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The Crossing is a six-part short story released in 2009 by BIONICLE book author Greg Farshtey exclusively for the BIONICLE: Glatorian series of mini books. It was originally published in Polish but has been translated to English and is presented here.
“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 dealing with stubborn warriors, but most of them didn’t react 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, for 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 did 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 another fighter called 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 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, especially with the village of the Water Tribe, 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. 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 am a Glatorian. I fight for my village if it needs something from another and I am paid well for it. I am no guard or guide or errand boy. I fight against other Glatorian in an arena. I don’t fight against Bone Hunters. They have the 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 scent 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 just being friendly. They were ruthless, violent and greedy. If they possessed a virtue, then it was their endurance – they rarely gave up a chase – and they were very thorough. After an attack there was no one or 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 thing, lives everywhere 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 them either. 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 are those 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 am not unreasonable… not very much. So I shall go… for the double 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 another 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 danger. 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 am already ready”, Strakk said smiling. “See to it that my prize will be ready. I will soon be back to come and 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 have liked to depart immediately at dawn. Strakk had insisted on taking as much Thornax Launcher ammunition and extra weapons as possible. Gresh, however, was of the opinion that whey should move out with as few baggage as possible so they could cross the desert as fast as possible.
“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 many of them faster than they can kill us? If the answer is yes, then you maybe –maybe – have a chance of getting away with your life.”
“So you think we should engage them?” Gresh asked.
“No, no”, Strakk replied. “I suggest we don’t even make this trip. But if it has to be, we will do it the clever way. We take on the battle, we won’t run away from them, but outmaneuver them and fight them down.”
Strakk didn’t know Gresh very well. They 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 greater trouble. Since then Strakk watched his back carefully. Bone Hunters had a long memory, especially when it came to their enemies. He didn’t like Gresh very much. The Tesaran fighter was young and strong, but a little to honorable for Strakk. The only Glatorian Strakk really got along well with was Malum, one of the fighters from Vulcanus. But there was the rumor spreading in the desert that he had been exiled by his village for trying to kill an opponent in the arena that was already lying on the ground and had conceded. As far as Strakk was concerned, this was only more proof of how little the villagers of Vulcanus knew about the life of a Glatorian.
Strakk rode up to the carriage. The two-headed Spikit that was pulling the carriage kept all four eyes fixed on the bumpy way in front of it. The Glatorian hoped that 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 pulled by it, along with everyone who was unfortunate enough to sit inside it.
“So, Tarduk”, he said to the Tesaran Agori who was holding the reins in his hands, “I heard you’ve done your share of explorations.”
“Sure”, the villager replied, “I collect artifacts – old armor, weapons, scrolls, small fragments of history. I use a lot of time looking around ruins and searching for things.”
“That sounds… interesting”, Strakk said. And really, really boring, the Glatorian added to himself.
“I always wanted to see the Black Spike Mountains”, Tarduk continued. “I bet there is a lot of treasure to be found there!”
“Wait a second, you are the guide”, said Strakk, “and you’ve never been to where we are going?”
“No”, Tarduk responded, smiling.
“But why not…” Strakk began.
“He was the only one who ever wished to go there”, Kirbold said, “So he got the job.”
“Don’t talk that much”, Gresh said quietly. “Our voices are carried 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 outside in the Wastelands – and they are – then they’ve known we’re on the way from the moment we left Iconox. At best, we could hope that they don’t know what we’re carrying.”
“And if they know?” Gresh asked.
Strakk pointed towards the Thornax Launcher Gresh was carrying.
“Then I hope you know how to use that, little one.”
For 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 with such high speeds that even Glatorian armor can’t provide enough protection. And then there is the heat, of course. Bara Magna’s sun burns 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 warmest time of the day the sand is so hot that one touch leads to burns. Everyone who gets lost without water in the desert plateau will be dead within a day. At evening the sun disappears as suddenly as a torch gets extinguished. The temperature sinks rapidly and the Agori are crowding together around their campfires. The desert becomes – if that 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 to a village up to a distance of 10 or 15 meters to take out a sentry that has strayed too far from the torches. There is an old Agori saying that says: “At least you see death coming in daylight.” At night you unfortunately are not so lucky. For those, however, who know Bara Magna well; the desert is much more than just a vast place with barren, sandy plains.
Many do remember that, in earlier times, more waterways than just the Skrall River crossed 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 in those times. 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 surviving each new day. Still – while the carriage moved through the sand, Strakk had to think of how things had once been. He originally didn’t come 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 by everyone simply as “The Shattering” had occurred and suddenly had been cut off from his homeland. He stayed in Iconox while the world around him changed, jungles transforming into desert, the ice melting in the horrible heat. He wasn’t sure if anyone would be able to survive this disaster. But there were survivors and he, too, survived – and since then everything in his life revolved about bare survival.
Strakk glanced over his shoulder. Iconox was no longer visible. He reined his Sand Stalker to a halt. “Good, now we are far away enough”, 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 wanted to drag this whole stuff all the way across the Black Spike Mountains, did you? Say, did you honestly believe my talk of stirring sand and fighting down Bone Hunters from a short while ago? If yes, then you’ve really spent too much time in the sun.”
“But that’s our job”, Gresh replied.
Strakk snorted. “Good. I will explain you how all this will work. The Agori get out of the carriage. We take all the Exsidian metal, hide it and shatter the carriage. Then we 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 wanted to know.
“In a few weeks we’ll return and dig the whole stuff out”, Strakk gloated. “We’ll divide it among us and then go 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 seemingly 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, and then rest assured that you won’t get far.”
“Say, are you totally 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 is exactly what we’re going to do now.”
Strakk stared at Gresh zoning in, but spurred on his Sand Stalker. Riding past the carriage, he muttered: “Out of Dozens of Glatorian on this world 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 an idea of 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 entire Dunes of Treason. They drove a lot of beasts like sand bats, dune snakes and even giant cave scorpions north. The desert between here and the Black Spike Mountains is full of them.”
“But that is not the worst”, 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 soft mud, which swallowed all living things that tried to cross it. It was possible to get through, if one was clever or lucky enough. But all others who tried it were now on the bottom of this sea.
“Scattered spots of liquid sand”, Kirbold said, “also exist here. There aren’t many, but at least there are spots in the sand that are just as treacherous… maybe even more treacherous. You don’t see them until you are right in the middle of them and then…”
“Did you hear that, Strakk?” Gresh asked.
“Why do you think I would not listen to such wonderful news?” the Ice Glatorian shot back. “I am really glad you asked me to ride ahead.”
“Keep your eyes open”, Gresh said. “We will make it.”
“Sure you’ll make it”, Strakk said. “Just wait until I sink into the sand and when you see that… 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 and green place, this mountain range supplied stuff for numerous legends. 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 alright in their heads ever since. Gresh gave Kirbold a short glance.
“Why exactly were you chosen for this job?”
“I am mining this metal”, came the answer. “It is perfectly suited for patching equipment. Doesn’t rust and is very wear-resistant.”
“That doesn’t really answer my question.”
“I dig it out. I drag it up. Others use it, but I find it. That’s why I simply have the feeling it belongs to me. 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 at the sky.
Gresh pointed towards a ledge. “Let’s put up our camp beneath it until the worst heat is over.”
Kirbold and Tarduk steered the carriage under the ledge and precautionary first fed the Spikit before they ate something themselves. Strakk sat down in the sand and closed his eyes while Gresh kept a careful eye on the desert.
“What do you think can be found up there?” Kirbold asked Tarduk.
“Who knows?” the Tesaran Agori responded smiling. “There may have lived an entire civilization in these mountains we have never heard anything of. They may have left behind equipment, tools, maybe even records of their history. For someone like me, that is a treasure chest only waiting to be opened.”
“No, I mean… do you think there are monsters up there?”
“I think so… 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 observed how a sand bat exploded 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 when they appear in front of you.”
