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Tarduk blinked the sweat out of his eyes. Times like this, he wished he didn’t have to work in full helmet and armor. But even here, so close to the free city of Atero, it was a little too dangerous to be out in the desert on your own and unprotected. His task here was routine: along with Agori from various villages – Kyry, Crotesius, Scodonius, and Kirbold – he was in Atero to help prepare the arena for the coming tournament. Even with care throughout the year, there was always a need to do minor repairs before Glatorian from all over descended on the place.

Of course, Tarduk hadn’t kept at that work for very long – not when there were ruins not far away that he could explore. Making an excuse about getting some supplies from his wagon, he had slipped out of the city and found a likely spot to dig. It was hard work, and hot work. He could have used a helper, but that wasn’t doable. Kyry was much too dedicated to the work in Atero, Kirbold just wanted to get done and get back to Iconox, Scodonius was kind of a creep, and Crotesius he barely knew.

No, he decided, he digs best who digs alone. His tool hit something, buried about four feet down in the sand. Fishing it out, he found it was a square of metal, about twice the size of his hand and obviously broken off of something larger. Inscribed on it was a circle, with a much smaller circle inside and at the bottom of it. Tarduk frowned. He had run across things like this before, with similar symbols. He had no idea what they meant – and neither did anyone else, so far as he knew. If they were a language, what language and spoken by whom? It was frustrating, because he had not found enough samples to even begin trying to decipher the symbols.

He turned the piece of metal over, hoping there would be another symbol on the back. Instead, he found something quite different. A map had been scratched into the metal. Some of the places on it he recognized, some he did not. At the bottom of the map was a mountain chain that looked a great deal like the Black Spike Mountains to the north. The features drawn just below the mountains seemed to bear out that it was the same range. Most of the map was areas north of the mountains, though – a region he was not familiar with. All he really knew about it was that the Skrall were said to have come from there. At the top of the map, there were two more symbols, but different from the ones he had found before. One was just a mesh of interconnected lines looking almost like a net, or a web. The other was a star. What made that last interesting was that it was the only symbol that was colored: the star was red.

A red star? thought Tarduk. Whoever heard of such a thing? It was certainly fascinating – but impossible to investigate, at least on his own. By traveling northwest, he could skirt the Black Spikes and reach the northern region, but the map indicated raging rivers and other natural hazards along the way. Going up there without aid would be beyond dangerous, and no Glatorian would hire out for the job this close to the Atero tournament.

“Hey!”

Tarduk turned. Crotesius was walking over, looking annoyed. “Are you going to help, or play in the sand? What’s that you have?”

Tarduk showed the Vulcanus Agori what he had found. Crotesius didn’t bother to take it – just looked at both sides and then shrugged.

“So what? It’s a piece of junk. Maybe you could use it to patch your wagon, but other than that…”

What a Vorox… muttered Tarduk to himself. Aloud, he said “You’re probably right. I mean, that red star – what’s that all about? After all, everyone knows there’s nothing valuable up that way. No hidden treasure, no city, and no water stones – nothing.”

This, of course, was a tremendous lie, and Tarduk knew Crotesius would never believe it – in fact, he was counting on that. Rumors flew faster than grains of sand in a sandstorm about what might be to the north. In Iconox, they said the mountains were covered with valuable exsidian. In Vulcanus, they said there were entire valleys of water stones, those valuable rocks that could be split open to reveal pure water inside. As for Tajun… well, they were pretty imaginative there. And the Agori of Tesara just didn’t want to even talk about it.

Now Crotesius reached out to take the piece of metal and get a closer look. “You know, if you like, I could take this… um… scrap metal off your hands. Maybe you’d like to trade?”

Later on, Tarduk would be unable to explain just why he said what he did. Maybe after years of digging in the sand and finding pieces of a puzzle, but no way to solve it, he had just had enough. If he didn’t take a chance, he would never find any answers. “Sure, I’ll trade you,” he said. “You can have the piece of metal… if you go with me to find that red star, whatever it is.”

“Go up there? Are you crazy?” said Crotesius.

“That’s the offer,” Tarduk said firmly. “We have enough time before the tournament starts to get there and get back.” He actually wasn’t sure that was true, but wasn’t going to tell Crotesius that. “Think about it,” he continued. “What if there’s something really valuable up there, something that changes everyone’s life in Bara Magna? We’ll – I mean, you’ll be a hero.”

Crotesius smiled. As a vehicle pilot in the arena, he was just one more Agori fighter in a world dominated by Glatorian. But if he did something truly great… well, Raanu wouldn’t live forever – maybe he could lead Vulcanus someday.

“Okay Tarduk,” Crotesius said. “I guess you can… join my expedition, but we’re going to need more help. See if you can recruit a few more Agori – without telling them about the star. And we leave at dawn.”

Tarduk walked away, a grin spreading across his face. Sure, he hadn’t been completely honest, but sometimes you had to take shortcuts in the pursuit of knowledge, right?

Little did Tarduk know that shortcut was about to lead him right into a nightmare.

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