Ackar could tell the Bone Hunters were feeling confident. It wasn’t that they had fires burning in their camp at night, visible for miles around. It wasn’t even that they were talking and laughing among themselves, heedless of how sound carried in the desert. No, it was the strong smell wafting from their encampment that made it obvious that they did not think anyone to fear was around.
The spiky Thornax spheres fired from the launchers most Glatorian carried were not Agori-made, despite their appearance. They were, in fact, the fruit of a rare plant that grew in the deserts of Bara Magna. When allowed to ripen and grow hard, a Thornax became a powerful missile weapon, with spikes capable of tearing open armor.
Picked early in their development and boiled, Thornax could be softened enough to be eaten. The fruit was greasy and rubbery, the taste was foul, and the odor was worse. But for those who lived out in the wastelands, it was a delicacy. Bone Hunters picked Thornax in their travels and cooked it up into a particularly revolting kind of stew. It was that which Ackar smelled on the breeze.
Gelu and Malum stood on either side of him. There was no sign of any of the Vorox, but that was to be expected. Vorox did not march forth in armies. They burrowed under the ground and relied on taking enemies by surprise.
The two Glatorian had spent the day in Malum’s cave, planning strategy. Now and then, Malum would start ranting about his treatment by the villagers of Vulcanus. Gelu would give Ackar a look that said, “Are we sure about this guy?” but he already knew the answer was “No.”
Ackar crouched down and eyed the Bone Hunter camp. It was a cold night, even for Bara Magna, and the wind cut through his armor like a rusty blade. The long, mournful howls of dune wolves could be heard in the distance. The sounds were a summons to the pack, a signal that the hunt was about to begin.
“Everyone remember the plan?” said Ackar, rising. “We move fast, and we take out as many of them as we can.”
Malum looked up sharply. “In my first week in the wastes, the Bone Hunters came down on me. They took my food, my water, and would have taken me if I had not been skilled with a blade. Any plan that involves their deaths is one I can easily remember.”
“Umm, good,” Ackar said. “If we can drive off some of their rock steeds, great. But the point is to make them cautious, wary, worried about more attacks later. A cautious Bone Hunter moves slowly, and that buys Vulcanus time.”
At Ackar’s signal, the three Glatorian moved off to take up their positions. Ten seconds later, there was a shrill whistle and the desert exploded with violence.
Vorox burrowed up out of the ground around the Bone Hunter camp. Rock steeds reared, their scorpion tails flashing, as the bestial warriors appeared in their midst. Caught by surprise, the Bone Hunters struggled to mount a defense against the ferocious attack. The Vorox took down half a dozen Hunters in as many seconds, but the remaining formed a line and fired their Thornax launchers. The spiked missiles tore through the ranks of the Vorox, killing some and wounding many more. But the strongest effect was to make the attackers bellow with rage and surge forward again.
A few of the wiser Hunters made it to their steeds and rode out of the camp. Ackar heard one of them yell and knew he must have ridden right to where Malum was waiting in ambush. To his right, Gelu was locked in combat with a couple more Hunters who were trying to escape the Vorox attack on foot.
Ackar mounted his sand stalker and charged the line of Bone Hunter marksmen. He smashed into them from behind, scattering them like grains of sand in a storm, then wheeled around and did it again. This time, the Hunters were ready. A slash from a sword almost unseated Ackar, but he held on to the reins until he was clear of the camp.
When he turned his mount around, he saw one of the Bone Hunters darting toward the campfire and throwing something in. The next moment, the small fire erupted, turning into a white-hot blaze twenty times its original size. Under the cover of the flames, the Bone Hunters counterattacked. This time, the Vorox broke, fleeing into the desert or trying to retreat back into their tunnels. The Bone Hunters pursued, cutting them down as they fled. Malum rode in to defend his followers, fighting hard to cover their retreat.
Deciding they had done what they could here, Ackar rode to where Gelu was still struggling with two Hunters. He charged into the fray, knocking both Hunters to the ground, then scooped Gelu onto the back of his mount. Together, they rode from the burning campsite. Then Gelu leapt from Ackar’s sand stalker to his own, and they headed back to Malum’s cave.
