1

Weeks ago…

The Sisters of the Skrall sat in council. It had only been a short time since they had done the unthinkable – allow a Skrall leader and elite warrior to walk out of their camp, alive. But a bargain had been struck: the freedom of the two arrogant males in return for information on the location of a Great Being named Angonce.

“I do not believe their tale,” one of the female Skrall whispered. “Why would Angonce have remained when the other Skrall fled? Why would he be there?”

“As a guard?” the leader of the sisterhood asked. “They say there is great power there… power that could make someone an emperor… or an empress.”

“And we will seek out that power?”

The leader considered. Theirs had not been an easy existence. Banished from the sight of the male Skrall, abandoned to the wilds, struggling to survive while the males pursued their plans of conquest… and now Tuma, their hated enemy, had been forced to buy his freedom from them. His payment had been dear indeed, if it truly led to the secrets of the Great Beings. And if Angonce was still on Bara Magna, could he be far from that which was most treasured by his kind?

“We go,” she said. “Gather the sisters together. We will travel to the Valley of the Maze and pierce its heart. And when we find what is hidden there… we will do the same to our Skrall brothers.”

Tuma and Stronius had traveled in silence since they left the camp. Stronius was furious, that much was obvious. No doubt he would have preferred to die at the hands of the sisterhood than bargain with them. But a leader could not afford to allow personal pride to threaten the welfare of his people. Dying here would not have helped the Skrall legions at all. Sending the sisterhood off on a wild sand bat chase, and possibly having some baterra killed in the process, might prove to be a great boon.

Stronius is a fine warrior, thought Tuma. But he does not understand that sometimes a leader has to make deals with those he finds… repulsive.

Not for the first time, he thought of Metus. The ice Agori had proven somewhat useful up to now, helping to strike deals with the Bone Hunters and providing information on the defenses of the various villages and the skills of their Glatorian. Lately, he had promised to share the secret of how to defeat the shapeshifting baterra, but he had yet to deliver on that pledge. Privately, Tuma doubted Metus truly knew anything of use on the subject. But he preferred to keep the Agori close by for now, at least until the second phase of the war against the villages had begun. Better to let him keep thinking his best interests lay with an alliance with the Skrall than risk him betraying battle plans to the Glatorian. A traitor, after all, can never be trusted.

Once the war was over and the Agori had been subjugated, of course, things would be different. Metus’ usefulness would be at an end, along with his freedom… and quite possibly his life. He was a viper, and Tuma had no wish to suffer his company any longer than was necessary.

The Skrall leader abruptly stopped. The pass up ahead was narrow and dotted with trees. He and Stronius had traveled through it on the way to meet with the Sisterhood earlier that day and met with no incident. But things had been different then – for one thing, there had been fewer trees.

“You see it?” Tuma said, as softly as he could.

“Of course,” Stronius answered. “An ambush, no doubt… well, we will make them regret this day before we’re through.”

“Will we?” said Tuma. “There are six of those ‘trees,’ each a baterra in disguise, and two of us. I doubt we will make it through the pass alive.”

“So what do we do – call on the sisters for help?” Stronius sneered.

Tuma whirled and struck the elite warrior, sending Stronius sprawling on the ground. Before the warrior could leap up, weapon drawn, Tuma had his own weapon at the fallen fighter’s neck.

“Speak to me like that again,” Tuma snarled, “and you may find you have something caught in your throat.”

Stronius’ eyes flicked down to the point of the blade now pressing against his neck. He knew exactly what Tuma meant. He forced his anger down and bowed his head in the traditional Skrall sign of submission to a greater authority. Placated, Tuma withdrew his blade.

As Stronius got to his feet, he noticed something odd about the baterra who lay in wait for them. At first, he wasn’t sure just what did not seem right about the scene before him. Then it hit him, and his hand went to his weapon immediately.

“The roots,” he said. “Look at the roots.”

