One of the first things Strakk learned as a Glatorian was to always read his situation. Was his opponent confident or fearful? Was he admired by your audience or did they not care? Could the layout of the arena be used to gain an edge? These questions all had to be answered before the village leader announced the start of the fight. This technique was useful for keeping silent and organizing his thoughts. It allowed him to forget the fear and focus on the challenge he faced. But considering all the facts, options and risk factors… Strakk was ready to panic. Being surrounded by Vorox as he was, Strakk believed he could be forgiven for feeling this way.
“And what shall I do with you now?” Malum said. “I have many Vorox to feed.”
“Listen, Malum,” said Gresh. “We have nothing for you. We just want to go to Vulcanus. Take what you want from us, and let us continue on our way.”
“What are you talking about?” Strakk whispered. “He will take the exsidian.”
Malum laughed. “Our senses are very sharp. I’d listen to Strakk. Your lives depend on it.”
“Listen to this…” Gresh said suddenly, pointing with his launcher. “I’m a pretty good shot. If any of your Vorox fire at us… I’ll do the same to you, Malum. They may beat us, but you will die first.”
The tone of Gresh’s voice caused anxiety among the Vorox. Several of them began to growl menacingly, flexing their tails, ready to attack.
“Quiet. Aggression is not the answer,” Malum replied indignantly. “I came here to kill a small group of old… acquaintances.”
“What did I say?” Strakk muttered under his breath.
“I do not want your exsidian. What would we use it for? The Vorox aren’t toolmakers. What they cannot eat, drink or use in a fight is not useful to them. Or me.”
“What do you want?” Gresh said.
“The Skrall have something that belongs to me,” Malum said calmly. “I want it back.”
Strakk laughed. “Is that all? They have the strongest army in Bara Magna. You want to knock on their door and ask for a refund? By all means, go get yourself killed. While I do the same to your Vorox.”
“Shut up, Strakk!” cut in Gresh. “What do you mean, Malum? Why are you here? The Vorox live in the Dunes of Treason. The Skrall have not entered that territory.”
Malum climbed onto a rock. Two Vorox left the circle and grabbed Tarduk and Kirbold. Strakk and Gresh tried to intervene, but more Vorox blocked them from rescuing their companions.
“Pathetic heroes. I will ensure that your friends will not leave without saying goodbye… I would not want something to happen, right? In regard to your question, Gresh… the Bone Hunters recently attacked one of our camps. We managed to beat them, but they stole a sword, and sold it to the Skrall. We came to retrieve it, but since you’re here, you can do this favor for us.”
“You’re crazy!” Strakk cried.
Malum’s eyes flashed with anger.
“Crazy? No! I’m surrounded by friends who want to rip you into pieces! I control the fate of your two small friends and your exsidian! So I advise you start planning how to retrieve my sword… before my Vorox lose their patience.”
Gresh and Strakk watched the Skrall city from behind an outcropping of rock. It was night, but Roxtus was always in motion, like a hive. The soldiers were keeping watch, or returning to the city for the night. The Agori were working and repairing weapons. From inside the walls they could hear the sounds of the warriors in training.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Strakk said.
“I know,” said Gresh. “You’ve said that three times.”
“There are at least a hundred Skrall in there,” Strakk continued. “Not to mention that Agori with glowing swords, whom I’ve never seen before. The walls are two feet thick, probably strong enough to stop an army. And anyway, I see no invitation for two Glatorian.”
“Well,” replied Gresh, “that means they do not expect us.”
“And how do we get in, genius?”
Gresh looked toward the desert, and saw a caravan approaching the city. Each wagon was pulled by a two-headed Spikit, with a torch strapped to the front acting as a flashlight.
“They’re probably transporting food and water,” said Gresh. “We only have to get into a carriage and ride through the door.”
“Did I say that I had a bad feeling about this?” Strakk asked.
