Gresh had no time to think. In several seconds, the sand had almost devoured Strakk, and the snakes had gradually formed circles around the caravan. The only escape was through the soft sand, but the trailer was heavy as stone. Suddenly he had an idea. It was about as crazy as suicide, but there was a small chance of success. Everything depended on how high Gresh could jump and how fast his Stalker was, as well as his knowledge of the dunes. If even one element of the plan failed, none of them would escape alive.
“Tarduk! I need the rope that’s attached to the exsidian! Now!” shouted Gresh.
The Agori quickly cut the rope and tossed it toward Gresh.
“Whatever happens now, nobody separate!” ordered Gresh. “Keep each other in sight and don’t talk, okay?”
Kirbold and Tarduk obeyed. Neither of them spoke a word. On the other side, they were approaching the dune snakes. Gresh took the rope, tied it to his Sand Stalker and galloped off. He had to execute each step with precision. Upon reaching the bank of soft sand, he forced his steed to jump. In that same instant, he hurled the rope over the treacherous sands in Strakk’s direction. Strakk caught the rope, and he was yanked free from the trap by Gresh’s Stalker.
“You saved me!” Strakk cried, delighted and surprised. “I can’t believe it!
“I had to,” said Gresh. “Now get back to the caravan.”
“Are you crazy?!” Strakk cried. “You want to go back into the jaws of the dune snakes? I care about exsidian, but I won’t risk my life for it.”
“Not even if it means you won’t get paid?” replied Gresh.
“No way!” Strakk shook his head.
“I haven’t got time to argue,” said Gresh. “You can have half my payment if you help me.”
Strakk’s eyes shone with eagerness. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”
Strakk jumped from the smooth sand and grabbed onto the harness of his Sand Stalker, hoping that their mounts wouldn’t be caught by the serpents’ fangs. But instead of going back to the caravan, Gresh and Strakk both started spinning around. The Agori looked at the Glatorian in silence, both wondering if Gresh had lost his mind.
“Is there a reason for why we’re doing this?” Strakk asked.
“Yes,” said Gresh. “Dune Snakes are blind on the surface, right? So they don’t use sight when hunting.”
“They use hearing,” Strakk guessed. “So we’re making noise.”
“Exactly,” Gresh smiled. “It works, see?”
Strakk looked back. The snakes no longer surrounded the caravan, but now they were heading towards the Glatorian.
“Yiiiii!” Strakk shouted.
“Over here!” shouted Gresh.
The Tesaran Glatorian rode over the soft sand, with Strakk right behind him. Gresh’s mount jumped back over the deadly sand, with Strakk’s managing to do the same. The hungry Dune Snakes were unable to avoid the sand trap, which absorbed them without giving them a single moment to escape.
“Good thinking,” admitted Strakk. “Using one trap against another. Although it cost you half your pay…”
Several hours later, the travelers arrived at the foot of the Black Spike Mountains. They found a path between the rocks so narrow that only one rider could fit through at a time. Gresh had Strakk go first, while he himself covered the rear. Strakk showed little enthusiasm for this proposal, but Gresh explained that if someone had been following since Iconox, they would not plan a frontal ambush, but an attack from behind.
“You never know,” said Strakk. “I’ve seen traps in places where no one would’ve ever expected. But you’re too young to remember that.”
“When was that exactly?”
“During the war. At a time when Bara Magna was part of a larger world… long before the Shattering…”
Gresh had heard little of the war that changed the world 100,000 years ago. Other Glatorian were reluctant to talk about it. Apparently they just wanted to forget all memories of that event.
“Enlighten me,” said Gresh. “What has that got to do with this?”
“The Black Spike Mountains were one of the few places where there were no battles,” Strakk said.
“No one wanted to fight here?” said Gresh.
“No one dared to approach this place,” said Strakk. “Check out these rocks. I bet there are many deposits of precious metals and who knows what else. Do you think anyone would want to extract it? Not even the Skrall were foolish enough to come here.”
