Strakk slammed his Ice Axe on the table so hard that the stone plate splintered with a sharp crack. The sound made Metus wince.
“No!” said Strakk. “No. Definitely not.”
Metus frowned. The Agori villager had been acting as trainer of warriors and promoter of matches for many years. He was used to dealing with stubborn warriors, but most of them weren’t as quick-tempered as Strakk. He should have expected it, though. Especially for a Glatorian like Strakk, everything was about profit. It was a running joke in the village of Iconox that Strakk wouldn’t even open his eyes in the morning unless it would benefit him somehow. For a moment, Metus considered giving up. Then he thought twice: Strakk’s agreement was very important to him.
“You owe me a favor,” Metus told him. “Where would you be without me? And how often do I ask a favor of you?”
“Hm, there was that match against Kiina last month,” Strakk replied. “And at your request I helped with the training of that bully, who then completely forgot it was just a practice match and sent me into a healer’s barracks for weeks. Oh, and then there was…”
“All right, all right,” snapped Metus. “You don’t need to tell me the story of your life. This is a quick and easy job, won’t take longer than a week, and it’ll be well paid. Do you want it or not?”
Metus was lying, of course. He had to lie often when negotiating with his fighters. The job he had offered Strakk would be neither quick nor easy. The village of Iconox had to send a shipment of the valuable metal exsidian to the village of Vulcanus, payment for a match a fighter named Gelu had lost. Under normal circumstances the carriage would take the shortest route, southeast through the Dunes of Treason and then directly to the fire village. Not the safest route in the world, but one that was used very often. In recent weeks, though, a group of barbaric nomads called the Bone Hunters had changed the dunes into a lethal trap. For reasons they hadn’t revealed, they were about to sever trading connections between villages, particularly those with the Water Tribe village, Tajun. The result was that every caravan that moved through the desert was in danger. Worse, the Bone Hunters weren’t content with simply robbing the goods – they also killed the coachmen. But Iconox didn’t have a choice; the carriage had to be sent on its way. If they refused to pay after a lost battle, their fighters would no longer be welcome in the arenas of Bara Magna. So now it was about finding a route on which they could transport their goods safely all the way to Vulcanus.
“Well, let’s see,” said Strakk. “You want to send a fully loaded carriage eastward through the Black Spike Mountains, over the Dark Falls and then through Creep Canyon. Every single one of these places is more dangerous than a sand bat with sunburn. And you want me to guard this cargo on its way. Did I get that straight?”
“Yes,” Metus nodded.
“No,” said Strakk. “I’m a Glatorian. I fight for my village if it needs something from another and I’m paid well for it. I’m no guard or guide or errand boy. I fight against other Glatorian in an arena. I don’t fight against Bone Hunters. They have a nasty habit of killing everyone who fights them.”
Metus had to admit that Strakk was right. No one dealt with Bone Hunters if it could be avoided. Their mounts, called Rock Steeds, possessed rows of sharp teeth and scary, scorpion-like stinger tails. Their sense of smell was so fine they could sense a foe from miles away. And regarding the Hunters themselves, they hadn’t survived millennia in the Wastelands by being friendly. They were ruthless, violent and greedy. If they possessed any virtues, then it was their endurance – they rarely gave up a chase – and their thoroughness – after an attack there was nothing left standing. The Agori left Strakk’s shelter. The Glatorian followed him and kept talking.
“And don’t forget the Skrall – you remember them, don’t you – huge, black-armored, turning people to mincemeat just for fun? Who do you think lives up in the Black Spike Mountains?”
“Calm down,” said Metus. “Listen. We’ve hired the best.”
Metus pointed toward the fully loaded carriage. On the coachman’s seat sat an Iconox Agori – Kirbold – and a green-armored Agori from the village of Tesara. On the Sand Stalker next to the carriage sat a Glatorian Strakk identified as Gresh.
“Since when does Tesara send their Glatorian and Agori to help Iconox?” Strakk asked.
“Since the Bone Hunters’ attacks are starting to get them, too,” answered Metus. “They want to find out themselves whether this new route works. If that’s the case, they can use it too. The Agori’s name is Tarduk. He’s said to know the wilderness.”
Metus turned around and stared at Strakk.
“Iconox wants one of their Glatorian to join this tour – you’ll surely understand why. If you agree, I am sure I could manage to get you some matches in Vulcanus… to show everyone what heroism you will show here.”
