Strakk couldn’t see; he could barely breathe. He wanted to see his surroundings to be a hundred percent sure… but knew that it wouldn’t be good. This is what I get, he thought. This is the last time I do something for others. I have a very soft heart, that’s my problem. Enough! It’s over! I will become a champion of the arena, and never take an escort job again in my life, no matter what.
Strakk clenched his fist and struck something hard. Something grabbed his wrist and pulled him out of the rocks. He was relieved when he touched the ground. The dust kicked up by the fall caused him to cough violently. When he looked around, he saw a faint light around the dust, forming a familiar silhouette.
“I’m alive!” Strakk sputtered after a while. “What happened?”
“You really need to ask?” replied Gresh, his voice laced with fury. “Your fire triggered an avalanche. We all fell down the slope.”
“But I’m alive, right?” Strakk murmured, rising. “If not, I would have gone where good souls go. I’m definitely not there.”
“The avalanche pushed us against the wall of the ravine. Then I saw a small opening in the canyon wall,” Tarduk said. “We went inside, but then the entrance was blocked by rocks.”
“What of the caravan? And the exsidian?” Strakk said, alarmed. “If the exsidian is lost, I will not receive my payment and the whole expedition will have been a waste of time!”
“The Spikit is a bit battered, but the carriage is fine,” Kirbold said. “I’m glad you asked.”
While the others spoke, Gresh had returned to the opening. It was blocked. Pushing with all his strength, he tried to move the rock, but to no avail. “Even if we do manage to move the rocks from the inside, the other side would be blocked by debris and boulders. I’d prefer not to go out that way.”
Tarduk lit a torch, illuminating the dark corridor. “Is there another option?”
Strakk stepped forward, carefully examining the surface of the walls. The rock was perfectly smooth and polished. He was looking for a second exit. If there was one, it was not located somewhere in the ceiling, so climbing was not an option. He walked around, looking for scratches, cracks or anything that indicated the existence of a door, but due to low amount of light provided by the torch Tarduk had, he couldn’t find anything.
“Where do we go from here?” Strakk asked.
“This is not a natural tunnel,” Gresh said. “Someone created it. But why? And where does it lead?”
“Well,” Tarduk shrugged. “It seems our only choice is to follow the path… unless you’d prefer to stay here and die.”
Everyone sighed with relief when they discovered that the corridor was wide enough for the caravan to pass through. According to Kirbold’s calculations, the corridor should be running roughly from east to west, almost the same direction of Vulcanus. Of course, if he was wrong, and the tunnel did not lead in that direction, it would undoubtedly cross the Dark Falls and end in the eastern territories. Nobody liked that possibility. Anyone who traveled there, even the Skrall, never returned.
Tarduk’s torch was the only source of light in the hallway. They hadn’t yet encountered anything that indicated where they were, or where they were going. Tarduk also wondered why there were no signs of life. No doubt the sand bats would have dug holes to gain entry. If there was another way out, it would be closed. For a moment Tarduk wished that Bara Magna’s Glatorian could control the elements to which they belonged. If that were the case, the Jungle Tribe could control plant life, and the Ice Tribe would control ice. Strakk could freeze the boulders blocking the exit, and smash them to pieces with one blow of his axe. That idea was a nice one, but he knew it was impossible. Nearly a hundred thousand years ago the Glatorian had fought a major war on the planet. Tarduk preferred not to think about what would’ve happened if they’d had the ability to control their elements then.
“Hey, look,” Gresh said. “What’s that?”
Several strange symbols on the wall glowed brightly in the torchlight: a series of circles with lines drawn through them at various angles, forming strange inscriptions. Tarduk’s mouth curved into a smile.
“I saw something like that once!” he said, rushing to the wall to see the markings more closely. “I found these writings in some ruins!”
“Excellent,” Strakk said. “I hope this symbol means ‘Exit.’”
“I don’t know what’s written here. I can’t read them,” Tarduk said. “But based off where I found them, I think…”
“Spit it out!” Strakk grunted.
