Fero reined Skirmix to a halt and scanned the horizon. Little was moving on the sands of Bara Magna this day. Here and there, a Zesk crawled out of the sand in search of a meal. Scavenger birds wheeled in the sky, waiting for something to drop from the heat. The emptiness of the desert was no surprise. It was high sun, and only lunatics and fools would be out in this heat.
But the armored warrior was neither crazy nor stupid. Fero had a job to do. Any rider or caravan forced to travel at this time of day would be moving slowly – too slowly to evade a determined hunter.
He checked his weaponry. His blade was scored by sand and carried the scars of hundreds of battles, but it was still razor sharp. He had found it in the ruins of a Glatorian training arena a long time back. With luck, today it would help him in another successful hunt.
His rock steed growled. It didn’t like to stand still. Its body was designed to be self-cooling, but only if it kept on the move. Fero was about to spur on his mount when Skirmix began shaking its head and snapping its jaws together. The animal sensed prey.
Like all Bone Hunters, Fero had a second set of eyelids, which shielded his eyes from the sun. He closed them now, reducing the sun’s glare. Yes, there was something out there, far to the west. It was a lone transport driven by Agori villagers from Iconox. Riding alongside was a single Glatorian whom Fero recognized instantly.
Gelu, the Hunter said to himself. Then this hunt is both business and pleasure.
The Glatorian named Gelu was feeling pleased with himself this day. Even the extreme heat and the stench of the sand stalker he rode could not ruin his mood. He was, after all, on his way to becoming very rich.
For most of Bara Magna, the past few days had been nightmarish. For many years, the southern villages had enjoyed an uneasy peace with Roxtus, the Skrall city to the north. Skrall warriors dominated the Glatorian battles in the arenas, but in general, they followed the rules and respected the rights of other villages. Now all that had changed.
The changes happened little by little. First, the Skrall started challenging places like Tajun and Vulcanus to matches to win anything, from caches of arms and equipment to access to oases and trade routes. Since the peoples of Bara Magna relied on Glatorian fights to settle their disputes, rejecting a Skrall challenge was impossible. The results of the battles were always the same: the Skrall would win and take what they wanted.
Then the Skrall got more aggressive. They started claiming land and resources without bothering to fight in the arena for them. When they did fight, they sometimes killed their opponents, later claiming the Glatorian deaths were just “unfortunate accidents.” Meanwhile, Glatorian fighters traveling between villages started disappearing. True, the wastelands were always dangerous, but too many were vanishing for it to be a coincidence.
Things came to a climax during the annual Glatorian tournament in the village of Atero. Everyone wondered what was going on when no Skrall fighters arrived to participate. They found out when an army of Skrall descended on the village, destroying the great arena and killing many Glatorian. Their days of pretending to be part of Bara Magna society were over. The Skrall had declared war.
Disaster for some, though, meant opportunity for others. Gelu now hired himself out as a bodyguard for Agori trade caravans and other travelers. He pledged to defend them against Skrall raiding parties, hungry Vorox, Bone Hunters, and any other threats. He also made sure he got paid up front.
The sand stalker snorted and reared. Gelu could see why. There were signs of a battle having been fought here. Broken weapons and shattered armor were scattered in the sand. The stalker could smell death, and it didn’t like the scent.
The villagers making up the transport were paler than their white armor. They were carrying badly needed goods to Tajun. Caravans to that village had become a prime target for Bone Hunters. The last three that went without Glatorian protection had never arrived.
“Relax,” said Gelu. “I’ve traveled this route a dozen times in the last two weeks. Outside of a few Zesk scavengers, I haven’t run into anything worth fighting.”
The driver nodded. “Tell that to the traders who vanished out here.”
“Sand seas,” offered Gelu. “Storms. Maybe rockslides, if they went through the mountains. Lots of dangers out here – not just Skrall and Bone Hunters.”
This, of course, was only half true. There were plenty of threats in the wastelands, from weather to wildlife. But Tajun-bound traders were being picked off by Bone Hunters, and everyone knew it. Still, why bring it up? It might frighten the customers. And frightened customers turn back and want their payment returned.
The Spikit pulling the wagon gave a menacing hiss. It was a two-headed reptilian creature, not too fast, but tough and aggressive. As long as it was well-fed, it would defend a wagon to the death. Let it get hungry, though, and it would eat your trade goods, your wagon, and you, not necessarily in that order. Growling from a Spikit meant one of two things: it sensed danger, or it had missed a meal.
Gelu scanned the sands. His eye caught a glint of sunlight on dull metal. He knew he was looking at a Bone Hunter. The good news was that there was only one. The bad news was that one was more than enough to make serious trouble.
The Glatorian spoke in a calm, steady voice, without turning to look at the Agori. “When I give the word, take off as fast as two-head can pull you. There’s a sandstorm building to the west. If need be, you can hide inside it. I’ll be along soon.”
“What is it?” asked one of the villagers. “Are we in danger?”
“Agori, you’ve been in danger since before Bara Magna had moons. Now do as I say.”
The Bone Hunter was on the move now, riding down from the high dunes. Gelu gave a yell, and the Agori started their transport moving. Gelu waited a few seconds to make sure they were well on their way before riding up to meet the Hunter.
By the time he reached Fero, Gelu wore a bitter smile of recognition. The two of them had clashed a number of times over the last few weeks. Sometimes Fero succeeded in smashing the caravan and stealing or destroying the goods. Other times, Gelu got his clients away clean. He had learned the hard way about having the Agori stand and fight. Better to let them risk the sands than face Fero.
“They’ll be long gone by the time you finish with me,” said Gelu.
“How do you know there aren’t more Bone Hunters waiting to ambush them?” Fero replied.
