“This is bad. This is very, very bad,” said Raanu. He looked up at Gelu and waved the map. “Do you know what this is?”

“Bad?” offered Gelu.

“Worse than bad,” muttered the village elder. “There are walls on this map that didn’t even exist two weeks ago. With something like this, the Bone Hunters could go around or through any of our defenses. We wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“Good thing I found it for you then,” Gelu said. He waited then, eyes on Raanu. The elder would have to offer him some kind of reward for his service… wouldn’t he?

But Raanu was paying no attention to the expectant Glatorian. He was looking at his people gathered in the inn and wondering how many would survive a Bone Hunter attack. Not many, he guessed.

“A few Thornax launchers, some swords and spears, picks, shovels, hammers,” he said quietly. “That’s not going to stop those barbarians. They will ride in, take whatever we have, and leave us with nothing – that’s if they don’t burn the whole village down.”

Gelu had to agree. He had seen firsthand what Bone Hunters could do. No bunch of Agori, no matter how determined, would be able to stand up to a raiding party… not in direct combat, anyway.

“We may have to flee,” Raanu said, voice heavy with despair. “Go out into the wastelands and start again, maybe further south. Maybe if we let them have what they want, they’ll leave us alone.”

“Not likely.” The words came from Gresh, who had wandered over to find out what had upset Raanu. “If the Bone Hunters know you’re afraid of them, they’ll keep after you until you drop dead in the sand.”

“But we are afraid of them,” said Raanu. “And with good reason! It would take an army to stop them, and in case you didn’t notice, we have no army.”

Gelu started to reply, then stopped. He had to think hard about his next words. They might land him in the middle of a bad situation. Then again, if he didn’t say them, Gresh would. At least if he did it first, he might be able to negotiate a fee.

“You don’t need an army,” Gelu said. “You need Glatorian – good ones, fast, experienced. A small team might not be able to defeat a legion of Bone Hunters, but they can make the fight so costly for them that they’ll turn back.”

Raanu beckoned for Gelu to go on, but it was Gresh who spoke. “I get it. Stall them. Trick them. Trap them.”

Gelu nodded. “Right. Ever try to get a dune spider out from under a rock? It sprouts thorns all over its body and legs. Eventually, you give up and go find easier prey. You need to make Vulcanus too prickly to hold.”

Raanu smiled. “Yes, yes… I like this idea. We’ll make them wish they never came here. Let them raid some other village instead – Vulcanus will not surrender! And you, Gelu? You will lead these Glatorian?”

Gelu was ready for this question. He would act humbled by the suggestion, make a show of thinking about it, then agree – after, of course, Raanu had made a very generous offer. “Me?” he began, looking down at the floor. “Well, I don’t know, Raanu. I’m not really in that business anymore, and –”

“He won’t do it. I will. It’s my job.”

All three turned. Ackar was standing in the doorway. If any Glatorian could be considered a living legend, it was he. Even those who had never fought him knew his reputation. He was older now, maybe not as fearsome as in centuries past, but when he spoke, other Glatorian always listened.

“Ackar,” said Raanu, seeming a little embarrassed. “I was just about to go get you.” He handed Ackar the map and explained the situation. The veteran Glatorian said nothing, just nodded slightly as he scanned the parchment.

“Not sure I agree with Gelu,” Ackar finally said. “I’ve seen three Hunters decimate an entire caravan… six destroy an outpost. What happens if they come at you with twenty, thirty, or forty of their number? What then?”

Raanu looked stricken. “So you’re saying we should give up? Flee?” Gelu had to suppress a smile on hearing the outrage in Raanu’s voice. Five minutes ago, it was the Agori who had suggested that same strategy. Now he acted shocked to hear someone else say the same thing.

“I said I didn’t agree with his idea,” Ackar snapped. “I didn’t say we wouldn’t do it. We need an army, but we haven’t got one. So we’ll have to make do with what we have.”

“I’m in,” said Gresh. “This isn’t my village, but I won’t stand around and let Bone Hunters take it.”

Ackar looked at Gelu. “How about you?”