Tuma did as he asked. Baterra disguises were traditionally thorough. If one changed its shape to look like a rock, it could be mistaken for a rock that had been in place for years. If another became a plant or a tree, there was nothing to give away that it had not been growing in that spot for ages. Even the roots of the trees looked to be buried deep in the ground, an incredible illusion.

Only the roots of these new trees in the pass were not growing down into the dirt. Instead, they were resting on the surface, and some were torn and ragged. Either the baterra were getting sloppy or…

“Those trees have been uprooted and placed there,” said Tuma. “They wanted us to see them and mistake them for our enemy. And that means –”

Pain exploded in the center of Tuma’s back. He hit the ground, even as two baterra emerged from the rocks behind them – or rather, the baterra had been the rocks behind them. They had run a double-bluff, focusing the attention of their prey on a fake ambush in front of them, while the true trap was behind them.

They are growing more clever, thought Stronius. Here is hoping we live long enough to share that cheerful bit of news with Roxtus…

Silently, the baterra advanced. Stronius readied himself for battle. He and Tuma would die with honor, at least. There would be no “deals” struck with this enemy.

He raised his war club and, with a guttural yell of rage, Stronius charged.

Tuma opened his eyes. With a start, he realized he must have blacked out from his wound, leaving Stronius to face two deadly baterra alone.

The worst had happened. Stronius was unconscious on the ground, not far away. His war club and Thornax launcher were nowhere to be seen. Tuma knew that he had little chance of stopping the baterra on his own, but he would have to try. He reached for his sword… but it was gone. So was his launcher.

He was defenseless.

Tuma struggled painfully to his feet. His back throbbed with pain. The baterra’s attack had pierced his armor and damaged some of the organic tissue within. He could still fight, and if he had a weapon, he was sure he could take at least one baterra with him. As it was, all he could do was face his death like a true Skrall.

“Come on, then,” he shouted at the baterra. “Finish this!”

The baterra made no move to advance. They seemed puzzled, if such a word could be applied to machines.

“Sorry, Tuma. You’re going to be disappointed.”

The Skrall leader whirled at the sound. It was Metus, unarmed, leaning against a rock as if he didn’t have a care in the world. As the Skrall watched in surprise, Metus walked up to the two baterra and regarded them like they were just annoyances.

“Move along. Nothing to see here,” he said to the two mechanical warriors.

To Tuma’s amazement, the baterra did just that. They turned and walked away! His first thought was a dark one: that Metus was truly in charge of the baterra and responsible for all the Skrall deaths they had caused, not to mention all the other warriors they had slain back in the Core War.

Metus was smart enough to guess where Tuma’s thoughts would be going. He turned to the Skrall with his arms out. “Now, Tuma, if I controlled them… If I had decimated your legions and your fortresses… why would I leave you alive to maybe put a dagger in my back? Use your brain. Remember what I told you.”

Tuma charged forward, ignoring his pain, and backhanded Metus, knocking the Agori to the ground. “I have grown tired of your insolence. I need no weapon to end your life.”

“I just saved your life, yours and Stronius’,” Metus spat. “A simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”

More than ever, Tuma wanted to shut Metus’ mouth for good. But he couldn’t escape the truth the Agori had spoken. The baterra were in a perfect position to kill him and his elite warrior, but hadn’t. Why?

“You said you had a secret… a way to stop the baterra,” Tuma said. “Is that what I saw here today?”

Metus got to his feet. “Just about. You’re not dead, are you? Yes, I know a secret, and it’s not one any Skrall would ever figure out on his own.”

The Agori smiled. For a change, he was actually telling the truth. Long ago, in the closing days of the Core War, Metus had hitched a ride on a supply caravan heading to an Ice army outpost. Normally, he would have preferred to make his way on his own, but his ice axe had broken and was in for repair. He hadn’t time to dig up a new weapon and didn’t much like the thought of traveling through a war zone unarmed.