Strakk laughed out loud. “I know everything about heroes. They’re the ones who get buried in holes in the ground. And when they’re lucky, someone will place a marker in the earth above their heads. But I’m not unreasonable… not much. So I shall go… for double the reward.”
Metus swallowed hard. That would mean Iconox would have to get a lot of weapons, armor and supplies for Strakk. But he obviously didn’t have any other choice. If Iconox were to neglect their payment duty to Vulcanus, the whole system of solving conflicts between villages by Glatorian matches would be at risk. In the end, that would mean he would lose his job.
“Deal,” the trainer said. “I will explain it somehow to the village elder. Get ready for departure.”
“I’m already ready,” Strakk said, smiling. “See to it that my prize is prepared quickly. I’ll soon be back to get it.”
Only if you’re lucky, Metus thought. And where you’re going, you may need more than luck.
Sometime after sunrise, the carriage departed with its guards. Gresh would’ve liked to depart immediately at dawn, but Strakk had insisted on taking as much Thornax launcher ammunition and extra weaponry as possible. Gresh was of the opinion that they should move out with as little baggage as possible, so they could cross the desert more quickly.
“Oh, I know many traders that traveled with light baggage,” Strakk had replied. “That way they found death much faster. Listen, little one, Bone Hunters care only about one thing: can you kill them faster than they can kill you? If the answer is yes, then maybe – maybe – you’ll have a chance of getting away with your life.”
“So you think we should engage them?” Gresh asked.
“No, no,” Strakk replied. “I think we shouldn’t even make this trip. But if it has to be done, we’ll do it the clever way. We strike first, and we don’t run headlong at them. Instead, we’ll outmaneuver them and use strategy.”
Strakk didn’t know Gresh very well. They had met once out in the Wastelands and rode together for some time to Vulcanus. Back then they had had a small skirmish with Bone Hunters, but got away without too much trouble. Since then Strakk watched his back carefully. Bone Hunters had a long memory, especially when it came to their enemies. He’d also learned from that trip that he didn’t like Gresh very much. The Tesaran fighter was young and strong, but a little too honor-bound for his liking. The only Glatorian Strakk had ever really gotten along with was Malum, one of the fighters from Vulcanus. Even after he was exiled from his village for trying to kill Strakk in the arena, Strakk still respected him. As far as Strakk was concerned, Malum’s exile was only more proof of how little the villagers of Vulcanus knew about the life of a Glatorian.
Strakk moved his steed closer to the carriage. The two-headed Spikit that was pulling it kept all four eyes fixed on the bumpy path ahead. The Glatorian hoped the carriage was loaded with enough food. Even though a Spikit was a tough and enduring beast of burden, it would consume everything in its vicinity when it got hungry – including the carriage it was pulling, and everyone who was unfortunate enough to be sitting inside it.
“So, Tarduk,” he said to the Tesaran Agori holding the reins, “I heard you’ve done your share of exploring.”
“Sure,” the villager replied. “I collect artifacts – old armor, weapons, scrolls, small fragments of history. I spend a lot of time looking around ruins and searching for things.”
“That sounds… different,” Strakk said. And really, really boring, the Glatorian thought to himself.
“I’ve always wanted to see the Black Spike Mountains,” Tarduk continued. “I bet there’s a lot of treasure to be found there!”
“Wait a second, you’re the guide,” said Strakk. “But you’ve never been to where we’re going?”
“Nope,” Tarduk responded, smiling.
“Then why…” Strakk began.
“He was the only one who was willing to go there,” Kirbold said, “so he got the job.”
“Don’t talk so much,” Gresh said quietly. “Our voices carry far. We don’t have to let every Bone Hunter in the whole area know that we’re coming.”
“You’re an optimist, my friend,” said Strakk. “If they’re out in the Wastelands – and they are – then they’ve known we’re on the way since the moment we left Iconox. At best, we can hope that they don’t know what we’re carrying.”
“And if they do know?” Gresh asked.
Strakk pointed towards the Thornax launcher Gresh was carrying.
“Then I hope you know how to use that, little one.”