Three Glatorian against any number of Bone Hunters? Crazy. This isn’t what he had in mind. He’d had it all figured. Raanu would agree to the idea and hire Gelu to go out and recruit Glatorian, for a nice price. He would earn a good sum and not take too much of a risk. But with Ackar insisting on defending the village with the Glatorian they had, things were different. Still, if he turned down the request to defend the village, he could forget ever showing his face here again.

“Okay,” Gelu said. “Count me in, too.” He didn’t add that he felt like his heart had become a block of ice or that he was already sweating under his armor. It wasn’t good to let other Glatorian know you were afraid.

“We’ll send the two Glatorian trainees we have here to Tajun tonight with a message for Kiina and Tarix – neither would miss a fight if they can help it,” Ackar said. “Gresh, head back to Tesara, find Vastus and whoever else you can. Gelu, you’re with me.”

“Do you think it’s smart to leave the village undefended?” asked Gresh.

“One or two Glatorian won’t stop the Bone Hunters,” said Ackar. “We need more – a lot more. And we need them now.”

Gresh glanced out the doorway to the charred and blackened main street of the village. “By now, Fero has let his people know he lost the map.”

“Right,” said Ackar, “which means they know we’ll be preparing for them. They are going to move fast. So we have to move faster. I don’t like leaving the village undefended, but we need to find allies. We’ll have to gamble that we make it back before the Bone Hunters arrive.”

There was no time for farewells. Gresh mounted his sand stalker and rode north. The two rookie Glatorian headed west, with strict instructions from Ackar to stay together and to be careful. Darkness had fallen over Bara Magna. It was the most dangerous time to be out in the desert.

Despite asking repeatedly, Gelu had been unable to find out where he and Ackar were going. He waited impatiently while the veteran told Raanu where to post look-outs and what to do if any Bone Hunter scouts appeared on the horizon. If things got truly desperate, he and the villagers were to burn anything they couldn’t carry, head south, double back under the cover of sandstorms, and hide in Iron Canyon. With luck, the Bone Hunters would keep heading south and find themselves in the Sea of Liquid Sand. “Remember, though, if they see one straggler heading for the canyon, they will know what you’re doing,” said Ackar. “Your lives won’t be worth a grain of sand then.”

Gelu had packed a few days’ worth of supplies onto his mount. Ackar saw what he was doing and nodded approvingly. “Good idea. We can use the food for trade.”

“I was planning to use it for eating,” answered Gelu. “I find it works much better that way.”

Ackar gave a bitter laugh. “You don’t want to be fattening yourself up, Gelu… not where we’re going.”

“Good luck to you both,” said Raanu. “The hopes of everyone in Vulcanus ride with you.”

“Then I hope they don’t need to eat,” muttered Gelu. “’Cause that’s out, I hear.”

The two Glatorian struck out to the north. They rode in silence for a few hours until they reached the banks of the Skrall River. Once, enough water had flowed to provide for all the needs of nearby villages. Now it was barely a trickle, thanks to a dam built by the Skrall. Many Glatorian, including Ackar, had challenged the Skrall in the arena, over that dam. The Skrall won every time, and the dam stayed in place. Gelu expected they would cross and head northwest for Iconox, but instead, Ackar wheeled his mount to the northeast.

Now Gelu knew where they were going. And he didn’t like it one bit.

“Ackar!” the ice Glatorian whispered. “We’re heading right for Bone Hunter territory. Their camp is only a couple days’ ride from here.”

“I know,” Ackar answered. “We’re going to stop and pick up a… friend. Then we’re going to see if we can’t stop their plans before they start.”

“You’re going to make an attack on the Bone Hunters?” Gelu asked in disbelief. He offered his launcher to Ackar. “Here. Why not just kill me now?”

“Relax,” said Ackar. “They expect us to be hiding behind walls. The last thing on their minds is the possibility that we’ll attack them.”

“It was the last thing on my mind, too,” replied Gelu. “What are we going to use for an army?”

Ackar looked at Gelu for a few moments in silence. Then he chuckled softly and said, “You don’t want to know.”

Gresh rode hard. Tesara was a long way away from Vulcanus. He hoped Vastus or some of the other Glatorian would be there when he arrived. If they were traveling to a match, he might never find them. The idea of returning to Ackar empty-handed was something he wouldn’t accept.

