1

It’s true, thought Gresh. When you’re about to die, everything seems to slow down. He looked around at his situation: he was, along with two Agori, one Glatorian, and a wagon carrying invaluable cargo, plunging into a chasm, probably to his death… and yet, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The water was drawing closer inch by inch, and he was conscious of every breath he took – in, out, in, out. His mind raced madly, even though he seemed to have all the time in the world before impact. Below them was the headwater of the Skrall River, where the water flowing down the Black Spike Mountains came together to feed the oasis of Tesara. The river ran farther south, but thanks to the great heat, it evaporated before reaching the region of Atero.

Gresh braced his body. Even if he hadn’t spent all his life living near water, it would have been clear to him that all his bones would break during the impact, so he had to submerge cleanly. He dove headfirst to split the water’s surface, but he had forgotten that, even here, the Skrall River wasn’t very deep. His head hit a rock at the bottom of the river and everything went black.

Then, the darkness was pushed away by lively colors. Gresh stood amidst the Sea of Liquid Sand, and, despite the quicksand that surrounded him, managed to remain on his feet. Not far away, the village of Vulcanus was burning. The Agori and Glatorian burned, too, but walked around as if nothing was happening. He turned to his right to see Malum leading a horde of Vorox to Vulcanus. But instead of attacking, they passed through the village and charged into a group of Bone Hunters. Nearby sat a troop of Skrall watching the action. Once both sides were tired from fighting, the Skrall overwhelmed both, the Vorox and the Bone Hunters. Then something even stranger happened: a shooting star crossed the sky and lit up the desert night for miles around. It crashed down and burned a crater into the sand. Smoke and flame poured from the crash site, and finally a figure slowly rose… one Gresh had never seen before. At first he thought it was a Glatorian, but the creature kept growing and growing, and soon towered miles over Bara Magna. The figure grew and grew… or was it Gresh who was shrinking? He looked down at himself and noticed that his legs were half sunken into the quicksand. He was sinking! He called for help, but the Vulcanus Agori were too occupied with the fire and the battle with the Skrall. The giant figure stood high over the chaos, and called Gresh’s name.

“Gresh… Gresh… Gresh!”

The Glatorian’s eyes snapped open. The burning village, the quicksand, the Skrall and the giant were gone. He was lying in the sand and looked up at two Glatorian, Ackar and Kiina. Strakk, Tarduk and Kirbold sat nearby in the shadow of a cliff.

“You gave us quite a scare,” Kiina said, laughing.

“Don’t try to get up,” Ackar advised. “You hit your head really hard.”

“What… how did you get here? Gresh asked, trying to get up despite Ackar’s warning. Immediately everything began to spin and he had to lie down again.

“When the exsidian ore didn’t arrive in Vulcanus, Raanu grew nervous,” Ackar replied. “If it isn’t delivered, Iconox can’t pay their debt to Vulcanus for the lost match.”

“Ackar convinced Raanu to wait a little instead of acting too hastily,” Kiina said. “He said we would either find you and help deliver the exsidian, or try to prove that Iconox sent the cargo on its way. We had just arrived when Strakk fished you out of the river.”

Gresh gave his companion a surprised look. He and Strakk were anything but good friends, and he knew that Strakk never did anything without wanting something in return.

Their gazes met. “Tarduk promised me a part of his next artifacts trove if I found you and got you out of the water,” Strakk explained. “So it was only reasonable to…” Kiina stared angrily at Strakk, looking like she wanted to teach him a lesson in manners with her trident.

Ackar had walked over to the shores of the river and stared into the water. “At least we found you. But according to Kirbold, the exsidian is lying at the bottom of the river. Raanu won’t be happy about this.”

“Worse,” Kirbold said. “If we don’t have a safe route anymore to send cargo from Iconox to Vulcanus and back, then it’s of no use for either village to challenge each other in the arena. When a village has got something the other one wants, there’ll be confrontations.”

“If we manage to get the exsidian to Vulcanus we may be able to avoid that,” Ackar said. “But your Spikit ran away, the wagon is shattered and the whole area is teeming with Vorox and Skrall… this situation is serious.”

Gresh forced himself to get up. Everything was spinning for a moment, quickly at first, then slowing down just enough so that he wasn’t sick. He staggered over to Ackar. The exsidian had probably buried itself deep into the riverbed. It would be possible to recover it with the proper equipment, but without the wagon, they could only transport a few ingots anyway. Even if they loaded a few ingots onto Ackar and Kiina’s Sand Stalkers, the expedition would be far from a success.

