to be a hero. Now's your chance to die as one.”

Gresh was deep in thought. He had to find a way to save them. They could pretend they hadn’t heard anything suspicious, and move on, trying to escape from the Skrall ambush. He could guess which option Strakk would choose: running as soon as possible and leaving the mountains behind. Wasn’t there any way to get the goods delivered to their destination? Too late. He had already wasted too much time trying to decide. As he looked up, warriors in black armor emerged from hiding. The Skrall had surrounded them.

“This is the land of the Skrall,” said one of them.

“Travel through these mountains is forbidden,” added a second.

“Unless you want to see Tuma,” added a third. “What's in the caravan? Show us!”

“If we do, they’ll take the Exsidian,” Kirbold whispered nervously.

“And if we don’t, they will kill us.” Tarduk replied, then turned slowly and uncovered the cargo.

Rarely did the Skrall show any joy; even a smile was uncommon. However, the party witnessed an incredibly rare sight: the Skrall were so pleased, they practically laughed. They were looking at a valuable treasure, and interposed between the precious metal and themselves were only two Glatorian and two Agori.

“Take the contents of the caravan out. Now!” ordered the group leader.

Strakk sighed with relief. Apparently, fate had been kind to them: the Exsidian was lost, but at least he got to keep his head. They had been lucky that the "supply" sounded better than killing them.

“We have business with Iconox,” Gresh said confidently. “The burden is not ours. We can’t leave without the consent of the owner.” The Skrall's faces became serious.

“Try it,” threatened a Skrall.

“I will,” said Gresh.

Why are you doing this? Strakk thought. They’ll kill us all!

“Iconox is in debt to Roxtus,” Gresh lied. “We have orders to deliver payment directly to Tuma as a humble apology for the delay. He wants to see it himself. Do you want to be the one to tell Tuma that you had not heard of the apology and sent us back into the desert?”

His words served to panic the Skrall. Tuma, their leader, was the only being who really frightened them. Sending back the payment would bring his anger upon them. He would break the bones of any Skrall who disappointed him. Nobody wanted to stand before him and explain why he hadn’t received what he had expected.

“You will come with us,” said a Skrall. “But unarmed.”

The two Skrall approached the Glatorian and took their Thornax Launchers, along with Gresh's shield and Strakk's axe. Then they searched the carriage. They found an extra launcher, which they confiscated, and ordered the Glatorian to stay away from the caravan. Under the watchful eye of the Skrall, the team began to question their chances of survival.

“Great idea,” Strakk murmured. “Next you'll want to give our hands over in addition to the Exsidian.”

“No,” said Gresh. “It isn’t my intention to stay with them.”

“What?”

“Right,” replied Gresh, hitting Strakk over the head with an Exsidian ingot.

Surprisingly, the wounded Strakk gave no answer, but simply attacked Gresh in return. After a while both were fiercely fighting in the caravan.

“Stop!” a Skrall said, approaching the trailer to separate them.

“This is just what I expected,” said Gresh. Once the Skrall was within his reach, Gresh delivered a powerful blow with the Exsidian. He then grabbed a Thornax Launcher from the Skrall, and before anyone could react, he fired, hitting the rock wall on the right. He reloaded and fired again, this time at the rock wall on the left. Both shots caused an avalanche, dropping tons of rock upon the caravan and their escort. The Skrall fled before the avalanche. Gresh jumped onto his Stalker and shouted, “Ride, Kirbold!”

The Agori took the reins, and sent the Spikit running at full speed, something anyone in that situation would have done. The rocks fell toward the trailer’s sides, making the road even narrower.

“We need to go faster!” Tarduk cried.

“We can't!” Strakk replied, “We’re driving a carriage with a few tons of Exsidian. How can we go faster?”

“Come on!” yelled Gresh. “We’re making good ground!”

“It’s better to stop talking!” Strakk growled, massaging the spot on his head where Gresh had struck him. “The next time you plan something like that, would you mind telling me about it?”

Strakk snatched the Thornax Launcher from Gresh and turned around. He pointed at the rocks that were rolling toward them and fired. The rocks shattered, creating another shower of stones. At that same moment, the entire hillside exploded, sending a gigantic piece of rock rolling down the hill toward the trailer.

“It’s heading towards the caravan!” Tarduk cried.

The Spikit stopped and stood near the convoy, almost blocking it, but managing to provide cover for Strakk and Kirbold. Gresh left his Stalker, grabbed its saddle, and placed it over the trailer as Tarduk jumped in. A wave of rocks hit the trailer, but were pushed off to the sides by the saddle.

A moment later, it was over. Where the Agori and Glatorian had previously been standing, there was now a pile of rubble. The air was stifling due to the dust. All was silent. The Skrall, who’d managed to escape alive, approached the pile. They attempted to push some of the larger stones out of the way, but were unsuccessful.

“What will we tell Tuma?” asked one of the warriors.

“Nothing,” said the leader. “There was no transport. No one saw it. If anyone ever finds out what happened to them, we’ll say that it was an accident ... one of the many that can happen in a dangerous place like this.”

The Skrall looked down at the axe and shield in in their hands - the Glatorian’s weapons. After some thought, they were thrown into the rubble.

“These are of no use to anyone anymore.”

Chapter 3

Strakk couldn’t see; he could barely breathe. He wanted to see his surroundings to be a hundred percent sure... but knew that it wouldn’t be good. This is what I get, he thought. This is the last time I do something for others. I have a very soft heart, that’s my problem. Enough! It's over! I will become a champion of the arena, and never take an escort job again in my life, no matter what.

Strakk clenched his fist and struck something hard. Something grabbed his wrist and pulled him out of the rocks. He was relieved when he touched the ground. The dust kicked up by the fall caused him to cough violently. When he looked around, he saw a faint light around the dust, forming a familiar silhouette.

“I’m alive!” Strakk sputtered after a while. “What happened?”

“You really need to ask?” Replied Gresh, his voice laced with fury. “Your fire triggered an avalanche. We all fell down the slope.”

“But I'm alive, right?” Strakk murmured, rising. “If not, I would have gone where good souls go. I’m definitely not there.”

“The avalanche pushed us against the wall of the ravine. Then I saw a small opening in the canyon wall,” Tarduk said. “We went inside, but then the entrance was blocked by rocks.”

“What of the caravan? And the Exsidian?” Strakk said, alarmed. “If Exsidian is lost, I will not receive my payment and the whole expedition will have been a waste of time!”

“The Spikit is a bit battered, but the carriage is fine,” Kirbold said. “I'm glad you asked.”

As Tarduk spoke, Gresh returned to the opening. It was blocked. Pushing with all his strength, he tried to move the rock, but to no avail.

“Even if we do manage to move the rocks from the inside, the other side would be blocked by debris and boulders. I’d prefer not to go out that way.” Tarduk lit a torch, illuminating the dark corridor.

“Is there another option?”

Strakk stepped forward, carefully examining the surface of the walls. The rock was perfectly smooth and polished. He was looking for a second exit. If there was one, it was not located somewhere in the ceiling, so climbing was not an option. He walked around, looking for scratches, cracks or anything that indicated the existence of a door, but due to low amount of light provided by the torch Tarduk had, he couldn’t find anything.

“Where do we go from here?” Strakk asked.

“This is not a natural tunnel,” Gresh said. “Someone created it. But why? And where does it lead?”

“Well,” Tarduk shrugged. “It seems our only choice is to follow the path ... Unless you’d prefer to stay here and die.”

Everyone sighed with relief when they discovered that the corridor was wide enough for the caravan to pass through. According to Kirbold's calculations, the corridor should be running roughly from east to west, almost the same direction of Vulcanus. Of course, if he was wrong, and the tunnel did not lead in that direction, it would undoubtedly cross the Dark Falls and end in the eastern territories. Nobody liked that possibility. Anyone who traveled there, even the Skrall, never returned.