He rode through lonely, barren country. Parts of Bara Magna had always been desert, but he had heard stories that some regions were once a little more green, like Tesara. The cataclysmic events that tore through the world 100 millennia ago had changed all that.

Not for the first time, he wondered about the Skrall. Everyone had known they existed, even before they moved south into the desert. Their homeland was said to be north of the Black Spike Mountains, near a volcanic region that dwarfed Vulcanus. They kept largely to themselves for thousands of years, shunning any contacts with Iconox or any of the northern villages.

Then all that changed. The Skrall stormed down from the north and made their home in the city of Roxtus, a ruin that they rebuilt. They restricted travel to their city, allowing only Glatorian coming to fight or select Agori trade caravans. Those who made the trip spoke of a huge arena almost as big as the one in Atero, of warriors everywhere they looked, and of Spikit and other vicious beasts unleashed on Glatorian for the amusement of the onlookers.

Many Glatorian who went there to fight never returned. The Skrall usually blamed this on “accidents,” or insisted the fighter had been fine when he left the city and must have met with some mishap on his way back home. Those few warriors who went there and made it back insisted they would never return.

The presence of the Skrall made all the other villages uneasy. Many wondered why they had bothered to migrate to such a barren region in the first place. Had they used up their own resources? Been driven out by some natural disaster? Or was there a more sinister reason for their sudden arrival?

Maybe no one would ever know why the Skrall did what they did. What mattered was that, after a period of pretending to want to be a part of Bara Magna society, the Skrall had shown their true nature. They wanted to conquer this world, and they had the warriors and the will to do it. With the Bone Hunters making more and more raids every day on top of the Skrall threat, the villages were in terrible danger.

Gresh reined his mount to a stop. Why had the Bone Hunters worked so hard to cut off Tajun? And why would they be targeting Vulcanus? Bone Hunters went after travelers and trade caravans. They didn’t attack entire villages. Sure, Atero had been raided and sacked, but that hadn’t been the Bone Hunters.

It was the Skrall.

Could it be? He wanted to reject the whole idea. The Bone Hunters were nomadic and survived by stealing and worse. They had no use for alliances with any village or tribe. Nor would they need to team with the Skrall for their own security. No one knew the sands better than the Bone Hunters. If the Skrall took aim at them, they could vanish into the desert and never be found. It didn’t make sense that they might be working with – or for – the Skrall.

But what if they were? That question pounded in his brain. If the Skrall combined their organization, their weaponry, their sheer power with the Bone Hunters’ lightning tactics and knowledge of the region… it could be all over for every free village on Bara Magna.

All the more reason to get where I’m going and get help, he thought grimly, as he spurred on his sand stalker. We need to stop them at Vulcanus now, and stop them for good.

Fero heard riders, but he couldn’t see them. Dawn was still a few hours away and even the keen vision of a Bone Hunter could not pierce the darkness completely. But he could hear the rapid beats of sand stalker hooves in the soft sand, and he could smell the exhaustion of the animals… and the fear of their riders.

He smiled. He knew from their frantic pace that their mission was urgent and from their scents that they had ridden a long distance. He knew the riders were wise, for this was a place in which to be very afraid.

Fero turned to look at his four companions. Each carried a darkfire torch, which provided warmth in the chill desert night, but gave off no light. They were all veteran Bone Hunters, out for a night raid. With the Vulcanus map no doubt in the hands of Raanu, the expectation was that the village would be sending out a call for help and not waiting for daylight to do it. Fero would be willing to bet a month’s loot that the two riders down below had started from Vulcanus and were on their way to hire more Glatorian for the village’s defense.

Too bad they were never going to reach their destination.

Fero gave a whispered command, and the five hunters rode down the sandy slope. Halfway down, they split up, two heading west, three heading east. Fero and two of his comrades would cut off the riders and attack. When they inevitably turned to flee, they would find their line of retreat blocked by the other two Bone Hunters. It would be over in minutes.

And Vulcanus will take only a little longer than that, thought Fero. Let the Agori plan and prepare. Let them watch the sands for signs of our approach. They will never see us coming.

No one ever does.

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