“Maybe we should get a wagon from Vulcanus?” Tarduk suggested.

“We could probably save you the effort,” Kiina said. “Ackar – don’t you think there may be someone around who would be very eager to get some exsidian?” She nodded her head towards the north.

Ackar smiled.

“This is an absurd idea,” Strakk grumbled while trudging through the sand. “Not only absurd – suicidal, too. So of course they chose me for it.”

He kept himself from looking back. Strakk knew exactly where Ackar and Kiina were, watching him from up between the rocks. It was allegedly to cover his back, but he knew the true reason: they wanted to make sure he didn’t make a run for it. Strakk marched from the Dark Falls to the southeast, in the direction of the open desert. Gresh had proposed heading north, toward Roxtus, but Kiina had been against it.

“Going that way he’ll never make it past Malum and his Vorox,” she said. “Plus, the Skrall aren’t stupid enough to think a Glatorian would voluntarily come to them if there was another solution. No, the encounter has to look accidental.”

Thus Strakk was wandering through the desert, beneath the burning sun, without any equipment. If he was “fortunate,” a Skrall patrol would cross his way. If not, he’d fall victim to the Bone Hunters or some hungry desert creature. Not for the first time he asked himself whether the match with Ackar he had been promised was worth all this. He stopped to drink something. During the accident he had lost his water canteen, but he had insisted on taking Kiina’s before he moved out. Kiina was afraid that the Skrall wouldn’t believe his story if he was carrying water, but Strakk refused to leave without it.

He took a large gulp. When he lowered the canteen, he saw something in the distance: riders, coming straight toward him. He couldn’t make out who they were through the heat waves rising from the sand, but he counted about half a dozen armed figures on Sand Stalkers. Strakk felt a surge of relief. Bone Hunters rode Rock Steeds, so the riders were probably not raiders. He at least didn’t want to fall into the hands of the wrong criminals. He forced himself to stop walking. Even though his mind was screaming “Run!” Strakk was in no way a coward – after all, you couldn’t be a successful Glatorian if you gave in to fear. But he thought practically: should something happen to him, his compensation would have to be generous… that is, if it would still be of use to him…

The riders had now come close enough that he could make them out. It was a well-equipped Skrall patrol, eager for a round of “punch the Glatorian.” Strakk felt how his knees grew soft, but he kept himself together. He had to look exhausted and afraid if his plan was to succeed – that shouldn’t be hard, he thought.

The leader of the squad was an elite warrior Strakk hadn’t met before, named Stronius. He had watched many Skrall matches in the arena, with unmoving features and never speaking a word. Rumors say he came to supervise the Skrall warriors. Should one of them, by some miracle, lose – or simply not win fast enough – he had permission to punish them.

Apparently the Skrall need even more motivation to really beat up someone, Strakk thought sarcastically.

Stronius rode directly towards Strakk, looking down on the Glatorian with a self-pleased smile. “A long way from home… Glatorian.”

“I am –” Strakk began.

Stronius cut him off. “Maybe you need a meal and a bed. I’m sure we’ll find something for you in Roxtus.”

Strakk had to gulp. He’d heard a lot of rumors about Glatorian that went to Roxtus – or were taken there against their will – and were never seen again. It was said they were used as “guinea pigs.” And that was just the beginning: the other stories of why they were brought to Roxtus, and what happened to them there, were far worse. “I was on a journey with a few others,” Strakk explained. “Our wagon plunged down the Dark Falls. I… I am the only survivor.”

“A wagon?” Stronius asked. “What was the cargo?”

Strakk hesitated shortly before answering, just long enough to seem believable. “exsidian. We were bringing it to Vulcanus. But it is now at the bottom of the river.”

Stronius smiled. His eyes were gleaming with greed. “You are aware, Glatorian, that we could finish you off now and take the exsidian for ourselves?”

At least he’s honest, Strakk thought.

“But we don’t do such things,” Stronius continued. “As honest citizens of Bara Magna, we will do something else instead. I’ll send one of my men to Roxtus to get a wagon, and you will lead us to the spot where the exsidian sank. And then we will… get it out for you, and send you and your cargo on your way again.”

This can’t mean anything good, Strakk said to himself. The Skrall aren’t exactly known for being a charity organization.