“Giant scorpions are worst”, Tarduk said. Despite the heat he shuddered. “I encountered them several times when I searched for artifacts in caves.”
“There is an easy way of avoiding such encounters”, Strakk said.
“Stop wandering around caves”, the Glatorian replied smiling.
“I for my part can’t stand dune snakes”, Kirbold remarked. “Do you want to know why?”
“Yes,” Strakk said. “Why?”
“Because they are everywhere around us.”
Gresh’s Sand Stalker suddenly reeled in panic, followed by Strakk’s mount. 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 sand moved, for the poisonous snakes slithered right beneath the surface. It looked like a sea wave 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 and the snakes were absolutely fearless. They wouldn’t hesitate 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 bring his Sand Stalker under control again.
“When your mount topples, jump off or you’ll be stuck beneath it.”
“Thanks, I certainly would never have thought of that”, Strakk growled. “Had you just listened to me…”
“There is a passage!” Tarduk yelled. “Look!”
He was right. Somewhere to the right there was a stripe of sand that didn’t move. It was clear to all that this was the best and only way out of this trap.
“Let’s go!” Gresh said who had already turned his Sand Stalker into the direction of the passage.
Strakk was in front of him, letting his mount jump over half a dozen snakes that darted out of the sand. Behind them, Kirbold urged the Spikit forward. Strakk was now a good piece ahead of the group and didn’t look back. Suddenly his Sand Stalker tumbled towards the right side. In the next moment he was already sinking into the liquid sand. Before Strakk could jump off, he had sunk in to the waist.
“Help!” he cried.
“We can’t help him”, Kirbold claimed. “If we get to close we will sink, too.”
“He is 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.”
Gresh had no time to think. For several seconds, the sand devoured Strakk, and snakes gradually formed circles around the caravan. The only escape was through soft sand, but the trailer was heavy as stone. Suddenly he had an idea! The idea was about as crazy as suicide, but there was a chance of success. Everything depended on how high Gresh could jump and how fast his Stalker was, and his knowledge of the dunes. If even one element of the plan failed, none of them would escape alive.
“ Tarduk! I need a rope - attached to the Exsidian! Now!” Shouted Gresh.
The Agori quickly cut the rope. Hurried, tossed it to Gresh, reaching only two meters. The rest of the rope was in charge.
“Whatever happens now, nobody separate!” Ordered Gresh. “Keep together on site and don’t talk, okay?”
Kirbold and Tarduk obeyed. None of them got into conversation. On the other side, they were approaching the dune snakes, which made it hard to stop abusing. Gresh took the rope, tied it to his Sand Stalker and galloped off. He had to execute each step when necessary. Upon approaching the bank of soft sand, forcing the stead to jump. At that time, jumping over the treacherous sands, Gresh launched the end of the rope to Strakk. Upon grasping the rope, the Glatorian was released from the trap by the Stalker.
“You saved me!” Strakk cried, delighted and surprised. “I can’t believe it!
“I had to,” said Gresh. “And now back to the caravan.”
“Are you crazy?!” Strakk cried. - You want the snake back to the dune? I care about Exsidian, but I will not risk my life for it.”
“Not if you're risking something of value?” launched Gresh.
“No way," - Strakk shook his head.
“No time for debate,” said Gresh. “You will receive half of my pay for this work.”
Strakk's eyes shone with eagerness. “What are you waiting for? Let's go.”
Gresh continued. The two drivers jumped from the smooth sand and held on to the harness, with the hope that their mounts would avoid encountering the poisonous fangs of serpents. But instead of stopping at the caravan Gresh spun around like a lunatic. Strakk was surprised to be doing the same. The Agori looked at the Glatorian in silence, both of which thought Gresh had apparently lost his mind.
“Is there a reason why we doing this?” Strakk asked.
“Yes,” said Gresh. “Dune Snakes are blind on the surface, right? So they don’t use sight or smell 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 there was still a wave of them. “Yiiiii!” He shouted.
“Over here!” Shouted Gresh.
The Tesaran Glatorian rode on soft sand, with Strakk right behind him. Gresh's mount jumped back on the deadly place. Strakk just managed to do the same. The hungry Dune Snakes were unable to avoid the sand trap, which absorbed them without giving them a chance to escape.
“Good thinking” admitted Strakk. “A trap against another. Although it costs half of your pay...”
Several hours later, the travelers arrived at the foot of the Black Spike Mountains. They found a narrow path between the rocks that the convoy barely fit in, so Gresh had Strakk go first, while he would cover the rear. Strakk showed little enthusiasm for his proposal. 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 saw traps in places where no one had ever expected. But you are too young to remember everything.”
“When was it exactly?”
“In the war. At a time when Bara Magna was part of a larger world... Long before The Shattering...”
Gresh had heard something of the war that changed the world 100,000 years ago. Other Glatorian were reluctant to talk about it. Apparently they wanted to eliminate all the memories related to that event.
“Enlighten me,” said Gresh. “That he has to do with...?”
“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? Forget it. They were not there, even if Skrall.”
In mentioning of the Skrall, Gresh pressed his hand to the reins of his mount. There was no mystery that the Rock Tribe was not from the desert regions of Bara Magna. Their home was a land of volcanoes in the far north. They 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 reached Roxtus, it became the largest village than any other tribe on Bara Magna. It was rumored that they had moved to the area running from something far more dangerous than them, but there was no evidence of this and the real reasons remained a mystery. It soon became evident that the newcomers were not dependent on forging friendships with other tribes, although they warriors sent into battle, Glatorian where not even tempted to do so. Anyone who had to deal with them would face the leader of their tribe, Tuma, and just to have the Skrall take what they wanted. However, by far, followed the rules. The fighting system in the arena was not a problem for the Rock Tribe - the Skrall were lovers of the struggle. So far no Glatorian had managed to defeat them. Gresh knew that perfectly well. Not long ago he lost a duel against a Skrall in the village of Vulcanus. The Skrall was willing to break rules to fight in the arena, and if a Glatorian had not been involved in the fight, the encounter would have been the last thing Gresh had done in his life. That simple memory caused him embarrassment. Tesara had its victory, and not done it. Gresh stopped thinking about it. It was not the best time to plan revenge. He and his companions had just entered the territory of the Rock Tribe. The only bad thing that could happen was that they met with a Skrall.
“Look!” Kirbold said suddenly, pointing to the top of the hill.
Gresh looked up. The Glatorian saw three Skrall on the edge of the summit. However, when he had a better view, was convinced that those are just a few helmets and armor hanging on stilts above the sand.
“They're only puppets,” Gresh said. “Probably to deter uninvited guests.”
“With great success,” Strakk said. “Look at them more closely.”
“I looked at them. So what?”
“They are not Skrall armor. One is red, the other is blue, and the third is green. Where do you think they came from? They are just spoils of dead Glatorian. Am I right?”
“I do not think so,” said Gresh.
“So do not believe me, rookie,” laughed Strakk. “They came to find the end of their lives.”
“You should remain silent.”
The Glatorian turned quickly, raising their Thornax Launchers - there, from where came the ominous words of calm. Tarduk grabbed the reins of Spikit, if they had to flee. Kirbold crouched in case of an attack by the launchers. Up on a rocky hillside, was a red armored Glatorian. Strakk and Gresh recognized him immediately. He was called 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 tried to kill a Glatorian. For that crime he was banished from the village of Vulcanus. Since then, his home was the desert.
“Well, well, look who I see.” Strakk said. “And I thought that you were eating sand bats.”
“Do something!” Whispered Kirbold. “They just want the Exsidian!”
“Don't worry” said Strakk. “Why would they seek Exsidian in an area so remote? And besides, if Malum wanted it, he would have taken it before we entered here. Right, old friend?”
Malum looked Strakk with a cold stare. “I've never been your friend. Even now.”
“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, maybe something like you. You should listen to them talk about Tajun. Would you be interested?”
“You care so much for us?” spat Strakk. “Do you regret when we kill the Skrall, and you don't?”