“…I think it has something to do with the Great Beings…” Tarduk ended in silence.
“That’s… good news,” Gresh said, uncertainly.
“That’s wonderful,” a stunned Strakk rubbed his head. “Just great. Things couldn’t get any better. Unless you see lava in here…”
“You know what? I think I left a flaming torch at the entrance,” Kirbold murmured. “I’d like to go back.”
Tarduk perfectly understood what his teammates felt. Even if no one had seen the Great Beings, all knew of them. Many people would forgive them for making Bara Magna a technologically advanced world. However, the vast majority blamed them for the catastrophe that had struck the world. Why they disappeared, Tarduk did not know – in time it became a legend. However, there was no doubting one thing: the Great Beings had committed a horrible act. The consequences of their negligence had resulted in a tragic disaster. Since then no one talked about the Great Beings. In the past, Tarduk had made several attempts to find them, but the leader of his tribe forbade him to look, considering his attempts to be a “waste of time.” But he’s not here now, thought Tarduk. Perhaps now, I’ll finally manage to learn something about them.
“Why would the Great Beings have dug a tunnel in the mountains?” asked Gresh.
“To reach the other side of the mountain?” Strakk guessed with a hopeful tone in his voice.
“Perhaps the Great Beings built this place… and left a guard?” Tarduk suggested. “It may be in here now.”
“After a hundred thousand years? Please!” Strakk scoffed.
Suddenly a sound echoed through the hall – a hollow sound, like something on the ceiling had been loose and dropped down from above. Everyone jumped.
“Someone’s here,” Kirbold whispered.
“Something’s wrong,” said Gresh, his voice a whisper. “Stay here, I’ll investigate.”
Before Strakk could protest, Gresh advanced. A few hundred feet down the path, the floor of the hall seemed a bit different. The smooth surface was replaced by thousands of ancient stones. On the walls were more symbols. As he continued he heard strange noises ahead – sounds of scraping and a quiet hiss of air. Gresh’s nerves were pushed to the limit.
“Gresh!” Tarduk cried. “The ground is moving!”
Gresh looked down. Tarduk was right. The “stones” in the path were actually Scarabax Beetles. The swarm covered the floor of the corridor from wall to wall. When the beetles were small they weren’t much of a threat – they could easily be trampled. But adult Scarabax shells were hard as rock. Gresh quickly stepped back, causing a violent commotion amongst the insects. If he didn’t move quickly, he would not be heard from again.
Suddenly he heard a roar in the tunnel, and a sand bat burst out of the darkness, heading right for him. Anyone who had been through the desert knew the sand bats were something to fear. They were large predators with a snakelike body and the wings of a bat. They preyed on creatures by leaping from the sand and quickly dragging their victims into the depths. Now Gresh had two problems to worry about; the beetles and the sand bat.
Gresh stumbled and fell back towards the bug infestation, Kirbold and Tarduk hurrying to help him. Strakk hesitated for a moment, then quickly ran after them. He knew that if he didn’t succeed in saving his companion, he too would end up as just another meal. The sand bat lunged at Gresh. The Glatorian’s memories flashed before his eyes; he remembered his people, the faces of his friends, Kiina and Vastus. He instinctively closed his eyes as the sand bat rushed toward him, baring its teeth. For a moment nothing happened, then a furious whisper suddenly echoed through the cave. The noise drowned all other sounds, all except one… the desperate cry of the sand bat.
Fero reined his steed to a stop to take a closer look at the area. He knew there was a mystery to be solved here. Fero belonged to the desert raiders known as Bone Hunters. He was one of the best, but recently a target had managed to evade him. The attack on the village of Vulcanus had ended in failure – a handful of Glatorian had been sent to stop him, and had succeeded. He wasn’t sure how this had happened, but he was humiliated in front of his tribe.