Malum was already there when they arrived, surrounded by the remnants of his force. Many Vorox had been lost in the fight, many more wounded, but Malum seemed satisfied. “We have dealt them a blow,” he said, pride in his tone. “They will not lightly pass through our region again. Now they know the jaws of a Vorox bite deep!”
The battered Vorox raised their weapons in the air and roared. Ackar and Gelu both felt chills run through them.
“The Hunters will almost certainly come looking for revenge,” said Ackar. “Maybe not now, but they won’t let this go unpunished. Watch your back, Malum.”
“They will not find us,” the exiled Glatorian replied. “We can disappear like a single grain of sand in a vast desert.”
“You’re sure you won’t help us defend Vulcanus?” asked Ackar. “We could use your sword.”
Malum shook his head. “Those days are past. But I wish you strength in the battle to come.”
“Thank you,” said Ackar.
Malum turned to Gelu, reaching out to grasp the Glatorian’s sword arm. “Die well, warrior.”
“Right. Sure,” Gelu answered, gently pulling away. “Likewise.”
Ackar and Gelu rode from the camp as dawn broke over Bara Magna. Both were tired and sore, with the real fight still ahead of them. But this first skirmish had been won.
Raanu watched as Agori villagers placed rocks atop a makeshift wall along the western edge of Vulcanus. Since the discovery of the map, he had ordered all other work to be stopped and every resident to start constructing walls both inside and outside the village. What had existed up to now was enough to keep desert creatures away, but wouldn’t slow down a Bone Hunters’ raiding party or a Skrall attack.
He glanced at the map again. Yes, he decided, his strategy made perfect sense. The Bone Hunters would be attacking from the north and west. They could never make it through the sea of sand to the south, and treacherous Iron Canyon to the east. No sane military expedition would choose to go through its dark and winding pathways.
A cry went up from one of the villagers. Raanu looked up to see a blue-armored Glatorian riding in. He recognized Kiina immediately and went to greet her.
“You got our message, then?” he said. His smile faded at the look in her eyes.
“No,” Kiina replied. She reached into her pack and tossed him a few fragments of broken weaponry. “I got your messengers. Or, rather, the Bone Hunters did. What were you thinking, sending them out in the middle of the night?”
Raanu flinched at the angry tone in her voice. Still, her reaction was no surprise. Kiina was fiercely protective of her fellow Glatorian. Villages that put them in reckless danger, or worse, didn’t pay on time, could always expect to hear from her.
He hurriedly explained the situation. As he did, her expression changed from furious to concerned to grim. She dismounted and walked over to him.
“You need to leave Vulcanus. Now,” she said, keeping her voice just above a whisper. “No one respects Ackar more than I do, but he’s wrong. A handful of Glatorian won’t stop a Bone Hunter raid. They’ll just add to the body count.”
Raanu turned away. Deep down, he knew she was probably right. But Gelu and Ackar had given him hope that the village could be defended. It wasn’t just the loss of homes or resources he worried about. If they started running now, where would it stop?
“I’ve thought about that,” he said, his voice flat. “But what happens when we run out of desert to hide in? The Bone Hunters will track and kill us all, and all we will have bought ourselves is a few extra weeks or months to live like cowards. I’d rather fight and die, here and now, than die by inches on the run.”
“And your people? What about them?” asked Kiina, her words cracking like a whip. “What if they would prefer a chance at life, rather than certain death? Who are you to make this decision for them?”
Raanu turned to face her, his body shaking with barely contained rage. “I am the leader of this village! These people have placed their trust in me, and I will do what I think is best. I owe it to them to let them fight and die standing straight and tall like Agori, not slinking away into the night like rock jackals. If you don’t want to help, get back on your animal and leave our village.”
Before Kiina could answer, the muffled sound of sand stalker hoofbeats came from behind her. She drew her weapon and spun, ready for a Bone Hunter attack. To her relief, it was just Ackar and Gelu riding in. They and their mounts looked exhausted.
“We slowed them down,” Gelu reported, “with a little help from Malum.”
