"No!" Strakk yelled. "No. Definitely no."
Metus wasn't cheerful about that. He's been advertising duels and training warriors for years. Many of them were just as stubborn as Strakk, but hardly any of them used to throw dangerous objects around without thinking.
Obviously, he should have predicted this. Glatorian would never do anything for free, but Strakk was extraordinarily greedy. There was a joke common all over Iconox, saying that Strakk wouldn't even open his eyes at sunrise if he wasn't certain that it would pay off. A desire to leave all this alone sprung into his mind. However, he soon realized how important it was to recruit Strakk.
"You owe me something," Metus reminded him. "Just think, what would have happened to you without me? After all, how often do I ask you favors?"
"Well... What about that duel with Kiina last month?" Strakk replied. "A year ago you asked me to help you train that bully, remember? I had to spend a few weeks at healers', because that guy had forgotten that it was only a tutorial fight. There was also this..."
"All right, that's enough," Metus axed his speech. "I don't want to hear the story of your life. It's a quick, easy job. You can earn a lot within one week. Are you in it or not?"
Metus was lying blatantly. He would often do so during negotiations with his warriors. The job he was offering to Strakk wasn't quick nor easy. It was all about a transport of precious exidian - the payoff for a fight lost by another warrior called Gelu - between villages of Iconox and Vulcanus. Usually, the caravans were taking the shortest southeastern route through Dunes of Treason directly to the fire village. It wasn't the safest way, but you could travel there quite well.
However, the last few weeks saw the dunes changes into lethal trap by groups of barbarians called "Bone Hunters". For reasons unknown they decided to stop the trade between the villages, sealing them all, especially Tajun, the village of water, off the rest of the world. Travelling through the desert has become very risky. Caravans were attacked and, more importantly, none of their escorts ever returned home alive. The inhabitants of Iconox had no choice. If they didn't keep the deal, their warriors wouldn't be allowed to participate in duels anywhere in Bara Magna. So they've managed to find a different route which made them able to reach Vulcanus safely.
"Let me think." Strakk said. "You want to send a cart full of cargo to the east, through Black Spike Mountains, then south through the Dark Falls, and finally through Creep Canyon? Each of these places is more dangerous than a desert bat with a sunstroke! And you want me to escort this convoy?"
"Yes," Metus nodded.
"No,"Strakk repeated. "I'm a Glatorian. I'm given money for fighting whenever my village wants something from any other village. I'm no way a guardian, pathfinder or messenger. I fight with other Glatorian. I do not fight with bone hunters. They have this bad habit of making everyone's lives shorter."
Metus knew that Strakk was right in this field. You shouldn't trespass bone hunters' territories if you can avoid it. Their mounts, called Rock Steed, have several rows of sharp teeth and tails with poisonous stingers, like those of a scorpion. Their amazing sense of smell makes them able to smell the enemy form many kilometers. The hunters themselves are no more friendly - if they were, they couldn't have survived all those millenia among wastelands. They are ruthless, violent and greedy. If you could name any advantages of theirs, it should be their endurance - they would never stop a pursuit - as well as precision. They keep attacking the caravans, leaving nothing valuable... and no witnesses.
The Agori left the room. The Glatorian followed and continued his moan.
"What about Skrall? Remember? Huge guys in black armors ... once they put their hands on somebody, they change them into goo, just for fun. They're hiding behind ever stone at Black Spike Mountains!"
"Take it easy," Metus said. "Just look. We've hired the best ones."
Metus pointed his hand at the cart, already loaded, aboard which there was an Agori from Iconox, called Kirbold, and some Agori in green armor, from the village of Tesara.
"Since when do Tesarans send their Glatorian to support Iconox? - Strakk asked.
"Since the bone hunters made their lives equally difficult as ours," Metus replied. "They want to check the new route themselves. If it proves safe, they'll start using it, too. This Agori is called Tarduk. He is said to know the area.
Metus turned around and looked deep into Strakk's eyes.
"Iconox people want to send their Glatorian with this convoy - you should understand that. If you agree, I'll certainly manage to book a few duels in Vulcanus for you. And they'll call you a great hero in here."
Strakk laughed coldly.
"A great hero... Heroes end up two meters underground. Some of them are given a stone on the grave as a memorial. But I am reasonable... sometimes. Okay, I'll go... if you double my usual fee."
Metus swallowed hard. This meant that Iconox will have to give lots of weapons and resources to Strakk. After all, there was no other way.
Breaking a promise given to Vulcanus would threaten the concept of Glatorian arena matches, fights that solve disputes between the tribes. Even so, Metus should find himself bankrupt before long.
"Alright," said the recruiter. "I'll try to explain it to the tribe's elders. Get ready to move soon."
"I am already on the move," Strakk smiled. "Get my reward ready - I'll be retrieving it shortly.
If you're lucky, Metus thought. And where you're heading, luck is not enough.
They set off few hours after the sun rise. Gresh wanted to go sooner, at dawn, but Strakk insisted on packing as much Thornax ammunition and additional weaponry as possible. Gresh thought it would be wiser to travel with less weight - it would shorten the trip through the desert.
"Yea... I used to know guys like that, traveling with less stuff," grunted Strakk."It sure made their trip faster - to a grave. Listen, young one, you do know what makes the Bone Hunters famous. There will be more of them then us. Are you able to defeat at least a few of them before they get to you? If so, then maybe - just maybe - you have a chance of surviving this."
"Do you think we should fight them?," asked Gresh.
"No, no," Strakk replied. "I think, we shouldn't have taken this job in the first place. But since we're already doing it, let's do this the smart way. Pushing straight through their territory won't make an escape possible. That's why we need something to fight with!"
Strakk did not know Gresh that well. Their roads have crossed before, on a desert way to the Vulcanus village. When they had a little fight with the Bone Hunters, but came out of it alive. Ever since then Strakk hasn't stopped covering his back. Bone Hunters do not forget such things easily.
He wasn't very fond of Gresh. The young Teserian warrior seemed too modest and noble for Strakk. The only Glatorian who had good relationship with Strakk was Malum from Vulcanus. Though, it's said that he was exiled from the tribe after an incident on the arena, where he attempted to finish of his opponent. For Strakk, it was clear proof that the inhabitants of Vulcanus did not understand how a Glatorian life works.