Tarduk’s torch was the only source of light in the hallway. They hadn’t yet encountered anything that indicated where they were, or where they were going. Tarduk also wondered why there were no signs of life. No doubt the Sand Bats would have dug holes to gain entry. If there was another way out, it would be closed. For a moment Tarduk wished that Bara Magna's Glatorian could control the elements to which they belonged. If that were the case, the Jungle Tribe could control plant life, and the Ice Tribe would control ice. Strakk could freeze the boulders blocking the exit and break it in half with one blow of his axe. That idea was a nice one, but he knew it was impossible. Nearly a hundred thousand years ago the Glatorian had fought a major war on the planet. Tarduk preferred not to think about what would’ve happened if they’d had the ability to control their elements then.

“Hey, look,” Gresh said. “What’s that?”

Several strange symbols on the wall glowed brightly in the torchlight. A series of circles with lines drawn through them at various angles, forming strange inscriptions. Tarduk’s mouth curved into a smile.

“I saw something like that once!” he said, rushing to the wall to see the markings more closely. “I found these writings in some ruins!” “Excellent,” Strakk said. “I hope this symbol is: "Exit."”

“I don’t know what’s written here. I can’t read them,” Tarduk said. “But based off where I found them, I think...”

“Spit it out!” Strakk grunted.

“... I think it has something to do with the Great Beings...” Tarduk ended in silence.

“That’s... good news,” Gresh said, uncertainly.

“That's wonderful,” a stunned Strakk rubbed his head. “Just great. Things couldn’t get any better. Unless you see lava in here...”

“You know what? I think I left a flaming torch at the entrance,” Kirbold murmured. “I’d like to go back.”

Tarduk perfectly understood what his teammates felt. Even if no one had seen the Great Beings, all knew of them. Many people would forgive them for making Bara Magna a technologically advanced world. However, the vast majority blamed them for the catastrophe that had struck the world. Why they disappeared, Tarduk did not know - in time it became a legend. However, there was no doubting one thing: the Great Beings had committed a horrible act. The consequences of their negligence had resulted in a tragic disaster. Since then no one talked about the Great Beings. In the past, Tarduk had made several attempts to find them, but the leader of his tribe forbade him to look, considering his attempts to be a "waste of time." But he’s not here now, thought Tarduk. Perhaps now, I’ll finally manage to learn something about them.

“Why would the Great Beings have dug a tunnel in the mountains?” asked Gresh.

“To reach the other side of the mountain?” Strakk guessed with a hopeful tone in his voice.

“Perhaps the Great Beings built this place ... and left a guard?” Tarduk suggested. “It may be in here now.”

“After a hundred thousand years? Please!” Strakk scoffed.

Suddenly a sound echoed through the hall - a hollow sound, like something on the ceiling had been loose and dropped down from above. Everyone jumped.

“Someone’s here,” Kirbold whispered.

“Something’s wrong,” said Gresh, his voice a whisper. “Stay here, I’ll investigate.”

Before Strakk could protest, Gresh advanced. A few hundred feet down the path, the floor of the hall seemed a bit different. The smooth surface was replaced by thousands of ancient stones. On the walls were more symbols. As he continued he heard strange noises ahead - sounds of scraping and a quiet hiss of air. Gresh’s nerves were pushed to the limit.

“Gresh!” Tarduk cried. “The ground is moving!”

Gresh looked down. Tarduk was right. The "stones" in the path were actually Scarabax Beetles. The swarm covered the floor of the corridor from wall to wall. When the beetles were small they weren’t much of a threat - they could easily be trampled. But adult Scarabax shells were hard as rock. Gresh quickly stepped back, causing a violent commotion amongst the insects. If he didn’t move quickly, he would not be heard from again. Suddenly he heard a roar in the tunnel, and a Sand Bat burst out of the darkness, heading right for him. Anyone who had been through the desert knew the Sand Bats were something to fear. They were large predators with a snakelike body and the wings of a bat. They preyed on creatures by leaping from the sand and quickly dragging their victims into the depths. Now Gresh had two problems to worry about; the beetles and the Sand Bat. Gresh stumbled and fell back towards the bug infestation. Kirbold and Tarduk hurried to help Gresh. Strakk hesitated for a moment, but immediately ran after them. He knew that if he didn’t succeed in saving his companion, he too would end up as just another meal. The Sand Bat lunged at Gresh. The Glatorian’s memories flashed before his eyes; he remembered his people, the faces of his friends, Kiina and Vastus. He instinctively closed his eyes as the Sand Bat rushed toward him, baring its teeth. For a moment nothing happened, then a furious whisper suddenly echoed through the cave. The noise drowned all other sounds, all except one… the desperate cry of the Sand Bat.

Fero reined his steed to a stop to take a closer look at the area. He knew there was a mystery to be solved here. Fero belonged to the desert raiders known as Bone Hunters. He was one of the best, but recently a target had managed to evade him. The attack on the village of Vulcanus had ended in failure - a handful of Glatorian had been sent to stop him, and had succeeded. He wasn’t sure how this had happened, but he was humiliated in front of his tribe. Pride wouldn’t allow him to live with such shame. Shortly after the failed raid he’d left his camp, although he had no intent to hunt or plunder the Agori caravans. No, Fero would track juicier prey – the Glatorian who had beaten him days earlier. He had vowed to pursue them, and would only be satisfied when the desert sand had consumed them all. Fero had followed Strakk's trail since leaving Iconox. He wanted to wait until nightfall to attack the Glatorian, leaving his knife embedded in Strakk’s flesh as a warning to others. However, during his watch he’d found that Strakk was with Gresh, a Glatorian of Tesara, and they were both escorting a load of Exsidian. Fate had given him the opportunity to defeat two enemies, and gain a substantial reward, in one stroke. He just needed a plan. Many experienced Bone Hunters wouldn’t have run the risk of facing two strong Glatorian, but Fero was patient. The two Glatorian had gone on a long journey, and Fero would wait for the right moment to attack them by surprise. The Black Spike Mountains had made them an easy target, but the Skrall had interfered with his plans. Furious, he had watched the group of warriors escort their prisoners and their valuable cargo towards the village of Roxtus. Then there was an escape attempt that ended with an avalanche. The Skrall left behind the debris - the purported resting place of the two Glatorian, two Agori and several tons of Exsidian. Fero understood why the Skrall didn't believe anyone could’ve survived the catastrophe. However, something told him that appearances could be deceiving. Perhaps the instinct of a Bone Hunter, honed for years in the harsh desert, led him to conclude that Gresh and Strakk were still alive. Of course, he hadn’t gone to confirm this by digging through tons of stones; this type of work was not something Fero enjoyed. In addition, the Skrall could return at any time. This brought Fero to another possibility: the only way to avoid death in an avalanche was to be in a cave. Caves often had a second exit. Perhaps the road that the Glatorian were taking would bring them to it. If so, Fero intended to find it and wait for them. He turned his steed and headed off the road. If Strakk and Gresh emerged from the cave, Fero would make sure his defeat in Vulcanus was avenged.

Gresh opened his eyes. The Scarabax swarm had emerged from the ground like a miniature tornado and flung themselves toward the Sand Bat. For a moment, the beast disappeared under a thick black cloud of insects. When the cloud disappeared, Gresh noted that the spot where the Sand Bat had been was now empty. Soon the beetles scattered in all directions, and Gresh, still in shock, stood up.

“What just happened?” Gresh asked hurriedly, while checking to see if any of the beetles remained attached to his armor.

“You ran straight into a Scarabax swarm. That was stupid,” Strakk explained. “Then you fell into a Scarabax swarm. That was also stupid. The Sand Bat was smarter than you.” Gresh gritted his teeth, trying hard not to fire back a harsh response.

Kirbold intervened, preventing Strakk from making things worse. “The Scarabax react to sudden movements. When the Sand Bat flapped its wings it caught their attention, so they forgot you and went after it instead.”

“Then why did they flee?”

“Who knows. Maybe they went to take a nap after lunch? At least they’re gone,” Tarduk shrugged.

“That’s not even the most interesting part.” Strakk sighed.

“No? What is then? Enlighten me,” a curious Kirbold responded.

“Sand Bats don’t live in the caves,” Strakk voice was riddled with impatience. “They live in the desert, buried in the sand where they hunt things on the surface. In places like this, there’s no food for them. Get it?”