The two Glatorian ran to the carriages. They were beyond the reach of the torchlight emanating from the city, so they were invisible to the guards. They saw a small Skrall group returning from their rounds, but at the last moment managed to hide behind a dune.
When the caravan slowly crept by, Strakk, followed by Gresh, crawled under the wagons. When the vehicle stopped for a moment, Strakk used a rope hanging from the rear to hang from the bottom of it: nobody could see him unless they deliberately looked under the carriage. Gresh, however, had a more difficult task: hiding under the trailer, near one of the Spikit. Moving quickly toward it, he prayed that the Spikit wasn’t hungry, fearing that it would take him as a potential meal. Once he was under the trailer, he mimicked Strakk’s feat, gripping the underside of it.
Upon reaching Roxtus, the city’s gates seemed to take forever to open. Gresh’s muscles were burning from the effort of holding his body above the sand. When he heard the voice of the guard – an Agori named Atakus – allowing entry of the caravan, he was relieved. The first part of the mission was successful. When the carriages stopped, the Glatorian left the caravan and hid in the shadows, hiding from the Skrall guards approaching. They waited until the carriages had finished unloading and departed, then entered the city.
“Do you have any idea where to look?” Strakk asked.
“I think so,” Gresh said. He gestured toward a towering edifice. “The largest building in town. Malum’s sword must be considered a spoil of war. Such things would be kept in a safe place.”
“Only one guard in front… and unless you’ve got a way to get rid of him…” Strakk grabbed a piece of rusty chain that was lying in the sand, then held it out to Gresh. “Wrap this around your hands.”
They went to the building with their hands chained. They walked slowly, hunched over with their heads between their arms.
“What are you doing here?” said the guard. “You must remain in your cells. There is no fight today.”
“Oh yeah,” Strakk said. “I forgot.”
The Glatorian rushed the surprised Agori. Strakk silenced the Agori with one punch, knocking him out cold.
“Good job,” conceded Gresh, dropping the chain. “Where did you learn that trick?”
“I learned to lie, and deceive, by practicing,” Strakk grinned. “Two things Glatorian practice regularly, don’t you think?”
“Just start looking around,” said Gresh. “When dawn breaks…”
“…we won’t be able to get out of town unseen. I know.”
The Glatorian efficiently separated to search the room. In no other village was there a place like this. The Rock Tribe didn’t use the room for sleeping or eating, or to store inventory: no, apparently all of their treasure was kept here. Gresh noted a map of Bara Magna placed on a large table. Was this simply used as a source of information, or for mapping out war strategies?
It was Strakk who found where the most valuable treasure was. There were a lot of different things. Some of them – helmets, armor and other objects stolen long ago – were easy to recognize, but others he had never seen before in his life. Malum’s sword was under a pile of objects unknown to him, surrounded by six stones engraved with symbols, which were of no importance. Strakk wanted to take everything he could, but, after a moment’s thought, he quickly abandoned the idea. He had nothing against robbing the Skrall, but carrying all that baggage would seriously hamper his escape.
Strakk took a closer look at the item they’d come here for. The sword was unique, its elaborate ornamentation shaped like a flame. The blade was made of exsidian, and the handle had been carved from volcanic rock. No wonder Malum wanted to retrieve such a beautiful weapon. He must have been attached to it, as even his name was written on the handle. But something was wrong. Strakk looked closer at the engraving. The inscription on the sword said… “Ackar.”
Whoa, Malum is a thief, thought Strakk. He dared to steal the sword of his fellow Glatorian, Ackar, and when the Bone Hunters took it, he asked us to steal it back for him! Did he stab Ackar in the back just out of spite?
“You found it?” asked Gresh, entering the room. He was carrying his shield in one hand, and a large sword Strakk didn’t recognize in the other. “I thought this might be useful for getting out of here.”
“Of course I found it… but look.” Strakk showed Gresh the inscription on the sword. “Now what do we do with it?”
“We will return it to Ackar,” Gresh replied without hesitation.