At the mention of the Skrall, Gresh strengthened his grip on the reins of his mount. It was no secret that the Rock Tribe was not from the desert regions of Bara Magna. Their home was among a land of volcanoes in the far north. They had lived there for many centuries, protected by their warriors, the Skrall. Not long ago, the Skrall and Rock Tribe appeared in the south, inhabiting the Black Spike Mountains and the surrounding land. When they founded Roxtus, it quickly became the largest village on Bara Magna. It was rumored that they had moved to the area running to escape something far more dangerous than even they themselves were, but with no evidence, the real reason remained a mystery.
It soon became evident that the newcomers were not dependent on forging friendships with other tribes. Although they sent warriors to battle in the arena, any sane Glatorian knew not to try and face them. Anyone who had to deal with them would face the leader of their tribe, Tuma, who would rather the Skrall simply take what they wanted.
However, the Skrall almost always followed the rules during arena matches. The fighting system in the arena was not a problem for them – the Skrall were lovers of battle, and no Glatorian had yet managed to defeat them. Gresh knew this better than most: not long ago, he lost a duel against a Skrall warrior in the Vulcanus arena. This Skrall was willing to break the rules while fighting in the arena, and had another Glatorian not intervened, the encounter would have been the last thing Gresh had done in his life. The memory brought him shame. Tesara had had its chance at victory, and he had failed them… Gresh pushed the memory aside. It was not the time to be thinking of the past. He and his companions had just entered the territory of the Rock Tribe. The only bad thing that could happen now was if they were attacked by Skrall.
“Look!” Kirbold said suddenly, pointing to the top of a hill.
Gresh looked up. The Glatorian saw three Skrall on the edge of the summit. However, as soon as he got a better look, he realized they were simply helmets and pieces of armor hanging on stilts above the sand.
“They’re only puppets,” Gresh said. “Probably to help deter uninvited guests.”
“Look at them more closely,” Strakk said.
“I did look at them. So what?”
“They’re not pieces of Skrall armor. One is red, another is blue, and the third is green. Where do you think they came from? They’re the spoils of dead Glatorian.”
“I don’t think so,” said Gresh.
“Go ahead, don’t believe me, rookie,” laughed Strakk. “They came to find the end of their lives.”
“You should remain silent,” a voice whispered.
The Glatorian turned quickly, raising their Thornax launchers toward where the ominous words had come from. Tarduk grabbed the reins of the Spikit, preparing to flee if necessary. Kirbold crouched down in case there were any enemy projectiles.
Looking up at the rocky hillside, the party saw a red-armored Glatorian. Strakk and Gresh recognized him immediately as Malum. At one time his name was spoken with great respect, but Malum’s wild temperament had caused problems. During a match in the arena, he had tried to kill a Glatorian who had conceded. For that crime, he was banished from the village of Vulcanus. Since then, the desert had become his home.
“Well, well, look who it is,” Strakk said. “And I thought you were eating sand bats.”
“Do something!” whispered Kirbold. “He’s after the exsidian!”
“Don’t worry,” said Strakk. “Who would look for exsidian in an area so remote? And besides, if Malum wanted it, he would have taken it before we entered the mountains. Right, old friend?”
Malum looked at Strakk with a cold stare. “I’ve never been your friend.”
“What do you want?” asked Gresh.
“I warn you,” Malum answered. “The Skrall have become more ambitious. Many of them are in the mountains, chasing something, or someone. Maybe you. And you should listen to their talk of Tajun.”
“Why would you care?” spat Strakk. “Will you regret it if we’re killed by the Skrall before you can take your revenge on us?”
A dark smile appeared on Malum’s face.
“To be honest… yes.”
Raanu, leader of the village of Vulcanus, had grave concerns. Without Malum, his village had just one experienced Glatorian available. There were several potential candidates to take Malum’s place, but they were young, and inexperienced. Regardless, the recent Glatorian duel with Iconox had ended in victory for Vulcanus. Iconox had to pay in exsidian, but the precious metal had not yet arrived, and Raanu had just discovered why. “Through the Spike Mountains? Are they crazy?”