“They came here from outside, like us,” Gresh guessed. “Except that Sand Bat flew from the other side, and that means...”

“... That means there must be an exit!” Kirbold concluded. “We just have to find it!”

“Well, wise man,” Strakk said. “Can we hurry before those bugs appear again?”

The team continued down the corridor. The passage twisted, rose and fell, but Tarduk was more interested in the inscriptions on the walls. He still no idea what they might mean. He couldn’t even tell if they were letters or numbers, and the group was moving too quickly for him to take a good look.

“I think I see something,” Kirbold said. “There, up ahead.”

Tarduk stared into the darkness. Kirbold was right - ahead of them shone a dim light. Without thinking, Gresh moved in that direction. Kirbold had the Spikit run faster to keep pace with him.

“What is it?” Strakk cried. “A door? Is it the exit?”

Gresh continued down the path. Through a narrow slit in the middle of the wall was a faint stream of sunlight. Placing both hands on the wall, Gresh tried to find a button or a lever to open it.

“I think so,” he replied. “If only we can find ... Aha!"

The Glatorian pushed a square stone embedded in the wall. After a moment they heard the echo of an old mechanism working. However, it did not open any door. Something completely unexpected happened.

“This doesn’t look good.” Strakk said.

Tarduk jumped from the caravan and saw how right Strakk was: the corridor walls were starting to approach each other. At the rate the walls were moving, the group had only a few minutes to live before they were crushed. Gresh and Strakk desperately groped the wall in search of something that could stop the mechanism, but found nothing. Kirbold rushed to help, ignoring the growls of the Spikit, which, by nature, was terrified of enclosed spaces. Tarduk kept searching for another button on the wall. However, he was also staring at the engravings. He was sure they hid a suggestion to help them out of this problem. Each one had a circular shape. Many of them had lines in within the circle, while others contained smaller circles. He thought some were words, but could not identify any. They were in a language he didn’t know. Wait, wait, he thought. This symbol, here... this is possible?

One symbol was far from the others - a simple circle, with no extra lines or other patterns in the middle. His first thought was that it looked like a zero or the letter "O".

It couldn’t be that simple, he thought, then hesitated. Could "O" be "Open"?

Tarduk jumped and punched the symbol. Suddenly, the stone before them began to shake. The rock that was blocking the road slowly moved aside, filling the tunnel with light. The walls continued approaching each other, but finally an escape route had opened.

“Run!” Tarduk screamed.

Kirbold took the reins and urged the Spikit toward the exit. Behind the carriage ran Tarduk, followed closely by Gresh and Strakk. Only moments after they escaped the tunnel, they heard the sound of the corridor walls closing behind them.

“Phew!” Strakk let out a breath of relief.

“Look around,” said Gresh.

They were at the foot of the mountains. They could see where the mountains gave rise to the desert, and the dark waters of the Skrall River fell with a steady echo. They had made it through the Black Spike Mountains.

“It's a shame that we can’t go back the way we came,” Kirbold said. “Well, unless we all lose a lot of weight.”

Gresh turned, having heard the impact of metal on rock. Seconds later something fell from the rocks above them and landed with a crash at his feet. Before them lay the body of a Bone Hunter. Gresh approached him carefully.

“It’s Fero,” Gresh said in amazement.

“Is he dead?” Strakk asked.

“He’s still alive, but badly wounded. It looks like he’s been in a rough fight.”

“But look at him, he’s a Bone Hunter. Who could have done this to him?” Tarduk asked, surprised.

Soon the reply came, though not in the form of an audible voice. In seconds, the team was surrounded by a group of Vorox. Amid the quiet circle appeared a warrior clad in red armor.

“We did this to him,” said Malum. “The only question is whether or not we should do the same to you.”

Chapter Four

One of the first things Strakk learned as Glatorian was "read the situation." Was his opponent confident or fearful? Was he admired by your audience or did they not care? Could the layout of the arena be used to gain an edge? These questions all had to be answered before the village leader announced the start of the fight. This technique was useful for keeping silent and organizing his thoughts. It allowed to forget the fear and focus on the challenge he faced. His current situation was a good time to hide his fear. But considering all the facts, options and risk factors... Strakk was ready to panic. Being surrounded by Vorox as he was, Strakk believed he could be forgiven for feeling this way.

“And what shall I do with you now?” Malum said. “I have many Vorox to feed.”

“Listen, Malum,” said Gresh. “We have nothing for you. We just want to go to Vulcanus. Take what you want from us, and let us continue on our way.”

“What are you talking about?” Strakk whispered. “He will take the Exsidian.”

Malum laughed. “Our senses are very sharp. I’d listen to Strakk. Your lives depend on it.”

“Listen to this...” Gresh said suddenly, pointing with his launcher. “I’m a pretty good shot. If any of your Vorox fire at us... I'll do the same to you, Malum. They may beat us, but you will die first.”

The tone of Gresh's voice caused anxiety among the Vorox. Several of them began to growl menacingly, flexing their tails, ready to attack.

“Quiet. Aggression is not the answer,” Malum replied indignantly. “I came here to kill a small group of old… acquaintances.”

“What did I say?” Strakk muttered under his breath.

“I do not want your Exsidian. What would we use it for? The Vorox aren't toolmakers. What they cannot eat, drink or use in a fight is not useful to them. Or me.”

“What do you want?” Gresh said.

“The Skrall have something that belongs to me,” Malum said calmly. “I want it back.”

Strakk laughed. “Is that all? They have the strongest army in Bara Magna. You want to knock on their door and ask for a refund? By all means, go get yourself killed. While I do the same to your Vorox.”

“Shut up, Strakk!” cut in Gresh. “What do you mean, Malum? Why are you here? The Vorox live in the Dunes of Treason. The Skrall have not entered that territory.”

Malum climbed onto a rock. Two Vorox left the circle and grabbed Tarduk and Kirbold. Strakk and Gresh tried to intervene, but more Vorox blocked them from rescuing their companions.

“Pathetic heroes. I will ensure that your friends will not leave without saying goodbye... I would not want something to happen, right? In regards to your question, Gresh... the Bone Hunters recently attacked one of our camps. We managed to beat them, but they stole a sword, and sold it to the Skrall. We came to retrieve it, but since you're here, you can do this favor for us.”

“You're crazy!” Strakk cried.

Malum's eyes flashed with anger.

“Crazy? No! I'm surrounded by friends who want to rip you into pieces! I control the fate of your two small friends and your Exsidian! So I advise you start planning how to retrieve my sword… before my Vorox lose their patience.”

Gresh and Strakk watched the Skrall city from behind an outcropping of rock. It was night, but Roxtus was always in motion, like a hive. The soldiers were keeping watch, or returning to the city for the night. The Agori were working and repairing weapons. From inside the walls they could hear the sounds of the warriors in training.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Strakk said.

“I know,” said Gresh. “You’ve said that three times.”

“There are at least a hundred Skrall in there,” Strakk continued. “Not to mention that Agori with glowing swords, whom I’ve never seen before. The walls are two feet thick, probably strong enough to stop an army. And anyway, I see no invitation for two Glatorian.”

“Well,” replied Gresh, “that means they do not expect us.”

“And how do we get in, genius?”

Gresh looked toward the desert, and saw a caravan approaching the city. Each wagon was pulled by a two-headed Spikit, with a torch strapped to the front acting as a flashlight.

“They're probably transporting food and water,” said Gresh. “We only have to get into a carriage and ride through the door.”

“Did I say that I had a bad feeling about this?” Strakk asked.

The two Glatorian ran to the carriages. They were beyond the reach of the torchlight emanating from the city, so they were invisible to the guards. They saw a small Skrall group returning from their rounds, but at the last moment managed to hide behind a dune. When the caravan slowly crept by, Strakk, followed by Gresh, crawled under the wagons. When the vehicle stopped for a moment, Strakk used a rope hanging from the rear to hang from the bottom of it: nobody could see him unless they deliberately looked under the carriage. Gresh, however, had a more difficult task: hiding under the trailer, near one of the Spikit. Moving quickly toward it, he prayed that Spikit wasn't hungry, fearing that it wouldn’t take him as a potential meal. Once he was under the trailer, he mimicked Strakk's feat, gripping the underside of it.