To the untrained eye, Bara Magna might look like any desert. Certainly, there was sand in almost every direction as far as the eye could see, shaped into dunes by the wind or spread like a soft blanket over the sleeping earth. When the wind whips over the vast stretches of the Wastelands, the sand whirls around at such high speeds that even Glatorian armor can’t provide enough protection. And then there’s the heat, of course. Bara Magna’s sun burns hot, and around noon it reaches such high temperatures that only Bone Hunters and the desperate Agori traders hunted by them can be found in the sands. During the worst part of the day the sand is so hot that one touch can cause burns. Everyone who gets lost without water in the desert plateau will be dead within a day. Then, at evening, the sun disappears as suddenly as a torch is extinguished. The temperature sinks rapidly and the Agori must crowd together around their campfires. The desert becomes – if this is even possible – twice as dangerous in darkness. Nocturnal predators come out of their caves or from under their rocks, where they hide during the heat of the day. The Bone Hunters are getting bolder, sometimes getting close enough to a village to take out a sentry that has strayed too far from the torches. There is an old Agori saying: “At least you see death coming in daylight.” At night unfortunately, you are not so lucky. For those, however, who know Bara Magna well, the desert is much more than just a vast wasteland of barren, sandy plains.
Many do remember that, in earlier times, more waterways flowed than just the Skrall River, across green fields. They remember how the village of Tesara wasn’t just an oasis, but part of a giant jungle that stretched over the entire continent. They still hear the cries of sea birds from the ocean that existed far to the south. All that changed about 100,000 years ago, when a terrible disaster changed the planet forever. After that there was no more time for memories of what once was: one was completely occupied with just surviving each new day. Still, while the carriage moved through the sand, Strakk thought of how things had once been. He wasn’t originally from Iconox, but from a land far to the north. He had been on a scouting patrol when the disaster that is now referred to simply as “The Shattering” had occurred, and he had suddenly been cut off from his homeland. He stayed in Iconox while the world around him changed: jungles transformed into desert, the ice melted in the horrible heat. He wasn’t sure if anyone would be able to survive the disaster. But there were survivors, including himself – and since then, his entire life was just about surviving.
Strakk glanced over his shoulder. Iconox was no longer visible. He reined his Sand Stalker to a halt. “Good, now we’re far enough away,” he said. “Now we can stop.”
Gresh slowed his mount down a little and looked at Strakk, puzzled. “What are you talking about?”
“What do you think?” Strakk said. “You didn’t seriously believe we were going to drag this whole load all the way across the Black Spike Mountains, did you? Did you honestly believe my talk of stirring sand and fighting down Bone Hunters from earlier? If so, then you really have spent too much time in the sun.”
“But that’s our job,” Gresh replied.
Strakk snorted. “Good. Then I’ll explain to you how this works. The Agori will get out of the carriage. We take all the exsidian metal, hide it, and shatter the carriage. Then we’ll tell the people in Iconox we were attacked by Bone Hunters who stole our cargo.”
The two Agori shared a look. Tarduk shrugged as if he wanted to say, “I don’t understand it either.”
“And then?” Gresh asked.
“In a few weeks we’ll return and dig the load out,” Strakk gloated. “We’ll divide it among ourselves and then go our separate ways again. And no one gets hurt.”
“Except the people of Iconox when Vulcanus thinks they don’t want to pay their debts,” Gresh said. He pointed casually with his Thornax launcher at Strakk.
“Now we’re going to do the following. You ride a little ahead of us. And should you try to leave us behind, then rest assured that you won’t get far.”
“Are you completely out of your mind?!” bellowed Strakk. “There is a fortune to be made here!”
Gresh gestured with his launcher. “Go, now! We’ve got a job to do, that’s how it is. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
Strakk glared at Gresh, but spurred on his Sand Stalker. Riding past the carriage, he muttered: “Dozens of Glatorian on this world, and they had to give me the only one who cares about doing the right thing.”
Gresh ignored him and turned to Tarduk. “Do you have any idea what’s waiting ahead of us? I hate surprises.”
“Anything might be ahead of us,” Tarduk replied. “In earlier times, this had been a quiet corner of the desert, until the Vorox infested the Dunes of Treason. They drove out a lot of sand bats and dune snakes, and even giant cave scorpions, into the north. The desert between here and the Black Spike Mountains is full of them.”
“But that’s not the worst part,” Kirbold said. “Have you ever been to the Sea of Liquid Sand?”
Gresh nodded. The “sea” was located south of the village of Vulcanus. It looked like any other desert track, but in reality most of it was a soft mud that swallowed all living things that tried to cross it. It was possible to get through, if one was clever or lucky enough. But most who tried it now rested at the bottom of the Sea.
“Scattered spots of liquid sand also exist here,” Kirbold said. “There aren’t many, but there are spots in the sand that are just as treacherous as the Sea… maybe even worse. You don’t see them until you are right in the middle of them and then…”
“Did you hear that, Strakk?” Gresh asked.