Strakk went ahead of the convoy. The Two-headed spikit, the one pulling the cart, gazed upon the bumpy road ahead mindlessly. The white Glatorian hoped that there's enough food on the cart. Spikits are strong and enduring draught animals, but when hungry, they eat anything in sight, the cart and the driver included.
"I heard, Tarduk," Strakk said to the harness holding tesaran Agori, "that you've traveled a lot."
"That's true," Tarduk replied. "I savage artifacts - old armor, weapons, scrolls... little bits of history. I spend a lot of time in ruins, looking for those sorts of things."
"Mmm, pretty... interesting," admitted Strakk. Wow! What a loon!, added in his mind.
"I always wanted to see the Black Hills," Tarduk continued. "There's probably a lot of treasure there!"
"Wait now...you're our guide," said Strakk stupefied, "and you never went there?
"No," said Tarduk with a smile on his face.
"Then why...?" Strakk lost his voice.
"Besides him, there weren’t any volunteers," Kirbold explained. "He was easily accepted."
"Stop talking so much," said Gresh quietly. "Your voice spreads all around. You don't want the Bone Hunters hearing you."
"You're an optimist my friend," said Strakk. "If they are here - and that's a given - then they already know of us, since the moment we left Iconox. Let's just hope they don't know what we took with us."
"And what, if they know?" asked Gresh.
Strakk pointed at Gresh's Thornax launcher.
"Then we'll see if you can use that, young one."
An inexperienced observer would call Bara Magna a simple desert. When in fact, no matter where you look, the horizon is filled with pyramids, dunes or flatlands. In some places the wind blows over the sand grains with such strength, it could damage even a glatorian armor.
Not to forget the murderous heat. The sun of Bara Magna fries the desert with such diabolical heat, that it’s visited only by the Bone Hunters or the desperate Vorox running from them. The sand is so hot, even its touch burns. Anyone stuck here without a supply of water dies within a day.
At dusk, the sun hides behind the horizon, as it was a torch, extinguished in hurry. When the temperature lowers significantly, the Agori start a fire for warmth. The desert is twice as dangerous at night. Nocturnal predators go out from their caves, from beneath their rocks and sand, where they hide from the heat. In shadows, the Bone Hunters can come as close as less than a dozen meters from the village, to capture a guard who heedlessly left the cover of a torch light. An old Agori saying goes: “At least you see death coming in daylight”. No one has that sort of luck at night.
However, those who know Bara Magna well enough are aware, that the world is something more than a desert.
They remember times when the Skrall River wasn't the only stream cutting through this once green land. They know that Tesara has not always been a miniature oasis, but a part of a vast, rich jungle. And they can still hear the screams of water birds flying over the ocean waves, which crushed into the shore a long time ago.
Everything vanished almost 100,000 years ago, when the great cataclysm changed the planet's face forever. After that, no one had time for history lessons. Worries on how to survive another day would occupy their minds.
The cart pushed through the hot sand, though Strakk saw this land as it once was. He came from the far north - Iconox was not his home. He was just nearby when the catastrophe took place that was later called "The Collapse". It was impossible to return to his home, so Strakk seek refuge in Icanox. At that time everything changed: a desert took the jungle's place and the heat melted the glaciers. Nobody knew how much there were left... and since then life became a struggle for survival.
Strakk turned his head behind. Iconox was already hidden deep beneath the horizon. He ordered his Stalker to stop.
"This should do," he said. "We can stop now."
Gresh looked at Strakk, surprised.
"What are you talking about?"
"And what do you think?" Strakk replied. "You didn't think we would bother dragging all this stuff the whole way up to the Black Mountains? If you really believed in my little tale about fighting the Bone Hunters, then keep your head from the sun from now on."
"But that's our mission," said Gresh.
Strakk snorted. "Alright. Here's the plan: the Agori leave the cart and we take the exidian and hide it. Then we break the cart into tiny bits. Back in the village we'll just say the Bone Hunters attacked us and took everything from us."
Both Agori looked at each other. Tarduk shook his head, clearly stating that he also does not know what's going on.
"And then? Couple of weeks pass by, we return here and we dig up the treasure," Strakk smiled. "Then each of us gets his share and goes on his own. And nobody gets hurt."
"Except the Iconox villagers. Vulcanus will not forget a debt so easily," said Gresh after pointing his launcher at Strakk, a bit awkwardly though. "Well, then here's another plan. From now on you will ride ahead of us. If you try to escape, then believe me, you won't get too far."
"Are you stupid, or what?" Strakk growled "We have a fortune in our hands!"
Gresh pointed the way with the launcher. "Go. We have a job to finish. We will do the right thing."
Strakk looked at Gresh with disbelief, but then he commanded his stalker to go and went ahead, mumbling: "So many Glatorians on this world, and I got the one that has to do "the right thing"".
Gresh looked at Strakk without much thought, and then asked Tarduk: "So what do you think? What awaits us there? I don't like surprises."
"Everything you would not want to see," Tarduk replied. "It was rather peaceful here, but since Vorox proliferated on the Dunes of Treason, sand bats, dune snakes and even giant cave scorpions escaped to the north. There's so many of them, all the way up the Black Mountains."
"It's not the worst thing we can find," Kirbold cut in "Ever been on the Sand Sea?"
Gresh shook his head. This "Sea" was found south of the Vulcanus village. It looked like a simple desert, but mostly it was made out of wet mud, that pulled anyone in. Luck and skills rarely helped, but those who lacked both now lie in it's depths.
"There are a few similar places here," said Kirbold "Not many, but still as bad, maybe worse. Imagine just going through the desert, minding your own business, and then..."
"Have you heard, Strakk?" Gresh asked.
"I would never want to miss out on such great news," said the ice Glatorian "It is a great privilege to ride as the first one."
"Keep your eyes open," said Gresh "It'll keep us from trouble."
"Yeah, it'll surely keep you..." Strakk did not hide his irony. "Just wait until I get pulled in by the mud. Then you'll just stop...and it'll keep you from trouble."
The next few moments were silent. Further away from them the Black Mountains appeared in their whole sinister majesty. Legends were said about them even in times when Bara Magna was a green paradise. Popular ones mentioned travelers who did not manage to return from their trip. Those, who did, changed. Their tales were far more interesting.
Gresh looked at Kirbold.
"And you? How did you end up here?"
-I dig up the mud - he answered - I use it to seal things. It doesn't rust and it's very effective.
