* * *

“I don’t like this,” said Ackar. “It’s the perfect place for an ambush.”

The dune chariot had reached the mouth of the canyon. Places like this made the red-armored Glatorian wary. It hadn’t been that long ago that he had helped set up an intricate series of traps in Iron Canyon for a Bone Hunter raiding party. All the skill of the bandits had not helped them at all in a place where they were stuck on a narrow path, being picked off by Glatorian hidden among the rocks above.

“Please,” said Kiina. “Even Bone Hunters aren’t stupid enough to take on three Glatorian.”

This, of course, was a lie, and she knew it. With the element of surprise on their side, Bone Hunters would try almost anything. But she didn’t want Mata Nui to get nervous and decide he wanted off this ride.

Ackar knew exactly what she was doing, and he wasn’t planning to let her get away with it. He owed Mata Nui. If they were going to expose him to danger, he had a right to know what kind and how nasty things were likely to get.

“They’re getting bolder,” he said to Kiina. There was an edge in his voice that said watch it, I’m on to you. “Skrall, too. In the past few months, they’ve seemed to know our every move before we make it.”

“True,” Kiina conceded. “But don’t worry. It’s not like we’ve got much worth stealing. Well… maybe Mata Nui does.”

The scarabax beetle sitting on Mata Nui’s shoulder clicked its pincers in enthusiastic agreement.

“I was talking about his blade, bug face,” Kiina snapped at the beetle, and shook her head. “I can’t believe I’m talking to an insect.”

Mata Nui did not crack a smile. “In my experience, when an enemy knows too much, it can only mean one thing: You have a traitor on your hands.”

Ackar nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. But who?”

A low rumbling sound filled the air. The ground beneath the chariot began to shake violently. Then the rumbling became a roar as, up ahead, the earth buckled and heaved.

“I think we have a bigger problem!” Kiina yelled.

The ground exploded. A massive crimson creature rose up on four great legs and let out an earsplitting roar. Mata Nui had never seen anything like it. It was at least forty feet tall, part animal and part machine. Its legs sported massive treads and ended in vicious claws. Sharp pincers extended from both sides of its jagged mouth. When it took a step, the earth shook – and the chariot was headed straight for it.

“Skopio!” shouted Ackar. He had seen this creature once before, from a distance. Getting this close to one was something he could have lived without.

“We should turn back,” said Mata Nui.

“Can’t,” Ackar said, pointing behind the chariot. “They’re even deadlier.”

Mata Nui turned. A group of black-armored riders mounted on reptilian creatures were riding across the sands in pursuit of the chariot. Each held a sword aloft in the air and shouted war cries as they rode.

“What are they?” asked Mata Nui.

“Bone Hunters,” Ackar answered, “and a lot of them.”

“My village – there’s another Glatorian there,” said Kiina, leaning forward in the driver’s seat. “We just have to make it there!”

Kiina turned the wheel and aimed the chariot at the narrow gap between the Skopio’s left foreleg and the canyon wall. The creature’s eyes narrowed and it whipped its leg to the side, blocking the vehicle. Kiina yanked on the wheel, sending the chariot into a skid right in front of the beast.

“Hang on tight!” yelled Kiina.

The Skopio slammed its right foreleg into the sand, missing the chariot by centimeters. Kiina drove it up the side of the canyon wall. The beast swung again – and missed. Kiina vaulted the chariot off the wall and over a dune. But she wasn’t quite fast enough. The Skopio landed a glancing blow, sending the chariot tumbling end over end and hurling the three occupants onto the sand.

Ackar and Mata Nui rolled to their feet, weapons drawn, facing the oncoming Bone Hunters. “Help Kiina,” Mata Nui said to Ackar. “I’ll draw the beast away from you.”

“Good luck,” said Ackar, dropping into a crouch to await the first attacker.

Mata Nui glanced down at Click. “Are you ready?”

The beetle snapped its pincers together in response. Then there was a bright flash as it transformed once more into a mighty shield. Mata Nui charged toward the Skopio.

Behind him, Ackar and Kiina were both locked in battle. Kiina parried a Bone Hunter’s sword with her staff, looking for an opening. When she saw the Hunter drop his guard, she struck, landing a solid blow with her weapon and hurling him from his rock steed. Two more Bone Hunters closed in. Kiina moved like quicksilver, keeping her enemies off-balance with sweeping kicks.

Nearby, Ackar was surrounded, fierce but outnumbered. Fighting mounted warriors on foot is a losing game, he thought. So it’s time to even the odds a little.

A Bone Hunter rode down on him, sword flashing in the sunlight. Ackar blocked the Hunter’s blade with his own. As the Bone Hunter drew back to strike again, Ackar launched himself into the air and landed a solid kick, knocking the Bone Hunter out of the saddle. The Glatorian landed atop the rock steed and urged it forward.