The smile on the Malum's face was not prophesying 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 their place, but until then, had not heard the advice of Agori. The last Glatorian duel with Iconox ended in victory for Vulcanus. Iconox had to pay Exsidian, but the precious metal had not yet arrived. Raanu had discovered why.
“Through the Spike Mountains? Are they crazy?”
Metus, Glatorian trainer of Iconox, spread his hands. “You know the bone hunters...”
“I know the bone hunters,” Raanu interrupted. “I've heard that excuse before. But my people have justly earned the victory in the arena. If your pay does not deliver, Iconox ...”
“Vulcanus not be willing to pay what we lose, if we lose, in 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 one thing: war.”
Metus reflected. Undoubtedly Raanu was right. Centuries ago it was clear the Agori could not afford an armed conflict between tribes. Nobody wanted to keep in mind a clear image of the nightmare of destruction left by the last war. Thus, all disputes between tribes were settled with Glatorian. However, this system is 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 did not pay as agreed, the other did the same.
“Therefore, we hope that those who were hired by Iconox not disappoint me,” he said softly. “If a bone hunter or even a Skrall intercept the shipment ... we're in trouble.
Malum disappeared. Merged with the rocks so quickly and unexpectedly as it came, with the ease of someone who was born among the mountains. Where had he gone? - Gresh and his team did not even want to know. But they did not take the warnings 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 indicated, but the road had become blurred by the passing years. The fresh mountain air brought some relief to the trip, especially Strakk, which occasionally had to descend 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 tranquil sound of wagon wheels. A sharp cry of a mountain Striker disturbed both Glatorian. The second set of his attention. The Striker are birds of prey whose wingspan reaches five feet. Their claws tear so easily through armor like dry parchment. They hunted mostly small animals, but driven by hunger, did not hesitate to attack opponents much larger than themselves. However, Strakk and Gresh prepared to fire their weapons, hoping not to meet with someone much more dangerous than the mountain Striker.
“Do you believe that this was not a bird?” Strakk asked his voice barely audible.
“It sounded more like a signal,” said Gresh.
“Exactly. Bone Hunters do not haunt these fields.”
Strakk shook his head.
“If you can, then the bone hunters are smarter than I thought.”
“What do we do?” Tarduk asked. “Try to escape? Or are we ready for a fight?”
“We have heard his message. That means they're close. Too late to escape,” Strakk said. “You, rookie, always wanted this, wanting to be a hero. Now's your chance of dying as one.”
Gresh plunged in thought. He must find a way to save them. They could also leave, pretending not to hear anything suspicious, and move on, trying to escape from the Skrall ambush. He tried to guess which option would Strakk chose: running as soon as possible and leave behind the mountains. Is there any way to get the opportunity to deliver the goods to destination? Too late. He had wasted too much time trying to decide. The Skrall had surrounded them. At the same time, warriors in black armor emerged from their hiding.
“This is the land of the Skrall,” said one of them.
“The transition is forbidden for anyone,” added a second.
“Unless you want to see Tuma,” added the third. “What's in the caravan? Show it!”
“If we do, they will take the Exsidian,” Kirbold whispered nervously.
“And if we do not, they will kill us anyway,” Tarduk replied, then turned slowly and uncovered the load.
Generally the Skrall showed no joy, not even smiling. However, the fighters managed to make them feel something that was not normal for their species - nearly made them laugh. They sought a priceless treasure that belonged to them briefly. Interposed between the precious metal and themselves were only two Glatorian, and two small Agori. In an instant, time seemed to stop.
“Take the contents of the caravan out. Now!” ordered the group leader.
Strakk sighed with relief. Apparently, the fate had been kind to them. It's true: Exsidian was lost, but at least he kept his head. That had been lucky that the "supply" of the Skrall sounded better than a Gresh' scolding.
“We have business with Iconox,” the Glatorian said proudly. “The burden is not ours. But, 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. It’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 directly. Do you want to say that had not heard of the apology and the Agori and messengers back into the desert?”
His words quickly served to panic in the Skrall. Tuma, their leader, was the only being who really frightened them. Sending back the payment would release his anger. He said he would beat any Skrall and smash their bones just for fun. Nobody wanted to stand before him and explain why they did not receive what they expected.
“Well, you will be with us,” said a Skrall. “But unarmed.”
The two Skrall approached the Glatorian, took their Thornax Launchers, Gresh' shield and Strakk' axe. Then they searched the carriage. They found an extra weapon, which they confiscated, and ordered the Glatorian to stay away from the caravan, and stay close to their stalkers. Under the watchful eye of the Skrall, the team began to question their chances of success.
“Bright idea,” Strakk murmured. “Next you'll want to give our hands over in addition to the Exsidian. Do you think they're kidding?”
“No,” said Gresh. “Because it was not my intention to meet with them.”
“Right,” replied Gresh, hitting Strakk directly on the head with an Exsidian ingot.
Most surprising of all was that the wounded Strakk gave no answer. After a while both were fiercely fighting in the caravan.
“Stop!” the Skrall said, as they approached the trailer to separate them.
“This is just what I expected.” said Gresh. Once the Skrall were within his reach, Gresh delivered a powerful blow with the Exsidian. Gresh grabbed Thornax Launcher from the Skrall, and before anyone could react, fired, hitting the rock wall on the right, reloaded and fired again, this time at the rock wall on the left. Both shots caused an avalanche, carrying tons of rock directly to the caravan and their escort. The Skrall fled before the avalanche. Gresh jumped straight to his chair and shouted: “Ride, Kirbold!”
The Agori took the reins, and had the Spikit run at full speed, something that anyone in that situation would. The rocks fell toward the trailer at sides, making the road to escape the Skrall even narrower.
“We need to go faster!” Tarduk cried.
“We can't!” Strakk replied, trying to be sarcastic. “We’re driving a carriage with a few tons of Exsidian. How can we go faster?”
“Come on!” Yelled Gresh. “At least we are making good ground.”
“It’s better to stop talking!” Strakk growled, massaging his sore head by the blow from Gresh. “The next time you use an alternate plan, you should share it with me!”
Strakk snatched the Thornax Launcher from Gresh and turned to the back. He pointed to the rocks that rolled toward them and fired. The rocks shattered, creating another shower of stones. Unfortunately, at that time the entire hillside broke down forming a gigantic piece of rock was rolled rapidly toward the trailer.
“It’s towards the caravan!” Tarduk cried.
The Spikit stopped and stood near the convoy, almost blocking it out, but managed to hide Strakk and Kirbold. Gresh left his Stalker, grabbed the rider's seat and placed it over the trailer. Tarduk plunged into the carriage. While he did so a wave of rocks hit the trailer but when they collided with the rider's seat, it pushing them to the sides. A moment later it was over. Where previously stood Agori and Glatorian, there was now a pile of rubble. The air was stifling due to rock dust. Soon, silence ensued. The Skrall, who escaped alive, approached. At first sight, it was enough to understand that it was desirable to gather something of a big pile of stones.
“Now 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 asks what happened to them, we say that it was an accident ... just another event in a dangerous neighborhood.”
The Skrall watched the axe and shield they had in their hands - Gresh' and Strakk' weapons. After some thought, they were thrown on the stones of the rubble.
“We do not need them, they are no longer useful.”
Strakk saw nothing. Strakk could not breathe. Of course, had to be a hundred percent sure ... but felt that it would not feel good.
I deserve it, he thought. This is the last time I'll 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, never to take a job again in my life, no matter what I do.
He clenched his fist and hit something hard. Something grabbed his wrist and pulled him strongly ahead. Strakk was relieved when he touched the ground. When he looked, around he saw a faint light around the dust, forming a familiar silhouette. The dust raised by the fall forced him to cough violently.
“Very good,” Strakk asked after a while. “What happened?”
“You still ask?” Replied an angry Gresh. “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 don’t think this is that place."
“The avalanche pushed us against the wall of the ravine. Then I saw a tunnel open in the rock,” Tarduk said. “We went through and then the opening was blocked by some rocks.”