-You did not answer my question.
-I extract the mud. I strip the earth of it. Sure, others use it, but it was me who discovered it. In a way, it's like... mine. If it's in danger I want to be there for it.
Gresh nodded. He has heard weirder things. After all, a Glatorian wouldn't let others touch his weapon for similar reasons.
The sun was at its peak. Gresh pointed at a rock incline.
-We will set up camp there and wait until it gets cooler.
Kirbold and Tarduk left the cart in the shade. They made sure to feed the spikit before getting a meal themselves. Strakk sat down on the sand and closed his eyes. Gresh kept guard.
-You think there's something out there? - Kirbold Asked Tarduk
-Who knows? - the Agori replied - Maybe there was once civilization in those mountains, one of which we never heard of. Maybe there are some tools or vehicles left there. For someone such as I, it's a treasure waiting to be discovered.
- No, not that... I meant monsters.
-Like, what I know...if you count the Skrall as monsters...
Kirbold hung his head and gave the sand a blank stare.
-Umm, I don't think so. But if they attack us...We don't have anywhere to hide, don't you think?
They set off later this evening. Strakk sighted a desert bat. It jumped from beneath the sand and dragged in a sand fox with it. The Spikit growled loudly out of fear and anger.
-I hate those - Said Strakk. Never know when it'll jump out.
-Scorpion-giants are worse - declared Tarduk, feeling a chill on his spine. -I ran into them a few times in the past, back when I was looking for artifacts in caves.
-There is an easy way of dealing with it - said Strakk.
-Don't go frolicking in caves - the Glatorian smiled.
-I think we should worry about the dune snakes - Kirbold broke in.
-Yes? Why? - said Strakk with curiosity.
-Because they're all over us!
Gresh's Stalker panicked and pranced. Strakk's did the same thing. The Spikit kicked and was about to run when Kirbold halted him, trying to hold on to the leashes.
The Sand seemed to move in a rhythm - the poisonous snakes crawled just underneath it. It looked like ocean waves, though the sight wasn't so soothing. Dune Snakes are not afraid of picking on a bigger foe, and their venom is poisonous enough to make a single bite kill in seconds.
-It seems we crashed into their nest! - Yelled Strakk - Now what?
Gresh struggled to gain control over his stalker.
-If your animal drops dead, jump! Otherwise it will crush you!
-Thanks, I'd never have thought of that - Strakk growled - If only you'd listen...
-A gap! - Tarduk Cried - There! Look!
The sand he pointed at was not moving. Everyone knew it was their only chance of escape.
- Move it! - Gresh commanded as he made his Stalker go in that direction.
Strakk managed to set off, jumping over a swarm of snakes that just jumped out from the sand. The Spikit, even though being prodded by Kirbold, couldn't go any further.
Strakk dashed off. He did not bother to look back. All of a sudden his stalker tripped and moments later got sucked in by the fluid sand. Before Strakk managed to jump off, he was already caught in the deadly trap.
-Help! - he cried.
-We can't help you - Kirbold replied. - If we come to close it'll suck us in too.
-He's a Glatorian. I can't leave him like this - We'll go around and try to rescue him.
-But that means going back to the snakes - noticed Tarduk.
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 so heavy as stone.
Suddenly he had an idea! The idea was crazy about suicide, but there was a chance of success. Everything depended on how high you jump Gresh and how fast was his Stalker, and his knowledge of the dunes. If even one element of the plan failed, none of them escape alive.
- Tarduk! I need a rope - to which they are attached to 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 is separated - ordered Gresh. - Keep together on site and do not talk, okay?
Kirbold and Tarduk obeyed. None of them got into conversation. On the other hand, they were approaching the dune snakes, which makes it hard to stop abusing.
Gresh took the rope, tied it to his Stalker and gallop. He had to execute each step when necessary. On approaching the bank of soft sand, forcing the horse 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 not believe!
- I had to - said Gresh. - And now back to the caravan.
- Are you crazy?! - Strakk cried. - You want the snake back to the dune? Exsidian I care much, but I will risk my life.
- No, 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 the smooth sand and rode to the harness, with the hope that their mounts avoid encountering poisonous fangs of serpents. But instead of stopping at the caravan Gresh spun her around like a lunatic. Strakk was surprised to be doing the same. The Agori looked at the Glatorian in silence, who had apparently lost his mind.
- Is there a reason why we doing this? - Strakk asked.
- Yes - said Gresh. - Dune Snakes isn't dragging on the surface, no? So do not use sight or smell when hunting.
- They use the ear - Strakk guessed. - So we're making noise.
- Exactly - Gresh smiled. - It works, see?
Strakk looked back. The snakes no longer surrounded the caravan, but that's still like a wave.
- Yiiiii! - He shouted.
- Over here! - Shouted Gresh.
The Tesarian Glatorian rode of 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 snakes of the dune were unable to avoid the trap of sand, which absorbed them without giving them a chance to escape.
- Good thinking - admitted Strakk. - A trap against another. Although it costs almost half of your pay...
Several hours later, the travelers arrived at the foot of the Black Mountains. They found a narrow path between the rocks at the convoy barely fit in it, so Gresh wanted Strakk to go first, while he would go back. Strakk showed little enthusiasm for his proposal. Gresh explained that if someone had been following Iconox not plan a frontal ambush, but 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 war. At a time when Bara Magna was part of a larger world... Long before The Shattering... I had not heard.
Gresh had heard something of the war that changed the world 100,000 years ago. Other Glatorian were reluctant about it. Apparently they wanted to eliminate at all costs all the memories related to that event.
- Enlighten me - said Gresh. - That he has to do with...?
- The Black Montains 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 the Skrall, Gresh pressed his hand on the strap of his horse. Because for them there was no mystery that the Rock Tribe was not from the desert regions of Bara Magna. His home was a land of volcanoes in the far north. They lived there for many centuries, protected by his warriors - the Skrall. In a not too distant past, the Skrall and Rock Tribe appeared in the south, inhabiting the Black Spike Mountains and the surrounding land. When they reached Roxtus, this became the largest city than any other tribe in Bara Magna. It was rumored that they had moved to the area running from something far more dangerous for 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 the warriors sent into battle Glatorian not even attempt to do so. Anyone who had had to deal with them, would face the leader of his tribe, Tuma, and just left to take what they want. 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 perfectly. Not long ago 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 not been involved in the fight, the encounter had been the last thing Gresh had done in his life. That simple memory caused him embarrassment. Tesara had its victory, and not do it.
