After a few hours of riding, Ackar abruptly cut to the west across the riverbed. The sun was just beginning to rise behind them as they traveled over the dunes. Gelu could see the telltale marks in the sand that indicated Vorox had been through here. The further they went, the more numerous the signs. Vorox tunnels left a very unique pattern in the sand, and the two riders were surrounded by them now. Gelu moved his hand close to his launcher.
Ackar pointed to a rise up ahead, dominated by a small mountain chain. Gelu could see a cave opening about halfway up the central peak. “That’s where we’re going,” said Ackar.
Gelu suddenly had a very bad feeling that he knew this “friend” of Ackar’s. But what was with all the traces of Vorox? At first, he couldn’t see any connection – a moment later he realized that he preferred it that way.
They were about 500 yards from the rocks when the Vorox appeared, erupting out of the sand all around them. Zesk, the smaller versions of the Vorox, were scattered about, too, chattering and making threatening gestures toward the two Glatorian. Gelu went for his launcher, but Ackar grabbed his wrist and kept him from reaching it.
“Do you really think you could shoot your way out of this?” Ackar said quietly. “If things go really badly, we’ll charge for the cave – it’s easier to defend. Until then, let me handle this.” Ackar paused, then said, “Scared?”
Seconds ticked by.
“Sure,” Gelu answered.
“Good. That means you aren’t crazy. I don’t like having crazy people watching my back.”
Ackar turned toward the cave. He shouted, “Malum! I need to talk to you.”
The assembled Vorox murmured among themselves and drew a little closer. One reached out to paw Gelu’s sand stalker. Gelu restrained himself from taking a swipe with his blade, but the look he gave the Vorox was enough to make the savage back off.
“Malum!” Ackar called again. “Show yourself!”
The exiled Glatorian appeared in the mouth of the cave. His scarlet armor was cracked in places and caked with sand in others. Malum had always been bigger and stronger than Ackar and his time in the wastelands hadn’t changed that. But Gelu was certain many other things were different now – living out in the sands would do that to a being.
“Ackar,” Malum said. His voice was almost too quiet to hear. The tone was a mix of surprise and satisfaction, as if seeing his old sparring partner again was something he had been looking forward to for some time. Gelu wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
Malum barked a command in a language Gelu didn’t understand. Instantly, the Vorox backed away three steps, but they did not put their weapons away. If anything, they seemed to have changed from merely curious about the visitors to ready for an attack. Ackar was right about one thing – the two Glatorian were surrounded, so there would be no fighting their way free.
“What brings you to my… empire?” Malum asked Ackar. He gestured to the sea of sand that stretched out in every direction. “If you are seeking hospitality, I have none to offer. Food? Water? Whatever I have goes to feed my people.”
“Your people?” Gelu said. “You mean the Vorox? They aren’t anyone’s ‘people.’ They’re just this side of sand bats.”
“You’re right,” said Malum. “But civilized society said it had no place for me. The Vorox found me, sheltered me, and made me part of their tribe. We want nothing to do with your world anymore, Ackar. But out of the friendship we once shared, I will allow you and your friend to depart with your lives… if you leave now.”
Gelu thought that sounded like a great idea. He was no coward – far from it, he would take on anyone in a fight, from a Skrall on down. But this place reminded him a little too much of the Agori “settlements,” the places for those who had spent too much time in the sun and sand and lost their minds.
“We need your help,” said Ackar. “Vulcanus is in trouble.”
Malum made a disgusted sound and turned back for the cave. “Go home, Ackar. Go home, while you still can.”
“Vulcanus sheltered you, Malum. It fed you, supplied you with arms and armor, and treated you like a king,” Ackar said, his tone blunt, but not cruel. “You owe it something.”
Malum wheeled around, pointing at Ackar. His features were contorted with rage. “I owe them nothing! Look at me. Look at what I am reduced to. A ‘king,’ yes, until they drove me out… until they said I wasn’t worthy of fighting and dying for them.”
“Maybe they were right,” said Ackar. “Maybe you’re not worthy.”
Dead silence. The Vorox edged closer. Gelu’s hand returned to his launcher. Sure, he wouldn’t stand a chance, but at least he would take some of the beasts down with him.
“You have a stake in this, too,” Ackar continued. “They’re Bone Hunters.”
Gelu thought he saw Malum flinch a little. Bone Hunters were long-standing enemies of the Vorox. While the Hunters might steal from, or even kill, Agori and Glatorian for food or supplies, they would go after Vorox for pure sport. Although wild and brutal, the Vorox weren’t smart enough to avoid Bone Hunter traps or fast enough to outrun their rock steeds. The best they could do was dive back underground, but the Hunters were willing to wait for them to come back to the surface. Bone Hunters were nothing if not patient.
“Tell me,” said Malum.
