Seated atop his makeshift throne, Tuma smiled.
In his time as leader of the Skrall, he had faced victories and defeats. The years had hardened him and taught him a great deal. He had learned that a wise ruler does not waste his own people in a war if he can trick others into doing the fighting for him. He had also learned that razor-sharp cunning could cut deeper than any blade.
These past weeks had been his masterpiece in a long career of deception, manipulation, and conquest. First, he had managed to rein in his Skrall warriors who wanted to raid, kill, and raze the Agori villages from the start. Tuma counseled patience. First, he wanted to see the strength of the Glatorian and how unified the villages were. He played along with the villages, dutifully sending his Skrall to fight in the arena for things they were more than strong enough to seize.
Once he realized the villages were fractured, he carried out an experiment. He secretly helped the Bone Hunters “discover” that a trade caravan was headed for the village of Tajun. The Hunters, naturally, raided it. More such tips led to more raids, with neither the Agori nor the Bone Hunters knowing the information was coming from the Skrall. Instead of coming to the aid of Tajun, the other villages tried to profit from their misery and happily took control of resources when their Glatorian beat Tajun’s in the arena. That was an important lesson – an Agori village would not go out of its way to defend another from attack.
Tuma had another weapon in his arsenal about which the villages knew nothing. One of the Agori had betrayed his people. He was feeding information to the Skrall, and then from the Skrall to the Bone Hunters. The Hunters used that information to strike where it would hurt the Agori most: their caravans and their resource-gathering sites. The result was that the Glatorian and Agori focused on the Bone Hunters as their most dangerous enemy, ignoring the real threat of the Skrall until it was too late. The fall of Atero took the Agori completely by surprise. But instead of uniting against a common foe, each village just built higher walls to protect itself. And none of them realized that their worst enemy was behind those walls, one of them.
His musings were interrupted by the arrival of Stronius. As one of the very few Skrall warriors to be honored with an actual name, Stronius commanded respect from the other residents of Roxtus. His support of Tuma’s plans had helped quell any discontent among the other warriors.
“It’s done,” said Stronius. “The Bone Hunters’ battle plans are in the hands of the Vulcanus Glatorian, as you wished. Leader… with all faith in your wisdom and power… I wonder if –”
“You wonder why I would risk Vulcanus knowing the Bone Hunters will attack from the east?” Tuma finished for him. The Skrall leader grasped his sword and rose. He towered above Stronius.
“No, I wouldn’t question, only…” Stronius hesitated. His choice of words here might be the difference between getting an answer to a puzzle that plagued him and getting his head cut off. “Don’t you want Vulcanus to fall?”
Tuma’s eyes narrowed for a moment and his grip tightened on his weapon. Then, deciding that Stronius was simply asking for information, not seeking to challenge his authority, he relaxed. “Vulcanus is a test,” he said. “I already know my Skrall can sack a village – they proved that in Atero. But can the Bone Hunters do the same? That is what I wish to find out. By arranging for Raanu and his people to expect the attack, I have simply made the test a little harder.”
The Skrall leader smiled again, the broad, predatory grin of a sun-rock dragon. “If the Bone Hunters win, Vulcanus is eliminated as a player in this game and there are that many fewer Glatorian to oppose us. If the Hunters lose, their ranks will have been thinned and they won’t be making plans of rebellion.”
Tuma brushed past Stronius and headed for the exit to the courtyard. “Either way… as it always has been, as it always will be… the Skrall win.”
“Squeeze,” said Kiina. “Don’t pull. Squeeze.”
The Tajun Glatorian was standing over an Agori, who was lying on his stomach on the ground near the canyon’s rim. In the Agori’s hands was a Thornax launcher, the same kind used by the Glatorian. As actual Thornax were going to be needed for the coming battle, the launcher was loaded with rocks.
The target for the budding marksman was a small pile of rocks atop a nearby peak. So far, he’d had a hard time just hitting the mountain, let alone anything on the mountain. This time, though, he was sure he would do it. He yanked back on the trigger, the weapon jerked up in the air, and the rock went flying… straight up. Kiina pulled him out of the way before his shot could come back down and smack him on the head.
“I said, squeeze!” snapped Kiina. “You’re not ripping a fireroot out of the ground. When the Bone Hunters come through, every shot is going to count.”
“I know,” said the Agori. “I’m sorry. I just… I don’t know how to fight.”
Kiina’s tone softened. “I know. Must be nice.”
She reached down and gently took the launcher away from him. “Can you use a knife? Go talk to Gresh. He’s going to need people to cut the vines at the right moment.”
The Agori smiled, scrambled to his feet, and hurried off. Kiina watched him go. The Agori as a whole had a lot of enthusiasm for this fight. Had it really been so long that they no longer remembered what war was like? She wondered how many sunrises some Vulcanus villagers had left to see.
Forcing the thought from her mind, she handed the launcher off to the next Agori in line. “Now, squeeze the control. Understand?”
Not far away, Gresh was hard at work with his own team of Agori. They had been doing hard labor all day, hauling up rocks from the floor of the canyon to the slopes. Each rock was placed inside a net made of fireroot vine, which was stretched between two peaks. In addition to being flameproof, fireroot was incredibly strong, so the net could hold tons of stone.