“Why wouldn’t I listen to such wonderful news?” the Ice Glatorian shot back. “I’m really glad you asked me to ride ahead.”
“Keep your eyes open,” Gresh said. “We’ll make it.”
“Sure you’ll make it,” Strakk said. “Just wait until I sink into the sand and when I do… stop. Simple.”
They rode in silence for some time. Before them the Black Spike Mountains towered in all their majesty. Even when Bara Magna had been a lush green place, this mountain range was the subject of numerous legends and rumors. Some of them were just the usual Agori talk – travelers who were journeying through the mountains and never returned. But the more convincing stories were those about villagers who did return, but who weren’t right in the head ever again. Gresh gave Kirbold a quick glance.
“Why exactly were you chosen for this job?”
“I mined this metal,” came the answer. “It’s perfectly suited for patching equipment. Doesn’t rust and is very wear-resistant.”
“That doesn’t really answer my question.”
“I dug it out. I dragged it up. Others will use it, but I found it. I feel that it’s my responsibility. Should the cargo be in danger, I want to be there.”
Gresh nodded. He had already heard crazier things. More than one Glatorian would never let anyone else tinker with his weapon or launcher for a very similar reason.
As the sun reached its peak, Gresh pointed towards a ledge. “Let’s set up our camp beneath that until the worst of the heat is over.” Kirbold and Tarduk steered the carriage under the ledge, then carefully fed the Spikit before they themselves ate something. Strakk sat down in the sand and closed his eyes, while Gresh kept a careful eye on the desert.
“What do you think is up there?” Kirbold asked Tarduk.
“Who knows?” the Tesaran Agori responded, smiling. “There may have lived an entire civilization in these mountains that we’ve never heard of. They may have left behind equipment, tools, maybe even records of their history. For someone like me, that is a treasure chest just waiting to be opened.”
“No, I mean… do you think there are monsters up there?”
“I do… if you regard Skrall as monsters.”
Kirbold lowered his gaze towards the sand.
“No, I don’t think they’re monsters. But if they ever were to attack us… well, then I don’t know where we could hide.”
Late in the afternoon, they resumed their journey. Strakk watched a sand bat explode out of a dune to throw itself onto a sand fox and then drag it underground. The Spikit saw the same and grunted in anger and fear.
“I hate those things,” Strakk said. “You never know where they are until they’re right in front of you.”
“Giant scorpions are even worse,” Tarduk said. Despite the heat, he shivered. “I’ve seen them several times while searching for artifacts in caves.”
“There’s an easy way of avoiding such encounters,” Strakk said.
“Stop wandering around in caves,” the Glatorian replied.
“I can’t stand dune snakes,” Kirbold remarked. “You want to know why?”
“Why?” Strakk said.
“Because they are everywhere around us.”
Gresh’s Sand Stalker suddenly reeled in panic, followed by Strakk’s. The Spikit tore at the reins and made efforts to break free. However, Kirbold managed to hold the beast under control. Everywhere around them the dunes moved, the poisonous snakes slithering just beneath the surface of the sand. It looked like a sea of waves rolling under the dunes, but it was neither a peaceful nor comforting sight. The bite of one of these serpents could lead to death within seconds, not to mention the snakes were absolutely fearless. They wouldn’t hesitate for a second to attack something larger than themselves. “We must have ridden right into a nest!” Strakk said. “What do we do now?”
Gresh tried desperately to get his Sand Stalker under control again.
“When your mount topples, jump off or you’ll be trapped beneath it.”
“Thanks, I certainly would never have thought of that,” Strakk growled. “If you had just listened to me…”
“Look!” Tarduk yelled. “A path!”
He was right. Somewhere to the right there was a strip of sand that wasn’t moving. It was clear to all of them that this was the best and only way out of danger.
“Let’s go!” shouted Gresh, who had already turned his Sand Stalker into the direction of the passage.
Strakk was already ahead of him, letting his mount jump over half a dozen snakes that had darted out of the sand. Behind the two Glatorian, Kirbold urged the Spikit forward. Strakk was now a good distance ahead of the group and didn’t look back. Suddenly his Sand Stalker toppled over. The next moment, he was up to his waist in liquid sand.
“Help!” he cried.
“We can’t help him,” Kirbold claimed. “If we get too close we’ll sink, too.”
“He’s a Glatorian. I can’t leave him behind,” Gresh said. “We can ride around the liquid sand and pull him out.”
“Not without riding through the snakes,” retorted Tarduk.
“It seems we don’t have a choice,” Kirbold said. “It’s either him or us.”