The next day dawned bright and clear over the village of Vulcanus. Agori were back at work, some repairing the damage Strakk had caused in the inn, others gathering food or repairing equipment. Requests to take the stones from the western walls for use elsewhere had been turned down by Raanu. The immediate threat might be over, he reasoned, but the Skrall were still out there.
“Hopefully, word will get back to the Skrall about how we treated the Bone Hunters,” he said. “Then maybe they will leave us alone, too.”
Raanu had little time to spend on such things, however. Metus was getting ready to ride out and the Vulcanus leader had to talk to him before he did. Metus had been expecting the discussion.
“We need more Glatorian,” Raanu said. “With Malum gone, all we have is Ackar… and how much longer can he fight every battle on his own before he starts to lose?”
“You had Glatorian here – Gelu, Kiina, Strakk, Gresh – why not hire one of them?” asked Metus.
“Gelu no longer fights in the arena,” Raanu replied. “The others have been fighting for their villages for years. They’re mostly top-rank Glatorian. You know how hard it is to get someone like that to fight full-time for another village. No, we need a new fighter, one who battles and wins for Vulcanus alone.”
“I found you new Glatorian,” Metus replied, never slowing as he packed his vehicle with supplies. “You decided to use them as messengers to Tajun and got them killed. That’s not my fault. If you are going to waste prime material that way, you can’t blame me if no one wants to fight for you.”
“We’ll pay double,” said Raanu.
Metus looked around. “You don’t have double,” he snorted.
“We need at least one more,” Raanu said, a note of pleading entering his voice. “We’ll slip you a little extra finder’s fee.”
Metus nodded. “All right. And I get to promote an Ackar-Strakk match? After what happened in the inn, I think a lot of Vulcanus Agori wouldn’t mind seeing Strakk lose.”
“Then I’ll do what I can.” Metus climbed into his vehicle. “One thing, though – if I do find you someone, try not to get him killed so quickly and in such a stupid way, all right?”
Before Raanu could reply, Metus was on his way out of the village.
Not far away, Ackar watched the trainer depart. Metus had a job to do, just like any Agori, but Ackar had seen a few too many rookie fighters pushed into the ring over the years, only to get chopped down by a stronger, more experienced opponent. Some of that – maybe a lot of it – was the result of pressure from village leaders like Raanu. But Metus should have been looking out for his fighters, too.
Maybe Kiina’s right, he thought. Maybe no one looks out for the Glatorian but us.
He looked out toward the desert. The idea that the Bone Hunters left just like that gnawed at him. Sure, the village’s defenses were effective, but the Hunters had not even encountered the nastiest of them yet. It wasn’t like Fero to lose his nerve.
Still, there was no sign of them. He even posted Agori to keep watch on the canyon, but nothing. Despite that, he was still angry with Raanu over his hasty decision to send the others away. He knew that was a mistake, even if all the evidence showed there was no more danger.
The day passed. When night fell, the Agori lit their torches to keep Vorox away from the village. Ackar sent a few extra villagers to keep watch for any suspicious activity in the desert. He gave up on the idea of getting any sleep himself. If something happened, he wanted to be armed and ready for it.
It was a quiet night. Agori talked among themselves in hushed tones. There was something about the dark that made everyone feel they had to keep quiet. It was almost instinctive, as if making too much noise might attract monsters that waited in the darkness.
If you asked the Vulcanus Agori Kyry, he would have told you he didn’t believe in fear. He also didn’t think dousing three torches in a row would mean a Vorox attack, or that stepping on a beetle mound would mean a year of bad luck. That sort of superstition was fine for some villagers, but not for him. Those fears did nothing but hold Agori back, making them too afraid to venture out of their villages and explore. For every trader or traveler, there were six other villagers who would never venture beyond the bounds of their own villages. That was not the life for him. He had done a little exploring of this world, and planned to do more.
Right now, though, his job was to keep watch on the Sea of Liquid Sand to the south-west. That was like watching metal rust. While there were a few safe paths through the area, most of it was quicksand that could swallow rock steeds in a matter of moments. Even the Vorox avoided that area.