Gresh stopped thinking about it. It was the best time to plan revenge. He and his companions entered the territory of the Rock Tribe. The only concern that could happen is that they met with a Skrall.
- Look! - Kirbold said suddenly, pointing to the top of the hill.
Gresh looked up. Glatorian saw three 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 - said. - Probably to deter uninvited guests.
- With great success - Strakk said - Look at them more closely.
- I stared 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 come? After me, are just spoils Glatorian dead. Am I right?
- I do not think - 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 be 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 imminent attack by the launchers.
Up on a rocky hillside, was a red armored Glatorian. Strakk and Gresh recognized him immediately. It was called Malum. At one time his name was written with great respect, but Malum's wild temperament had caused problems. During a match in the arena, tried to assassinate a Glatorian. For that crime he was banished from the village of Vulcanus. Since then, his home was the desert.
- Well, well, whom I see - Strakk said. - And I thought that you were eating sand bats.
- God, do something! - Whispered Kirbold - just wants the booty!
- Don't worry - said Strakk - Why seek exsidian in an area so remote? And besides, if Malum wanted it, I would have taken 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 - he answered. - The Skrall have become more ambitious. Many of them are in the mountains, chasing something, maybe something like you. And you should listen to them talk about Tajun. Would be interested.
- So much you care for us? - spat Strakk - Do you regret when we kill the Skrall, and you don't?
The smile on the Malum's face not prophesying anything good.
- To be honest... yes.
Raanu, leader of the village of Vulcanus, had grave concerns. Without Malum, her village just experienced Glatorian available. There were several potential candidates to take their place, but until then, had not heard the advice of Agori. The last duel Glatorian 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? They are crazy?
Metus, Glatorian trainer of Iconox, spread his hands.
- You know, the bone hunters...
- I know a bone hunters - Raanu interrupted. - I've heard that excuse before. But my people waiting that has justly earned the victory in the arena. If your pay does not deliver Iconox ...
- Vulcanus not be willing to pay what you lose - if you 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 expect one thing: war.
Metus reflected. Undoubtedly Raanu was right. Centuries ago it the Agori was clear that they could not afford an armed conflict between nations. 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 not paying 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 hunter or even a bone Skrall intercepted 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? - Not Gresh and his team knew this and 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 he been caught, would have been a corpse.
The road through the Black 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 were 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 also 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 shall we do? - Tarduk asked. - Try to escape? 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 chosen: 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.
Strakk saw nothing.
Strakk could not breathe.
Of course, had to be 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 in my life, no matter what I do.
He clenched his fist and hit something hard. Something grabbed his wrist and pulled strongly ahead. Strakk was relieved when I touch ground. When he looked, he saw a faint light moving dust, forming a familiar silhouette. The dust raised by the fall forced him to cough violently.
- Very dood - asked after a while. - What happened?
- Still you ask? - Replied an angry Gresh to Strakk. - Your fire triggered an avalanche. All we fell down slope.
- But I'm alive, right? - Strakk murmured, rising. - If not, would have gone to where good souls go. I do not think this place is.
- The avalanche pushed us against the wall of the ravine. Then I saw a post opened in the rock - Tarduk said. - Well, they are gone.
- And the caravan? Does the product? - Strakk said, alarmed. If exsidian is lost, will not receive my pay and the whole expedition will have been a waste of time.
- The Spikit is a bit battered, but the car is full - Kirbold said. - I'm glad you asked.
While Tarduk spoke, Gresh returned to where it was before departure. It was closed. Pushing with all his strength, tried to move the rock, without success.
- Even if it is opened from the inside, no doubt on the other side would be blocked by debris and bounds. 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. It was hoped that a second exit - if they had one - was not located somewhere in the ceiling, so climbing was not an option. He walked away, looking for scratches, cracks or anything that indicated the existence of a door, but due to the level of lighting the torch Tarduk not find anything.
- What do you think we will go from here? - asked.
- This is not a natural runner - Gresh said . - Someone created it. But why? And where will it lead?
- Well - Tarduk shrugged. - It seems that wherever we take this path, we must follow ... Or perhaps prefer to stay here until the end of his days?
Everyone sighed with relief when they discovered that the corridor was wide enough to pass the caravan in exsidiana. According Kirbold's calculations, the corridor running roughly from east to west, nearly agreeing with the established route for the trip. Of course, if he was wrong, and the broker did not follow this direction, undoubtedly would cross the Dark Falls and end in the eastern territories. Nobody liked the option. They knew that all travelers - even the Skrall - never returned.
Tarduk 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 bats of the sand would have dug holes to gain entry. If there was another way out, would be closed. Perhaps even he was not ...
For a moment Tsrduk regretted that Bara Magna' tribes were not related to their source elements. And if so, the Jungle Tribe could control on plant life? Or the Ice Tribe would have the authority on ice? Strakk could cut off the entrance to the corridor as a piece of ice 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.
Everyone knew what was up. Tarduk preferred not to think what would have happened if at that time they had the ability to control the elements.
- Hey, look - Gresh said . - What is that?
The brightness of the recorded signals lit torch on the wall of the right side of the aisle. A series of circles with lines were registered at various angles, forming a strange inscriptions. In the face of a smile appeared Tarduk.
- I once saw something like that! said, rushing to the wall to see the markings more closely. - I found these writings in some ruins!
- Excellent - Strakk said. - I hope this letter: "Exit".
- I do not know what is written here. I never read them - Tarduk said. - But from where I found them, perhaps ... 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 shot Strakk rubbed his head. - Just great. There may be better. Unless you see a lava flow here ...
- These are... good news - Gresh said.
- You know what? I think leaving a flaming torch at home - Kirbold murmured. - I return.
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 the catastrophe that hit the world. Why disappeared, Tarduk not know - the time it became a legend. However, there is no doubt one thing: the Great Beings committed a horrible act, but that was not important. The consequences 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 her tribe forbade him to look for, considering his attempts as a "waste of time."
But here he is not here, thought Tarduk. Perhaps now, finally manages to learn something from them.
- Why the Great Beings have dug a tunnel in the mountains? - Asked Gresh.
- To reach the other side of the mountain? - Strakk concluded with a hopeful tone in his voice.
