Fero led his Bone Hunters into Iron Canyon. “Be watchful,” he ordered. “This place is more treacherous than a sun serpent.”
The unspoken question among the other Hunters was why they were there at all. The question was valid – but after what happened to the last of their number who talked out of turn no one would ask it again. Fero knew that they could have just ridden in from the west, across open desert, and overwhelmed any Agori defenses they encountered. But that wasn’t the point.
The Agori were already on edge after what happened to Atero. Once Vulcanus fell, they would panic. Trade would drop to nothing. New walls would go up everywhere. Arena matches would stop as each village armed its Glatorian and used them for defense. Raids would get more difficult and more costly. That meant Bone Hunters had to get used to doing things the hard way, with a little more strategy and a little less charging across the sand right at the enemy.
As they rode single file along the narrow trails, Fero scanned the peaks on both sides, looking for traps. He saw no sign of any new defenses. The first rays of morning sun did not reflect off the armor or weapons of warriors hidden among the rocks. It was just as he expected. The Agori would never dream of anyone attacking from this maze of rock.
Let the hunt begin, thought Fero.
Despite his keen eyes, Fero had indeed missed something. Hidden high among the peaks was a single Agori from Vulcanus. The villager’s own eyes widened as he saw the column of Bone Hunters entering the canyon. He hadn’t really believed until this moment that they were truly planning to invade his village. Now that they were here, he knew what to do.
He cupped his mouth with his hands and made the cry of a sand bat. The cry would be picked up and carried along the line of Agori watchpoints until the message was received in Vulcanus itself. The meaning of it was simple: the Bone Hunters are coming.
The mock creature cry set off a flurry of activity in the village. Agori grabbed their tools and took up their stations around and inside their shelters. Ackar, Strakk, and Kiina readied themselves for the fight that was to come.
“It’s all up to Gresh and Gelu now,” said Ackar.
“Why doesn’t that fill me with confidence?” Strakk muttered.
“You just better hope the Bone Hunters don’t fill you with Thornax,” Kiina said, smiling.
“And ruin my good looks?” Strakk replied. “They wouldn’t dare.”
Fero heard the repeated sand bat cries, each one farther away than the one before. He slowed Skirmix to a walk, and listened. There were no other sounds. He frowned, troubled.
One sand bat in a place like Iron Canyon was no great surprise, but four or five? Impossible. With its voracious appetite, a lone sand bat could decimate the wildlife in a region. For that reason, two or more sand bats never lived anywhere close to each other.
Something was wrong.
“Eyes on the rocks,” he barked. “If anything moves, kill it.”
The three dozen Bone Hunters that traveled with Fero immediately began sweeping their eyes up the slopes on both sides of the trail. Too late, one spotted the glint of a dagger high among the rocks, to the left and just behind the column. Before the Bone Hunter could fire his Thornax launcher, the Agori villager took his knife and sliced through a fireroot vine. The next moment, a half ton of rock rolled down the slope, sealing the canyon exit.
The rock steeds hissed and reared up in surprise. Clouds of stone dust billowed forth, blinding and choking the Bone Hunters. Fero cursed and ordered his men to get their mounts under control and get moving.
Up above, his job done, the Agori scrambled across the peaks and headed for his next post. By the time the dust cleared enough for the Bone Hunters to take a shot at him, he was already out of range.
Fero wheeled Skirmix to look at the damage. Their way back out of the canyon was now fully blocked. There was no choice but to go forward, into the village of Vulcanus. He had no illusions what that meant. The Agori would not be trying to drive his squad forward unless there were more traps waiting further along.
Very well then, he thought. We will march through their petty snares and right into their village. And when we leave it, there won’t be two stones left standing together.
Up ahead, Gelu made ready for the Bone Hunters’ arrival. His trap was modeled after something the Iconox villagers had used for years to stop marauding mountain worms. Granted, there it was carved from ice and made over the course of weeks, and here it was wood, rock, and fire-root slapped together. But he had faith the effect would be the same.
It was a simple device. Four long shafts of wood were laid out on the ground, then two more laid across them to form a latticework. Fireroot was used to lash them together. Pieces of volcanic rock sharpened to a point were then fitted into each of the joints. Finally, the whole construct was hauled up the side of a peak and tied to the rock with vine. When the vine was cut… things would get interesting.
