Beyond a brief greeting when he and Gelu were introduced, Gresh didn’t say much during the first part of the journey. Normally, Gelu would have written this off as nerves. Young Glatorian did one of two things around veterans: they asked questions non-stop, or shut up completely, afraid to sound stupid if they opened their mouths.
But Gresh wasn’t a typical newcomer to the game. He had won all but one of his matches for Tesara, and the one he lost was to a Skrall warrior. There was no shame in that. Back when Roxtus sent fighters to the arena, no one had ever beaten a Skrall.
Gelu liked the kid. Too many young fighters thought being a Glatorian was all about profit or personal glory. But the best of the breed knew it was a lot more than that.
“Who are you fighting?” he asked Gresh.
Before Gresh could answer, Metus did it for him. “He’s fighting Ackar. You know they kicked Malum out, right? He tried to kill an opponent who had already surrendered. So they’re down to Ackar and a couple of kids who are still so new they don’t know which end of the sword to hold.”
Gelu had done more than hear about Malum. He had spotted the crimson-armored ex-Glatorian a few times out in the wastelands. He had no idea how Malum was surviving out there on his own. But the look Gelu had seen in his eyes said maybe it was better not to know.
“Up ahead,” Gresh broke in. “Looks like trouble.”
The kid had good eyes. Far off in the distance, an Agori transport had lost a wheel. The two drivers, both from Vulcanus, were struggling to get it back on while trying not to get too close to their hungry Spikit. As the Glatorian approached, one of the Agori looked up at Gelu. Then he looked away, shaking his head in disgust.
“Another Glatorian from Iconox,” the villager said. “He won’t help. Keep working.”
“You don’t think too highly of the ice village, I’m guessing?” said Gelu.
“We broke down two hours ago,” said the other Agori. “Not long after, a Glatorian from your village comes by. He offers to patch the transport and get us to Vulcanus. But says he’s pretty sure the pass ahead is full of Vorox, so his price is half the goods we’re carrying. We said no.”
Vorox were residents of a sand village who had backslid after the disasters of 100,000 years back. Now they were little more than beasts, hiding in the desert and pouncing on anyone who passed through their hunting grounds. If a traveler was lucky, he only lost his transport and his goods. If he wasn’t, well, then he wouldn’t have to worry about the heat anymore.
“Maybe ‘yes’ would have been a better answer,” Gelu said.
“Vorox? Did they say Vorox?” said Metus, trying to look in every direction at once. “Let’s go. These guys will be fine. We’ll take the long way.”
To Gelu’s surprise, Gresh dismounted from his sand stalker. “No. We’ll help,” the kid said.
The Agori put his hands on his hips, a look of defiance in his eyes. “We can’t afford you. Move on and let us get back to work.”
“No one wants your goods,” Gresh answered. “Stay here and you’ll be dead before another sunrise.”
“Wait a minute!” Metus said. “What am I hearing? Tell me you just want to fix the wheel, and then we move on.”
Gresh turned and looked at the promoter. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and even. “No. We’re going to fix the transport and then get them to Vulcanus. It’s the right thing to do.”
Gelu smiled. He respected Gresh’s guts, if not his sense of fair odds. He was one Glatorian with two Agori about to go up against potentially dozens of Vorox. It was suicide. Then again, Gelu remembered taking the same kind of foolish chances when he started out.
“You’re going to need an extra set of eyes,” he said, getting down off his sand stalker. “If you don’t watch both flanks, the Vorox will be on you before you can raise your shield.”
“I don’t believe this!” sputtered Metus. “You’re crazy, the both of you! Gresh, your village is counting on you – do you have any idea how upset Tesara will be with me if you get killed because you wanted to do someone a favor?”
Gelu laughed. “Don’t worry about it, Metus. If this goes bad, odds are none of us will be alive to take the heat for it. So get down and help with this wheel, okay?”
Repairs to the wagon went quickly, but it was still a little too close to sunset for anyone’s liking. Metus suggested they make camp and set out in the morning, but Gresh disagreed.
“We have a better chance of making it through if we are mounted and moving,” he said. “There’s no shelter here, nothing but sand. They could come up from underneath us whenever they wanted.”
Gresh and Gelu got back on their mounts. Both checked their Thornax launchers to make sure they were ready to go. Gelu scanned the pass up ahead, but couldn’t see any Vorox. That meant nothing, of course – by the time you saw them, it was usually too late.
“Let’s go,” said Gelu. He turned to the two Agori drivers. “If it comes to it, you jump on our sand stalkers and leave the transport. No matter what you’re carrying, it’s not worth your lives.”
The group moved out, traveling from sunlight into shadow. Gresh kept his eyes straight ahead, watching for movement in the sand that would signal Vorox about to emerge from below. Gelu swept his gaze over the rocks on either side.
Something gleamed in the fading sunlight on a high slope. “Up ahead, on the right,” Gelu said quietly.
“I see it,” Gresh replied.
A Vorox suddenly appeared, blade in hand, right where Gelu had indicated. The Glatorian aimed and fired his launcher in one swift motion, winging the bestial warrior.
A sword flew down from the left side of the pass, burying itself in the sand in front of Gresh’s mount. His sand stalker reared and almost threw him, but the Glatorian got it back under control. Metus looked at the weapon as they passed, his eyes wide.