“Malum?” Raanu said. There was both surprise and contempt in his voice.
“Yeah,” Gelu said, leaping down from his beast. “He’s a little weird – make that, a lot weird – but he came through for you when it counted.”
“It’s good to see you, Kiina,” said Ackar. He dismounted and handed his sand stalker off to an Agori, who would give it food and water.
“I wish I could say the same,” she answered. “Why are you telling these people they can save their village? You know what Bone Hunters can do.”
“Yes, I do,” said Ackar. “But if we run from them, what do we do when the Skrall come? We might as well give up our weapons now, kneel down, and wait for them to take our heads off.”
Ackar reached out and took her hand. “I know you don’t think much of Bara Magna,” he said, a little more gently. “But it’s the only world we have. I’m not going to let scum like the Bone Hunters have it without a fight.”
“And the fight’s coming,” Gelu added. “They’re moving slow, probably on the lookout for more Vorox attacks, but only a couple days away at most.”
“They know we have the map,” said Ackar “You would think they would come at us full speed, before we can prepare for them.”
“Maybe they aren’t worried about us preparing,” said Gelu. “They don’t think we can stop them. It wouldn’t be the first time Bone Hunters were overconfident.”
“They have no need to rush,” Ackar observed. “Vulcanus isn’t going anywhere.”
“Well, if we want to keep it that way, we’d better get to work,” said Gelu.
Hours passed as the Glatorian helped the Agori strengthen the village’s defenses. After standing aside and watching for a while, Kiina finally shrugged her shoulders and pitched in, as Ackar knew she would. They had been friends a long time. She wouldn’t let him face this alone, even if she would never admit it.
“Thanks,” said Ackar. “There’s no one I’d rather have beside me in a fight.”
Kiina looked away, so Ackar wouldn’t see her smile. In her gruffest tone, she said, “Save it. I’m only doing this because maybe the fight here will take down enough Bone Hunters and they’ll leave Tajun alone for a while. Not because I think we have any hope of winning.”
“Your optimism is a joy to behold,” muttered Gelu.
“Riders!” shouted an Agori guard.
The three Glatorian rushed to the western walls. Gresh was on his way in, riding alongside an Iconox Glatorian named Strakk and a few others from Tesara that no one recognized. Ackar guessed they were apprentices.
Gelu pulled Gresh aside as soon as he was off his stalker. “You got Strakk to come? How did you manage that?”
“I told him Vulcanus is sitting on top of a fortune in high quality exsidian,” Gresh whispered. “And that we get to divvy it up among ourselves if we beat the Bone Hunters.”
“What? They haven’t had exsidian in Vulcanus in fifteen thousand years at least,” Gelu said. “Everyone knows that.”
“Everyone but Strakk,” Gresh smiled. “You know him, he won’t pick up a sword unless there’s a reward involved. So I let him think there was one.”
“What happens when he finds out that Vulcanus is sitting on top of nothing but sand and rock?”
Gresh ran a finger along the edge of his shield, testing its sharpness. When he was satisfied, he looked at Gelu and said, “If we live long enough for that to happen… I’ll worry about it then.”
The Tesaran fighter headed for where Ackar stood with the others. Gelu followed behind. “News,” Gresh said. “I met up with an Agori on the way here. He said the Skrall tipped him to the Bone Hunter’s plan of attack.”
“What was an Agori doing talking to Skrall?” asked Ackar, clearly skeptical.
“It was right before the Skrall raid on Atero,” Gresh answered. “He was recruiting Glatorian for Raanu. After all, the village is undefended whenever you’re traveling for a match, Ackar. Anyway, this Agori was nuts enough to think a Skrall would help out. What’s even crazier is that the Skrall hands over a Bone Hunter battle plan – says he ‘found’ it.”
“Sounds like a trick,” said Ackar. “Even before Atero, the Skrall had no reason to help Agori.”
Strakk laughed. “But they might have had a reason to hurt the Bone Hunters. Now that the Skrall are in the raiding business, aren’t the Hunters competition?”
“Well, the Skrall are sneaky,” he agreed. “And Strakk knows sneaky, if anyone does. What did this Agori have to say?”