The Glatorian looked down at the sand, then up at Stronius. If he agreed to this proposal too fast, it wouldn’t seem authentic – the Skrall knew that no Glatorian would seriously believe they would let him go, with or without cargo. Strakk pretended to struggle, then finally resign and accept. “Agreed.”

“You made a wise decision,” Stronius said, clearly meaning: Had you said no, you’d already be dead.

It took a few hours until the Skrall returned with the wagon. Stronius didn’t let Strakk out of his sight. Once or twice the Ice Glatorian was tempted to betray the plot, hoping that the Skrall would let him go home. But his intelligence won out – telling the truth would ensure he would never have the opportunity to lie again. When the Skrall finally returned, he brought the message that Tuma, leader of the Skrall, had doubts about Stronius’ plan. However, he agreed under the condition that the job would be done as fast as possible, and that any “excessive material” would be disposed of immediately. Strakk had been called many names, but “excessive material” was new to him.

They made their way to the Skrall River in silence. Strakk hoped the other Glatorian had stayed true to their word and were waiting for him. Should they have thought twice and left for Vulcanus, he’d be in serious trouble. When they reached a rise, Strakk saw the spot. Neither Gresh, Kiina, Ackar nor anyone else was to be seen. First he started to panic on the inside – they had betrayed him! Then he noticed that no tracks could be seen in the sand at the shores, and calmed down a little. They wouldn’t have had any reason to cover all their tracks if they were only on their way to the fire village. The plan was still going, and he had to keep playing his role.

“I don’t see any trace of your comrades,” Stronius said. He didn’t sound distrustful, but simply bored. After a year in Bara Magna he no longer found the tricks of the Glatorian amusing.

“The river carried them away,” Strakk replied, a little too fast. “I am the only one who survived.”

“I see,” Stronius said. “So if I send one of my men downstream, he’ll find them where the water disappears into the sand.”

“Sure,” Strakk responded. What else was he supposed to say…?

Stronius gestured to three of his men. “Go and see whether you find something in the riverbed – and be thorough. The life of a Glatorian depends on it.”

The three Skrall descended and stepped into the water. Only a few moments passed before their armored heads reappeared at the surface. One of them swam to the shore and climbed onto the sand. In one hand he was holding an exsidian ingot.

“Down there are the remains of a wagon,” the Skrall reported. “And more ingots like this one.”

“Very good,” Stronius said. “All of you go down and bring up the rest. Meanwhile, I will keep an eye on our ‘friend.’”

The Skrall warriors went to work. As with every labor they tackled, they were fast and thorough. Again and again they would emerge with new ingots that were loaded onto the wagon. The higher the stack got, the broader grew Stronius’ smile. No doubt he was already thinking of how Tuma would welcome him when he returned with such a treasure. When the wagon was fully loaded, Stronius and his men got back on their Sand Stalkers. The elite Skrall grinned at Strakk and aimed his Thornax launcher at him. “Many thanks, Strakk. Your services to the village of Roxtus will be remembered forever… on your gravestone.”

Strakk closed his eyes. The shrill whistle of a fired Thornax could be heard, followed by a sharp cry. But it didn’t come from Strakk. The Glatorian opened his eyes and saw Stronius lying in the sand.

“Drop your weapons – now!” Ackar bellowed down from the nearby rocks. “Get away from the wagon!”

The Skrall warriors opened fire with explosive Thornax ammunition. Strakk used the distraction to run to the river, planning to cross it and make a break for the desert beyond. He had already made it to the opposite side when Kiina appeared from behind a sand dune.

“Where are you going?” she snapped at him while continuing to fire Thornax at the Skrall.

“Out of the line of fire,” Strakk answered. “I’m unarmed, in case you missed that.”

“Being unarmed will be the least of your problems if you abandon us,” Kiina shot back. “Worry more about me making you a head shorter. Here!” She gave Strakk her trident. “Start being useful. And remember – point the sharp end at the bad guys.”

Even though the enemies outnumbered them, Ackar had managed to keep the Skrall away from the wagon. Stronius had sent a warrior to sneak around and take out the Glatorian. He had already managed it around and halfway up the rocks when he crossed paths with Gresh, who hurled a well-aimed stone at him. The Skrall fell tumbling back into the sand.

“Are you ready?” Ackar yelled.