Upon reaching Roxtus, the city’s gates seemed to take forever to open. Gresh's muscles were burning from the effort of holding his body above the sand. When he heard the voice of the guard - an Agori named Atakus - allowing entry of the caravan, he was relieved. The first part of the mission was successful. When the carriages stopped, the Glatorian left the caravan and hid in the shadows, hiding from the Skrall guards approaching. They waited until the carriages had finished unloading and departed, then entered the city.

“Do you have any idea where to look?” Strakk asked.

“I think so,” Gresh said. He gestured toward a towering edifice. “The largest building in town. Malum's sword must be considered a spoil of war. Such things would be kept in a safe place.”

“Only one guard in front... and unless you’ve got a way to get rid of him…” Strakk grabbed a piece of rusty chain that was lying in the sand, then held it out to Gresh. “Wrap this around your hands.”

They went to the building with their hands chained. They walked slowly, hunched over with their heads between their arms.

“What are you doing here?” said the guard. “You must remain in your cells. There is no fight today.”

“Oh yeah,” Strakk said. “I forgot.”

The Glatorian rushed the surprised Agori. Strakk silenced the Agori with one punch, knocking him out cold.

“Good job,” conceded Gresh, dropping the chain. “Where did you learn that trick?”

“I learned to lie, and deceive, by practicing,” Strakk grinned. “Two things Glatorian practice regularly, don't you think?”

“Just start looking around,” said Gresh. “When dawn breaks...”

“...we won’t be able to get out of town unseen. I know.”

The Glatorian efficiently separated to search the room. In no other village was there a place like this. The Rock Tribe didn't use the room for sleeping or eating, or to store inventory: no, apparently all of their treasure was kept here. Gresh noted a map of Bara Magna placed on a large table. Was this simply used as a source of information, or for mapping out war strategies?

It was Strakk who found where the most valuable treasure was. There were a lot of different things. Some of them - helmets, armor and other that objects stolen long ago - were easy to recognize, but others he had never had seen before in his life. Malum's sword was under a pile of objects unknown to him, surrounded by six stones engraved with symbols, which were of no importance. Strakk wanted to take everything he could, but, after a moment's thought, he quickly abandoned the idea. He had nothing against robbing the Skrall, but carrying all that baggage would seriously hamper his escape.

Strakk took a closer look at the item they’d come here for. The sword was unique, its elaborate ornamentation shaped like a flame. The blade was made of Exsidian, and the handle had been carved from volcanic rock. No wonder Malum wanted to retrieve such a beautiful weapon. He must have been attached to it, as even his name was written on the handle. But something was wrong. Strakk looked closer at the engraving. The inscription on the sword said... "Ackar".

Whoa, Malum is a thief, thought Strakk. He dared to steal the sword of his fellow Glatorian, Ackar, and when the Bone Hunters took it, he asked us to steal it back for him! Did he stab Ackar in the back just out of spite?

“You found it?” asked Gresh, entering the room. He was carrying his shield in one hand, and a large sword Strakk didn’t recognize in the other. “I thought this might be useful for getting out of here.”

“Of course I found it... but look.” Strakk showed Gresh the inscription on the sword. “Now what do we do with it?"

“We will return it to Ackar,” Gresh replied without hesitation.

“Maybe he’ll give us some kind of reward,” Strakk proposed. “But on the other hand, if we give it to Malum, perhaps the Agori live long enough to see Vulcanus again.”

“First, we need to get out of Roxtus,” Gresh said.

“I saw something that could help,” said Strakk. “Give me the sword.”

The two Glatorian left the building quietly. Gresh followed Strakk to fenced area that smelled awful – something common for a Spikit Pen.

“The Skrall have a weakness for these two-headed monsters,” Strakk whispered. “Probably because Spikit are the only things uglier than them. Let's see how they like them running loose.”

Strakk brandished his axe, breaking the gates with a single blow. Seeing the opening, the animals hesitated for a moment, then broke into a run through the city. Normally, stopping a herd of Spikit would not be a problem for the Skrall: block off some streets, kill a few of them, and the rest could quickly and easily be gotten under control. Unfortunately, the Agori caretakers had forgotten to feed them. The hungry Spikit were devouring everything, and everyone, within reach of their claws. A dozen wild, furious, and hungry Spikit ran throughout the village, and chaos soon engulfed the city. The Agori ran in panic as the Skrall used Thornax Launchers to try to subdue the creatures. Gresh saw one of them trip and fall right in front of the pack. He did not rise again. Taking advantage of the confusion, Gresh and Strakk climbed a wall near the city gates. The closed entryway kept the Spikit and the Skrall from following them. On the other side, Atakus was still on guard, with orders to take them down. Strakk jumped on him from above, knocking him out cold. The two Glatorian propped the unconscious guard against a wall, then ran into the desert as fast as they could. They paused for breath only when they were at a safe distance from the Skrall city.

“Do you think this was too easy?” Gresh mused.

“Don't worry. We have the sword, and let some Spikit enjoy a meal. And besides, why should we worry about the Skrall? Do you think they’ll want this sword back that badly?”

Gresh shrugged. Maybe he was worrying too much, but he had a bad feeling. “Give me the sword.”

There wasn’t enough moonlight to see very far, but it was all he needed to inspect the sword. It didn’t appear to be anything special, but at the base of the handle Gresh felt a small, atypical depression. When he pressed it, a small compartment opened, containing a small metal object.

“What is it?” Strakk asked. “Exsidian? Ice crystals? Tell me!”

Gresh looked at it a good while before he recognized it. Suddenly, he threw it into the sand and crushed it with his heel.

“What are you doing?” Strakk protested. “That thing could have been valuable!”

“Our lives are worth more,” said Gresh. “We need to get out of here.”

They ran. Gresh occasionally looked anxiously behind him to see if someone was chasing them. But he didn’t see any Skrall following them out of the city.

“I saw something like this before,” said Gresh they ran. “Once in the desert, I saw an Agori running from something. He had a metal collar. He mumbled something about being enslaved by the Skrall... it sounded like nonsense. I took the necklace and saw that in the middle was a strange object. It sent a signal...”

“A tracking device,” Strakk concluded. “But why would one be in the sword?”

Gresh climbed some rocks. He saw the Skrall approach the place where he had destroyed the transmitter. Even without the tracker to follow, they continued to give chase, attempting to follow the steps in the sand. However, daylight would be needed to clearly see the footprints left by Strakk and Gresh. They were safe for now.

“The Bone Hunters sold the sword to the Skrall. I don't think the Skrall knew where it came from,” pondered Gresh. “Perhaps they thought that the Bone Hunters stole it from Ackar, and that he would come to get it. Maybe it was a trap for Ackar.”

“But why would they be interested in him? Ackar was a champion of the Arena, but lately we hardly hear about him. I have no idea why anyone would be interested in him.”

“Maybe it was for Skrall hunting practice...” said Gresh.

After some time, they finally managed to reach the Vorox camp. They saw no one following them. Recalling the great sense of smell that the Vorox had, they found a cave with the wind in their favor. They climbed a small hill near the camp and hid in the cavern. At the camp, they could see Malum standing next to the caravan and the two Agori.

“We still need to rescue the Agori,” reminded Gresh. “You take care of Malum while I distract the Vorox.”

Gresh approached some stones glittering in the depths of the cave. Their brightness wasn’t a reflection: the stones were a mineral that emitted light. Gresh crushed a few of the stones, and covered his armor with the dust. After a moment, he began to glow.

“Give me a minute, then you go for the caravan,” Gresh said and then walked away.

Strakk took a position near the cave entrance, and waited for the right moment. Suddenly he heard a scream so horrible that even he jumped in fear. Gresh, glowing bright as the stars, jumped from behind a rock and ran straight into the camp. The Vorox, superstitious by nature, mistook him for a vengeful ghost who had decided to stay in the desert and began to flee. Gresh came closer to get them to disperse.

Malum was not fooled. “Do not panic,” he growled. “He isn't a spirit... but he soon will be.”