Of course, if it didn’t work, it was doubtful Gelu would live long enough to worry about it. It was funny – even in his time as a paid guard for caravans, he had never really thought about the possibility of dying. There had been some tough fights out in the desert, but somehow he knew he would always survive. This time, he wasn’t so sure.
That doubt sharpened his mind a great deal. Everything felt much more intense to him. The vivid, dark orange of the rock all around him; the icy feel of the weapon in his hand; the soft sounds of insects skittering among the stones; the scent of fireroot and ash… every color was bright, every sound magnified, every aroma almost overpowering.
It made him wonder. Malum’s life was at risk every moment – you couldn’t exist out in the wastelands without a constant awareness that death was riding beside you. Was this how he felt, then? And if so, was it any surprise he was a little… crazy? Gelu couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have every sight, sound, and sensation be magnified all the time.
Right now, though, his enhanced senses were a blessing. He could hear the distinctive sound of rock steeds moving along the trail. A moment later, he could see Fero at the head of the column. Now came the hard part. He had to be patient.
Gelu waited as, down below, Fero rode by. Then another Bone Hunter, and another, until about half a dozen had made it past Gelu’s hiding place. This was the moment. Gelu slashed the fireroot, and the latticework fell. It crashed atop the middle of the column, knocking Bone Hunters from their steeds. Even from his perch high above, Gelu could tell at least a few Bone Hunters wouldn’t be getting back up again.
A Thornax struck the rock near him and exploded, showering him with shards of stone. He looked down to see it had been fired by Fero. The lead Bone Hunter was pointing up at his hiding place and shouting. Temporarily deafened by the Thornax blast, Gelu couldn’t hear what his old enemy was saying, but he could guess. It was time to get out of here, he thought.
Down below, Bone Hunters were working to help their felled comrades by hacking the latticework to pieces. More had joined Fero in firing up at the rocks. Gelu, staying low, scrambled across the peaks, heading back to Vulcanus. Thornax blew the rocks apart behind him as he ran. One stumble and it would be him getting blasted to pieces.
Gelu was almost to safety now, but he couldn’t resist stopping to look back. He had survived, after all, and he couldn’t keep the grin off his face. Looking down at Fero, he waved.
“Welcome to Vulcanus, Bone Hunter!” he shouted. Then Gelu was gone among the peaks.
So far, so good, thought Ackar. But we have a long way to go.
The early reports from the Agori and Gelu told the tale: the Bone Hunters had been caught by surprise, and the various traps and obstacles were slowing them down and bleeding their forces. They would still have numbers on their side when they hit Vulcanus, but they had decreased their advantage.
“What do you think?” asked Kiina.
“I think,” Ackar replied, “that I wouldn’t want to be Fero right now.”
As it happened, Fero didn’t want to be Fero now either. He had lost three Hunters to Gelu’s trap and two more to spears thrown from up above by Agori. His men had managed to wound more than a few of the villagers, but the rest had gotten away. Fero sent up another four Hunters into the rocks to scout for traps up ahead. He saw them surprise a group of Agori waiting in ambush – none of the Agori escaped alive. The Hunters moved on, but then never came back. Fero thought he caught a glimpse of Gresh up among the peaks, which might well explain his missing men.
The anger in the ranks was about to boil over, and Vulcanus was still a long way off. If they kept on, his ranks would be bled dry by the time they reached the village. He had no doubt that he could take the place even with a reduced force, but it would be more difficult, especially since he had no idea how many Glatorian were waiting inside.
A crude shaft flew from somewhere high up and to the left, striking one of the Bone Hunters’ rock steeds. The beast reared, hissed, and then hit the ground, pinning its rider underneath it. Others helped free him, but his leg was badly injured.
Fero made a decision. “Ready your launchers,” he said. “We are turning back. We’ll blow apart the obstacle at the canyon mouth and make for the desert.”
“Giving up?” growled one Bone Hunter. “Bowing to Agori? Never!”
Fero raised his launcher and gestured toward the spiked orb loaded into it. “You are new to the ways of the warrior,” he said, his voice flat but with anger in his eyes. “So you do not know what this can do to a body when used by a master. Do you care to find out?”