“Maybe he’ll give us some kind of reward,” Strakk proposed. “But on the other hand, if we give it to Malum, perhaps the Agori live long enough to see Vulcanus again.”
“First, we need to get out of Roxtus,” Gresh said.
“I saw something that could help,” said Strakk. “Give me the sword.”
The two Glatorian left the building quietly. Gresh followed Strakk to a fenced area that smelled awful – something common for a Spikit pen.
“The Skrall have a weakness for these two-headed monsters,” Strakk whispered. “Probably because Spikit are the only things uglier than them. Let’s see how they like them running loose.”
Strakk brandished his axe, breaking the gates with a single blow. Seeing the opening, the animals hesitated for a moment, then broke into a run through the city.
Normally, stopping a herd of Spikit would not be a problem for the Skrall: block off some streets, kill a few of them, and the rest could quickly and easily be gotten under control. Unfortunately, the Agori caretakers had forgotten to feed them. The hungry Spikit were devouring everything, and everyone, within reach of their claws. A dozen wild, furious, and hungry Spikit ran throughout the village, and chaos soon engulfed the city. The Agori ran in panic as the Skrall used Thornax launchers to try to subdue the creatures. Gresh saw one of them trip and fall right in front of the pack. He did not rise again.
Taking advantage of the confusion, Gresh and Strakk climbed a wall near the city gates. The closed entryway kept the Spikit and the Skrall from following them. On the other side, Atakus was still on guard, with orders to take them down. Strakk jumped on him from above, knocking him out cold. The two Glatorian propped the unconscious guard against a wall, then ran into the desert as fast as they could. They paused for breath only when they were at a safe distance from the Skrall city.
“Do you think this was too easy?” Gresh mused.
“Don’t worry. We have the sword, and let some Spikit enjoy a meal. And besides, why should we worry about the Skrall? Do you think they’ll want this sword back that badly?”
Gresh shrugged. Maybe he was worrying too much, but he had a bad feeling. “Give me the sword.”
There wasn’t enough moonlight to see very far, but it was all he needed to inspect the sword. It didn’t appear to be anything special, but at the base of the handle Gresh felt a small, atypical depression. When he pressed it, a small compartment opened, containing a small metal object.
“What is it?” Strakk asked. “exsidian? Ice crystals? Tell me!”
Gresh looked at it a good while before he recognized it. Suddenly, he threw it into the sand and crushed it with his heel.
“What are you doing?” Strakk protested. “That thing could have been valuable!”
“Our lives are worth more,” said Gresh. “We need to get out of here.”
They ran. Gresh occasionally looked anxiously behind him to see if someone was chasing them. But he didn’t see any Skrall following them out of the city.
“I saw something like this before,” said Gresh as they ran. “Once in the desert, I saw an Agori running from something. He had a metal collar. He mumbled something about being enslaved by the Skrall… it sounded like nonsense. I took the necklace and saw that in the middle was a strange object. It sent a signal…”
“A tracking device,” Strakk concluded. “But why would one be in the sword?”
Gresh climbed some rocks. He saw the Skrall approach the place where he had destroyed the transmitter. Even without the tracker to follow, they continued to give chase, attempting to follow the steps in the sand. However, daylight would be needed to clearly see the footprints left by Strakk and Gresh. They were safe for now.
“The Bone Hunters sold the sword to the Skrall. I don’t think the Skrall knew where it came from,” pondered Gresh. “Perhaps they thought that the Bone Hunters stole it from Ackar, and that he would come to get it. Maybe it was a trap for Ackar.”
“But why would they be interested in him? Ackar was a champion of the Arena, but lately we hardly hear about him. I have no idea why anyone would be interested in him.”
“Maybe it was for Skrall hunting practice…” said Gresh.
After some time, they finally managed to reach the Vorox camp. They saw no one following them. Recalling the great sense of smell that the Vorox had, they found a cave with the wind in their favor. They climbed a small hill near the camp and hid in the cavern. At the camp, they could see Malum standing next to the caravan and the two Agori.