Strakk felt that this was the right time – the caravan wasn’t being guarded. He took a deep breath and entered the camp. He jumped on the wagon, took the reins and urged the Spikit into a gallop. The wagon jolted forward so violently that Kirbold and Tarduk almost fell out. Before the Vorox could notice that the caravan was gone, they were already far away.

“Where is Gresh?” Tarduk cried. “He was back there!”

“That's his problem,” Strakk said.

Tarduk grabbed an Exsidian doubloon, ready to strike Strakk.

“Now it’s your problem too. Go back.”

“No need,” Kirbold announced. “Look!”

A shining being was running toward them with a group of Vorox at his heels. Gresh leaped forward desperately. Strakk reined in, slowing the Spikit enough that the jungle Glatorian was able to jump onto the wagon.

“Get moving! Hurry!” Gresh shouted.

However, the Spikit could not pull the group’s combined weight fast enough, and the furious Vorox were gaining rapidly. Strakk frantically sought a way to lose their pursuers. Then he saw small hope of escape: a large hill up ahead. If they could reach the other side it, they would be out of sight of the Vorox for a moment. They could leave the carriage, and hide somewhere until dawn. Strakk gripped the reins and had the Spikit run faster until they disappeared behind the hill. Then Strakk realized his mistake. It was not a hill: it was the deadly Dark Falls, leading the Spikit, cargo and passengers to their doom.

Chapter Five

It’s true, thought Gresh. In when you’re about to die, everything seems to slow down. After all, he was, along with two Agori, one Glatorian and a wagon carrying invaluable cargo, plunging into a chasm, probably to their death… and yet, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The water was drawing closer inch by inch, and he was conscious of every breath he took – in, out, in, out. His mind raced madly, even though he seemed to have all time in the world before impact. Below them was the headwater of the Skrall River, where the water flowing down the Black Spike Mountains came together to feed the oasis of Tesara. The river ran farther south, but thanks to the great heat, it evaporated before reaching the region of Atero.

Gresh braced his body. Even if he hadn’t spent all his life living near water, it would have been clear to him that all his bones would break during the impact, so he had to submerge cleanly. He dove headfirst to split the water’s surface, but he had forgotten that, even here, the Skrall River wasn’t very deep. His head hit a rock at the bottom of the river and everything went black.

Then, the darkness was pushed away by lively colors. Gresh stood amidst the Sea of Liquid Sand, and, despite the quicksand that surrounded him, managed to remain on his feet. Not far away, the village of Vulcanus was burning. The Agori and Glatorian burned, too, but walked around as if nothing was happening. He turned to his right to see Malum leading a horde of Vorox to Vulcanus. Bbut instead of attacking, they passed through the village and charged into a group of Bone Hunters. Nearby sat a troop of Skrall watching the action. Once both sides were tired from fighting, the Skrall overwhelmed both, the Vorox and the Bone Hunters. Then something even stranger happened: a shooting star crossed the sky and lit up the desert night for miles around. It crashed down and burned a crater into the sand. Smoke and flame poured from the crash site, and finally a figure slowly rose… one Gresh had never seen before. At first he thought it was a Glatorian, but the creature kept growing and growing, and soon towered miles over Bara Magna. The figure grew and grew… or was it Gresh who was shrinking? He looked down at himself and noticed that his legs were half sunken into the quicksand. He was sinking! He called for help, but the Vulcanus Agori were too occupied with the fire and the battle with the Skrall. The giant figure stood high over the chaos, and called Gresh’s name.

“Gresh… Gresh… Gresh!”

The Glatorian’s eyes snapped open. The burning village, the quicksand, the Skrall and the giant were gone. He was lying in the sand and looked up at two Glatorian, Ackar and Kiina. Strakk, Tarduk and Kirbold sat nearby in the shadow of a cliff.

“You gave us quite a scare,” Kiina said, laughing.

“Don’t try to get up,” Ackar advised. “You hit your head really hard.”

“What… how did you get here? Gresh asked, trying to get up despite Ackar’s warning. Immediately everything began to spin and he had to lie down again.

“When the Exsidian ore didn’t arrive in Vulcanus, Raanu grew nervous,” Ackar replied. “If it isn’t delivered, Iconox can’t pay their debt to Vulcanus for the lost match.”

“Ackar convinced Raanu to wait a little instead of acting too hastily,” Kiina said. “He said we would either find you and help deliver the Exsidian, or try to prove that Iconox sent the cargo on its way. We had just arrived when Strakk fished you out of the river.”

Gresh gave his companion a surprised look. He and Strakk were anything but good friends, and he knew that Strakk never did anything without wanting something in return.

Their gazes met. “Tarduk promised me a part of his next artifacts trove if I found you and got you out of the water,” Strakk explained. “So it was only reasonable to…” Kiina stared angrily at Strakk, looking like she wanted to teach him a lesson in manners with her trident.

Ackar had walked over to the shores of river and stared into the water. “At least we found you. But according to Kirbold, the Exsidian is lying at the bottom of the river. Raanu won’t be happy about this.”

“Worse,” Kirbold said. “If we don’t have a safe route anymore to send cargo from Iconox to Vulcanus and back, then it’s of no use for either village to challenge each other in the arena. When a village has got something the other one wants, there’ll be confrontations.”

“If we manage to get the Exsidian to Vulcanus we may be able to avoid that,” Ackar said. “But your Spikit ran away, the wagon is shattered and the whole area is teaming with Vorox and Skrall… this situation is serious.”

Gresh forced himself to get up. Everything was spinning for a moment, quickly at first, then slowing down just enough so that he wasn’t sick. He staggered over to Ackar. The Exsidian had probably buried itself deep into the riverbed. It would be possible to recover it with the proper equipment, but without the wagon, they could only transport a few ingots anyway. Even if they loaded a few ingots onto Ackar and Kiina’s Sand Stalkers, the expedition would be far from a success.

“Maybe we should get a wagon from Vulcanus?” Tarduk suggested.

“We could probably save you the effort,” Kiina said. “Ackar – there  don’t you think there may be someone around who would be very eager to get some Exsidian?” She nodded her head towards the north.

Ackar smiled.

“This is an absurd idea,” Strakk grumbled while trudging through the sand. “Not only absurd – suicidal, too. So of course they chose me for it.”

He kept himself from looking back. Strakk knew exactly where Ackar and Kiina were watching him from up between the rocks. It was allegedly to cover his back, but he knew the true reason: they wanted to make sure he didn’t make a run for it. Strakk marched from the Dark Falls to the southeast, in the direction of the open desert. Gresh had proposed heading north, toward Roxtus, but Kiina had been against it.

“Going that way he’ll never make it past Malum and his Vorox,” she said. “Plus, the Skrall aren’t stupid enough to think a Glatorian would voluntarily come to them if there was another solution. No, the encounter has to look accidental.”

Thus Strakk was wandering through the desert, beneath the burning sun, without any equipment. If he was “fortunate,” a Skrall patrol would cross his way. If not, he’d fall victim to the Bone Hunters or some hungry desert creature. Not for the first time he asked himself whether the Match with Ackar he had been promised was worth all this. He stopped to drink something. During the accident he had lost his water canteen, but he had insisted on taking Kiina’s before he moved out. Kiina was afraid that the Skrall wouldn’t believe his story if he was carrying water, but Strakk refused to leave without it. He took a large gulp. When he lowered the canteen, he saw something in the distance: riders, coming straight toward him. He couldn’t make out who they were through the heat waves rising from the sand, but he counted about half a dozen armed figures on Sand Stalkers. Strakk felt a surge of relief. Bone Hunters rode Rock Steeds, so the riders were probably not raiders. He at least didn’t want to fall into the hands of the wrong criminals. He forced himself to stop walking. Even though his mind was screaming “Run!” Strakk was in no way a coward – after all, you couldn’t be a successful Glatorian if you gave in to fear. But he thought practically: should something happen to him, his compensation would have to be generous… that is, if it would still be of use to him…

The riders had now come close enough that he could make them out. It was a well-equipped Skrall patrol, eager for a round of “punch the Glatorian.” Strakk felt how his knees grew soft, but he kept himself together. He had to look exhausted and afraid if his plan was to succeed – that shouldn’t be hard, he thought.