Metus, Glatorian trainer of Iconox, spread his hands. “You know that with the Bone Hunters…”
“I know about the Bone Hunters,” Raanu interrupted. “I’ve heard that excuse before. But my people have justly earned the victory in the arena. If Iconox cannot deliver its payment…”
“Vulcanus will not be willing to pay up if Iconox wins the next fight,” Metus concluded.
“And if that happens, Metus… our system will collapse before our eyes. By stopping the practice of settling disputes with Glatorian warriors, we can expect only one thing: war.”
Metus gave the Vulcanus leader’s words some thought. Undoubtedly Raanu was right. Centuries ago it was made clear the Agori could not afford an armed conflict between tribes. Nobody wanted to remember the nightmare of destruction left by the last war. Thus, all disputes between tribes were settled with Glatorian. However, this system was based on mutual trust. The result of a duel in the arena was not subject to discussion and was absolutely accepted by all. If a village broke the rules or didn’t pay as agreed, the others would do the same.
“I hope that those Glatorian I hired for Iconox don’t disappoint me,” he said softly. “If the Bone Hunters or even the Skrall intercept that shipment… we’re in trouble.”
Malum vanished as quickly as he had come, disappearing into the rocks with the ease of someone who had been born among the mountains. Gresh didn’t even want to know where Malum had gone, but he did not take the former Glatorian’s warning lightly.
“Skrall…” Tarduk said. “I once tried to unearth some artifacts near Roxtus… bad idea, I know. I barely escaped. Had I been caught, I would have been a corpse.”
The road through the Black Spike Mountains to the east was still visible, but only barely so, due to little use over the years. The fresh mountain air brought some relief to the trip, especially for Strakk, who occasionally had to turn back down the mountain to help push the caravan uphill. The silence was broken only by the sound of the hooves of the Stalkers, the whistling of the wind passing between the peaks and the tranquil sound of wagon wheels. A sharp cry like that of a Mountain Striker made both Glatorian jump. A second cry made Strakk turn his gaze to the sky. Mountain Strikers were birds of prey whose wingspan could be as wide as five feet. Their claws could tear through armor as easily as an Agori could tear through dry parchment. They hunted mostly small animals, but if driven to great hunger, they wouldn’t hesitate to attack opponents much larger than themselves. Strakk and Gresh prepared to fire their weapons, hoping not to meet anything more dangerous than a Mountain Striker.
“I didn’t see anything. Do you think it was really just a Striker?” Strakk asked, his voice barely audible.
“It sounded more like a signal,” said Gresh.
“Exactly. Bone Hunters do not haunt these fields.”
Strakk shook his head.
“And if they made that signal, then the Bone Hunters are smarter than I thought.”
“What do we do?” Tarduk asked. “Try to escape? Or should we be ready to fight?”
“We heard his signal. That means they’re close. Too late to escape,” Strakk said. “Well rookie, you always wanted to be a hero. Now’s your chance to die as one.”
Gresh was deep in thought. He had to find a way to save them. They could pretend they hadn’t heard anything suspicious, and move on, trying to escape from the Skrall ambush. He could guess which option Strakk would choose: running as soon as possible and leaving the mountains behind. Wasn’t there any way to get the goods delivered to their destination? Too late. He had already wasted too much time trying to decide. As he looked up, warriors in black armor emerged from hiding. The Skrall had surrounded them.
“This is the land of the Skrall,” said one of them.
“Travel through these mountains is forbidden,” added a second.
“Unless you want to see Tuma,” added a third. “What’s in the caravan? Show us!”
“If we do, they’ll take the exsidian,” Kirbold whispered nervously.
“And if we don’t, they will kill us,” Tarduk replied, then turned slowly and uncovered the cargo.
Rarely did the Skrall show any joy; even a smile was uncommon. However, the party witnessed an incredibly rare sight: the Skrall were so pleased, they practically laughed. They were looking at a valuable treasure, and interposed between the precious metal and themselves were only two Glatorian and two Agori.
“Take the contents of the caravan out. Now!” ordered the group leader.