“And the caravan? And the Exsidian?” Strakk said, alarmed. “If Exsidian is lost, I will not receive my pay and the whole expedition will have been a waste of time.”
“The Spikit is a bit battered, but the carriage is full,” Kirbold said. “I'm glad you asked.”
While Tarduk spoke, Gresh returned to the opening. It was blocked. Pushing with all his strength, he tried to move the rock, but without success.
“Even if was open 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 polished and was perfectly smooth. 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 the low level of lighting from the torch Tarduk had, he could not 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 that whatever we do, we must follow the path ... Or perhaps you would prefer to stay here until the end of your days?”
Everyone sighed with relief when they discovered that the corridor was wide enough for the caravan to pass. According Kirbold's calculations, the corridor should be running roughly from east to west, nearly agreeing with the established route for the trip. Of course, if he was wrong, and the tunnel did not follow that direction, it undoubtedly would cross the Dark Falls and end in the eastern territories. Nobody liked the option. They knew that all travelers there, even the Skrall, never returned. Tarduk’s torch was the only source of light in the hallway. They had not yet encountered any sign, arrow or other indication to know where they were, or where they went. 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 regretted that Bara Magna' tribes were not related to their source elements. If so, the Jungle Tribe could control plant life. Or 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 illusion was nice but was better than impossible. Nearly a hundred thousand years ago warriors like Strakk fought a major war on the planet. Tarduk preferred not to think about what would have happened if they had the ability to control the elements then.
“Hey, look,” Gresh said. “What’s that?”
The inscribed signals in the torchlight on the wall glowed brightly in the torchlight. A series of circles with lines were turned 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 from 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.
“Well, that's wonderful,” a stunned Strakk rubbed his head. “Just great. That can’t be better. Unless you see lava in here...”
“These are... good news,” Gresh said.
“You know what? I think I left a flaming torch at home,” Kirbold murmured. “I’d like to go back.”
Tarduk perfectly understood his teammates. Even if no one had met face to face with the Great Beings, all knew them. Many people would forgive them for making Bara Magna a technologically advanced world. However, the vast majority of them blamed them for the catastrophe that hit the world. Why disappeared, Tarduk not know - in time it became a legend. However, there is no doubting one thing: the Great Beings committed a horrible act, but that was not important. The consequence of their negligence was a tragic disaster. Since then no one talked about the Great Beings. Nobody wanted them, but could hardly imagine that meet them out easy. Tarduk in the past made several attempts to find the Great Beings, but the leader of his tribe forbade him to look, considering his attempts as a "waste of time." But here he is not here now, thought Tarduk. Perhaps now, I’ll finally manage to learn something from 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 have left a guard?” Tarduk suggested. “It may be in here now.”
“After one hundred thousand years? Please!” Strakk joked.
Suddenly the sound of an echo sounded in the hall - a hollow sound, like something from the ceiling had been loose and dropped. Everyone was jumped.
“Someone is there,” Kirbold whispered.
“Something is wrong,” said Gresh, without raising his voice. “I will 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 - a 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. "Stones" in the roads were actually Scarabax Beetles. The swarm covered the floor of the corridor wall to wall. When the beetles were small they were not a problem - they could easily be trampled. But Scarabax adult shells were as hard as steel armor. Gresh quickly stepped back. This caused a violent commotion among insects. If his movement had been more violent, after five seconds he would not be heard from again. Suddenly he heard a roar in the tunnel incident. It flew straight at him, a Sand Bat. For anyone who had been through the desert, the Sand Bats aroused horror and panic. They were large predators with a snake body and bat wings, suddenly leaped from the sand and quickly dragged their victims into the depths of the desert. In addition to the beetles, Gresh had another problem; the Sand Bat was hungry. Gresh stumbled and fell back to the bug infestation. Kirbold and Tarduk approached to help Gresh. Strakk hesitated a moment, but immediately ran after them. He knew he would succeed in saving his companion if he didn’t... he would only be another meal. The Sand Bat lunged at Gresh. The mind of the Glatorian going at breakneck speed, remembering his people, the faces of his friends, Kiina and Vastus... Gresh instinctively closed his eyes when the Sand Bat rushed toward him, showing its teeth. For a moment he could see nothing, only heard a furious whisper, and suddenly rang around. The noise drowned all other sounds, except ... the desperate cry of the Sand Bat.
Fero reined his steed to a stop. He wanted to see this place closely. He saw an intriguing mystery. Fero belonged to the Bone Hunter tribe. He was one of the best, but recently target was avoiding him. The attack on the village of Vulcanus had ended in failure - a handful of Glatorian were sent to stop him. He was not sure how this had happened, but he was humiliated in front of his tribe. Pride would not let him out of this without consequences. Shortly after the failed raid he left his camp. Although he had no intent to hunt or plunder the Agori caravans, no, Fero would track juicier prey – the Glatorian who beat him days earlier. He had promised to pursue them one by one. His revenge would end when the desert sand consumed them all. Fero followed Strakk's trail since leaving Iconox. He wanted to wait until nightfall, to attack and destroy the Glatorian, leaving his knife embedded in Strakk’s flesh, as a warning to others. However, during his survey he found that Strakk was with the Glatorian Gresh and both were carrying a load of Exsidian. Fate had given him the opportunity to defeat two enemies and gain a substantial reward in one stroke. He needed a plan. Even the most experienced Bone Hunter would not run the risk of facing two Glatorian, unless he had a chance. The two Glatorian had gone on a long journey, Fero waited for the right moment to attack them by surprise. The Black Spike Mountains had made them an easy target, but the Skrall had meddled in their path. Furiously, he watched the group of warriors escorting their victims with their valuable cargo to the village of Roxtus. Then there was an escape attempt that ended with an avalanche and the surviving Skrall saw the dead prey. They left 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 survive this catastrophe. However, something told him that appearances are deceiving. Perhaps the instinct of Bone Hunters, trained for years in the wilderness led him to conclude that Gresh and Strakk were still alive. Of course, he hadn’t gone to check this by digging through tons of stones, but this type of work was not part of the Fero's favorite activities. In addition, the Skrall could return at any time. Then Fero had a good idea. The only way to avoid death in an avalanche was to be in a cave. The caves of the mountains often have a second exit, perhaps the road that the Glatorian were taking also had it. Fero intended to find them and wait for them. Fero turned his steed and went off the road. He knew where he would be going. Once Strakk and Gresh fell into his hands, his defeat in Vulcanus would be avenged.
Gresh opened his eyes. The Scarabax swarm emerged from the ground like a miniature tornado and flung themselves on the Sand Bat. For a moment, the beast disappeared under a thick black cloud. And when the cloud disappeared, where the Scarabax has been, Gresh noted where the sand bat had been, nothing remained of the creature. Soon the beetles were separated in all directions, and Gresh, still in shock, stood up.
“How did this happen?” Gresh asked hurriedly, while checking to see if a beetle was not attached to his armor.
“You ran straight into a Scarabax swarm. That was stupid,” Strakk explained. “Then you fell amid a Scarabax swarm. That was also stupid. The Sand Bats are saner than you.” Gresh gritted his teeth, with difficulty refrained not to give an answer to Strakk.
“And that's what I did wrong?”
Kirbold intervened, preventing Strakk from making things worse.
“The Scarabax react to sudden movements. When you stumbled ... did not sound as violent as the Sand Bat. Flapping its wings caught their attention, so they forgot you and jumped on it.”
“Then why did they flee?”
“Who knows, maybe they went to take a nap after lunch? At least they are gone,” Tarduk shrugged.
“Ah, now that's not the most important...” Strakk sighed.
“No? So what is it? Enlighten me,” - a curious Kirbold responded.
“Sand Bats do not live in hiding in the rock corridors,” Strakk voice betrayed impatience. “They live in the desert, buried in the sand and hunt everything that happens on the surface. In places like this, there is no food for them. Get it?”