The leader of the squad was an elite warrior Strakk hat met before, named Stronius. He had watched many Skrall matches in the arena, with unmoving features and never speaking a word. Rumors say he came to supervise the Skrall warriors. Should one of them, by some miracle, lose – or simply not win fast enough – he had permission to punish them.

Apparently the Skrall need even more motivation to really beat up someone, Strakk thought sarcastically.

Stronius rode directly towards Strakk, looking down on the Glatorian with a self-pleased smile. “A long way from home… Glatorian.”

“I am –” Strakk began.

Stronius cut him off. “Maybe you need a meal and a bed. I’m sure we’ll find something for you in Roxtus.”

Strakk had to gulp. He has heard a lot of rumors about Glatorian that went to Roxtus – or were taken there against their will – and were never seen again. It was said they were used as “guinea pigs.” And that was just the beginning: the other stories of why they were brought to Roxtus, and what happened to them there, were far worse. “I was on a journey with a few others,” Strakk explained. “Our wagon plunged down the Dark Falls. I… I am the only survivor.”

“A wagon?” Stronius asked. “What was the cargo?”

Strakk hesitated shortly before answering, just long enough to seem believable. “Exsidian. We were bringing it to Vulcanus. But it is now at the bottom of the river.”

Stronius smiled. His eyes were gleaming with greed. “You are aware, Glatorian, that we could finish you off now and take the Exsidian for ourselves?”

At least he’s honest, Strakk thought.

“But we don’t do such things,” Stronius continued. “As honest citizens of Bara Magna, we will do something else instead. I’ll send one of my men to Roxtus to get a wagon, and you will lead us to the spot where the Exsidian sank. And then we will… get it out for you, and send you and your cargo on your way again.”

This can’t mean anything good, Strakk said to himself. The Skrall aren’t exactly known for being a charity organization.

The Glatorian looked down at the sand, then up at Stronius. If he agreed to this proposal too fast, it wouldn’t seem authentic – the Skrall knew that no Glatorian would seriously believe they would let him go, with or without cargo. Strakk pretended to struggle, then finally resign and accept. “Agreed.”

“You made a wise decision,” Stronius said, clearly meaning: Had you said no, you’d already be dead.

It took a few hours until the Skrall returned with the wagon. Stronius didn’t let Strakk out of his sight. Once or twice the Ice Glatorian was tempted to betray the plot, hoping that the Skrall would let him go home. But his intelligence won out – telling the truth would ensure he would never have the opportunity to lie again. When the Skrall finally returned, he brought the message that Tuma, leader of the Skrall, had doubts about Stronius’ plan. However, he agreed under the condition that the job would be done as fast as possible, and that any “excessive material” would be disposed of immediately. Strakk had been called many names, but “excessive material” was new to him.

They made their way to the Skrall River in silence. Strakk hoped the other Glatorian had stayed true to their word and were waiting for him. Should they have thought twice and left for Vulcanus, he’d be in serious trouble. When they reached a rise, Strakk saw the spot. Neither Gresh, Kiina, Ackar nor anyone else was to be seen. First he started to panic on the inside – they had betrayed him! Then he noticed that no tracks could be seen in the sand at the shores, and calmed down a little. They wouldn’t have had any reason to cover all their tracks if they were only on their way to the fire village. The plan was still going, and he had to keep playing his role.

“I don’t see any trace of your comrades,” Stronius said. He didn’t sound distrustful, but simply bored. After a year in Bara Magna he no longer found the tricks of the Glatorian amusing.

“The river carried them away,” Strakk replied, a little too fast. “I am the only one who survived.”

“I see,” Stronius said. “So if I send one of my men downstream, he’ll find them where the water disappears into the sand.”

“Sure,” Strakk responded. What else was he supposed to say…?

Stronius gestured to three of his men. “Go and see whether you find something in the riverbed – and be thorough. The life of a Glatorian depends on it.”

The three Skrall descended and stepped into the water. Only a few moments passed before their armored heads reappeared at the surface. One of them swam to the shore and climbed onto the sand. In one hand he was holding an Exsidian ingot.

“Down there are the remains of a wagon,” the Skrall reported. “And more ingots like this one.”

“Very good,” Stronius said. “All of you go down and bring up the rest. Meanwhile, I will keep an eye on our ‘friend.’”

The Skrall warriors went to work. As with every labor they tackled, they were fast and thorough. Again and again they would emerge with new ingots that were loaded onto the wagon. The higher the stack got, the broader grew Stronius’ smile. No doubt he was already thinking of how Tuma would welcome him when he returned with such a treasure. When the wagon was fully loaded, Stronius and his men got back on their Sand Stalkers. The elite Skrall grinned at Strakk and aimed his Thornax launcher at him. “Many thanks, Strakk. Your services to the village of Roxtus will be remembered forever… on your gravestone.”

Strakk closed his eyes. The shrill whistle of a fired Thornax could be heard, followed by a sharp cry. But it didn’t come from Strakk. The Glatorian opened his eyes and saw Stronius lying in the sand.

“Drop your weapons – now!” Ackar bellowed down from the nearby rocks. “Get away from the wagon!”

The Skrall warriors opened fire with explosive Thornax ammunition. Strakk used the distraction to run to the river, planning to cross it and make a break for the desert beyond. He had already made it to the opposite side when Kiina appeared from behind a sand dune.

“Where are you going?” she snapped at him while continuing to fire Thornax at the Skrall.

“Out of the line of fire,” Strakk answered. “I’m unarmed, in case you missed that.”

“Being unarmed will be the least of your problems if you abandon us,” Kiina shot back. “Worry more about me making you a head shorter. Here!” She gave Strakk her trident. “Start being useful. And remember – point the sharp end at the bad guys.”

Even though the enemies outnumbered them, Ackar had managed to keep the Skrall away from the wagon. Stronius had sent a warrior to sneak around and take out the Glatorian. He had already managed it around and halfway up the rocks when he crossed paths with Gresh, who hurled a well-aimed stone at him. The Skrall fell tumbling back into the sand.

“Are you ready?” Ackar yelled.

Kiina nodded and took aim. “Go!” she cried.

The two Glatorian fired their Thornax launchers in parallel, hitting the sand directly in front of the Skrall. The explosive projectiles collided nosily, whirling sand through the air and into the eyes of the Skrall. Temporarily blinded, they could do nothing as Gresh, Strakk and the two Agori raced to the wagon and climbed aboard. Ackar rode over and brought Kiina her Sand Stalker, which she rapidly mounted.

“Go!” Kiina yelled as she drove the Skrall’s Sand Stalkers apart. Gresh spurred the Spikit onward, and the wagon was rapidly racing away. Ackar turned around and fired at the Skrall who were reemerging from the sand cloud.

“I can’t believe it worked!” Strakk said.

“It’s not over yet,” Gresh reminded him. “We still have to reach Vulcanus.”

“And I’m afraid they still have a score to settle with us,” Kiina said, pointing back.

Gresh looked over his shoulder. The Skrall had recaptured their Sand Stalkers and were in hot pursuit of the wagon. Spikit were strong and enduring, but not as fast as Sand Stalkers. It was only a matter of time till the Skrall caught up.

“Any good ideas?” Strakk asked assembled the group.

“Kiina and I could search for cover and stop them,” Ackar said, “While you keep riding to the village.”

“No way,” Gresh said. “This is our task. I won’t let anything happen to you because you helped us.”

“I don’t really think we need your permission, youngster,” Kiina replied. “Look for a good spot, Ackar, where we can catch them in our crossfire.”

“Wait a second,” Strakk interrupted. “There is someone up ahead – red-armored. Maybe Vulcanus sent some rookie warriors as support?”

“Whoever it may be, I hoped they’re well-equipped!” Ackar said. “We’re about to have a rough confrontation.”

They quickly approached the distant figures. As they came into clearer view, Gresh felt his stomach become as tight as a knot. “Oh, I don’t think you have to worry about that. They’re well-equipped, that much is for certain.”

Strakk stared ahead. “I don’t believe it. We can’t possibly have that much bad luck.”