Pride wouldn’t allow him to live with such shame. Shortly after the failed raid he’d left his camp, although he had no intent to hunt or plunder the Agori caravans. No, Fero would track juicier prey – the Glatorian who had beaten him days earlier. He had vowed to pursue them, and would only be satisfied when the desert sand had consumed them all.
Fero had followed Strakk’s trail since leaving Iconox. He wanted to wait until nightfall to attack the Glatorian, leaving his knife embedded in Strakk’s flesh as a warning to others. However, during his watch he’d found that Strakk was with Gresh, a Glatorian of Tesara, and they were both escorting a load of exsidian. Fate had given him the opportunity to defeat two enemies, and gain a substantial reward, in one stroke. He just needed a plan.
Many experienced Bone Hunters wouldn’t have run the risk of facing two strong Glatorian, but Fero was patient. The two Glatorian had gone on a long journey, and Fero would wait for the right moment to attack them by surprise. The Black Spike Mountains had made them an easy target, but the Skrall had interfered with his plans. Furious, he had watched the group of warriors escort their prisoners and their valuable cargo towards the village of Roxtus. Then there was an escape attempt that ended with an avalanche. The Skrall left behind the debris – the purported resting place of the two Glatorian, two Agori and several tons of exsidian.
Fero understood why the Skrall didn’t believe anyone could’ve survived the catastrophe. However, something told him that appearances could be deceiving. Perhaps the instinct of a Bone Hunter, honed for years in the harsh desert, led him to conclude that Gresh and Strakk were still alive. Of course, he hadn’t gone to confirm this by digging through tons of stones; this type of work was not something Fero enjoyed. In addition, the Skrall could return at any time.
This brought Fero to another possibility: the only way to avoid death in an avalanche was to be in a cave. Caves often had a second exit. Perhaps the road that the Glatorian were taking would bring them to it. If so, Fero intended to find it and wait for them. He turned his steed and headed off the road. If Strakk and Gresh emerged from the cave, Fero would make sure his defeat in Vulcanus was avenged.
Gresh opened his eyes. The Scarabax swarm had emerged from the ground like a miniature tornado and flung themselves toward the sand bat. For a moment, the beast disappeared under a thick black cloud of insects. When the cloud disappeared, Gresh noted that the spot where the sand bat had been was now empty. Soon the beetles scattered in all directions, and Gresh, still in shock, stood up.
“What just happened?” Gresh asked hurriedly, while checking to see if any of the beetles remained attached to his armor.
“You ran straight into a Scarabax swarm. That was stupid,” Strakk explained. “Then you fell into a Scarabax swarm. That was also stupid. The sand bat was smarter than you.”
Gresh gritted his teeth, trying hard not to fire back a harsh response.
Kirbold intervened, preventing Strakk from making things worse. “The Scarabax react to sudden movements. When the sand bat flapped its wings it caught their attention, so they forgot you and went after it instead.”
“Then why did they flee?”
“Who knows. Maybe they went to take a nap after lunch? At least they’re gone,” Tarduk shrugged.
“That’s not even the most interesting part,” Strakk sighed.
“No? What is then? Enlighten me,” a curious Kirbold responded.
“Sand bats don’t live in the caves.” Strakk’s voice was riddled with impatience. “They live in the desert, buried in the sand where they hunt things on the surface. In places like this, there’s no food for them. Get it?”
“They came here from outside, like us,” Gresh guessed. “Except that sand bat flew from the other side, and that means…”
“…That means there must be an exit!” Kirbold concluded. “We just have to find it!”
“Well, wise man,” Strakk said. “Can we hurry before those bugs appear again?”
The team continued down the corridor. The passage twisted, rose and fell, but Tarduk was more interested in the inscriptions on the walls. He still had no idea what they might mean. He couldn’t even tell if they were letters or numbers, and the group was moving too quickly for him to take a good look.
“I think I see something,” Kirbold said. “There, up ahead.”
Tarduk stared into the darkness. Kirbold was right – ahead of them shone a dim light. Without thinking, Gresh moved in that direction. Kirbold had the Spikit run faster to keep pace with him.