“They came here from abroad, 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 take it before these bugs appear again?”
The team continued down the corridor. The corridor twisted, rose and fell, but Tarduk was more interested in the inscriptions on the walls, waiting to see them again later. Still no idea what they might mean. He could not tell if they were symbols or numbers, walking too fast and had no time to see well.
“I think I see something,” Kirbold said. “There right before us.”
Tarduk stared into the darkness. Kirbold was right - well ahead 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 went down the hall. Through a narrow slit in the middle of the hall, was a faint stream of sunlight. Touching the wall with both hands, Gresh tried to find a button or a lever to open it.
“I think so,” he replied. “If only we can find ... I have it!"
The Glatorian pushed a square stone slightly embedded in the wall. After a moment they heard the echo of an old metal activating mechanism. However, it did not open any door. Something completely unexpected happened.
“This does not look good ... unless our luck will change,” Strakk said.
Tarduk jumped from the caravan. Strakk was right, the corridor walls started to approach each other. Their calculations did not indicate anything good either. At the rate the walls were moving, they only had five minutes to live before the walls crushed them. Gresh and Strakk desperately groped the wall in search of something that could stop the walls closing. However, they found nothing. Kirbold rushed to help, ignoring the murmurs of the Spikit, which, by nature, were terrified of enclosed spaces. Tarduk kept searching for another button on the wall. However, he was following the signs engraved on the wall. He was sure they hid a suggestion to help them out of this problem. Everyone had a circular shape. Many of them had lines in it, others had smaller circles. Some were words, but he could not identify any. There they were no language he knew. Wait, wait, he thought. This symbol, here... this is possible?
A signal was at a distance of others - a simple circle, with no extra lines or other patterns in the middle. Given first, associated with zero or the letter "O".
This may not be so simple, he thought, then hesitated. "O" is "Open"?
Tarduk jumped and punched the symbol. The stone shook! The rock that was blocking the road slowly moved aside, and the hallway filled with light. The walls still approaching each other, but finally an escape route had opened.
“Run!” Tarduk screamed.
Kirbold took the reins and pulled the Spikit toward the exit. Behind the carriage ran Tarduk, followed immediately by Gresh and Strakk. Scarcely after they left the tunnel, they heard behind them the sound of the corridor walls collide.
“Phew! For some...” Strakk began.
“Shut up!” Whispered Gresh. “We better look around.”
They were at the foot of the mountains. They could see the mountains gave rise to the desert, and the dark waters of Skrall River fall with a crash. The road through the Black Spike Mountains was over.
“It's a shame that we can no longer use the same way we got here,” Kirbold said. “Well, unless you were... very thin.”
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. Apparently someone beat him very badly.”
“But look at him, he’s a Bone Hunter. Who could have done it?” Tarduk asked, surprised.
Soon the reply came. The four were surrounded by a group of fierce Vorox. Amid the quiet circle appeared a mighty warrior in red armor. Strakk and Gresh recognized him easily. It was Malum.
“It was us,” Malum said. “The only question is whether we should do the same to you.”
One of the first things Strakk learned as Glatorian was "read the situation." Was his opponent was confident or fearful? Was he a fan of your audience or did they not care? Could the characteristics of the arena be used to gain an edge? These questions must be answered before the village leader announced the start of the fight. This technique was useful for keeping silence and organizing thoughts. It allowed to forget the fear and focus on the challenge he faced. The situation now allowed him 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 experiencing such an emotion.
“And what shall I do with you now?” Malum said. “I have a huge amount of Vorox to feed.”
“Okay, I'll tell you everything,” said Gresh. “We have nothing for you. We just want to go to Vulcanus. Take what you want from us, and let us continue.”
“What are you talking about?” Strakk whispered. “He will take the Exsidian.”
Malum laughed. “I’d listen to Strakk. Our senses in the desert are very sharp. Your lives depend on them.”
“Listen to this...” Gresh said suddenly, pointing with his launcher. “I’m pretty good with the shooting. If any of your Vorox shoots 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, wagging their tails, ready to attack.
“Quiet, aggression is not the answer,” Malum replied indignantly. “I came here to kill a small group of old friends.”
“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 them a fight is not useful. For me, either.”
“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, Do you want to knock on their door and ask for a refund? Then go have fun with that, and I'll do the same with 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 on a rock. Two Vorox left the circle and grabbed Tarduk and Kirbold. Strakk and Gresh wanted to respond, but they were cut off.
“Pathetic heroes. I will ensure that your friends will not leave without saying goodbye... I would not want something to happen, right? With regard to your question, Gresh... the Bone Hunters recently attacked one of our camps. We managed to beat them, but they stole a sword. Then he 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.
“No! I'm surrounded by friends who want to rip you into pieces! I am the owner of the fate of his two small friends and his Exsidian! So I advise you to think how to retrieve my sword before my Vorox lose patience.”
Gresh and Strakk watched the Skrall city from a hiding space. It was night, but Roxtus was always in motion, as in a hive. The soldiers kept watching, or returning to the city. The Agori monitored or repaired 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 there,” Strakk continued. “Not to mention that Agori with glowing swords, whom I have never seen in my life. The walls are two feet thick, probably to stop an attack by a great army, and anyway, I see no invitation for two Glatorian.”
“Well,” finished Gresh. “That means they do not expect us.”
“And how do we get in, genius?”
Gresh looked toward the desert. A caravan approached the city filled with Rock Agori. Each wagon was pulled by 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 enter a carriage and get 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 on the walls of 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 then Gresh climbed under the wagon. When the vehicle stopped, he used a rope hanging from the rear of the vehicle and hid inside. Nobody could see them unless he deliberately looked under the carriage. Gresh had a more difficult task: hiding under the trailer. Moving quickly toward it, he prayed that Spikit wasn't hungry and would take him as a potential meal, and then he hit Strakk's feat, hiding under the carriage with his companion. Upon reaching the Roxtus' door opened which took longer than expected. Gresh's muscles were burning from the effort required to stay close to 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. The carriages stopped. The Glatorian left the caravan and hid in the shadows, hiding from the Skrall guards approaching. They waited until the carriages finished unloading, and then entered the city.
“Do you have any idea where to look?” Strakk asked.
“I think so,” Gresh said. “The largest building in town, Malum's sword must be a spoil of war. Such things would be kept in a safe place.”
“Only one guard in front ... and unless you know how to get rid of him,” Strakk grabbed a piece of rusty chain that was lying in the sand. “Wrap this around your hands.” They went to the building with their hands chained. They walked slowly, hunched, 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 to the surprised Agori. Strakk silenced the Agori with one punch, who was knocked unconscious.
“Good job,” admitted Gresh, dropping the chain. “Where did you learn that trick?”
“I learned to lie and deceive, with practice,” Strakk grinned. “The two things Glatorian practice regularly, don't you think?”
“Then start to look around,” said Gresh. “When the dawn breaks...”
“... we will not be able to get out of town. I know.”
The Glatorian efficiently separated to search the room. In no other village was a place like this. The Rock Tribe didn't use the room for sleeping or eating, or to store inventory. Apparently, all their treasure was gathered here. Gresh noted a map of Bara Magna placed on a large table. Was used as a source of information, or a mapped out war plan? It was Strakk who found the treasure. There were a lot of different things. Some of them - helmets, armor and other that objects disappeared long ago - were easy to recognize. Others he had never had seen for the first time in his life. Malum's sword was under a pile of objects unknown to him, surrounded by six stones 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 with all the baggage would seriously hamper his escape. Strakk looked at his discovery. The sword was unique. Its elaborate ornamentation looked like a flame. The sword 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 sword looked closely. 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 stole it, he asked us to steal for him! Did he stab Ackar in the back just for spite?
“You found it?” asked Gresh, entering the room with his shield, and a large sword in his hand. “I thought this might be useful, for retrieving the weapon.”
“Of course I found it ... 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 will give us some kind of prize,” 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 must leave Roxtus,” Gresh said.