The trap itself was simple. When the Bone Hunters rode through this part of the canyon, an Agori would cut the vines so that the rocks would fall on the invaders far below. There were two things that made the execution of the plan tricky. The first was timing – cut the vine too early or too late, and the rocks would miss. The second was that fireroot could be extremely difficult to cut. The villager on watch would have only a few seconds to slice through it.
“It’s all in the wrist,” said Gresh, demonstrating on a spare piece of vine. He flicked his dagger and cut through the thick tendril easily. “Now you try.”
Metus gave Gresh an uncertain glance and then took the knife from him. The Agori did his best to duplicate the Glatorian’s move, but the blade got stuck halfway through the vine. Metus tried to wrestle it free, but couldn’t. Standing off to the side waiting for his turn, Raanu couldn’t help laughing. Metus shot him a glare.
“If you want more fighters for your arena, you’ll knock it off,” Metus growled.
“Oh, relax,” smiled Raanu. “You ice tribe sorts are used to breaking icicles, not anything that requires real muscle.”
The leader of Vulcanus took the knife from Metus’s hand and severed the fireroot in one clean stroke. “See? Easy.”
“Yeah. Right,” Metus answered. “Think I’ll go find somebody a little more my style to work with, like Gelu or Strakk.” The Agori paused, looking around. “Hey… where is Strakk, anyway?”
For the sixth time in the last hour, Ackar surveyed the canyon. The Glatorian and Agori had done their work well. Rock falls were set up in numerous places, some controlled from up above, some connected to trip wires. And if the Hunters made it to the village, well, there would be a few surprises waiting for them there as well.
Ackar had planned as best he could, but he couldn’t escape the feeling that he had missed something. This kind of doubt was nothing new for him. As he grew older, he found winning in the arena was getting more difficult. He tired a little more easily and it took longer to recover from injuries. Younger, stronger fighters were pushing him to his limit in matches.
It was only natural, he supposed. He had been fighting in the arena for many years. Time, they said, was the only enemy a Glatorian couldn’t beat. Eventually, even the best fighter would lose a little bit of his speed and his reflexes, maybe lose a little power behind his blows. One day, he would be beating anyone who challenged him. The next, he could be losing to backstabbing little creeps like Strakk. And the day after that, his village wouldn’t need him anymore. If he were lucky, they would run him out for unimportant fights. If he wasn’t, he’d become a wanderer, hiring his sword out for a hot meal or a place to sleep.
Ackar was determined that would not happen to him. He’d rather die in battle with the Bone Hunters than end up pitied by another Glatorian. He refused to wind up like Malum – I’m old, but not crazy, he reminded himself.
Weapon in hand, he headed back to the central shelter in the village. It was time to hone his blade to a razor-sharp edge. Perhaps that would make up for the edge he was no longer certain he had.
That night, the four Glatorian – Gelu, Gresh, Kiina, and Ackar – and Raanu sat around a table in the shelter. They had finished their evening meal and talk had quieted down. They had gone over the plan so often that Kiina was sure she would be reciting it in her sleep.
Strakk’s absence worried Gresh more than he wanted to admit. He had been responsible for bringing the Iconox fighter to Vulcanus. He didn’t know Strakk all that well, having only traveled the desert with him a time or two, but he knew some of the stories about him weren’t pleasant. Strakk was good in a fight, that was true, but he was also all about profit. If the Bone Hunters offered him a better price than he thought he might get for Vulcanus’ “treasure,” would he sell out the village? It bothered Gresh that he didn’t know the answer to that question.
Outside, sharp-eyed villagers kept watch on the canyon. Fires had been doused in the village so the light would not outline the figures of the Agori and give their positions away. No one spoke or made a noise of any kind. Every sentry clutched his weapon and waited for the sound of rock steeds galloping across the sand.
“Tomorrow, you think, then?” Raanu asked, for the third time.
“If not tonight,” replied Ackar. His tone was surprisingly gentle. He understood why Raanu was so anxious. They were all tense. Snapping at the village leader would achieve nothing.
“They should have been here by now,” Gelu said. “Unless that fight with the Vorox really rattled them. If it were anyone other than Bone Hunters, I would think they had turned back and gone home.”
Kiina chuckled. “If they went back empty-handed, it would be the last trip they ever made.”
“They’re coming,” Ackar said firmly. “Bone Hunters finish what they start.”
Raanu swallowed hard. Now that the fight was almost here, he was having doubts. What if the plan failed? What if the Glatorian fled, leaving the villagers to the mercy of the Bone Hunters? Maybe fighting wasn’t the best idea, after all.
“Listen,” Raanu said, his eyes fixed on the floor. “The Bone Hunters just want to steal from us, like they have done before. They will ride in, take our food and anything else of value, and leave. If we stay out of their way, no one gets hurt. But if we try to fight… they could kill us all.”
“They could,” agreed Ackar.
“And burn the village to the ground,” said Raanu.
“Most likely,” answered Ackar.