The resistant Bone Hunter promptly shut his mouth.
“We ride,” said Fero. “Go!”
From his vantage point high above the trail, Gresh could not believe his eyes. The column of Bone Hunters had reversed direction and was heading out of the canyon. Had they abandoned the attack?
He turned to the two Agori with him. They were manning a net filled with rocks, waiting for the chance to unleash its contents on the invaders. “Stay here,” he said. “Keep your eyes open. This could be a trick.”
Staying low, Gresh scrambled over the rocks, trying to keep the column in sight. When they reached the rockfall that blocked the exit from the canyon, they blasted it apart with explosive Thornax. When the smoke and dust cleared, the Bone Hunters were gone.
But to where? That was the question.
There was only one thing to do: head back to Vulcanus, get his sand stalker, and try to find them.
When Gresh returned with the news of what he had seen, no one believed it. “When Bone Hunters do you a favor, that’s the time to draw your sword,” Kiina said. “They’re up to something.”
Ackar agreed with her, but added, “I know something about what Iron Canyon can do to you. Maybe they decided Vulcanus wasn’t worth the price they would pay. But… we need to make sure.”
Gresh, already mounted, said, “I’ll be back.” Then he rode out of the village.
Raanu looked at the Glatorian with hopeful eyes. “Do you think… they really gave up?”
“Sure,” Strakk answered. “I also think rock steeds can fly.”
“I’d call it unlikely,” said Ackar.
“I’d call it something more colorful,” said Kiina. “If you think they turned tail and ran, I have a few miles of wasteland I’d like to sell you. The Bone Hunters are up to something.”
Gresh was gone for hours. During that time, Strakk picked a fight with Vulcanus’s chief cook and wound up trashing the inn. Kiina stepped in to stop him, and the two wound up in a fight which did even more damage. It took Ackar and a dozen Agori to pull them apart. Raanu was not happy.
The villagers were starting to grumble as well. Glatorian were known for their healthy appetites. No one complained too much about feeding ones employed by their village, but taking food and water to give to fighters from Tesara, Tajun, and Iconox did not go over well. Even the fact that those Glatorian were there to defend the village didn’t help, especially once word spread that the Bone Hunters had already fled.
Gresh rode back in after dark. He looked puzzled. “I followed them for miles. They’re headed on a straight line north for the Skrall River. They were riding hard and no one broke off from the column.” He shrugged. “I don’t get it.”
“I do,” said Raanu, smiling. “They ran into more trouble than they expected here. They didn’t think we would fight back. Now they’ll look for someplace easier to raid.”
The leader of Vulcanus walked up to Gresh and shook his hand. Then he did the same to Kiina and, after some hesitation, Strakk as well. “You did it. You have the gratitude of every Agori in this village. We wish you a safe journey home.”
“That’s nice,” said Strakk. “When do we get paid?”
“Raanu, we should talk about this,” said Ackar. “If the Bone Hunters should come back –”
“They aren’t coming back,” Raanu said, in a tone that said he had no interest in an argument. “It’s over. We’re very grateful for the help, but Vulcanus will be all right now.”
Kiina picked up her weapon and headed for the inn’s exit. “If that’s how you feel, so be it.”
“Kiina!” Ackar called after her.
“Save it,” the female Glatorian replied. “We’re only good enough to risk our lives when Agori are in trouble, remember? After that, they’d rather not have us around.”
“I have better things to do anyway,” Gelu said, glaring at Raanu, “than stand around helping people who don’t want my help. I’ll collect what I’m owed before I leave, Raanu. Oh, and next time your village is in trouble – try and find me.” Then he, too, was gone.
Gresh had his eyes fixed on the ground. When he spoke, his voice was tight and strained as he tried to contain his anger. “With due respect, Raanu, you’re making a mistake. There has to be more to this than what we’re seeing. There has to be.”
“You followed them yourself,” Raanu said. “You saw them go. Now it’s time for you and your friends to do the same.”
Without saying a word, Gresh gathered his things and left. Strakk watched him go, but made no move to leave himself. He waited until he heard the sound of Kiina, Gresh, and Gelu riding out before turning to Raanu.
“Okay, now that those three losers are gone,” Strakk said, “when do we get paid?”