“I saw something that could help,” Strakk said. “Give me the sword.”
The two Glatorian left the building quietly. Gresh followed Strakk to a smelly yard, something common with Spikit Pens.
“The Skrall have a weakness for monsters with two heads,” Strakk whispered. “Probably because they are the only things uglier than they are. Let's see how they like them running loose.”
Strakk brandished his axe, breaking the gates with a single blow. Seeing the open structure, the animals hesitated, but after a moment they began to run through the city. Stopping a herd of Spikit would not problem for the Skrall. Block off some streets, kill a few Spikit, and quickly and easily could be controlled. Unfortunately, the Agori feeders had forgotten to feed them. The hungry Spikit were devouring everything, or everyone, within reach of their claws. A dozen wild and furious hungry Spikit ran throughout the village. Chaos 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 gate of the city. The closed door kept the Spikit and the Glatorian from escape. On the other side, Atakus was still on guard, with orders to attack them. Strakk jumped on him from above, stunning him and then supported the guard unconscious against a wall. The Glatorian ran into the desert as fast as they could. They paused for breath 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 a sword, and let some Spikit enjoy a meal. And besides, why should we worry about the Skrall? Do you think they will want to retrieve this sword?” Gresh shrugged. Maybe he was worrying too much. However, he had a bad feeling.
“Give me that sword.”
The moonlight was not enough to see with, but all he needed was to check the sword. The sword was not anything special, but at the base of the handle Gresh felt a little atypical depression. When he pressed it, a small compartment opened, which carried a small metal object.
“What is it?” Strakk asked. “Exsidian? Ice crystals? Answer 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 better get out of here.”
They ran. Gresh occasionally looked anxiously behind him to see if someone was chasing them. But he did not see the 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 fleeing something. He had a metal collar. He mumbled something about being enslaved by the Skrall... at least it sounded like nonsense. I took the necklace and saw that in the middle was a foreign object. It sent a signal...”
“A tracking device,” Strakk concluded. “But why would one be on the sword?”
Gresh climbed some rocks. He saw the Skrall approach the place where he had destroyed the transmitter. Even without the opportunity they had had before they continued to give chase, following the steps in the sand. However, daylight would be needed to find the footprints that belonged to the armored feet of Strakk and Gresh.
“The Bone Hunters sold the sword to the Skrall. I don't think they knew what they had achieved,” pondered Gresh. “Perhaps they thought that the Bone Hunters captured 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 have hardly heard of him. I have no idea why anyone would be interested in him.” “Maybe it was a plan for Skrall hunting practice...” said Gresh.
They managed to finally reach the Vorox camp. They saw no one chasing them. Recalling the great sense of smell that the Vorox had, they saw a cave with the wind in their favor. They climbed a small hill that was near the camp and hid in the small cave. At the camp Malum was standing next to the caravan and the two Agori.
“We also 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 a cave. Their brightness meant that the stones were a mineral that emitted light. Gresh broke the stones, and covered his armor with the dust. After a moment, he began to glow in the dark.
“Give me a minute, then you go for the caravan,” Gresh said and then walked away.
Strakk occupied a good position, and waited for the right time. Suddenly he heard a scream so horrible that even he jumped in fear. Gresh was as bright as the stars when he jumped from behind a rock and ran straight into the camp. The Vorox fled. Superstitious by nature, they mistook him for a vengeful ghost who had decided to stay in the desert. Malum was not fooled. Gresh came to disperse the terrified Vorox.
“Do not panic,” he growled. “He isn't a spirit... but soon will be.”
Strakk felt that this was the right time - when the caravan was not monitored. He took a breath and entered the camp. He jumped on the wagon, took the reins and had the Spikit gallop. The caravan moved forward so violently that Kirbold and Tarduk almost fell out the wagon. Before Vorox discovered that the caravan was gone, they were already far away.
“Where is Gresh?” Tarduk cried. “He was back there!”
“That's your problem,” Strakk said.
Tarduk grabbed an Exsidian doubloon, ready to strike Strakk.
“Now you're in trouble 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 Glatorian was able to jump on the wagon.
“Come on! Hurry!” Gresh shouted.
However, the Spikit could not pull that much weight and the furious Vorox approached rapidly. Strakk frantically sought a way to lose their pursuers. Then he saw a hope of victory. If they could reach the other side of a hill they were approaching they would be out of the sight of the Vorox for a moment. They could leave the carriage hide somewhere and wait until dawn. Strakk took the reins and had the Spikit run faster until they disappeared behind the hilltop. 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.
It’s true, in crisis situations, everything seems to slow down, Gresh thought. After all, he was, along with two Agori, one Glatorian and a wagon with valuable cargo, plunging into the depths, probably to their death… and yet, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The water was drawing closer inch by inch and he felt every breath he took – in, out, in, out. In 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, in which the melting water of the Black Spike Mountains came together to feed the oasis of Tesara with the live-giving liquid. The river ran south, but thanks to the great heat, it already 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. Headfirst he 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; he 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 looked right. Malum lead a horde of Vorox to Vulcanus, but 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 fell down and burned a crater into the sandy floor. Smoke and flame rose and finally a figure rose slowly… 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 Agori in Vulcanus were too occupied with the fire and the battle with the Skrall. Only the giant figure stood over the chaos below 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 to the two Glatorian Ackar and Kiina. Strakk, Tarduk and Kirbold sat nearby in the shadow of a precipice.
“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 and tried 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 is not 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 the Exsidian or try to prove that Iconox sent the cargo on its way. We just arrived when Strakk fished you out of the river.”
Gresh gave his fellow warrior from Iconox a surprised look. Strakk and he were anything but good friends and he knew that he never did anything without wanting something in return.
Their gazes met. “Tarduk promised me a part of his next artifacts trove when I find you and get you out of the water”, Strakk explained. “Thus it was only reasonable to…” Kiina stared angrily at Strakk as if she wanted to teach him a lesson 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 is of no use that both these villages 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… the situation is serious.”
Gresh forced himself to get up. Everything was spinning for a moment, at first fast, and then slower, that way he didn’t get 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, however, 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 being a success.
“Maybe we should get a wagon from Vulcanus?” Tarduk suggested.
“We probably could save you that effort”, Kiina said. “What do you think, Ackar, there may be someone around who would be very eager to get some Exsidian?” She nodded her head towards the north.
“This is an absurd idea”, Strakk grumbled while trudging through the sand. “Not only absurd – suicidal, too. And 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, 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 to head north, to Roxtus, but Kiina had been against it.
“On that way he’ll never make it past Malum and his Vorox”, she said.
“Additionally, the Skrall are not 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. Strakk stopped to drink something. During the accident he had lost his water canister, but he had insisted that Kiina would give him hers before he moved out. Kiina was afraid that the Skrall would not believe his story when he was carrying water, but Strakk refused to leave without water. He took a large gulp. When he took down the water canister, he saw something in the distance. He saw riders coming towards him. He couldn’t make out whom they were through the heat waves rising from the sand. 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 called at him “Run!” Strakk in no way was a coward – after all, one couldn’t be a successful Glatorian if one had fear. But he thought practically. Should something happen to him, his compensation would at least have to be generous… 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 – At least that is not hard, he thought.
The leader of the squad was an elite warrior Strakk hat met before. His name was Stronius. He had watched many Skrall matches in the arena, with unmoving features and without saying even one word. Rumors say he came to supervise the Skrall Glatorian. Should one of them, by some miracle, lose – or simply not win fast enough – he had the permission to punish him.
Apparently the Skrall even need more motivation to really punch someone, Strakk thought sarcastically.
Stronius rode directly towards Strakk and looked 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 am sure we’ll find something for you in Roxtus.”
Strakk had to gulp. He has heard a lot of rumors about Glatorian that were on their way to Roxtus – or were taken against their will – and were never seen again. They said they were used as “guinea pigs”. That was the least creepy version. Other speculations on 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 on our way 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 in order to get a wagon and you will lead us to the spot where the Exsidian sunk. 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 don’t exactly have the reputation of being a charity organization.