There was a long silence. Raanu never lifted his eyes to meet Ackar’s gaze.
“Do you want us to leave?” Ackar asked finally. “We can grab our weapons and ride out tonight. You can leave the traps alone and just let the Bone Hunters ride in… if that’s what you really want.”
Raanu shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “It’s not… but I have to think of my people. If all the Hunters want are food and supplies…”
“That’s not all they want.” The voice belonged to Strakk, who was standing in the doorway, smiling. He advanced a step into the room and kicked the door shut behind him. “Not by a long shot.”
The assembled Glatorian looked at him; some surprised, some angry. Strakk glanced at each of them, his grin growing broader. Then he returned his attention to Raanu. “Listen, little Agori. The Bone Hunters don’t want your scraps of food, your cobbled-together tools, or your patchwork weapons. They want your lives.”
Ackar shot up, furious. “If you know something, Strakk, say it. Otherwise, get out.”
Strakk sat down, propping his feet up on the table. Kiina knocked them off with a swipe of her armored hand.
“I’ve had a long day,” she said. “Don’t make it longer.”
“Well, it’s like this,” said Strakk, sounding very satisfied with himself. “This afternoon, I decided to go out scouting for the Bone Hunters… you know, get an idea of how close they were, how many, that sort of thing.”
Gelu looked at Strakk in disbelief. Then he shook his head and said to the others, “He was running away.”
Strakk ignored the jibe. “So there I was, riding along, and I spot the Bone Hunters just up ahead. I figured, great opportunity, so I snuck closer to try and hear what they were saying. Naturally, they didn’t see me – no one does, unless I want to be seen.”
Gelu snorted. “He was hiding. He’s good at that.”
This time, Strakk shot him a nasty look, as if challenging Gelu to say something else. Then he went on with his story. “As I was saying… I overheard them talking. They didn’t say anything about looting Vulcanus. They talked about wiping it off the map.”
Raanu stiffened, but whether with fear or new resolve, no one present could tell.
“Naturally, when I heard that, I rode back here to warn you all,” Strakk finished.
“The Bone Hunters were between him and Iconox,” said Gelu. “So he had to turn around and come back.”
Strakk leapt up, weapon in hand, and kicked his chair across the room. Gelu got up, too, ready to fight. Kiina got between them before a blow could be landed. “Only if you want to dance with me first,” she said to Strakk. The look in her eyes acted like a bucket of cold water on Strakk’s hot temper, and he backed off a step.
Kiina glanced over her shoulder at Gelu. “Sit down. We don’t have time for this.”
Gelu shrugged and walked away. Kiina gave Strakk a little shove toward the opposite side of the room. “It sounds like we have enough people that want to kill us,” she said, “without us doing it to each other.”
“That’s it, then,” said Gresh. “Now we know what we’re up against.”
“Raanu? It’s your village,” said Ackar. “Your call. Fight or run?”
“They want to kill us,” Raanu said softly. “We, who have never harmed them… all we’ve tried to do is live our lives and make it through each day. And if they win here, this will just be the start.”
He rose and looked Ackar right in the eye.
“No. We fight. With you or without you, we fight.”
Ackar nodded. Then he turned to his fellow Glatorian. “All right, then. Any of you who wants to leave, now’s the time. No one will think any less of you.”
Kiina gave Strakk a hard look, saying, “Don’t even think about it.”
“I’m in,” said Gresh. “If the Agori want my help, I won’t walk away.”
All eyes turned to Gelu then. Defending the village had been his suggestion in the first place, but now he felt his mouth go dry and his gut grow cold. What Strakk had revealed meant almost certain death for anyone who stayed in Vulcanus.
But Gelu also knew Ackar was wrong about one thing: the other Glatorian would think less of anyone who left. Even if none of them lived long, they would go to their graves thinking that he was a coward if he fled. Gelu was afraid, but he was no coward.
“Sure, why not?” he said, trying to sound casual about the whole thing. “I don’t have anything planned for this week anyhow.”
Ackar turned to the Glatorian from Tajun. “Kiina?”
“This is completely crazy, you know that,” Kiina said.
“Completely,” Ackar agreed.
“It’s not like the Agori are suddenly going to look at us like we’re heroes,” she continued. “We’ll still be just the hired help to them.”
“Most likely,” Ackar said, nodding.
“Best we’re going to do is slow the Bone Hunters down a little… maybe give them something to think about the next time.”
“That’s probably the best we’ll do,” said Ackar. “Are you in or out?”
Kiina gave him a long look. “We’ve fought in the arena how many times, Ackar? Sometimes I win, sometimes you win. I want to make sure I get another chance to knock you down in the arena. I’m in.”
That left Strakk. He looked around the room, being careful to avoid Kiina’s gaze. “I’ve done a lot,” he said. “Without me, you would think they were just coming here to raid you. Anyway, I was thinking I might be of more use riding out to find reinforcements. Of course, I’d like to stay with you –”
“Good,” Ackar cut him off. “Then you will.”
He turned to the others. “Get some rest. I want everyone in position before dawn. Let’s give those Bone Hunters a fight they’ll remember.”