- Perhaps the Great Beings could have built this place ... and have left a guard? - Tarduk suggested. - You may know where we are 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. All were frightened.
- 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 the floor of the hall seemed a bit different. The smooth surface was replaced by thousands of ancient stones. The walls were also more symbols. As he made strange noises heard - a scraping and a quiet hiss of air. Gresh nerves were taut to the limit.
- Gresh! - Tarduk cried. - The ground moves beneath your feet!
Gresh looked down. Tarduk was right. "Stones" in which roads were actually Scarabax Beetles. The swarm covered the floor of the corridor wall to wall. Small is not a problem - it could easily trample. But Scarabax adults were as hard as steel armor. Furthermore, it was necessary to provoke them.
Gresh quickly stepped back. This caused a violent commotion among insects. If his movement had been more violent, after five seconds had not been heard from him.
Suddenly he heard a roar in the tunnel incident. It flew straight at him a Sand Bat. For anyone who had walked through the desert, the Sand Bats aroused horror and panic. These 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 animal was very hungry.
Gresh stumbled and fell back to 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 ... will only be another meal.
The Sand Bat lunged to Gresh. The mind of Glatorian going at breakneck speed, reminding his people, the faces of his friends, Kiina and Vastus...
Gresh instinctively closed his eyes when the sand bat rushed toward him, showing his teeth. For a moment he could see nothing, only heard a furious whisper, suddenly rang around. The noise drowned all other sounds, except ... the desperate cry of the Sand Bat.
Fero made his steed to stop. I wanted to see this place close. In his view, lay an intriguing mystery.
Fero belonged to the Bone Hunters. He was one of the best, but recently the target was clearly not in favor of it. The attack on the village of Vulcanus miserably ended in failure - a handful of Glatorian were sent to stop him. I was not sure how this happened, but could not resist the idea that someone was guilty of treason. He was humiliated in front of his tribe. Pride would not let him out of this without consequences.
Shortly after he left camp. Although he had no intent to hunt or plunder the Agori caravans. No, Fero tracked juicier prey - Glatorian to beat him days earlier. He promised to pursue them fall one by one. His revenge would end when the desert sand consumed them all.
Fero followed Strakk's trail to exit of Iconox. He wanted to wait until nightfall, attack and destroy the Glatorian, leaving his knife embedded in his flesh, as a warning to others. However, during their survey found that Strakk was with Gresh and both were carrying a load of exsidian. Fate had given him the opportunity to defeat two enemies and gain a substantial reward of a 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 went on a long journey. Await the right moment to attack them by surprise.
The Black Mountains had made them an easy target, but the Skrall had meddled in its path. Furiously, he watched a group of warriors escorting their victims with their valuable cargo to the village of Roxtus. Then there was an escape attempt that ended with a avalanche and the survivors retreated Skrall recognizing and dead prey.
As for the debris - the purported resting place of two Glatorian, two Agori and several tons of exsidian - Fero understand 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 had 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 were taking Glatorian also had it. Fero was intended to find them and wait them.
Fero turned his steed and went off the road. He knew where he would be leaving. And when 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 herself 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 remain of the creature. Soon the beetles were separated in all directions, and Gresh - still in shock - stood up.
- How did it happen? - Asked hurriedly, while checking 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 another stupid. Well, the sand bats are more sanity 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 make things worse.
- The Scarabax react to sudden movements. When stumbled ... did not sound as violent as the sand bat. Flapping its wings caught his attention, so you forgot and jumped on him.
- And why fled?
- 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 - a curious Kirbold responded.
- Sand Bats do not live in hiding in the rocks 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, no food for them. Get it?
- Has come here from abroad, like us - Gresh guessed. - Except that flew from the other side, that means...
- ... that mean there must be an exit! - Kirbold concluded. - We just have to find it!
- Well, wise man - Strakk said. - Can we take before these worms appear again?
The team was launched. The corridor is twisted, rose and fell, but Tarduk was more interested in 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. - No, there lies before us.
Tarduk stared into the darkness. Kirbold was right - well ahead shone a dim light. Without thinking, Gresh moved in that direction. Kirbold made the Spikit run fastest to keep pace with him.
- What is it? - Strakk cried. - A door? Is the exit?
Gresh came down the hall. Through a narrow slit in the middle, fell 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 car. Strakk was right - the corridor walls approached each other. Their calculations did not indicate anything good. The rate at which the walls were moving, they only had five minutes to live before the end crushed.
Gresh and Strakk desperately groped the wall in search of something that could stop the mechanism of the wall. However, without success. Kirbold rushed to help, ignoring the murmurs of Spikit full of fear, which, by nature, was terrified of enclosed spaces.
Tarduk also looking for another button on the wall. However, following closely the signs engraved on the wall. He was sure that hid a suggestion to help you out of this problem. Everyone had a circular shape. Many of them had lines in it, others had smaller circles. Some were words, but could not identify any. There seemed 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, hesitated. "O" is "Open"?
Tarduk was 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 had opened an escape route.
- Fast! Run! - Screamed.
Kirbold retook the reins and pulled the Spikit toward the exit. Behind the sled was running Tarduk, followed immediately by Gresh and Strakk. Scarcely had they left, they heard behind them the sound of the corridor walls collide.
- Phew! For some... - Strakk began.
- Shut up! - Whispered Gresh. - Better look around.
At the foot of the mountains. They were where the mountains gave rise to the desert, and the dark waters of Skrall River fell with a crash. They were in the dark-skinned. The road through the Black Mountains was over.
- It's a shame that some can no longer use the same way that we - Kirbold said. - Well, unless you really were... very thin.
Gresh turned, having heard the impact of something metal on rock. Seconds later something fell from the rocks above them and landed with a crash on his feet. Before him lay the body of a bone hunter. Gresh approached him carefully.
- Is Fero - said in amazement.
- He is dead? - Strakk asked.
- He still alive, but badly wounded. Apparently someone left very beaten.
- But look at him, he is a Bone Hunter. Who could have left it? - Tarduk asked, surprised.
Soon came the reply. The four were frozen at being surrounded by a group of fierce Vorox. Amid the quiet circle had appeared a mighty warrior of red armor. Strakk and Gresh recognized him easily. It was Malum - Glatorian of Vulcanus expelled from his village to try to kill his opponent in the arena.
- It was us - Malum said. - The only question is whether we should do the same with you.