The Glatorian looked down at the sand, then up at Stronius. If he would agree to this proposal too fast, this would not seem authentic – the Skrall knew that no Glatorian could seriously believe they would let him go – neither with nor without cargo. Strakk pretended to struggle with himself and finally resign and accept. “Agreed.”
“You made a wise decision”, Stronius said, which was supposed to mean about as much as: Had you said no, you’d already be dead now.
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 – by telling the truth he would ensure that he would never have the opportunity to lie again. When the Skrall finally returned he brought the message that Tuma, leader of the Skrall, hat doubts about Stronius’ plan. However, he agreed under the condition that the “job” would have to be done as fast as possible and any “excessive material” would have to be disposed of immediately. Strakk had heard many names for him, 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 on their word and were waiting for him. Should they have thought twice of it and had left for Vulcanus; he’d be in great 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. He calmed down a little. They wouldn’t have had any reason to cover all tracks when they were only on their way to the fire village. The plan was still valid 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 rather bored. After one 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 loses itself in the sand.”
“Sure”, Strakk responded. What else would he have been 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 until their armored heads reappeared at the surface. One of them swam to the shore and climbed into 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 get that stuff up. 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. Without a 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 to Strakk and pointed his Thornax launcher at him. “Thanks a lot, Strakk. We will forever remember your services for the village of Roxtus … on your memorial stone.”
Strakk closed his eyes. The shrill whistling of a fired Thornax could be heard and shortly afterwards 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 mess to run to the river. He wanted to cross it and make a break for the desert beyond it. He had already come to the opposite side when Kiina appeared behind a sand dune.
“Where are you going?” she snapped at him while she kept firing Thornax barrages at the Skrall.
“Out of the line of fire”, Strakk answered. “I am unarmed, in case you missed that.”
“Being unarmed will be your smallest problem when you abandon us”, Kiina shot back. “For example when we make you one head shorter. Here!” She gave Strakk her trident. “Start being useful. And remember – point the sharp end at the villains.”
Even though the enemies outnumbered them, Ackar had managed to keep the Skrall away from the wagon. Stronius had sent a warrior that was supposed to stop the Glatorian. He had already managed it around and half 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 parallel onto the sand directly in front of the Skrall. The explosive projectiles collided nosily and whirled sand through the air and into the eyes of the Skrall. Temporarily blinded they could not prevent that the Glatorian Gresh and 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 when she drove the Skrall’s Sand Stalkers apart. Gresh spurred the Spikit on with his reins 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 have yet 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 fast and enduring, but not as fast as Sand Stalkers. It was only a matter of time till the Skrall would catch 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 has actually been our task. I won’t let anything happen to you because you helped us.”
“I don’t think we need your permission for that, little one”, Kiina replied. “Look for a suitable spot, Ackar, where we can take them into 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 are well-equipped!” Ackar said. “We are about to have a rough confrontation.”
They quickly got nearer to the figures. When the sight became better, Gresh felt his stomach becoming as tight as a knot.
“Oh, I don’t think you have to worry about that. They are well-equipped, that much is for certain.”
Strakk stared ahead. “I don’t believe that. We can’t possibly have that much bad luck.”
“Who are they”, Ackar asked while his gaze was still fixed on the Skrall closing in behind them.
Gresh wanted to answer, but the words stayed stuck in his throat. After everything they went through he couldn’t believe their mission was about to end… and more than that…“They are not coming from Vulcanus”, he finally said. “The red armor… it is 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 place to be seen. We can neither escape nor defeat them, least of all do both.”
“I bet we have good chances to be trashed”, Strakk said. “And we’re about to find out…"
Gresh looked back. The Skrall were nearing them. He looked forward again - with 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.”
“Think about it.” Ackar shook his head. “You deceived Malum, who you promised to get his treasure from Roxtus... just now; we deceived the Skrall to help us get the Exsidian from a river. It seems to me that you appreciate his talent in recognizing opponents, Strakk.”
“It's funny when you say it that way,” Kiina answered “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,” Gresh said.
“And who the Skrall considered as vermin to be eradicated?” Kiina seized.
“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, going directly to the Vorox group. When he was close enough to the Vorox, he stopped in front of them. Ackar quickly turned and headed toward the Skrall.
“Our Vorox friends arrived just in time!” Ackar shouted with all the force in his lungs. “At 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 boldly against us? Stronius thought. They will pay for it!
Malum also heard Ackar’s words. Immediately he understood what his old friend planned. He also knew he couldn’t escape from the trap that he had developed without a fight. Ackar had used the eternal hatred between the Skrall and the Vorox. Now, the Skrall only had enough time to shoot Thornax at the Vorox.
“Shoot them!” Stronius cried. “Destroy them! The Glatorian and the Vorox alike.”
His warriors fired toward 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 to the warriors of the Skrall. When the Vorox pack attacked their most hated enemy, it was an appropriate time to flee from the battlefield. The Glatorian, Agori and the cart left quickly. The sounds of exploding Thornax and moans of the wounded soon died out.
“You thought we would lose,” Kiina was delighted. “So you wanted them to fight among 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 gather with thieves,” Malum said.
“We are not looking to fight you,” Gresh cut in. “You found us, remember? You asked us to steal the sword in Roxtus. And we did, after you snatched in from Ackar.”
“How goes the battle?” Ackar asked.
“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 very numerous.”
“I did what I had to do,” Ackar said. “I am sorry that your warriors have died. But they, at your signal, would have killed us."
“I have no grudge against you, Ackar. Escaping from ambushes is your specialty ... that talent both you and the Vorox have. But these two, Gresh and Strakk, entered in our territory without an invitation. One of these days will end our affairs.”
Gresh jumped from the caravan, with 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. Once beautiful and pleasant, sometimes cruelly killed. One day brings water to quench your thirst. The next day, feeds you when you're starving. But the third day ... my sword snatches your life.”
The former Glatorian took the reins of his Stalker and ordered it to turn around and left. Then he disappeared in the distance.
“Is that all?” Spoke Strakk, surprised. “He let us go?”
“Do you want to fight him?” Kiina shrugged. “If I remember correctly, he doesn’t like you.”
The Ice Glatorian knew Kiina was right. Malum once almost took Strakk’s life during a match, which caused his expulsion from Vulcanus.
“Even if the four of us faced against him, we may not win. I know him,” Ackar sighed. “The important thing is that we must now carry the Exsidian to your destination. When the Skrall finish up with the Vorox they’ll probably return to haunt us.”
The team traveled to the south. Ever vigilant and careful, everyone slowly getting used to the idea that they might be able to reach Vulcanus. Kirbold promised himself to propose to Iconox’s elders that Ackar and Kiina receive the same pay as Gresh and Strakk. Without their help this mission could have ended in the Skrall River.
“We will probably have problems ahead of us,” Tarduk said. “I'm not sure when we finish this trip we can say that the route we took is better than the route through the Dunes of Treason. What do you think?”
“You're kidding, right?” Kirbold laughed. “We passed Bone Hunters, the Skrall, Malum with his Vorox, along with desert bats, snakes, a deadly cascade ... right now I might go for the Dunes of Treason.”
Kiina approached Ackar.
“What are you thinking?”
“I see no sign that we are being pursuing. If we maintain this pace, it will be good for us. In the worst case scenario, we may find the Bone Hunters.”
“You mean them?” Intervened Gresh, pointing forward.
What they saw gave them chills. Before them, a short distance, the desert had been torn by a huge crater. Around it laid the bodies of several Bone Hunters, as if a tornado had passed through there. Among the dead were several survivors, but their condition did not prophesies a long life. Ackar sought unsuccessfully Thornax traces or remains of the Vorox’s spears. Something that looked like a monster would leave traces of this size.
“When you think it happened?” He asked Kiina, who has already fallen from her Stalker, to examine one of the hunters.