“This is crazy,” he muttered. “We’re not going to make it through here.”
“Sure, we are,” said Gelu, smiling. “Just stay calm, Metus. Try not to look too appetizing, and you’ll be fine.”
“Left side!” snapped Gresh.
Gelu spun and quickly fired three spiked spheres from his launcher. He hit two of the Vorox that Gresh had spotted. The third ducked back behind the rocks. A soft sound made Gelu turn around just in time to spot another Vorox coming out of the sand. He swung his ice blade and disarmed it, then knocked it unconscious with a second blow.
Vorox began filing out of the rocks on both sides like insects from a disturbed sand hill. Gresh and Gelu used their launchers to try to keep them pinned down, but they were already leaping from ledges and charging across the sand. As soon as the Vorox were close enough to make this a hand-to-hand fight, it would be over.
Seeking some way the party could escape, Gelu’s eyes fell on the transport. Most of the items in it were old and battered, but there were two pieces of armor that looked close to new. He bent over as he rode past, snatching them up. Then he tossed one to Gresh. “The leader! Throw it!” he shouted.
Gresh got the idea. He tossed the piece of armor to the lead Vorox on the left, while Gelu did the same on the right. The Vorox grabbed the items out of the air. Instantly, the rest of the pack noticed that two of their number had treasures. They started grabbing for the pieces of armor. When the new owners resisted, things turned vicious. A mad scramble started, as each Vorox who got his hands on the shiny items became a target for all the rest.
“Come on!” yelled Gelu. “This won’t keep them busy for long!”
The Agori got the Spikit moving, while Gresh, Gelu, and Metus rode behind. No one slowed down until the pass was well behind them and smoke from the fires of Vulcanus was visible in the twilight sky.
Gelu looked back. No one was pursuing them. “Not bad,” he said, turning back to Gresh. “You’re pretty good in a fight, kid. If I were Ackar, I’d be worried.”
The two Agori drivers couldn’t meet the eyes of their Glatorian companions. Finally, one spoke up. “We… um… want to apologize. We thought you Glatorian fought only for money. I guess we were wrong.”
“No, you weren’t,” said Metus. He glared at Gresh as he added, “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Gresh ignored him. Nodding to the Agori, he turned his mount and rode toward Vulcanus. After a moment, Gelu joined him.
“So,” said Gelu. “You do that sort of thing often?”
“When it’s needed,” Gresh answered. “I’m bigger, stronger, and faster than the Agori. I’ve got a shield and a launcher, and I know how to use them. I’m a Glatorian. Doesn’t that mean I have to protect people who aren’t as strong as I am?”
Gelu was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Tell me something, Gresh – are you sure you’re from this planet?”
The rest of the ride to Vulcanus was uneventful. The two Glatorian shared a meal of burnt sand bat and talked at the village inn. Slowly at first, Gresh began to open up. He talked with Gelu about the challenges he had faced in the arena and his worries that someday he might let his village down. For a Glatorian, the outcome of a single battle could mean the difference between a village thriving or one just surviving.
“Listen, friend, anyone who ever picked up a sword to fight for one of these sand pits has felt the same way,” said Gelu. “Sometimes, it’s easy to forget why Glatorian need to do what we do – even the Agori sometimes forget what started it all. Heck, I wish I could.”
“You were there when…?” Gresh began.
Gelu nodded. “Oh, yeah, I was there, along with many others. Six armies, all fighting over a glittering silver liquid that changed or destroyed whatever it touched – some saw it as a power source, others as a weapon. Battles raged all across the planet, going back and forth, until somebody, somewhere, figured out a way to tap that power. And… well, you know the rest… The planet wound up in pieces.”
The Iconox Glatorian looked around the inn. Agori were eating, talking, most of them in battered armor that should have been replaced ages ago. It was easy to see the places where the metal was patched, often with scraps that didn’t quite match the original color. No one looked particularly happy or sad. Mostly, they just looked tired.
“That was, what, more than one hundred thousand years ago now?” Gelu continued. “Agori scattered all over, finding shelter where they could. Villagers couldn’t afford another war, even if anyone still had an appetite for one. So somebody got the bright idea to hire veteran warriors to fight on the villages’ behalf. If Vulcanus and Tesara had a disagreement, well, each one hired a Glatorian and they’d fight it out. The winner got whatever he needed – food, shelter, weapons, armor. Keep winning and you could get rich – well, as rich as you can ever be out this way. But the trick was to keep winning.”
“Is that why you quit?” Gresh asked. Seeing the look on Gelu’s face, he said, “It’s not a secret. Kiina told me last time I was in Tajun. She said she hadn’t seen you in an arena in weeks.”
Gelu smiled. “Yeah, Kiina would notice that. It’s simple – nobody is going to be on top forever. Look at Ackar. They love him here now – they need him now – but watch him lose a few matches and see how fast he gets pushed aside. I decided I didn’t want to wait for that to happen to me – not when there’s so much money to be made getting people and things from place to place.”
Even as he said that, Gelu spotted Raanu coming into the inn. Raanu was the elder of the village of Vulcanus. He was tough and honest, even if sometimes stubborn beyond belief. He was also the keeper of anything of value in the place, which made him just the person Gelu needed to see.
“Excuse me,” he said to Gresh as he rose. “I have to see an Agori about a map.”