“Who are they?” Ackar asked, his gaze was still fixed on the Skrall closing in behind them.

Gresh wanted to answer, but the words stuck in his throat. After everything they went through, he couldn’t believe their mission was about to come to an end… “They aren’t coming from Vulcanus,” he finally said. “The red armor… it’s Malum. He and his Vorox are expecting us.”

“And the Skrall are right behind us,” Kiina remarked.

“Around us there is nothing but endless desert,” Ackar said to himself. “No hiding places to be seen. We can neither escape nor defeat them, least of all do both.”

“I’d say we have a good chance of being trashed,” Strakk said. “And we’re about to find out…"

Chapter Six

Gresh looked back to see the Skrall were nearing them. He looked forward again to see Malum and his Vorox also approaching. Four Glatorian and two Agori with a cart full of Exsidian between two opposing groups didn’t have much chance of survival.

“This is not good,” he murmured.

“Let's abandon the caravan,” Strakk said suddenly. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but ... I don’t care about the Exsidian.”

“I don’t know, think about it,” Ackar said, shaking his head. “You angered Malum, promising to get his treasure from Roxtus to keep him from stealing the Exsidian... and just now, we deceived the Skrall to help us get the Exsidian from the river. It seems to me that the metal’s been useful in finding you worthy foes, Strakk.”

“Yeah, that’s real funny,” Kiina replied, “but the Vorox are ahead of us and the Skrall are behind us. Maybe we should fight?”

“I have a better idea,” Ackar said. “Gresh, Strakk, who do the Vorox hate more than anyone?”

“The Skrall,” said Gresh.

“And who do the Skrall consider vermin to be eradicated?” Kiina continued.

“The Vorox,” Strakk smiled, guessing the intentions of Ackar. “Oh, no. This will end badly... I like it!”

Ackar ordered his Stalker to gallop faster, heading directly for the group of Vorox. Once they were close, he pulled the Spikit to a halt in front of them. He then quickly pivoted the cart around to face the Skrall.

“Our Vorox friends arrived just in time!” Ackar shouted with all the force in his lungs. “Attack the Skrall!”

Hearing this, the elite Skrall screamed in anger. Stronius despised the Vorox with all his soul. The fact that these creatures allied with the Glatorian only make him angrier. These wretched creatures of the sand act so boldly against us? Stronius thought. They will pay the price!

Malum also heard Ackar’s words, and immediately understood what his old friend planned. He knew he wouldn’t be able to escape from this trap up without a fight. Ackar had used the eternal hatred between the Skrall and the Vorox to his advantage: now, the Skrall would have to deal with the entire group of Vorox.

“Shoot them!” Stronius cried. “Destroy them! The Glatorian and the Vorox alike.”

His warriors fired at the Vorox with their launchers. The Thornax made direct impact with the Vorox, seriously wounding three of them. The rest forgot Ackar quickly. They had been attacked by the Skrall – their instinct told them they should hit back. Infuriated, the Vorox rushed the warriors of the Skrall. As the Vorox pack attacked their most hated enemy, Ackar’s group decided it was an appropriate time to flee from the battlefield. The Glatorian, Agori and the cart left quickly. The sounds of exploding Thornax and the moans of the wounded soon died out.

“You thought we would lose,” Kiina said, delighted. “So you got them to fight amongst themselves.”

“No, I wanted this to end differently,” Ackar admitted. “We may not have good relations with the Vorox, but they did not deserve to die at the hands of the Skrall. But today our lives were at stake.”

“After all, the life of a Glatorian is more important, right?”

Ackar reined their Stalker and turned around. Behind them was Malum, mounted on a Stalker, and armed with the sword and shield of a Skrall. He was alone. Ackar immediately drew his sword.

“I see that now you ally yourself with thieves,” Malum said.

“We aren’t looking to fight you,” Gresh cut in. “You found us, remember? You asked us to steal the sword in Roxtus. And we did – and found out that you snatched it from Ackar.”

Ackar interrupted Gresh. “How goes the battle?”

“Both sides suffered heavy casualties,” Malum said. “But the struggle continues. My Vorox know when to quit. I know the Skrall don’t know how to pursue us. We are numerous. We will recover.”

“I did what I had to do,” Ackar said. “I am sorry that your warriors have died. But they would have killed us at your signal.”

“I have no grudge against you, Ackar. Escaping from ambushes is your specialty... that is a talent both you and the Vorox have. But these two, Gresh and Strakk, entered our territory without an invitation. One day we will settle affairs.”

Gresh jumped from the caravan, sword in hand, ready to fight. “We can solve this here and now. Is that what you want, Malum?”

“We will in time.” Malum smiled coldly and shook his head. “The desert is unpredictable, Gresh. Sometimes beautiful and pleasant, other times a cruel killer. One day brings water to quench your thirst. The next day feeds you when you're starving. But on the third day... my sword snatches your life.”

The former Glatorian pulled the reins of his Stalker and turned around. Then he disappeared into the distance.

“That’s it?” said Strakk, surprised. “He just let us go?”

“Did you want to fight him?” Kiina shrugged. “If I remember correctly, he doesn’t much like you.”

The Ice Glatorian knew Kiina was right. Malum once tried to take Strakk’s life during a match, which was what caused his expulsion from Vulcanus.

“Even if all four of us faced him, we might not win. I know him,” Ackar sighed. “The important thing is that we take the Exsidian to its destination. When the Skrall finish up with the Vorox they’ll probably come after us again.”

The team traveled south. They remained vigilant, but were beginning to believe they might actually reach Vulcanus. Kirbold had decided that, upon returning to Iconox, he would request Ackar and Kiina receive the same pay as Gresh and Strakk. Without their help, this mission would have ended at the Skrall River.

“Even if we make it back, we still have problems ahead of us,” Tarduk said. “I'm not sure we can really say this route was any safer than the one through the Dunes of Treason. What do you think?”

“You're kidding, right?” Kirbold laughed. “We tangled with Bone Hunters, the Skrall, Malum and his Vorox, not to mention desert bats, snakes, and a deadly waterfall... I’d take the Dunes of Treason in a heartbeat.”

Kiina approached Ackar. “What are you thinking?”

“I see no signs that we are being pursued. If we can keep this pace, we should be alright. Worst-case scenario, we may run into Bone Hunters.”

“You mean like them?” interrupted Gresh, pointing forward.

What they saw gave them chills. A short distance ahead of them, the sand had been torn into a huge crater, surrounded by the bodies of several Bone Hunters. It looke as if a tornado had passed through. There appeared to be some survivors, but their condition indicated they would be joining their companions before long. Ackar searched for traces of Thornax or remains of the Vorox’s spears, but found nothing. To do this much damage without Thornax or an army of Vorox, it must have been something monstrous.

“How long ago do you think this happened?” he asked Kiina, who had already dismounted to examine one of the hunters.

“Maybe an hour ago.” Kiina approached the hunter. “What happened?”

The Bone Hunter barely raised his head, and his lips moved noiselessly at first. When he finally managed to speak, Kiina leaned in close. He uttered a single word before dying. Kiina turned gravely to her teammates. “Skopio.”

Strakk had all the information he needed. “Let's get out of here.”

“If this was an hour ago, maybe the Skopio is long gone now,” Tarduk asked, hopefully.

“Or it might just be hidden in the sand beneath you, waiting to attack,” Strakk snorted.

Ackar thought hard. Skopio were the largest and most dangerous creatures in Bara Magna. The giant scorpion-like beasts weren’t very fast, but thanks to their size they could move several bio in a single step. Not much was known about Skopio behavior, so it was difficult to predict whether the creature was in the same place that it had appeared, or had gone to seek new territory. If the Skopio that had caused this disaster had left, they should be safe.

“We'll keep going south,” Ackar finally said, “and hope the Skopio isn’t following us. Hopefully we can still make it to the village.”

They resumed moving in the direction of Vulcanus. After a few minutes, the ground beneath their feet began to tremble.

“Oh, no...” Strakk moaned.