Kiina nodded and took aim. “Go!” she cried.

The two Glatorian fired their Thornax launchers in parallel, hitting the sand directly in front of the Skrall. The explosive projectiles collided noisily, whirling sand through the air and into the eyes of the Skrall. Temporarily blinded, they could do nothing as Gresh, Strakk and the two Agori raced to the wagon and climbed aboard. Ackar rode over and brought Kiina her Sand Stalker, which she rapidly mounted.

“Go!” Kiina yelled as she drove the Skrall’s Sand Stalkers apart. Gresh spurred the Spikit onward, and the wagon was rapidly racing away. Ackar turned around and fired at the Skrall who were reemerging from the sand cloud.

“I can’t believe it worked!” Strakk said.

“It’s not over yet,” Gresh reminded him. “We still have to reach Vulcanus.”

“And I’m afraid they still have a score to settle with us,” Kiina said, pointing back.

Gresh looked over his shoulder. The Skrall had recaptured their Sand Stalkers and were in hot pursuit of the wagon. Spikit were strong and enduring, but not as fast as Sand Stalkers. It was only a matter of time till the Skrall caught up.

“Any good ideas?” Strakk asked the assembled group.

“Kiina and I could search for cover and stop them,” Ackar said, “while you keep riding to the village.”

“No way,” Gresh said. “This is our task. I won’t let anything happen to you because you helped us.”

“I don’t really think we need your permission, youngster,” Kiina replied. “Look for a good spot, Ackar, where we can catch them in our crossfire.”

“Wait a second,” Strakk interrupted. “There is someone up ahead – red-armored. Maybe Vulcanus sent some rookie warriors as support?”

“Whoever it may be, I hope they’re well-equipped!” Ackar said. “We’re about to have a rough confrontation.”

They quickly approached the distant figures. As they came into clearer view, Gresh felt his stomach become as tight as a knot. “Oh, I don’t think you have to worry about that. They’re well-equipped, that much is for certain.”

Strakk stared ahead. “I don’t believe it. We can’t possibly have that much bad luck.”

“Who are they?” Ackar asked, his gaze still fixed on the Skrall closing in behind them.

Gresh wanted to answer, but the words caught in his throat. After everything they went through, he couldn’t believe their mission was about to come to an end…

“They aren’t coming from Vulcanus,” he finally said. “The red armor… it’s Malum. He and his Vorox are expecting us.”

“And the Skrall are right behind us,” Kiina remarked.

Around us there is nothing but endless desert, Ackar thought to himself. No hiding places to be seen. We can neither escape nor defeat them, let alone do both.

“I’d say we have a good chance of being trashed,” Strakk said. “And we’re about to find out…”

* * *

Weeks ago…

The first thing Malum saw when he opened his eyes was a pair of Vorox. His first thought was that all of it – the attack by the Skrall, his capture – had been a bad dream. He had certainly had plenty of those lately.

But, no – these Vorox were in chains. Being desert dwellers, the Vorox hated any kind of confinement. It was sheer torture for them. Malum had no doubt that a Vorox penned in too long would simply lose the will to live. Rage grew in his heart for whoever had shackled these “beasts,” and he already knew who that was: the Skrall.

He looked up to see two of that hated species standing over him. One was a warrior, like those who had attacked his camp. The other was much taller, clad in green and black armor, and obviously in command.

“I am Tuma,” said the leader. “And you are Malum, disgraced Glatorian and friend to… the animals.”

“You are the trash of the desert,” Malum growled. “And I am the one who will celebrate at your grave.”

The Skrall warrior walked over to where Malum lay and kicked him in the side.

“That’s no way to talk,” said Tuma. “I brought you here to have a conversation.”

Malum got painfully to his feet. His wrists and ankles were surprisingly not shackled. Tuma had a great deal of confidence, it seemed.

“You brought me here for revenge,” said the ex-Glatorian. “My people bloodied yours and you can’t stand that.”

The warrior moved to strike Malum again, but Tuma stopped him. “Stand down. You are… half-right, Malum. Your Vorox have proven to be an annoyance lately. But killing you, though no doubt a great deal of fun, would not change that. Believe me, if I wanted you dead, even your pets would be unable to find all the pieces.”

Malum looked around. He was in the city of Roxtus, filled with rock Agori and Skrall troops. The place was notorious for welcoming Glatorian inside and then never letting them leave. He could see Agori guards all along the walls and Skrall patrols entering and leaving at a constant pace. It was not a spot one dropped by for a visit.