One of the first things Strakk learned as Glatorian was "read the situation." His opponent was confident or fearful? Was a fan of your audience or they did not care? Are the characteristics of the arena could 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. Allowed to forget the fear and focus on the challenge he faced. The situation was now allowed him to hide his fear. But considering all the facts, options and risk factors... Strakk was ready to panic.
Having escaped from a tunnel in the mountains in which they managed to avoid being crushed between moving walls (shortly after almost becoming a bat breakfast for sand), Strakk, Gresh, Tarduk and Kribold enjoyed the view the sand underfoot and the sky above their heads.
That was until the body of a bone hunter fell at his feet. Moments later they were surrounded by a legion of wild Vorox with Malum ahead. Strakk and his three companions were targeted by the hand of ex-Glatorian.
- And what shall I do with you now? - Malum said. - I have a huge amount of Vorox to feed.
Malum's story was widely known. In the past, Vulcanus villagers proudly respected him, but one day, for a very exhausting match, he broke something. Despite his opponent surrendered, Malum continued attacking him, trying to kill him. Glatorian from different villages were able to stop him, but all were witnesses that had broken a rule of the fight in the arena. Raanu, Vulcanus leader, was forced to exile the convicted Malum.
Nobody knew that fate had dealt him after that. Now everything was clear - Malum had allied with the Vorox, becoming someone infinitely more dangerous. Stay as far away as possible from him was the best tactic.
- Okay, I'll tell you all - said Gresh. - We have nothing for you. We just want to go to Vulcanus. Say what you want from us, and let us continue.
- What are you talking about? - Strakk whispered. - It will take the exsidian.
- I heard, Strakk. The senses in the desert are very sharp. Life depends on them.
- Listen to this... - Gresh said suddenly, pointing with his launcher. - Pretty good with the shooting. If any of your Vorox shoots us... I'll do the same for 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. - And for that we serve? The Vorox aren't toolmakers. What they can not eat, drink or use them in the fight is not useful. For me, either.
- What do you want? - Gresh said.
- The Skrall have something that belongs to me - Malum said that calmly, as if speaking time. - I want him back.
- Is that all? Do they have the strongest army in Bara Magna, and want to call their door and ask for a refund? Then go have fun, and I'll do the same with your Vorox.
- Shut up, Strakk! - Cut Gresh. - What do you mean, Malum? Why are you here? The Vorox live in the Dunes of Treason. The Skrall have not yet entered in that territory.
Malum climbed on a rock. Two Vorox left the circle and pulled to Tarduk and Kirbold. Strakk and Gresh wanted to respond, but Malum they were prevented.
- Pathetic heroes. We will ensure that your friends will not go away 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. I learned that it sold to 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 are wanting them to 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 team loses patience.
Gresh and Strakk watched from his hiding the Skrall city. It was night, but in Roxtus always had motion, as in a hive. The soldiers spent watching, or returning to the city. The Agori monitored or repaired weapons. From the walls could hear the sounds of the warriors in training.
- I have a bad feeling about this - Strakk said.
- I know - said Gresh. - That's what I've said three times
- There are at least a hundred Skrall there - Strakk continued. - Not to mention the Agori with swords, of which I have never seen in my life. The walls are two feet thick, probably to stop the attack by a great army, and anyway, I see a special invitation for two Glatorian.
- Well, well - finished Gresh. - That means we do not expect.
- And how to get in, genius?
Gresh looked toward the desert. A caravan approached the city with Rock Agori. Each wagon was pulled by two-heads Spikit, with a torch strapped to the front acting as a flashlight.
- They're probably the transport of water and food - said Gresh. - We only have to enter a car and get out the door.
- I said to you that I had a bad feeling about this? - Strakk asked.
The two Glatorian ran to the cars otherwise. Were beyond the reach of the torchlight on the walls of the city, so they were invisible to the guards. They did not realize that a small Skrall group returning from his round, but at the last moment managed to hide in a dune.
When the caravan slowly crept beyond his hiding Strakk (followed by Gresh) climbed the sand and climbed into the wagon. When the vehicle stopped, he used a rope hanging from the rear of the vehicle and hid inside. Nobody could see him unless he had deliberately moved the car.
Gresh had a more difficult task: to hide under the trailer. Moving quickly toward her, prayed inside that Spikit wasn't hungry and take him on as a potential meal, and repeated the Strakk's feat, hiding under the car in which his companion was coming.
Reaching the Roxtus' door lasted longer than expected. Gresh's muscles were burning red hot the effort required to stay close to the sand. When he heard the voice of the guard - one Agori with the name Atakus - allowing entry to the caravan, he was relieved. The first part of his mission was successful.
The cars were stopped. The Glatorian left the caravan and hid in the shadows, hiding from the Skrall guards approaching. They waited until the cars finished downloading, and then entered the city.
- Do you have any idea where to look? - Strakk asked.
- I think I have - Gresh said the largest building in town. Malum's sword must surely be a spoil of war. Such things should be kept in a safe place.
- Only one guard in front ... unless you know how to get rid of it - Strakk grabbed a piece of rusty chain that was lying in the sand. - Wrap it around your hands.
After a while they went to the building with their hands chained. They walked slowly, hunched, with their heads down between the arms.
- What are they doing here? - Stood the guard. - You must remain in their cells. Today there is no fighting.
- It's true - Strakk said. - I forgot.
The Glatorian hard rushed directly to surprised Agori. Trying to avoid the menacing strings, the policeman pulled out of the door. Strakk silenced to the Agori with one punch, who was unconscious.
- Go - admitted Gresh, dropping the chain. - Where did you learn that trick?
- I learned to lie and deceive with practice - Strakk grinned. - There are two things that the Glatorian practiced regularly, don't you think?
- Then begin to explore - threw Gresh. - When the dawn breaks...
- ... will not get out of town. I know.
The Glatorian efficiently separated into the room. In no other village there was a place like that. Rcok Tribe didn't use the room for sleeping or eating, or to store the inventory value. Apparently, all gathered here. Gresh noted a map of Bara Magna placed in a large table. Was used as a source of information, or her mapped out a war plan?
It was Strakk who found the treasure. There were a lot of different things. Some of them - helmet, armor and other objects disappeared long ago - were easy to recognize. Others had seen for the first time in his life. Malum's sword was under a pile of objects of unknown to him, surrounded by six stones with symbols, which took no importance. Strakk wanted to take away everything he could. After a moment's reflection quickly abandoned the idea. He had nothing against rob to the Skrall, but to escape with all the baggage that would take would be seriously hampered.