A sound came from out in the night, so soft that he first thought he was just imagining it. It was the clink of metal on metal. Kyry froze, listening hard. Maybe it had just been the echo of a noise from inside the village.
He didn’t hear anything now, only the wind swirling through the sand. Or was that the wind? It sounded like a hiss. Could it be some desert snake venturing close to the village, drawn by the heat of the torches? No, it was too low for that.
Kyry glanced up at the torch that burned beside him. Its light illuminated the area ten feet in front of him, but also made him blind to anything that might be out in the desert beyond that point. If he doused it, his eyes might adjust to the darkness, allowing him to see anything moving out in the night. On the other hand, if it was a Vorox out there, it would charge the second the flame was gone.
Now there was another sound, louder than the first two. This one made Kyry stand up and immediately douse the torch.
It was the sound of a Thornax launcher being loaded.
Bone Hunters! The words exploded in his mind. He turned to shout a warning to the village.
A strong hand clamped itself over his mouth. Kyry was yanked off his feet and hauled up onto the back of a rock steed. A single blow knocked him unconscious.
The Bone Hunters spread out into a line along the border between Vulcanus and the Sea of Liquid Sand. They were hungry and tired, but it didn’t matter. All that was important was this village and the destruction they were about to wreak upon it.
Fero savored the moment. He had waited until he was certain they were not being followed to order a change in course, away from the high desert and south toward the Sea of Liquid Sand. The order caught even his own Hunters by surprise. They traveled through the wasteland between Tajun and Vulcanus, staying far from known trade routes. When they reached the treacherous Sea, they kept on for miles before looping back north. They would hit Vulcanus from a direction no one would expect.
“Attack!” Fero shouted.
The Bone Hunters struck Vulcanus like a sandstorm. Agori poured out of their shelters only to be struck down or trampled by the riders. Ackar charged into the center of the village and spotted Fero, torch in hand, lighting up one of the Agori huts. With a bellow of rage, the Glatorian rushed forward, knocking the Bone Hunter off his rock steed with one mighty blow.
Fero hit the sand hard. Ackar moved in to finish him off, but the Bone Hunter rolled away and sprang to his feet. “Look around, Glatorian,” he said, gesturing to the chaos in the village. “In a matter of minutes, this village will be in ashes. You thought you could drive us off by throwing rocks? Next time, you’ll know better…”
Nearby, three Agori managed to unseat a Bone Hunter from his steed, but it was too late. Bone Hunters were rampaging through the village, taking whatever they could carry and smashing any resistance. It was a scene out of a nightmare, or worse, out of a memory.
“You’ve seen this before,” said Fero. “Been part of it, too, during the battles of long past. How many villages did you see destroyed? But I can afford to show mercy. I want all of Bara Magna to know what happened here. Ride out, Ackar, and tell the tale wherever you go.”
Ackar looked around. Tell the tale? A tale of failure, of death, of a village lost, and all for the greater glory of a murdering band of Bone Hunters?
“Never,” Ackar answered. “The only story coming out of this night will be the one about your death.”
Fero raised his sword. “Your allies are gone. Your Agori are fleeing or dead. It’s over, Ackar. You’re all alone.”
The Bone Hunter raised his blade to make its fatal strike. The next instant, the sword exploded into a thousand shards of metal. Fero cried out and dropped the now useless weapon.
“Don’t you know by now? Glatorian have to stand together.”
Fero and Ackar both turned at the sound. It was Kiina, Thornax launcher in hand, flanked by Gresh, Gelu, Strakk, Vastus, and Tarix.
“After all, if we don’t, who else will?” Kiina glanced at the fighters on either side of her. Then she turned back to Fero, a fierce smile on her lips. “Let’s take them.”
The six Glatorian rode in hard, catching the other Bone Hunters by surprise. Fero grabbed onto his rock steed and mounted, shouting orders to his bandits to regroup. Tarix rode up to Ackar, with the Vulcanus Glatorian’s sand stalker right behind him. Ackar wasted no time in mounting his beast.
“I couldn’t let Kiina have all the fun,” said Tarix. “Vastus took some convincing, but the chance to bash Bone Hunters is too good to miss.”
“And now we are seven,” Ackar replied. “Time to hunt the Hunters.”