“We still need to rescue the Agori,” reminded Gresh. “You take care of Malum while I distract the Vorox.”
Gresh approached some stones glittering in the depths of the cave. Their brightness wasn’t a reflection: the stones were a mineral that emitted light. Gresh crushed a few of the stones, and covered his armor with the dust. After a moment, he began to glow.
“Give me a minute, then you go for the caravan,” Gresh said and then walked away.
Strakk took a position near the cave entrance, and waited for the right moment. Suddenly he heard a scream so horrible that even he jumped in fear. Gresh, glowing bright as the stars, jumped from behind a rock and ran straight into the camp. The Vorox, superstitious by nature, mistook him for a vengeful ghost who had decided to stay in the desert and began to flee. Gresh came closer to get them to disperse.
Malum was not fooled. “Do not panic,” he growled. “He isn’t a spirit… but he soon will be.”
Strakk felt that this was the right time – the caravan wasn’t being guarded. He took a deep breath and entered the camp. He jumped on the wagon, took the reins and urged the Spikit into a gallop. The wagon jolted forward so violently that Kirbold and Tarduk almost fell out. Before the Vorox could notice that the caravan was gone, they were already far away.
“Where is Gresh?” Tarduk cried. “He was back there!”
“That’s his problem,” Strakk said.
Tarduk grabbed an exsidian doubloon, ready to strike Strakk.
“Now it’s your problem too. Go back.”
“No need,” Kirbold announced. “Look!”
A shining being was running toward them with a group of Vorox at his heels. Gresh leaped forward desperately. Strakk reined in, slowing the Spikit enough that the jungle Glatorian was able to jump onto the wagon.
“Get moving! Hurry!” Gresh shouted.
However, the Spikit could not pull the group’s combined weight fast enough, and the furious Vorox were gaining rapidly. Strakk frantically sought a way to lose their pursuers. Then he saw small hope of escape: a large hill up ahead. If they could reach the other side of it, they would be out of sight of the Vorox for a moment. They could leave the carriage, and hide somewhere until dawn. Strakk gripped the reins and had the Spikit run faster until they disappeared behind the hill. Then Strakk realized his mistake. It was not a hill: it was the deadly Dark Falls, leading the Spikit, cargo and passengers to their doom.
* * *
The Skrall patrol moved out at dawn. Their target, Malum, was living with the bestial Vorox now, and everyone knew Vorox were night hunters. During the day, they would be sleeping beneath the sand and prime targets for an ambush.
Despite this, there was a grim silence among the members of the unit. Of all the tribes on Bara Magna, only the Vorox showed no fear of Skrall. Maybe it was because their savage brains were too dull to know fear. Or maybe it was because, living their lives in the wasteland as they did, the prospect of death simply held no terror for them.
The leader of the patrol kept his eyes trained on the dunes ahead. Vorox were notoriously good at covering signs of their presence, when they felt the need to do so, but a good tracker could still spot where they had been. Their tunnels left a telltale disturbance in the sand, as if a miniature cyclone had touched down. Sighting such a thing didn’t mean there were Vorox right below ground, since they might have gone down one hole and emerged from another. But a fresh cluster of signs, as yet undisturbed by the wind, meant a good chance Vorox were somewhere nearby. And where they were, Malum would not be far away.
He spotted something up ahead. It looked like roughly a dozen tunnels had been made in a patch of sand beneath an outcropping. It was hard to tell how recent they were, as the rock would have protected them some from the wind, but it was the first sign the Skrall had seen. Even more interesting, there was a natural cave in the slope nearby. Shelter for Malum, perhaps, during the heat of the day?
The patrol leader held up a hand to stop the march. He gestured for half the troop to surround the tunnel entrances, and the others to stay back with him. It was time to set the trap.