Ackar laid out everything they knew, which wasn’t much. He finished by saying there was a Bone Hunter camp to the east, most likely a place for them to prepare their attack on Vulcanus. “They’re getting bolder,” he said. And if they can take out a village today, they can take out your ‘kingdom’ tomorrow.”
Malum climbed down the mountainside in silence. As he approached the Glatorian, the Vorox parted to let him pass. “I care nothing about Vulcanus. Let it burn. But I would see the Bone Hunters burn first. What would you have us do?”
Gresh staggered into Tesara, leading his sand stalker. The animal had been just short of collapsing a few miles back, so the only way to get it to the village alive was to dismount and take it slow. He handed the reins to an Agori and headed for the arena.
The village’s veteran Glatorian, Vastus, was in the middle of a practice session. He had been training nonstop since Atero had fallen. He was determined that Tesara would not meet the same fate.
He seemed surprised to see Gresh approaching. “I thought you were on your way to Vulcanus. What happened? Match get cancelled?”
“The village has bigger problems,” Gresh replied. He gratefully accepted a cup of water Vastus offered. It tasted like sand and iron, but he drank it down in one gulp anyway.
“With one Glatorian to fight for them, I’m not surprised,” Vastus laughed.
“Actually, it’s three now. Ackar, Gelu… and me. I’m hoping you’ll join us.” Gresh explained the threat to the village of fire as rapidly as he could.
When he was done, Vastus shook his head. “It’s a bluff. Don’t you see? The Bone Hunters want you to think they are going after Vulcanus, so they conveniently drop a map. But what they really intend to do is hit another village – Tajun maybe, or here. I won’t leave Tesara undefended… and your place is here, too.”
“What if you’re wrong?” asked Gresh.
“Then Tesara will be safe,” Vastus answered. “And we’ll open our gates to any refugees from Vulcanus who come our way. Listen, Gresh, the people in this village rely on us to help and protect them. We don’t do that by worrying about other places and other tribes – let them worry about themselves.”
“We’re all on the same world,” Gresh shot back. “What happens to them affects us, too.”
“No. This is our world – this, right here, shrouded in vines and too close to Roxtus for my liking. We both saw Atero crumble. Well, not again, not to my village.”
Gresh threw the cup on the ground. “But you’re fine with it happening to someone else’s,” he said, walking away. “Sorry I wasted your time.”
“This is a waste of time.”
Tarix glanced at Kiina. It wasn’t the first time she had said that. Knowing her, he was pretty sure it wouldn’t be the last.
The two were riding slowly across the sands, their eyes fixed on the ground around them. The two Glatorian of Tajun had been sent to investigate an Agori report that a small herd of wild rock steeds were in the area. Penned in and tamed, the animals would be valuable for trade. Left to run wild, they could cause enormous damage.
“Maybe,” he answered. “We’ll give it a little more time, though. It won’t look good if we turn around now and then lose a few Agori to hungry steeds, right?”
“We’re Glatorian,” grumbled Kiina. “We’re fighters – not scouts, not law enforcers, and not animal handlers. If they want me in the arena, fine. Otherwise, leave me alone.”
Tarix sighed. He understood how Kiina felt. No one wanted the world as it was. And people like Kiina just wanted to get away, somewhere, anywhere. But there was no place to go. The only answer was to make the best of the world they had.
They were a good few miles outside of the village now. It made Tarix a little nervous. With all the Bone Hunter activity around Tajun lately, he didn’t like straying too far from the village. One raid and the whole place could go up in flames.
“I don’t see any tracks,” he admitted finally. “Maybe the Agori was wrong, or the herd has already moved on.”
“Well, something came through here,” Kiina answered. “Look over there.”
Tarix saw what she was talking about. Off to the east, there were what looked like dark smudges on the sand. As the two Glatorian rode closer, the objects became more distinct. Both jumped off their sand stalkers and raced toward the site, launchers drawn.
Kiina knelt down to examine their find. Two Glatorian lay dead in the sand. There was no sign of their mounts, but there were tracks of sand stalkers and rock steeds all around. A broken Bone Hunter sword lay half buried in a dune nearby.
“They’re from Vulcanus, but I don’t know them,” she said. “This had to have happened last night. What were they doing way out here after dark?”
Tarix turned in a slow circle, checking out their surroundings. There was no sign of the Bone Hunters or anyone else. Whoever had done this was long gone.
“I don’t know. But maybe someone in Vulcanus does,” said Tarix. “We’ll take these two back to Tajun and bury them. Then one of us better head to their village and let them know they’ve lost two Glatorian.”
“I’ll go,” said Kiina. “You keep watch on the village. If there’s any trouble, send someone out to bring me back.”
Tarix looked toward the eastern peaks and said quietly, “You might be better off if you just keep on riding. If we get the kind of trouble I expect, one Glatorian more or less won’t matter.”
Kiina didn’t need to ask him what he meant. All she had to do was look at the Bone Hunter blade in the sand.