Gresh picked up a stick and drew a quick map of Vulcanus and the surrounding area in the sand. On the eastern side of the circle that represented the village, he drew a series of short, sharp lines.
“They’re going to attack from the east, not the north and west like we thought,” he said. “They’re coming through Iron Canyon.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Raanu. He grabbed the stick away from Gresh and added his own lines and crosses to the path Gresh had sketched out. “Stone falls, narrow twists and turns, paths so steep even a rock steed wouldn’t try them… they would have to be insane to take that route.”
Ackar crouched down and looked more closely at the map. Then he glanced to the east. The sun was at his back, its rays illuminating the jagged peaks that made up the canyon. Anyone who knew the Vulcanus region knew how treacherous Iron Canyon could be. He had once fought a month-long battle there, in the days before the disaster that rocked the entire planet. It turned into a lethal game of hide-and-find, as two armies crept though passages too narrow for more than one warrior to pass through at a time. If the leader of the column got killed, he would block the path, leaving all those behind him exposed to the spears and arrows of the enemy in pursuit.
The veteran fighter stood and walked across the village to the rim of the canyon, the other Glatorian following silently behind. He looked down at the vast expanse, still able to hear the shouts of the wounded and see the bodies of the fallen. No one who had lived through the battles of Iron Canyon could look at the place and see just piles of rock and a dried-up riverbed.
It was a killing ground.
Ackar picked up a rock and threw it into the canyon, listening to the sharp crack as it ricocheted off the face of a peak. “Attacking from this direction is ridiculous and crazy and something no sane raider would do,” he said. “That’s exactly why they’re doing it… because it’s the last thing we would expect.”
“All our defenses face the north and west,” Raanu said, a trace of fear in his voice now. “If they come from the east… Ackar, we have to get to work. We have to build new walls along the canyon rim, and –”
“No,” said Ackar. “Leave everything as it is.”
Kiina nodded her agreement. “He’s right. Let them think they’ve surprised us.”
Ackar regarded her, a small smile creeping onto his lips. ‘“Us’? Does that mean you’re staying?”
Kiina shrugged, refusing to look at him. “Well, if you’re all determined to get yourselves killed and leave me with having to spread the news, forget it. I hate playing messenger. I’d rather go out fighting and let someone else tell the tales.”
Gelu scanned the canyon, then looked at Gresh. “What do you think?”
Gresh idly kicked some pebbles and watched them fall into the canyon. “I think the Bone Hunters are about to make a very big mistake,” he said. “And we’re going to help them make it.”
Fero growled a curse at the other members of his raiding party. Since they had broken camp, Hunters kept riding off into the wastes to slay Vorox or Zesk. Ordinarily, Fero didn’t mind a little recreational killing, but it was slowing down the march. Not to mention that losing the Hunters on his flanks put the rest of the squad in danger.
“Forget the beasts,” he snapped. “There will be time to settle with them later.”
“We waste time,” one of the younger Hunters muttered. “Vulcanus has nothing we need, yet we prepare to strike it. Bone Hunters should not be a club to be wielded by another.”
There was a low rumble of agreement among the ranks. It was an open secret that the decision to attack Vulcanus was not one made by the Bone Hunter leaders alone – they had been “pointed” in that direction by a helpful new ally. Fero had to admit he had his own questions about that. Who benefited the most from this raid? Were the Bone Hunters being used?
As Fero, veteran Bone Hunter, he could have these thoughts. As assigned leader of the raid, he could not allow himself to question the task – or let anyone else question it, either. He wheeled Skirmix and rode up to the young Hunter. Moving almost too swiftly for the eye to follow, he drew his blade and struck, killing the rebellious youth. Then he kicked the corpse off the back of its rock steed and watched it hit the sand with a dull thud.
Fero looked up from the body and glanced at the faces of his raiding party, one after another. Some had glared defiance, but quickly masked the expression. Others could not meet his eyes at all.
“Anyone else with something to say?” he asked. There was cold steel in his voice.
No one answered. Satisfied, Fero returned to his place at the front of the column. “Then we ride,” he said.