Strakk sighed with relief. Apparently, fate had been kind to them: the exsidian was lost, but at least he got to keep his head. They had been lucky that the “supply” sounded better than killing them.
“We have business with Iconox,” Gresh said confidently. “The burden is not ours. We can’t leave without the consent of the owner.” The Skrall’s faces became serious.
“Try it,” threatened a Skrall.
“I will,” said Gresh.
Why are you doing this? Strakk thought. They’ll kill us all!
“Iconox is in debt to Roxtus,” Gresh lied. “We have orders to deliver payment directly to Tuma as a humble apology for the delay. He wants to see it himself. Do you want to be the one to tell Tuma that you had not heard of the apology and sent us back into the desert?”
His words served to panic the Skrall. Tuma, their leader, was the only being who really frightened them. Sending back the payment would bring his anger upon them. He would break the bones of any Skrall who disappointed him. Nobody wanted to stand before him and explain why he hadn’t received what he had expected.
“You will come with us,” said a Skrall. “But unarmed.”
The two Skrall approached the Glatorian and took their Thornax launchers, along with Gresh’s shield and Strakk’s axe. Then they searched the carriage. They found an extra launcher, which they confiscated, and ordered the Glatorian to stay away from the caravan. Under the watchful eye of the Skrall, the team began to question their chances of survival.
“Great idea,” Strakk murmured. “Next you’ll want to give our hands over in addition to the exsidian.”
“No,” said Gresh. “It isn’t my intention to stay with them.”
“Right,” replied Gresh, hitting Strakk over the head with an exsidian ingot.
Surprisingly, the wounded Strakk gave no answer, but simply attacked Gresh in return. After a while both were fiercely fighting in the caravan.
“Stop!” a Skrall said, approaching the trailer to separate them.
“This is just what I expected,” said Gresh. Once the Skrall was within his reach, Gresh delivered a powerful blow with the exsidian. He then grabbed a Thornax launcher from the Skrall, and before anyone could react, he fired, hitting the rock wall on the right. He reloaded and fired again, this time at the rock wall on the left. Both shots caused an avalanche, dropping tons of rock upon the caravan and their escort. The Skrall fled before the avalanche. Gresh jumped onto his Stalker and shouted, “Ride, Kirbold!”
The Agori took the reins, and sent the Spikit running at full speed, something anyone in that situation would have done. The rocks fell toward the trailer’s sides, making the road even narrower.
“We need to go faster!” Tarduk cried.
“We can’t!” Strakk replied, “We’re driving a carriage with a few tons of exsidian. How can we go faster?”
“Come on!” yelled Gresh. “We’re making good ground!”
“It’s better to stop talking!” Strakk growled, massaging the spot on his head where Gresh had struck him. “The next time you plan something like that, would you mind telling me about it?”
Strakk snatched the Thornax launcher from Gresh and turned around. He pointed at the rocks that were rolling toward them and fired. The rocks shattered, creating another shower of stones. At that same moment, the entire hillside exploded, sending a gigantic piece of rock rolling down the hill toward the trailer.
“It’s heading towards the caravan!” Tarduk cried.
The Spikit stopped and stood near the convoy, almost blocking it, but managing to provide cover for Strakk and Kirbold. Gresh left his Stalker, grabbed its saddle, and placed it over the trailer as Tarduk jumped in. A wave of rocks hit the trailer, but were pushed off to the sides by the saddle.
A moment later, it was over. Where the Agori and Glatorian had previously been standing, there was now a pile of rubble. The air was stifling due to the dust. All was silent. The Skrall, who’d managed to escape alive, approached the pile. They attempted to push some of the larger stones out of the way, but were unsuccessful.
“What will we tell Tuma?” asked one of the warriors.
“Nothing,” said the leader. “There was no transport. No one saw it. If anyone ever finds out what happened to them, we’ll say that it was an accident… one of the many that can happen in a dangerous place like this.”
The Skrall looked down at the axe and shield in their hands – the Glatorian’s weapons. After some thought, they were thrown into the rubble.
“These are of no use to anyone anymore.”