1

Weeks ago…

Branar cracked his whip and muttered a Skrall curse under his breath. As a named warrior, he was no stranger to dangerous situations or assignments that require he get his armored hands dirty. But his task today was both disgusting and deadly, and the sooner it was finished, the happier he would be.

Tuma insisted on these “Vorox runs” once every month. The object was to drive some captured Vorox north, over the path the Skrall had used to travel to Roxtus the year before. The thinking was that if the shapeshifters who had driven the Skrall out of their original territory were moving south, the Vorox would encounter them along the way. The Vorox would no doubt die in the battle, but Branar might escape to make it back to Roxtus with the news. And if he didn’t escape, well, Tuma would learn just as much from his failure to return.

All of which explained why Branar and a Skrall warrior were driving a half dozen savage Vorox along a mountain trail. The twin challenges were keeping the beasts moving and waiting to see if one or more of them would die a horrible death at the hands of the Skrall’s old foes. It was hot, it was dusty, and the job was more than likely a waste of time – combined, it made Branar about as happy as a hungry spikit.

Branar did understand Tuma’s worry, of course. He had been one of the first warriors to encounter the shapeshifters, who the Skrall dubbed “Baterra” (an ancient word meaning “silent death”). He had been leading a small patrol out scavenging for supplies in a wooded area. When the two warriors on the flanks failed to respond to hails, he ordered weapons drawn. The baterra appeared out of the darkness, struck, killed three of his troops, then vanished. Branar ordered a return to the fortress and he and one other warrior managed to fight their way back. For bringing word of this strange new enemy back, he was rewarded by Tuma with a name. For a Skrall warrior, there was no greater honor.

It was not the last time Branar would face the baterra, but none of the battles ended in a victory. Skrall were skilled, ruthless, and efficient warriors, but they could not fight a foe that seemed to appear and disappear at will. Despite their best efforts, the Skrall were never able to accomplish the first condition of victory: choosing the time and place of the battle. The baterra attacked when they chose to, sometimes multiple times in a day. Then they might vanish for weeks at a time, letting even under-manned patrols pass right by. It seemed to be impossible to bait them into a trap.

“Watch them!” Branar barked to the Skrall warrior. “One of the Vorox just wandered off the path.”

It was a constant problem. Vorox were creatures of the open desert. They hated captivity or being forced to travel one way or the other. Any chance to escape was seized upon. It wasn’t unusual to return from one of these missions with fewer Vorox than one had at the start.

The Skrall warrior glanced to his left. The Vorox was just vanishing into the rocks, so still close enough to recapture. A nod from Branar said that the squad leader would keep an eye on the rest of the herd while the escapee was brought back.

Grumbling, the warrior spurred his mount. The three Skrall were riding rock steeds received in trade from a nearby Bone Hunter troop. Sand stalkers were not the fighters that rock steeds were, and fighters were what might be needed on this trip.

He had just left the path when he heard the Vorox scream. Thornax launcher at the ready, he rode up a steep bank of shale. From that vantage point, he could see the remains of the Vorox scattered among the rocks below. There wasn’t much left of the beast. The Skrall swiftly scanned the area. There was no sign of sand bats or other desert predators. Whatever had killed the Vorox was gone.

Or was it? Remembering just what they were out here to find, the Skrall backed his rock steed down to the path, then wheeled and galloped toward Branar. “Contact,” he said quietly.

Branar gestured to the Vorox, saying, “Let them go.”

The warrior gave a yell and started driving the Vorox off the path. Branar did the same. Dozens of Vorox scrambled up the rocks toward where the suspected baterra was hiding. Branar and the Skrall followed behind, halting at the top of the ridge. They watched the Vorox climb down the slope, scattering in every direction to elude pursuit. But no one was following them, and more importantly, nothing was attacking them. In a matter of moments, free once more, they had all disappeared into the mountains.

Branar’s expression darkened. It was either another false alarm or the baterra were playing games again, more likely the former. He turned his head to look at his remaining warrior. In the micro-second it took him to make that movement, the other Skrall was dead. The warrior fell from his saddle with a vicious gash on his back. Of his attacker, there was no sign.

“Baterra,” Branar said. “Show yourself.”

It was a pointless thing to say and wouldn’t make very good last words, he realized. But there was nothing to attack and little point in running. With luck, the other warrior would make it back to warn the city and…

Branar hesitated. Why was he still alive, he wondered? It had been at least two minutes since the Skrall was killed. Baterra attacked quickly once their presence was known.

Unless…

Branar spurred his rock steed back down the shale. Nothing tried to stop him. Once back on the path, he started toward Roxtus. His senses were alert for any sign of an attack. But none came. And suddenly he knew why.

They want us to know they’re coming, he thought. The baterra are so certain we can’t stop them that they are giving us a warning. They killed my warrior, but not me… to show they have the power to grant life or death to the Skrall.

Now the Skrall would face the same choice. Would they fight the baterra, and risk annihilation, or flee again? Only Tuma could make that decision. For the sake of their race, Branar hoped he would make the right one.

* * *

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