Gelu laughed. “They’re carrying a small fortune in food, spare parts, and whatever else they can trade in Tajun – and you don’t like to share.”
Fero suddenly swung his blade. Gelu ducked just before it took his head off. Skirmix snapped its jaws, trying to get at Gelu’s sand stalker, but the stalker backed away and kicked. Its hoof struck Skirmix in the left knee, and the creature lurched.
Fero had to drop his guard in order to grab onto the reins. Gelu hit him in the side with the flat of his ice blade, sending him tumbling off Skirmix. But Fero rolled on impact and came up on his feet. He aimed his Thornax launcher right at Gelu.
“Get down,” Fero snarled.
Gelu slipped down to the sand and faced Fero.
“Now toss your launcher far away,” said the Bone Hunter, his own launcher never wavering.
Not seeing any other choice, Gelu hurled his launcher to the side. He still had his ice blade. To his surprise, Fero did the same. The two faced each other armed only with swords.
Fero struck first and fast, driving Gelu back with a series of hard strikes. After only a few minutes of fighting, Gelu’s arms were starting to feel like they were made of rock. The heat was getting to him. He had to finish this blade fight fast, or he was the one who would be finished.
Sensing his opponent’s weakness, Fero bore down. He wasn’t going to give Gelu time to recover. He forced the Glatorian back, and back again.
Then Gelu unexpectedly ducked and kicked up his legs. He caught Fero in the midsection and propelled him into the air. Fero landed face-first in a dune while Gelu scrambled to his feet. He glanced to the side to ensure his sand stalker was keeping Skirmix out of the battle.
The Bone Hunter was starting to get up. Gelu took a few quick steps and kicked Fero’s sword away from him. That was when he spotted something else on the sand. It was a piece of parchment with what looked like a map drawn on it. Keeping his blade close enough to strike Fero if he made a move, he picked it up.
A swift scan showed it was a detailed map of the village of Vulcanus. There were a series of dates down the side with a number beside each.
“What is this?” asked Gelu.
“Go to the sand bog,” Fero spat. “I’m not telling you anything.”
Gelu snatched up his Thornax launcher and aimed it toward Skirmix. “Want to walk home?”
Fero looked at his mount, then back at Gelu. His expression was as cold as Iconox ice. “If I have to.”
Gelu frowned. It was said that a Bone Hunter’s jaws could clamp shut tighter than a rock dragon’s on a meal. If Fero didn’t want to talk, he wasn’t going to. Gelu wondered if he should kill the Bone Hunter, but decided against it. It would only paint a target on his back for every other member of Fero’s tribe.
Gelu got back on his sand stalker. He fired a Thornax above Skirmix’s head and one right in front of his nose. The beast backed off a half-dozen paces. Then Gelu urged his mount forward. The sand stalker stepped on Fero’s launcher, producing a very satisfying crunch.
“You might want to start learning to share,” said Gelu, as he rode away.
By the time he caught up to the transport, it was in pretty bad shape. A small band of Zesk had appeared out of the sand and made off with more than half of its contents before the Agori villagers could scare them off. They grumbled about being left to defend themselves. Gelu reminded them that Bone Hunters don’t scare as easily as Zesk. Fero wouldn’t have left them anything, including their lives.
The remaining ride to Tajun was uneventful and gave Gelu time to study the map he had taken from Fero. It seemed strange. For one thing, Bone Hunters usually wrote in their own language, which was different from Agori. It would be almost impossible for an outsider to read. Once or twice he had seen a Hunter carrying something with Skrall markings on it, most likely found when riding around the northern wastes near Roxtus. Bone Hunters wouldn’t be stupid enough to attack the fierce Skrall warriors, but weren’t above looting dead ones.
The notes scrawled on this map, however, were in perfect Agori. It was more than just a standard map of how to get to and from Vulcanus. Each outer wall was marked, along with every other defense the village had in place. Gelu had been to the village a week before, and there were things on this chart that hadn’t been there then. This had to be a brand-new document. But how did it get in the hands of a Bone Hunter?
Gelu was still pondering these questions as he walked the streets of Tajun. The village consisted of a single massive structure beneath which were a series of small, crudely made shelters.
Tajun was located on top of an oasis, so water was never an issue for the residents. For everything else, they relied on trade. With the Bone Hunters’ interference in recent months, the villagers were hurting. Even the small amount of goods in the Iconox transport was welcome.
Gelu spotted Metus, an Agori from his village. Metus was a Glatorian trainer and promoter. He traveled Bara Magna looking for good fighters and set up matches between villages. For him, Tajun was now the place to be.
“Never saw anything like it,” he said to Gelu. “These people need everything – food, tools, spare parts, you name it – and they’re willing to take challenges to get them. Tarix and Kiina have had six matches in the last week. They’re both starting to wear out.”
Gelu could understand that. The two Glatorian were both veteran fighters, but at that pace, and with so much riding on each match, anyone would get run down.
“Hey,” said Metus, eyeing Gelu as if for the first time. “You’re pretty good in the arena. Tajun will give you double what Iconox does if you win a few for them.
Gelu shook his head. “Sorry, Metus, I’m out of that game… for now. I like doing escort work. Keeps me on the move.”
“Got it,” Metus replied, after a momentary look of disappointment. “Well, if you change your mind… So far, all I’ve managed to recruit is a kid named Gresh from Tesara. Not bad – still needs training, but not bad. We’re headed to Vulcanus for a match today.”
Gelu remembered the map in his bag. Someone in Vulcanus would probably be very interested in seeing it. And Gelu had to admit that he was intrigued by the mystery himself.
“A lot of Bone Hunters between here and there,” he said. “You could use an extra sword. Mind if I tag along?”