Up ahead, Kiina was hard-pressed in a fight against a bigger, stronger Bone Hunter. Ackar rode toward her, battling the Hunters on either side of him. As soon as he drew close to the canyon wall, he hurled himself from the saddle, somersaulting in the air – once, twice, three times. He came out of the move feetfirst, slamming into Kiina’s opponent and knocking him senseless. Now Kiina and Ackar stood back to back as the Bone Hunters closed in.

Mata Nui was having problems of his own with the Skopio. Its attention was now fully focused on him, which was what he wanted. Its blows were coming dangerously close to landing, though, and Mata Nui had learned at least this about his new body: It grew tired. And if he slowed down even a step, the Skopio would finish him.

The great beast, meanwhile, was growing impatient. It was time to crush this golden-armored pest. The Skopio concentrated, triggering the mechanical Thornax launcher built into it ages ago. With a hiss of hydraulics and a metallic hum, the launcher rose from the creature’s back and locked into place. Taking aim at Mata Nui, the Skopio fired.

Mata Nui stopped dead. For just a moment, he watched the beast’s transformation in disbelief. That delay almost cost him his life, as he barely got his shield up in time to take the brunt of the blast. Even with its protection, he was still knocked off his feet. The Skopio advanced, lifting a clawed leg into the air, ready to crush him. Mata Nui rolled to dodge the blow, landing neatly in a crouch. This time, he’d be ready for the Skopio’s next attack.

Behind him, he heard the sound of Kiina’s voice. “Ackar!” she said. “We’re finished unless we can make it to my village.”

“Try and get to the chariot,” Mata Nui yelled to the two Glatorian. “I have an idea.”

When the Skopio swung a leg at him again, Mata Nui didn’t try to move aside. Instead, he launched into the air and grabbed onto the leg. As the Skopio drew its limb back, Mata Nui was pulled high into the air. When he was at the same level as the monster’s head, Mata Nui jumped off the leg and landed on the Skopio’s back.

It took Mata Nui only a moment to figure out the controls for the mounted Thornax launcher. Aiming at the Bone Hunters menacing Ackar and Kiina, he fired. The blast scattered the Hunters like grains of sand before a fierce wind. Ackar and Kiina took advantage of the opening to run for the chariot. Bone Hunters who pursued them were met by another devastating Thornax blast, courtesy of Mata Nui.

Angered by its unwanted rider, the Skopio whipped its stinger tail forward, knocking Mata Nui off his perch. He twisted in midair and managed to land on his feet on a high ledge. Down below, Ackar and Kiina had reached the vehicle and were speeding toward the Skopio, hoping to slip underneath the creature. Mounted Bone Hunters galloped close behind.

Mata Nui drew his sword and plunged it into the rock beneath his feet. The power of the blade split the stone, sending half of it tumbling down the mountainside. It struck other boulders, knocking them loose. Soon, the whole mountainside seemed to be moving, stones careening down in a huge rockslide.

Kiina heard the sound of the avalanche and saw the first rocks strike the sand up ahead. “This is going to be close!” she yelled to Ackar, pushing the chariot to full speed. The metal frame of the vehicle shook violently, bolts snapping off and flying in every direction.

Spotting a gap barely large enough for the chariot, Kiina aimed right for it. The vehicle shot through it and onto open sand just as the rain of rock brought the Skopio down with a tremendous crash. The Bone Hunters weren’t so lucky – they were under the creature as it fell, buried beneath its body and a ton of rock.

As they neared the mouth of the canyon, Kiina allowed herself a relieved sigh. Then she suddenly realized someone was missing. “Hey, where–?”

Ackar pointed off to the east. “There!”

Kiina saw him now, too. Mata Nui was surfing down the side of the mountain on his shield, vaulting over outcroppings as if he had been doing it all his life. One particularly large rock sent him high into the air. He somersaulted, grabbing his shield and spinning into an upright position just in time to land on the hood of the chariot.

Ackar laughed. “Gutsiest move I’ve ever seen.”

“Woo-hoo! Those Bone Hunters are going to be eating Skopio belly for weeks,” Kiina said, smiling broadly. “Not bad, other-worlder.”

Ackar’s grin abruptly vanished from his face. He laid a hand on Kiina’s arm, as if to steady her against a shock. She glanced at him, then up ahead – and that’s when she saw it.

A plume of black smoke rose from the nearby oasis. Flames shot through the cloud of ash and soot. As they drew nearer, Kiina could hear the sound of shelters collapsing, sand stalkers screeching in fear and pain, and something even more chilling: the war cries of Skrall.

Tajun was burning.