Strakk looked at his discovery. The sword was unique. Its elaborate ornamentation was a flame. The sword was made of exsidian and the handle had been carved from volcanic rock. No wonder Malum wanted, at any cost, retrieve a so 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 Ackar, and when the Bone Hunters stolen, asks us to steal for him! Did he stabbed in the back just for spite?
You found it? - asked Gresh, entering the room with his shield, and a large sword in his hands. - I thought it might be useful, before retrieving the weapon.
- Of course I found... look - Strakk showed Gresh the inscription on the sword. - And now what do we do with it?
- We will return it to Ackar - Gresh replied without hesitation.
- Maybe give us some kind of prize - Strakk proposed. - But on the other hand, if we give it to Malum, perhaps live long enough to see again Vulcanus.
- Firstly, 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 in the dark while walking to a stinky yard, something very common in places where Spikit there.
- 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.
Strakk brandished his sword, breaking the corral gates with a single blow. Seeing the open structure, the animals hesitated, but after a time began to run through the city. Achieving stop a herd of Spikit not be a big problem for Skrall. Block some streets of the city and killed more than a Spikit, but quickly and easily could be controlled.
Unfortunately, Agori feed makers had forgotten to feed them. The hungry Spikit were not particularly demanding - devouring everything - or everyone - within reach of their claws. A dozen wild and furiously hungry Spikit delved in the village.
Chaos engulfed the city. The Agori ran in panic as the Skrall used Thornax pitchers trying to control the creatures. Gresh managed to see one of them tripped and fell 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. On the other hand, was Atakus still on guard. The closed door prevented the Spikit from escape.
Also, if you do go there, Atakus had orders to fight them. Strakk jumped on him from above, stunning, and to keep up appearances supported the guard unconscious on a wall. The Glatorian ran into the desert with the strength of his legs. They paused for breath when they were at a safe distance from the Skrall city.
- Do not have the impression that this was too easy? - Gresh mused.
- Don't exaggerate. We have a sword, and let some Spikit enjoy a dish. And besides, why should we worry about the Skrall? Do you think you probably want to retrieve this sword? Gresh shrugged. Maybe he was worrying too. However, he had a bad feeling.
- Give me that sword.
The moonlight would not let him see clearly, but Gresh all he needed to find what I wanted was the touch. The sword was not anything special, but at the base of the handle felt a little atypical depression. When pressed with your finger, opened a small compartment, which carried a small metal object.
- What is it? - Strakk asked. - Exsidian? Ice crystals? Answer me!
He spent a good while before Gresh recognized that familiar form. Suddenly - like knowing what to do - 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 life is worth more - said Gresh. - Best get out of here.
They ran. Gresh occasionally looked anxiously behind him to see if someone was chasing. Do not see the Skrall following them out of the city was not surprised, as this should not be rushed.
- I saw something like this before - said Gresh they ran. - At some point in the desert, I met some Agori fleeing something. They had a metal collar. Mumbled something about being enslaved by the Skrall... at least it sounded like nonsense. I took the necklace and I saw that in the middle was a foreign object. Sent a signal...
- A tracking device - Strakk concluded. - But why would the sword?
Gresh climbed some rocks. The Skrall approached the place where he had destroyed the transmitter. Even without the opportunity they had had before and continue to follow the chase,follow the steps in the sand. However, daylight needed to find small cracks that belonged to the armored feet Strakk and Gresh left in the sand.
- The Bone Hunters bought the sword to the Skrall. I don't think they knew where they had achieved - thought Gresh. - Perhaps they thought that the Bone Hunters captured from Ackar, and that he would come to here. Maybe it was a trap to Ackar.
- But why be interested in it? Ackar was a champion of the Glatorian, but lately we have hardly heard of him. I have no idea why anyone would be interested in it.
- No - said Gresh. - Maybe it was a plan for a small Skrall hunting...
They managed to finally reach the Vorox camp. They saw no one chasing them. Recalling the great sense of smell that the Vorox had, tried to enter the cave with the wind in their favor. They climbed a small hill that was on the camp and hid in a small cave. Inside the cave Malum was standing next to the caravan and the two Agori.
- We also need to rescue the Agori - reminded Gresh. - You will take care of Malum when I distract the Vorox.
Gresh approached to a stones glittering in the depths of the cave. Its brightness made infer that those stones were a mineral that emitted light. Gresh broke some of these stones, and covered with the dust in his armor. After a time he began to glow in the dark.
- Give me a minute, then go for the caravan - he said and walked away. Strakk occupied a privileged position, and waited for the right time. Suddenly he heard a scream so horrible that even jumped in fear. Gresh was as bright as the brightest of the stars when he jumped from behind a rock and ran straight into the camp.
The Vorox fled. Superstitious by nature, mistook him for a vengeful ghost who had decided to stay in the desert. Malum 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 over and made the Spikit gallop. The caravan moved forward so violently that Kirbold almost Tarduk and left the car. Before Vorox discovered that the caravan was gone, they were already far away.
- Where is Gresh? - Tarduk cried. - He was back there!
- It's your problem - Strakk said.
Tarduk grabbed an exsidian doubloon, ready to strike Strakk.
- Now you're in trouble too. Return.
- Not required - Kirbold announced. - Look!
An immensely shining being toward them running at a really fast pace, with a group of Vorox at his heels. Gresh suddenly 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 much weight and the furious Vorox increasingly approached. Strakk frantically sought a way to lose their pursuers. Before he came to see a hope of victory. If they were successful, could reach he other side of the hill they were approaching, out of sight of the Vorox for a moment. Could leave the carriage - thought now a proud Strakk - hide somewhere and wait until dawn. Strakk took over, had the Spikit run fastest and disappeared behind the hilltop.
Strakk realized his mistake. Across the desert was not. They were the Skrall and the deadly Dark Falls, leading to Spikit, cargo and passengers made their final.
It’s true, in extreme crisis situations, everything seems to slow down, Gresh thought. After all, he was, along with two Agori, one Glatorian and a wagon with a valuable cargo, plunging into the depth, 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 everything raced madly, even though he seemed to have all time of the world till 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 Tajun 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 live 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 and watched 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 lightened up the desert night for miles around. It fell down and bruned 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 Skrall with the battle. 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 will not be delivered, Iconox can’t pay their debt to Vulcanus for the lost match.”