“Maybe an hour ago,” Kiina approached a hunter and asked. “What happened?”
The Bone Hunter barely raised his head and his lips moved noiselessly. When he could speak, Kiina leaned closer to him. He uttered a word before dying. Kiina looked up to her teammates, saying: “Skopio.”
“Let's get out of here,” Strakk didn’t need to know any other information then he had to.
“An hour ago? Maybe the Skopio is already gone now,” Tarduk asked, hopefully.
“Or maybe just be hidden in the sand beneath you and waiting to attack,” Strakk snorted.
Ackar thought. Skopio were the largest and most dangerous creature of Bara Magna. The giant scorpion-like creatures was not very fast, but thanks to its size as a step toward moving several meters. They didn’t know all its instincts, so it was difficult to predict whether the Skopio was in the same place that it had appeared or whether it had gone to seek new territory. If the Skopio who had made this disaster had left this supposedly was they were safe.
“We'll go to the south,” Ackar said. “Assuming that the Skopio doesn’t follow us, we'll go that way. I hope we’ll get to the village.”
So they went directly to Vulcanus. A few minutes had passed, and the ground beneath their feet began to tremble.
“Oh, no...” Strakk moaned.
The first tremor was quite weak. The second was more intense - Ackar's Stalker went haywire, almost throwing its rider. Then there was an earthquake. Gresh fell face first in the sand and soil before it opened with a bang. The crater was starting to suck sand, and soon would do the same for Gresh. Kiina, just in time, grabbed his hand and threw him into the trailer. The desert exploded. A cloud of dust rose into the air and the Skopio appeared. He was ready for the next battle. And then everything became worse. When the sand and dust fell Ackar saw a figure with golden armor riding the beast. That meant that the beast they would fight was actually a machine. They stood in the way of Skopio XV-1 and its pilot...
“Telluris!” Ackar cried.
Strakk shot Kirbold a look of anger.
“When we get back to Iconox, I’m asking for a raise!”
“If we return to Iconox,” Kirbold corrected him.
The Skopio XV-1 was built to resemble a real Skopio. It was faster and more dangerous. The lunatic Telluris had improved it over the years, using parts from other vehicles. Due to the plague that ravaged his tribe 103,000 years ago, Telluris was obsessed with oppression and torturing others. The XV-1 was ideally suited for that. The team ran to escape. Vulcanus had many Glatorian in training. Their support maybe needed in battle against this giant machine. But Telluris had no intention of giving them that chance. Pressing a button on the control console, he changed the way his vehicle was traveling. Leveling all four legs of the vehicle, so that now the XV-1 could only move thanks to its treads. The vehicle did not look so impressive now, but could reach a much higher speed. With a mischievous 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, and the others were dispersed to the sides. Regardless of whom Telluris decided hunt, the others could go around and attack from behind. Watching the Glatorian fled like a startled scarabax swarm caused great pleasure for Telluris. Which would he destroy first? A carriage full of Exsidian did not interest him. If he had been interested in the Exsidian, he would have taken from it Iconox and nobody could have stopped him. But the red armor Glatorian apparently had a brain – he was shouting orders, and others weren’t listening. It would be useful to silence him. Telluris pointed his gun, mounted on the tail of the 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. He escaped in time, but the force of the explosion caused the rider and the Stalker to fall into the sand.
“Ackar!” Kiina cried when she saw her wounded friend. “Gresh, help him! I will take care of Telluris.”
As she made sure that the Tesaran had reached a wounded Ackar, she began to attack. To escape the rain of Thornax, she rode directly towards to the Skopio. Telluris accelerated, trying to run her over with his vehicle, but Kiina, ingeniously, evaded it. The Glatorian jumped from her Stalker and landed on the armor of the Skopio.
“What is she doing?” Ackar stared in amazement.
“We can divert Telluris’ attention. What do you think?” Gresh said.
Both Glatorian galloped towards to the Skopio. Ackar shot at it, although he knew that Thornax were unable to damage the shield of the machine. All he wanted was Telluris to focus on them rather than Kiina.
“Look out!” Ackar cried. As Telluris fired at them, Ackar’s Stalker managed to dodge all the Thornax rounds from the Skopio.
“I have an idea,” said Gresh. “Head to the caravan.”
The Glatorian rushed into the caravan. Without stopping, Gresh leaned over on his saddle and took two Exsidian bars. When he was near the Skopio, the Glatorian jumped to the ground, stepped aside and immediately put the two bars between the treads of the vehicle. On the other side Ackar did the same. The Exsidian was prized for its exceptional hardness and durability. It did not corrode or deform as other metals. Stated another way, the Skopio's metal chassis of could not compare with it. The screaming and the collapse of parts from Skopio's treads announced the duel between the XV- 1's chassis and Exsidian, the Exsidian being the winner. Meanwhile Kiina climbed into the Skopio's cab. Once she slipped and almost fell. Kiina grabbed the stinger and climbed back up, and when she was high enough, she jumped directly to the XV-1's cockpit, landing just behind Telluris. Without hesitation, he tried to escape but was caught by the ankle and was hanging upside down.
“I'm too tired to climb, you know?” Kiina said while keeping Telluris’s head down. “I guess you can’t hold on for long. As long as you fight us; 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 will die, you know that right?”
Kiina raised him up and could see his cold stare.
“Do you think I care?”
Telluris showed no fear. Either he was immensely brave, crazy or possessed. He spoke 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...”
“Not far from here there are many Skrall warriors,” continued Kiina. “You turn back, you trash them, and return from where you came, and take our deal settled.”
Telluris hesitated. He had not had to deal with these visitors in the far north. He knew that the Skrall were tough opponents.
“Well, what do you choose? Are you afraid of those silly Skrall?”
“Not at all,” Telluris said. “I'll deal with them. But when I find you in my territory again, you will not escape so easily.”
Kiina smiled and waved Telluris to the edge of the vehicle.
“What are you doing? You said that I would be let loose!” Telluris protested.
“I never said I would not do that,” Kiina said. “You had a choice between leaving your vehicle and using it for my benefit. Deciding whether to release you or not, was not part of the deal.”
Saying this, she let go of his leg. Telluris cried for a while until his body fell into the sand. Ackar immediately approached him to see if he was alive.
“He's alive,” he said with relief.
“Sure he's alive. He excelled in the arena,” Kiina said, who jumped down from the Skopio. “At least he'll not trouble us.”
“I don't understand,” Gresh said. “I heard what he said. However, he pledged to meet 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 the scam.”
A few hours later the characteristic shape of a large building in the center of Vulcanus appeared on the horizon. Soon after, the team approached the first building, where they received cheers from the guards. Although Strakk never liked the fire village, never he was as excited in all his life. Raanu, Vulcanus' leader, was the happiest Agori in town that day. Ackar knew that his reaction was associated mostly with the Exsidian that had finally reached its destination. But it was also something else: Iconox had paid its debt to Vulcanus. The Glatorian's victory for the Fire Tribe was only the beginning. 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 feel the satisfaction of a victory and a good pay. Deal.”
At the edge of the village, Kiina and Gresh watched the sunset 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 said. “It's true that I had to flee from the Skrall, fight the Vorox, and endure Strakk... but I find that I have friends. You and Ackar.”
“You're right. You have much to learn, but you're really talented. If one of these days you’re in Tajun, we could practice together.”
“And you’ll teach me the move you used to get onto the Skopio?” Gresh smiled.
“You'll get a lot of lessons,” Kiina laughed when they return to the village. “We’ll talk about how to survive the first round of battles during the Great Tournament.”
“Agreed. But you know what?” Gresh caught an Exsidian block thrown by an Agori. “Surviving a fight is what matters.”
- Several Bone Hunters
- Several warrior-class Skrall
- Several Vorox
- The narration claims that Malum is the Glatorian that Strakk gets along with the best. However, the graphic novel established that Strakk was the very fighter that Malum tried to kill.
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