Half a dozen Skrall rode up to the outcropping. Once they were there, they kept moving, pacing their rock steeds back and forth across the sand. If there were Vorox down there, they would sense the vibrations in the ground. Regardless of whether they thought what they heard was a potential meal or the presence of an enemy – often the same thing – they would come up to investigate.
Naturally, they would not come up the same way they went down. They would spring out of the sand behind the intruders and try to take them by surprise. That was why half the patrol had hung back, keeping their mounts perfectly still. Two could play at the ambush game.
The Skrall waited.
Twenty. Some of the warriors were starting to wonder if the Vorox were long gone from this place.
They got their answer, but not in the way they had expected. The ground suddenly opened up beneath the reserve Skrall, sending them and their mounts tumbling down into a pit. The Skrall near the outcropping turned and rode toward their comrades, just as two dozen Vorox emerged from their original tunnels. Howling, they hurled crude swords and spears at the backs of the Skrall riders. One spear found its mark in the side of a rock steed, sending mount and rider tumbling down into the sand. The Vorox were on the unfortunate warrior before he could rise, insuring that he never would again.
Malum appeared at the entrance to the cave, watching the carnage with a smile on his face. After the events of the night before, only a fool wouldn’t have expected Skrall retaliation. He’d had the Vorox leave just enough traces to lure the patrol in, without making it so obvious that they would suspect a trap.
The Skrall patrol leader and his warriors had managed to scramble out of the pit, leaving their rock steeds behind. Dropping to one knee, they took aim with their Thornax launchers and fired. The explosive, spiked spheres sailed into the ranks of the Vorox, felling a number of the beasts. The still mounted Skrall turned in the saddle and fired a volley of their own, scattering their attackers.
Regrouping, the Skrall made ready to charge. That was when they heard a chorus of growls coming from behind. At least 50 Vorox had sprung out of the sand some 500 yards behind them. The patrol leader wasted no time, ordering the Skrall on foot to join their comrades on their rock steeds. Then they charged, leaving the small army of Vorox in the dust and headed right for the battered first wave and Malum.
“Aim high!” the patrol leader yelled.
The Skrall rode into the midst of the Vorox, striking at them with their blades. The Skrall mounted behind fired their launchers at the rocks above Malum’s cave. Their shots brought down a rockslide on the ex-Glatorian, pinning him beneath a pile of stone. Behind them, the mob of Vorox was closing in.
The Skrall upon whose rock steed the patrol leader rode slumped over and fell from the mount, a Vorox sword having struck him down. The leader grabbed the reins and urged the steed up into the rocks. Reaching the point where Malum was trapped, he coolly dismounted and aimed his launcher at the Glatorian’s head.
“Back to your holes,” he shouted at the Vorox, “or he dies.”
The beasts might or might not have understood the words – the Skrall weren’t sure. But they knew what they were seeing and they comprehended the tone. The Vorox didn’t retreat, but they didn’t keep attacking, either. They simply stopped and waited.
“We strike now,” said one of the Skrall warriors. “Make them pay for what they have done.”
“They are vermin, no better than scarabax beetles,” said another. “Exterminate them all.”
The patrol leader agreed. He hated Vorox. They were too unpredictable and too dangerous to leave alive. But he had his orders: bring Malum back to the city of Roxtus, alive. There would be time enough later to satisfy the need for vengeance and wipe out the Vorox.
“Enough,” he commanded. Reaching down, he grabbed the unconscious Malum by the throat and hauled him out from under the pile of rubble. “We have what we came for. Malum will face Tuma’s justice… and so will all these beasts, in time.”
Throwing Malum’s body over his rock steed, the patrol leader mounted up. Once they realized what was happening, some of the Vorox moved to attack, only to be cut down by Skrall Thornax. The rest backed away. Was it sadness in their eyes as they saw the Skrall riding away with their leader? Could beasts of the desert feel such an emotion? Or was it dread of the day the Skrall would return, for all of them?
No one… perhaps not even the Vorox themselves… could say.