“What is it?” Strakk cried. “A door? Is it the exit?”
Gresh continued down the path. Through a narrow slit in the middle of the wall was a faint stream of sunlight. Placing both hands on the wall, Gresh tried to find a button or a lever to open it.
“I think so,” he replied. “If only we can find… Aha!”
The Glatorian pushed a square stone embedded in the wall. After a moment they heard the echo of an old mechanism working. However, it did not open any door. Something completely unexpected happened.
“This doesn’t look good,” Strakk said.
Tarduk jumped from the caravan and saw how right Strakk was: the corridor walls were starting to approach each other. At the rate the walls were moving, the group had only a few minutes to live before they were crushed. Gresh and Strakk desperately groped the wall in search of something that could stop the mechanism, but found nothing. Kirbold rushed to help, ignoring the growls of the Spikit, which, by nature, was terrified of enclosed spaces. Tarduk kept searching for another button on the wall. However, he was also staring at the engravings. He was sure they hid a suggestion to help them out of this problem. Each one had a circular shape. Many of them had lines in within the circle, while others contained smaller circles. He thought some were words, but could not identify any. They were in a language he didn’t know. Wait, wait, he thought. This symbol, here… is it possible?
One symbol was far from the others – a simple circle, with no extra lines or other patterns in the middle. His first thought was that it looked like a zero or the letter “O.”
It couldn’t be that simple, he thought, then hesitated. Could “O” be “Open”?
Tarduk jumped and punched the symbol. Suddenly, the stone before them began to shake. The rock that was blocking the road slowly moved aside, filling the tunnel with light. The walls continued approaching each other, but finally an escape route had opened.
“Run!” Tarduk screamed.
Kirbold took the reins and urged the Spikit toward the exit. Behind the carriage ran Tarduk, followed closely by Gresh and Strakk. Only moments after they escaped the tunnel, they heard the sound of the corridor walls closing behind them.
“Phew!” Strakk let out a breath of relief.
“Look around,” said Gresh.
They were at the foot of the mountains. They could see where the mountains gave rise to the desert, and the dark waters of the Skrall River fell with a steady echo. They had made it through the Black Spike Mountains.
“It’s a shame that we can’t go back the way we came,” Kirbold said. “Well, unless we all lose a lot of weight.”
Gresh turned, having heard the impact of metal on rock. Seconds later something fell from the rocks above them and landed with a crash at his feet. Before them lay the body of a Bone Hunter. Gresh approached him carefully.
“It’s Fero,” Gresh said in amazement.
“Is he dead?” Strakk asked.
“He’s still alive, but badly wounded. It looks like he’s been in a rough fight.”
“But look at him, he’s a Bone Hunter. Who could have done this to him?” Tarduk asked, surprised.
Soon the reply came, though not in the form of an audible voice. In seconds, the team was surrounded by a group of Vorox. Amid the quiet circle appeared a warrior clad in red armor.
“We did this to him,” said Malum. “The only question is whether or not we should do the same to you.”
* * *
Tuma woke with a start. Sleep had been welcome, but the dreams it had brought had done nothing to soothe his spirit. Now he sat up in his darkened chamber, staring out the window at the starlit sky of Bara Magna.
He had never been one for deep thoughts, doubts, or reflection. His class within Skrall society – those intended by nature to be leaders and the fiercest of warriors – did not place great value on looking inward or backward. Life was simple: move ahead, conquer, secure what you have taken, and then move on. It was this which had made the Skrall such feared warriors in the great war, and which helped them to survive as a tribe after the Shattering.
Cut off from their homeland after that global disaster, the Skrall resolved to tame the lands in which they found themselves – the volcanic, unstable, and dangerous territory north of the Black Spike Mountains. Although some parts of it remained too treacherous even for them to explore even after tens of thousands of years, they became the undisputed masters of their empire.