Gresh understood what this would mean. Peace on Bara Magna was maintained by the Glatorian system. Every village could rely on that the other villages would pay their debts caused by lost matsches. If a village didn’t fulfill this duty, at best their representatives were excluded from the arena matches. In the worst case it could lead to bitter conflicts. Because of the scarce resources it was the best solution to pit Glatorian against each other as representatives for their villages and that way solve disputes among the Agori.
“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 porve that Iconox sent the cargo on its way. We just arrived in the moment 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 this one 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 is 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 exactly 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 these both 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, 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’s and Kiina’s Sand Stalkers, the expedition would be far from being a success.
“Maybe we should get a wagon from Iconox?”, Tarduk suggested.
“We probably could save us that effort”, Kiina said. “What do you think, Ackar, may there be someone around who would be very eager to get some Exsidian?” She nodded her head towards the north. Ackar smiled.
- * *
“This is an absurd idea”, Strakk grumbled while trudging through the sand. “Not only absurd – suicidal, too. And of course they chose me for it.”
He kept himself from looking back. Strakk knew exactly that 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 who 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 exhoausted 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 their 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 Exisidian 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 organisation.
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.
“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 panick 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.
“Get 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 parallelly 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 at full speed. 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 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 help 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 impossibly 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. Neither can we escape nor defeat them, least of all do both.”
“I bet we have good chances to be trashed”, Strakk said. “We are about to find out…”
Gresh looked back. The Skrall ever nearing to 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 regain 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 rapidly progress 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 black armor.
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 did they 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 in you so do the Vorox have. But these two, Gresh and Strakk, entered in our territory without an invitation. One of these days will end with 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?
- It will be 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 abruptly ordered him to turn around and left.
Then he disappeared into the distance.
- Is that all? - Spoke Strakk, surprised. – you let us go?
- Do you want to look? - 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 in the arena which caused his expulsion from Vulcanus.
- Even if the four we had faced against him, we would have problems. 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 would 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 through the Black Spike Mountains 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, may we find the Bone Hunters.
- Do you mean them? - Intervened Gresh, pointing forward.
What they saw caused them chills. Before them, a short distance, the desert had been torn by a huge crater. Around it lay 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? - 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 hi could speak, Kiina leaned further into him. Uttered a word before dying. Kiina looked up to her teammates, saying:
- 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. This giant scorpion-like creature was not very fast, but thanks to its size as a step toward moving several meters. They didn’t know all it’s 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 been a disaster had left this supposedly now had to be away... and in the opposite direction.
- We'll go to the south - Ackar said. – Assuming that the Skopio doesn’t follow us, we'll go in that way. I hope we get safely 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 his rider. Then there was an earthquake. Gresh fell face in the sand and soil before it was 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 behind the beast. That meant that the beast they would fight was actually a machine. They stood in the way of Skopio XV-1 and it’s pilot ...
- Telluris! - Ackar cried.
Strakk launched 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 much faster and even moredangerous. 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 torture others. The XV-1 was ideally suited for that. The team rushed to escape. Vulcanus had many Glatorian in training. their support may help them in battle against this giant machine. But Telluris had no intention of giving them that opportunity.
Pressing a button on the control console, changed the way his vehicle was traveling. Using 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 achieve a much higher speed. With a mischievous smile on his face, Telluris was hunting for new victims.
- Split up! - Shouted Gresh. - He can’t chase all of us.
It was a good idea. Gresh and the Agori took control of the caravan, and the others were dispersed to the sides. Regardless of who Telluris decides hunt, the others could go around and attack from behind.
To watch as the Glatorian fled like a startled scarabax swarm caused great pleasure in Telluris. Which would he destroy first? A carriage full of exsidian did not interested him. If he had been interested in the exsidian, He would have taken from it Iconox and nobody would have stopped him. But the red armor Glatorian apparently had a brain – He was shouting orders, and other were 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 have to take care of Telluris.
As she made sure that the Tesaran had reached to 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, took them aside. The Glatorian jumped from her Stalker and landed on the armor of the Skopio.
- What is she doing? - Ackar stared in amazement. - How does one attack?!
- Not necessarily - Gresh said. - We can divert their attention. What do you think?
Both Glatorian galloped towards to the Skopio. Ackar shot him, 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 to Kiina.
- Look out! - Ackar cried. His Stalker managed to dodge all the rounds from the Skopio.
- I have an idea - said Gresh. - Head to the caravan.
The Glatorian rushed into the caravan. Without stopping, Gresh leaned on his saddle and took two exsidian bars. When he was sufficiently near the Skopio, the Glatorian jumped to the ground, stepped aside and immediately pulled the two rods between the treads of the vehicle. On the other side Ackar did the same.
The exsidian was prized for its exceptional hardness and durability. This metal dose not corrode or deform as others. 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. She almost fell over, just before the "sting" of the machine. Kiina grabbed the stinger and climbed, 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 down.
- I'm too tired to climb, you know? - Kiina said while keeping Telluris head down. - I guess you can’t hold on for long. The longer you have a subject, my launcher 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 all die. me, you and your friends down. You will die, you know?
Kiina raised him up and could see his cold stare.
- Do you think I care?
Telluris showed no fear. Or was immensely brave, crazy or was 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 stay with your vehicle, or my teammates destroyed and wandering alone in this wasteland, or...
- Or what?
- Not far from here there are many Skrall warriors - continued Kiina. - Turn back your trash, make them return from whence they came, and take our deal settled.
Telluris hesitated. He had not yet 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 see 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 loose! - Telluris protested.
- I never said I would not do that - Kiina said. - You had a choice between leaving your vehicle or use 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, away from the rocks - Kiina said, 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 see them," but thought that "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 it’s 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 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 done. Immediately after the Great Tournament you'll fight with Ackar. Raanu insisted that the fight took 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 saw the sunset over the desert.
- We see that the northern route is too dangerous - Kiina said. - And 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 teach me the move you used to get onto the Skopio? - Gresh smiled.
- You'll have many lessons - Kiina laughed when we return to the village. - Let's talk about how to survive the first round of bouts during the tournament.
- Agreed. But you know what? - Gresh stopped a exsidian block thrown by a Agori. - Surviving a fight is what matters.