“Then why am I here?”

“You control the Vorox,” said Tuma, gesturing to the pathetic, chained creatures. “They do what you command. That makes you a threat… or a potentially valuable ally. But before we could make any arrangement with you, we would have to see proof that you really can make these beasts do what you say.”

“And if I refuse?” asked Malum, already sure of the answer.

Tuma smiled. On him, it was an ugly expression. “Then we send you back to your friends, of course… so they can have a funeral, or whatever ritual they do to honor the dead.”

“That’s what I thought,” Malum replied.

The Skrall had it all wrong, of course. They assumed he had some mysterious power to control the Vorox, but he did not. He had won dominance of the pack by defeating its previous leader in single combat. As long as he led them to food and water and kept them away from unnecessary danger – in other words, as long as he was an effective pack leader – they would follow him. But they did it as free beings, not as slaves. The Skrall, he knew, did not want allies – they wanted soldiers they could sacrifice without hesitation.

“Take him to the arena,” Tuma ordered. The Skrall warrior grabbed Malum roughly by the arm and dragged him to the Glatorian arena in the center of the large settlement. Chained against the far wall were two more Vorox, both members of Malum’s own pack. A plan began to form in his mind, but it would depend on a great many unknown factors. How hungry and desperate were the Vorox? Too far gone to remember him? Would they understand what he was trying to do?

A half dozen Skrall warriors appeared, ringing the sides of the arena. A seventh took a position in a box behind the Vorox. At Tuma’s signal, he released the chains that held the beasts prisoner.

The two Vorox charged toward Malum. He could tell even from a distance they had been mistreated. They were eager for prey, and might not care who or what it would be. But he stood his ground, making direct eye contact with first one Vorox, then the other. Then he raised his right arm and brought it down slowly, all the while giving a low whistle.

The Vorox slowed, then stopped completely. They sank down to all fours and looked up at Malum, expectantly. To the Skrall watching, it looked like a miracle: two savage beasts tamed in an instant.

“It’s really quite easy, once you gain their respect,” Malum said, never taking his eyes off the Vorox. “Judging from their wounds, I would say they at least respect your capacity to inflict punishment.”

“My warriors could be trained to do this?” asked Tuma. The Vorox had been a problem ever since the Skrall started capturing them. Now and then, they broke loose and did a lot of damage before they could be subdued or killed.

“They have seen me do it,” Malum answered. “I am sure they could do it themselves now.”

The six Skrall warriors advanced on the beasts, who remained motionless at their approach. “Let them go,” Tuma said to Malum.

Malum gave a short, sharp whistle. The Vorox sprang to life, wild again. The Skrall grabbed them immediately and dragged them back to the other end of the arena, struggling to hold them still. Tuma ordered the Skrall who had kicked Malum forward. He would be the lucky one to show his newfound mastery of the Vorox.

At Tuma’s signal, the other warriors released their bestial captives. The Vorox charged toward the lone warrior who waited for them. In a perfect imitation of Malum’s action, the Skrall raised and lowered his arm while whistling in just the same tone as he had heard. The effect was stunning, at least to him.

The Vorox didn’t stop. They didn’t even slow down. They struck the Skrall like twin avalanches, and once he was down, headed for Tuma. Malum took advantage of the confusion to snatch up the fallen warrior’s weapon. He sprang out of the arena and shattered the chains holding another pair of Vorox with one swing.

“This way, brothers!” he yelled, charging for the gate.

The Vorox fell back and started after him, the Skrall in pursuit. The Agori at the gate, seeing a crazed Malum and four Vorox headed for them, wisely dove out of the way. A Thornax blast took out one of the Vorox, and another blast wounded a second. But Malum and the surviving two made it through the gate and out into the desert.

Tuma angrily got to his feet, ignoring the wounds inflicted by the Vorox. “After them! Drag them back here!” he shouted.

The Skrall would dutifully fan out into the desert in search of the escapees, but they would not find them. The Vorox network of tunnels extended even here, and Malum and his two pack mates had found refuge underground. When night fell, they would emerge and start the long trek back home.

The desert is a place of extremes, Malum said to himself. Blazing heat, chilling cold, fierce loyalty… and deep hatred. The Skrall won’t forget this day… and to their bitter regret, neither will I.

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