Then everything changed. A new breed of warriors appeared, silent, lethal shapeshifters who struck from thin air and then vanished again. Skrall warriors died by the score, as did the other members of Tuma’s class until only he remained to lead the tribe. Although it went against his nature, Tuma finally assembled the Skrall army and the rock Agori and led them south through the Black Spikes to new territories and safety.
Tuma got up and walked out of his shelter. Even in the middle of the night, the city of Roxtus was busy. Skrall patrols were constantly on the move, while Bone Hunters rode up to the gates with captive Glatorian and Vorox to sell. Agori prisoners taken in the desert were hard at work building new walls and repairing Skrall weapons and armor. The work never stopped… it couldn’t be allowed to, Tuma knew.
He had learned many things during those last battles, when fighting raged from the Maze Valley to the very heart of the Skrall camps. His people could never hold too much territory, be too well defended, or hesitate even a moment in their march of conquest. Although the desert had little to offer in terms of resources, it did grant its owner one thing every leader wanted – space in which to fight. And one day they would fight again, Tuma was certain… one day, the things that stalked the northern mountains would follow them here.
For now, though, he could focus his attentions to the south. The villages of Bara Magna were scattered, their relations with each ranging from indifferent to tense. It was doubtful they would be able to mount much resistance if the Skrall attacked now, but “doubtful” was not good enough. Tuma was not going to risk a two-front war, with the Glatorian and Agori in front of him and his other enemies behind. When the Skrall were ready to strike, Bara Magna must be ready to fall.
The leader of a Skrall patrol appeared before him. Tuma eyed him for a moment, noting the damage to his sword and shield. The warrior had seen combat this night.
“Report,” snapped Tuma.
“Bone hunter attacks have isolated Tajun,” said the Skrall. “Your representative has met with the hunters to argue against their plans for a raid on Vulcanus.”
Tuma smiled. “And so guarantees the Bone Hunters will go ahead with it. Very good. And have their plans been drawn up?”
The Skrall nodded and produced a roll of parchment from his pack. He handed it to Tuma, who unrolled it and scanned its contents. After a moment, he looked back at the warrior. “The Bone Hunters do not know we have this copy?”
“No, leader,” said the Skrall.
“You realize, if I find out you are lying… or even mistaken… your head will decorate the walls of Roxtus?”
“Who did you battle tonight?” asked Tuma.
“A Glatorian from the fire village and a pack of Vorox, leader,” reported the Skrall. “We had paused our rock steeds north of the Skrall River when we were attacked.”
“You killed them all, of course,” Tuma replied.
The Skrall did not answer.
Tuma’s eyes narrowed. “Why not?”
“They vanished into the sand.”
Tuma leaned in close. “Glatorian do not vanish into desert dunes, warrior. Why do I not see the crimson one’s armor and sword among your gear?”
The Skrall said nothing. He didn’t have to. Tuma knew who he had encountered in the desert – Malum, exiled from the village of Vulcanus, now afflicted with desert madness and living with the Vorox. Malum was the most dangerous kind of warrior – one who did not fear death, for it would seem a comfort compared to the life he lived now. He could be a fierce enemy… which meant he could also be a valuable ally.
“Get fresh rock steeds,” Tuma ordered, “and take a dozen warriors. I want Malum brought here to me, alive. Do not return without him… I am sure you remember the fate of the last patrol that failed me.”
The Skrall nodded. The patrol assigned to find the book of Certavus among the western ruins had come back empty-handed. They had been reassigned to punishment duty, feeding the two-headed Spikit in their pens. Spikit being as they were, the feeders inevitably wound up also being the food.
“It will be done,” said the Skrall warrior.
Tuma nodded once, a sign of dismissal. As the warrior left, Tuma turned and gazed at the northern sky. Despite how well everything was falling into place, he still felt uneasy. For a moment, he imagined he could hear the shouts of long-dead Skrall and the sound of the invaders’ weapons, as if the battles of his past were being fought again.
Not now. Not yet, he said to himself. But one day… after Bara Magna has fallen… the Skrall will take revenge.