* * *

Days ago…

Tuma sat in his chamber, brooding. The news brought back by Branar had been dire indeed. The baterra were closer than he had imagined they would be, and so his plans for Bara Magna had to be advanced. Already, he had moved up the date for the attack on Atero, and laid out ambitious plans to seize control of the other villages. If all went well, his troops would control all of Bara Magna before the baterra emerged from the Black Spike Mountains. But any organized resistance by the Glatorian and Agori would put his plans in jeopardy.

A rap came on the chamber door. One of his guards entered and said softly, “The one you called is here.”

Tuma nodded. The guard withdrew. A moment later, another figure entered the room, one who was not a Skrall. Tuma had been approached by this being some time ago, with an offer to provide useful information on the villages and their defenses as well as to act as a go-between for the Skrall and the Bone Hunters. This arrangement had so far proved profitable to both sides.

“You took a big chance sending me a summons,” the traitor said. “What if someone had stumbled on your message? Where would I be then?”

“That is not my concern,” growled Tuma. “Your safety is your responsibility. The welfare of my people is mine.”

The traitor looked around the chamber, then gestured toward the doorway that led to the fortified city. “Seems to me your people are doing just fine.”

Tuma rose to his full, imposing height. “We attack Atero tomorrow. Be prepared.”

“Tomorrow?” the traitor said, startled. “I thought you were going to wait for the end of the tournament.”

“Our plans have changed,” Tuma answered. The look in his eyes said he had no intention of explaining further.

“On their own, or did someone change them?” asked the traitor. “Let me guess… your neighbors to the north are coming to pay a visit.”

Now it was Tuma’s turn to be surprised. He stalked across the room, grabbed the traitor around the throat, and slammed that being into the wall. “What do you know of the baterra? Speak! Have you betrayed the Skrall to them, as you have betrayed your own people to us?”

“Urrrrk,” croaked the traitor, as the Skrall’s hand cut off all air. Tuma abruptly let go. The traitor crumpled to the ground, hand massaging a painful throat.

“I know… a great deal… about a great many things,” the traitor said hoarsely. “But if you want the benefit of that knowledge… we are going to have to come to a new arrangement.”

Tuma’s mouth curled into a sneer. “Your naked greed ill becomes you.”

“I don’t work for free,” spat the traitor. “Not this kind of work, anyway. Now let’s see if we understand each other – you fled south like a pack of frightened rodents because the baterra were decimating your people. Now they’re closing in on you again, so you’re in a big, fat hurry to seize the desert so you can buy some time and space. How am I doing so far?”

Tuma nodded, but said nothing.

“It’s an excellent plan… for old women,” the traitor said, with a harsh chuckle. “Run, until you can’t run anymore, and hope your enemy exhausts himself running after you. Tell me, Tuma – have you ever killed a baterra?”

“Of course,” said the Skrall leader. “How else do you think we learned they are machines, not living things?”

The traitor wandered to the back of the chamber, running a finger along the arm of Tuma’s throne. “I see. So you downed one by accident and saw it fizzle and spark… and then the baterra killed how many of yours? 100? 200?”

“Your point, sand worm,” hissed Tuma.

“My point, my point… oh, yes,” said the traitor, abruptly sitting down in Tuma’s grand chair. “My point is that I know how to kill the baterra, and you don’t. And I think that puts a new slant on things around here, doesn’t it?”

“You will tell me how to kill those… things,” Tuma said, his voice deathly quiet. “Or I will give you to the Spikit, as a snack. But you will not die, oh, no. We will keep you alive, patch you up, and when you are healed – we will give you to the Spikit again. And again. And again.”

“See, there’s only one problem, Tuma,” the traitor said, leaning forward in the chair and smiling broadly. “You don’t scare me. Sure, you can torture me, kill me… but what’s in my head stays there. Then it’s only a matter of time before the baterra come and finish you off.”

Tuma wanted to bellow in rage. He wanted to tear the traitor’s head off and mount it on a pole, for all to see. He wanted to storm the villages of Bara Magna, burn them to the ground, and slay the Agori the way the baterra had slain his people, little more than a year before. Had he been but a Skrall warrior, he would surely have done that. But he was more than that – he was the lone surviving Skrall leader left alive, and he had a responsibility to the empire.

“What is your price?” the Skrall said, slowly. “And be aware… you tread on dangerous ground. Push too far, and you may find I forget what is in the best interests of my people in favor of what would be most… satisfying… to myself.”

The traitor reclined on the throne. “No need to worry, Tuma. We both want what’s best for the Skrall and the rock tribe. Of course we do. And as of today, I no longer work for you. From now on… we’re partners.”

“Partners? In what?” asked Tuma.

“In the conquest of this pile of sand,” the traitor replied. “With my wits married to your warriors, we are going to carve Bara Magna up between us. Now you had better find a chair for yourself… we have a great deal of planning to do, don’t we?”

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