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Brutaka and Lariska stood together, watching Takadox standing silently by the rail of the ship. “I worry about that one,” said Lariska. “He has not spoken a word since we left Tren Krom’s island, after the death of his friend Carapar.”

“Friend?” snorted Brutaka. “Barraki don’t have friends, just people they use – and Carapar was Takadox’s favorite puppet. Besides, don’t waste your worry on him – save it for us.” He pointed off the bow. “We’ve arrived.”

Looming out of the mist was an island of black sand and jagged rock, volcanic peaks and strange Rahi arcing and wheeling through the sky. Despite the bright light that played off the waters around it, the island seemed to be in perpetual shadow.

“Welcome to Artidax,” said Brutaka.

Vezon approached, chuckling. “Hope we survive our stay.”

Brutaka looked around at his team – a Barraki, half a Skakdi, a Makuta, a former queen of the Visorak, a Dark Hunter, and himself. “Well, if we don’t, who knows? The world might be better off without us.”

Brutaka and Spiriah, being the two most powerful team members, led the way to shore. As they trod on the ebon sands, all seemed quiet. “So you know nothing about the defenses here?” asked Brutaka.

“Only what Krika sometimes talked about. Ideas he had,” said Spiriah. “You realize this whole thing is a terrible idea.”

“What?”

“Freeing Miserix,” said Spiriah. “He can’t stop the Plan. All we will find here is an early death. Listen, we –”

What happened next was startlingly fast. The black sands began to swirl around Spiriah, forming a hand which grabbed the Makuta and started dragging him down. Brutaka grabbed Spiriah’s hand, calling to the others, “Help me!”

Lariska, Vezon and Roodaka rushed to his aid. Takadox hung back, occasionally glancing toward the ship as if contemplating escape. The pull of the sand was too strong and Spiriah’s mask had almost disappeared beneath it. Then Roodaka fired her Rhotuka launcher, the spinner striking the living sand and mutating the grains into a swarm of fireflyers. Unable to maintain its grip in this new form, it freed Spiriah. The Makuta crawled back onto the beach, cursing.

“I’m an idiot,” Brutaka said. “I should have realized – Krika rigged this place to sense the presence of a Makuta and react. He didn’t want Miserix escaping, or any other Brotherhood member finding him and finishing him off.”

“Then I would be insane to go any further,” said Spiriah. “I brought you here – you don’t need me anymore.”

“On the contrary,” said Lariska. “I think you would be very useful. Anyone ever hear of a stalking kinloka?”

Surprisingly, Vezon was the only one who nodded. When everyone turned to look at him, he shrugged. “Vezok. He saw lots of things, and since I came from him, I saw them too. Say, when we are done here, who’s up for killing him? I’ll even clean up after.”

Lariska turned back to Brutaka, ignoring their lunatic companion. “Kinloka are rodents, found in many places, among them Zakaz. When the Skakdi need to cross land that might be booby-trapped, they send the kinloka through first. The creatures set off the traps and the Skakdi can cross safely.”

“And the traps here are sensitive to Makuta,” said Roodaka, smiling. “I see, I see. And come to think of it, Spiriah is somewhat rodent-like.”

Spiriah, back on his feet, looked right at Brutaka. “No. Not even if you threw in the chance to eviscerate that Vortixx –”

“Watch your mouth,” Roodaka spat, aiming her launcher at him, “while you still have only one.”

Brutaka put his arm around Spiriah and led him away. “You’re not looking at the big picture here. When all this is over, the Brotherhood could still be a powerful creature, only without a head. It’s going to need a new leader… and the beings I work for will remember who helped them… and who didn’t. Trust me, they have long memories.”

It only took a few more minutes of whispered conversation before Spiriah turned back to the group and announced that he would be their guide to Artidax. He immediately set off inland, with the rest following. Lariska fell in beside Brutaka, saying, “You know full well he could never be leader of the Brotherhood.”

“Let him think he might get to be the head,” Brutaka replied. “It will distract him from the fact that he might well lose his own here.”

Their path took them right up to the slope of a volcano. A tunnel had been bored through the mountain at some point, the only way to directly traverse the island. Spiriah was striding on ahead when Vezon leapt in front of him, holding up his hands. Then he pointed downward, at a razor-thin vine stretched across the path. It led up to a pile of boulders poised precariously on the slope.

Spiriah stepped carefully over the vine, followed by the others, and went into the tunnel. It was only when they were already inside that Brutaka noticed someone was missing. “Where’s Takadox?”

Lariska turned. “There! Look out!”

Brutaka turned to see Takadox bringing his blade down on the vine. In the moment before an avalanche of rocks cut them off from the Barraki and trapped them in the tunnel, they all could see his evil smile.

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