The first tremor was small. The second was more intense – Ackar's Stalker went haywire, almost throwing him off. Then there was an earthquake. Gresh fell face-first into the sand just before it opened with an enormous sound. A crater opened up and began to pull in sand, and would soon would do the same to Gresh. Just before he was pulled under, Kiina grabbed his hand and pulled him into the wagon.

Then the desert exploded. A cloud of dust rose into the air and the Skopio appeared, ready for a fight. Then it became clear just how bad things were. As the cloud of sand cleared, Ackar saw a figure in golden armor riding the beast. That could only mean one thing: the beast before them was actually a machine. They stood in the way of the Skopio XV-1, and its pilot...

“Telluris!” Ackar cried.

Strakk shot Kirbold an angry look.

“When we get back to Iconox, I’m asking for a raise!”

If we get back to Iconox,” Kirbold corrected him.

The Skopio XV-1 was built to resemble a real Skopio, but it was faster and even more dangerous. The crazed Telluris had continually improved it over the years, using parts from other vehicles. Ever since the plague that ravaged his tribe 103,000 years ago, Telluris was obsessed with oppressing and torturing others. The XV-1 was designed with that in mind. The team moved as fast as they could. If they could make it to Vulcanus, there were many Glatorian in training there that could help fight this giant machine. But Telluris had no intention of giving them that chance. Pressing a button on his control console, he changed the configuration of the XV-I. The four legs of the vehicle folded flat, laying their treads flat against the sand. The vehicle may not have looked as impressive now, but it could reach a much higher speed. With an evil smile on his face, Telluris hunted his new victims.

“Split up!” Shouted Gresh. “He can’t chase all of us.”

It was a good idea. Gresh and the Agori took the caravan, while the others split off to the sides. Regardless of whom Telluris decided to hunt, the others could go around and attack from behind.

Watching the Glatorian flee like a startled scarabax swarm gave Telluris great pleasure. Which would he destroy first? A carriage full of Exsidian did not interest him. If he had wanted the Exsidian, he would have taken from Iconox and nobody could have stopped him. But the red-armored Glatorian apparently had a brain – he was shouting orders, planning a strategy. It would be useful to silence him. Telluris pointed his gun, mounted on the tail of his artificial Skopio, at Ackar and fired. Ackar heard the Thornax whistle through the air. His stalker shook the reins, forcing him to turn quickly to the right. The projectile just missed him, but the force of its explosion sent him and the Stalker falling into the sand.

“Ackar!” Kiina cried when she saw her wounded friend. “Gresh, help him! I’ll take care of Telluris.”

Once she was sure that the Tesaran Glatorian had reached the wounded Ackar, she began to attack. Dodging a rain of Thornax, she rode directly toward the Skopio. Telluris accelerated, trying to run her over with his vehicle, but Kiina deftly evaded it. The Glatorian jumped from her Stalker and landed on the hull of the Skopio.

“What is she doing?” Ackar stared in amazement.

“We can help her by diverting Telluris’ attention. What do you think?” Gresh said.

Both Glatorian galloped towards to the Skopio. Ackar shot at it, although he knew that Thornax wouldn’t damage the machine’s thick exterior. He just needed Telluris to focus on them rather than Kiina.

“Look out!” Ackar cried as Telluris fired at them. Ackar’s Stalker barely managed to dodge all of the XV-I’s Thornax rounds.

“I have an idea,” said Gresh. “Head to the caravan.”

The Glatorian rushed to the caravan. Without stopping, Gresh leaned over in his saddle and grabbed two Exsidian bars. Once he was near the Skopio, the Glatorian jumped to the ground, ran forward and shoved the two bars between the treads of the vehicle. On the other side, Ackar did the same. Exsidian was prized for its exceptional hardness and durability: it did not corrode or deform like other metals. In other words, the Skopio's inner workings couldn’t compete with it. The sounds of metal screeching and parts collapsing inside Skopio's treads indicated a clear winner between the Exsidian and the XV-I. Meanwhile, Kiina climbed carefully onto the Skopio's cab. At one point she slipped and toppled over the edge, only to grab the machine’s stinger at the last moment. After climbing back up, she jumped directly to the XV-1's cockpit, landing just behind Telluris. He immediately tried to escape, but was caught by the ankle and soon found himself dangling upside down.

“You know, I’m pretty tired after all that climbing.” Kiina said, hanging Telluris’ head over the edge of the Skopio. “I’m not sure how much longer I can hold on for. And if you insist on continuing to fight us… well, my launcher is aimed at the console of your toy.”

“You know what will happen if you shoot?” Telluris laughed. “There will be a big boom and we’ll all die. You, me, and your friends down below. You understand that?”

Kiina raised him up and gave him a cold stare. “Do you think I care?”

Telluris showed no fear. Either he was immensely brave, or entirely crazy. He replied calmly, as if talking about the weather. “What will you do?”

“I'll let you choose” Kiina said. “I kill you and keep your vehicle, or my teammates destroy it and leave you wandering alone in this wasteland. Or...”

“Or what?”

“Not far from here is a group of Skrall warriors,” continued Kiina. “You turn back, trash them, and return to where you came came from, I’ll consider things settled.”

Telluris hesitated. He had not yet had to deal with the visitors from the far north. He knew that the Skrall were tough opponents.

“Well, what do you choose? Are you afraid of some Skrall?”

“Not at all,” Telluris said. “I'll deal with them. But if I find you in my territory again, you will not escape so easily.”

Kiina smiled and held Telluris out over the edge of the vehicle.

“What are you doing? You said that you would let me go!” Telluris protested.

“I never said that,” Kiina replied. “You had a choice between leaving your vehicle or using it for my benefit. Me releasing you was not part of the deal.”

With that, she let go of his leg. Telluris’ screams could be heard for a while, until his body hit the sand. Ackar immediately approached where he’d landed.

“He's alive,” Ackar said with some relief.

“Of course he's alive. He excelled in the arena,” Kiina said, jumping down from the Skopio. “At least he won’t trouble us for a while.”

“I don't understand,” said Gresh. “I heard what he said. He agreed to leave and fight the Skrall.”

“Oh, rookie,” Kiina shook his head. “When will you learn? He said: ‘I'll deal with them,’ but thought ‘as soon as I take care of them, Glatorian, I’ll come after you.’ If you want to negotiate with a Glatorian, need to learn the language of a scam.”

A few hours later, the characteristic shape of the large building at the center of Vulcanus appeared on the horizon. Soon after, the team approached the edge of the village, where they received cheers from the guards. Although Strakk never liked the fire village, he was more excited to see it than he’d ever been in his life. Raanu, Vulcanus' leader, was the happiest Agori in town that day. Ackar knew that his reaction was mostly due to the Exsidian that had finally reached its destination. But it was also something else: Iconox had paid its debt to Vulcanus, recognizing the Glatorian's victory for the Fire Tribe. There would be no war with the Ice Tribe. The Glatorian system had worked perfectly and nothing had changed.

Metus went over to congratulate Strakk, Gresh, Kirbold, and Tarduk. After a moment of celebration, Metus pulled Strakk from the group, and speaking softly, said “It’s all set up. Immediately after the Great Tournament, you'll fight with Ackar. Raanu insisted that the fight take place here, so –”

“He saved my life... saved all our lives,” Strakk interrupted. “But I’d like the satisfaction of a victory and a good payout. Deal.”

At the edge of the village, Kiina and Gresh watched the sun set over the desert.

“We’ve seen that the northern route is too dangerous,” Kiina said. “So, mission partly failed. Was it worth going through all this?”

“Yes, I think so,” the Tesaran replied. “It's true that I had to flee from the Skrall, fight the Vorox, and endure Strakk... but I also had friends. You and Ackar.”

“You have much to learn, but you're really talented. If you find yourself in Tajun, we should practice together.”

“And you’ll teach me the move you used to get onto the Skopio?” Gresh smiled.

“I’ll teach you a lot of things,” Kiina laughed as they returned to the village. “We’ll start with how to survive the first round of battles during the Great Tournament.”

“Sounds good. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this adventure –” Gresh caught an Exsidian block thrown by an Agori. “– it’s that surviving the fight is what matters.” TuragaNuva (talk) 12:27, 5 September 2017 (UTC)