The wagons were ambushed by a dozen baterra. The Ice warriors and other Agori put up a fight, but none of them survived the battle. Through it all, though, the baterra just ignored Metus. Even when he grabbed the reins of a wagon and made his escape, they didn’t pursue. The question of why dogged him all the way to the outpost. When he arrived, he told the warriors there that he had been knocked unconscious early in the battle and must have rolled under a wagon where the attackers couldn’t see him. They seemed to accept the explanation.

Metus knew better, of course. There had been something different about him, something that led the baterra to spare his life. Once he realized that, the answer was blindingly obvious.

I wasn’t armed, he thought. These creatures are killing warriors on every side. Their definition of “warrior” is anyone who has a weapon.

Now, here he was, years later, apparently the only being that had made this connection. The Skrall would never figure it out on their own, and even if they did, they would never want to do it – they would cut off their arms before they would lay their weapons down. When he saw Tuma and Stronius both unconscious, he had ditched his ice axe and rushed down, kicking their weapons well away from them. That brought the baterra up short, since their programming did not include attacking unarmed beings.

“You owe me,” said Metus. “I think it’s time we discussed payment.”

“Our deal stands,” Tuma growled. “Do not go too far, Agori.”

“Really? All right, then I can always bring the baterra back here. You can try negotiating with them. Or you can talk to me, like a… civilized warlord.”

Stronius was waking up. Metus decided he better wrap this conversation up fast. Stronius would snap him in half whether it was in the Skrall’s best interest or not.

“Listen, you’re a great and powerful leader,” the Agori said. “You’re going to be the ruler of Bara Magna pretty soon, and with my help, you’re going to wipe out the baterra. But just in case something should go wrong… if you were killed in battle, say… someone should be ready to step into your boots, don’t you think?”

“If a leader falls, an elite warrior takes over,” Tuma replied, already not liking where this was going.

Metus laughed. “Stronius? Please. The guy couldn’t lead a Spikit to dinner. And I won’t work with him, meaning the baterra carve your last legion to bits. No, I was thinking more of… me.”

Now it was Tuma’s turn to howl with laughter. “You?? You are no Skrall, just a miserable traitor to his own kind. Perhaps I should hand you over to the Agori and leave you to their justice, Metus.”

Metus crossed his arms over his chest. When he spoke, his voice had none of its usual bluster. It was cold and flat. “Those are my terms. If you get killed or become unfit to lead, the legion answers to me. Otherwise, just kill me now, Tuma. My death will only come a little earlier than yours and that of the rest of your warriors.”

“They will never accept it,” said Tuma. “They will never take orders from an Agori.”

Metus chuckled. “If you go down, things will be so desperate they would even take orders from a lummox like Stronius. Anyway, you let me worry about that. Do we have a deal?”

“For now,” Tuma said. “But once the baterra are defeated…”

“I’m on my own,” Metus finished for him. “I got it. Well, don’t be concerned – all of this will be over soon, and nothing’s going to happen to you, right? You’re just humoring an Agori.”

“Yes,” Tuma agreed. “Yes, it will all be over. Everything… and everyone… ends in time.”

Metus smiled. He quickly retrieved his ice axe, and then happily “discovered” where the Skrall weapons had fallen. It had been a good day. Perhaps Tuma really would conquer the villages and the baterra in time, but the Skrall leader was in a dangerous profession. There was always the potential for accidents. Of course, it might be wise to include Stronius in the “accident” as well, if at all possible. The thought was a very entertaining one, and it kept him amused all the way back to Roxtus.

As for Tuma, his thoughts were his own. He would have to make a formal announcement to his legion, one they would have a hard time believing. But he would also give a whispered order to Stronius: if anything were to happen to him in battle, even a noble death at the hands of a Glatorian, the elite warrior was to immediately slay Metus.

Yes, everything ends, Tuma said to himself. But some endings are more painful than others, my Agori friend. Pray you never learn just how painful.

Tuma smiled and resolved to put the whole matter out of his mind for now. He had, after all, a world to win.

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