Kyry woke up in the sand. He raised his head at the sound of shouts and Thornax exploding all around. The sight he saw was one he would never forget.
Seven Glatorian were locked in battle with three times as many Bone Hunters. Swords flashed, axes flew, and launchers fired as the two sides fought to the death. Near the border of the village, Kiina caught two Hunter swords on her trident, shoved them back, then swept both of her foes off their steeds with one swing. Both rock steeds hissed and went at her with their jaws snapping. It was the last move either would ever make.
Not far away, Gresh had his back to the wall, with four Hunters closing in. He was using his shield to parry their blows, but Kyry knew one blow would get through eventually. One Bone Hunter saw an opening and moved to attack, only to freeze in mid-strike and fall over. As he hit the ground, Kyry saw Vastus standing behind him, with a paralyzing venom spear in hand.
“Four to one? Didn’t I teach you better than that?” Vastus said to Gresh. “It’s not a fair fight unless it’s at least six to one.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” Gresh said, smiling, as he waded into the remaining Bone Hunters.
Gelu and Strakk fought back to back, fighting off waves of Bone Hunters. Gelu glanced over his shoulder to spot Strakk looting one of the fallen enemies. “Would you save that until the battle is over?” he snapped.
“By then, all the good loot will be gone,” Strakk answered, fending off a Bone Hunter’s blade with his axe. “Agori are quick, and they have sticky fingers.”
“You’re hopeless,” said Gelu.
“I know,” Strakk replied. “It’s my best quality.”
In the center of the village, Ackar faced Fero. The two had been fighting an even match, but now Fero could see that Ackar was starting to grow tired.
“You should have retired long ago,” the Bone Hunter said mockingly. “Put down your sword and go live in the wastes with Malum. He has the right idea: to hide in the desert and hope the storm passes him.”
“You Bone Hunters aren’t a storm, Fero. You’re not even a stiff breeze.”
Ackar swung his sword. Fero blocked with his launcher. “You and your Glatorian may win this battle, but it’s your last fight, Ackar. You and I both know you’re past it. Why don’t you just surrender?”
“Glatorian rules,” Ackar smiled. “We don’t get paid for losing to mindless creatures or Bone Hunters.”
Fero snarled and fired his launcher. Ackar tried to dodge, but the Thornax caught his sword arm, tearing open his armor. Fero took aim for a second shot.
A ragged scream distracted the Bone Hunter leader. He glanced to his left to see the last of his raiders fall before Kiina’s trident. Now it was his turn to be all alone.
Fero had not survived in the wastes all this time by being stupid. He backed away from Ackar and grabbed the reins of his rock steed. Mounting it in one swift motion, he said, “Bone Hunters are like grains of sand in the desert – the wind may blow a few away, but there are always more to take their place. We’ll meet again, Ackar.”
The Glatorian tried to stop him, but his own fatigue and the pain in his wounded arm slowed him down. Fero rode out of the village and vanished into the darkness.
“Are you all right?” Kiina said, jumping down from her sand stalker.
“I’m okay,” Ackar replied. “But Fero got away.”
“He won’t be gone long,” said Gelu. “One of us will run into him and finish the job you started.”
Raanu rushed over. He had been wounded, but it didn’t look too serious. He shouted orders to a few other Agori to look after villagers who were more injured. Then he turned to look up at Kiina. “Why did you come back?” he asked.
“We figured the Bone Hunters would,” she answered. “And if you wouldn’t let us wait for them in the village, well, we decided to wait for them out there.”
Raanu nodded, solemnly. “You saved us. You’ve done a great thing for Vulcanus.”
Kiina shook her head. “You don’t understand. We first came here to help you protect your village.” She gestured to Ackar, “But we came back to protect him.”
Kyry stumbled into the village at just that moment. He looked at the assembled Glatorian with wonder and pride. His village was damaged, his people hurt… but damage could be repaired, and wounds could be healed. Eventually, the pain would be forgotten.
But this victory never would be, he vowed. He would leave this village and he would spread this tale. As long as there were Agori on Bara Magna, he would make sure they knew what happened in Vulcanus. And then, maybe, they would see Glatorian as more than just swords hired for pay. They would see them as heroes.