Gresh looked back to see the Skrall were nearing them. He looked forward again to see Malum and his Vorox also approaching. Four Glatorian and two Agori with a cart full of exsidian between two opposing groups didn’t have much chance of survival.
“This is not good,” he murmured.
“Let’s abandon the caravan,” Strakk said suddenly. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… I don’t care about the exsidian.”
“I don’t know, think about it,” Ackar said, shaking his head. “You angered Malum, promising to get his treasure from Roxtus to keep him from stealing the exsidian… and just now, we deceived the Skrall to help us get the exsidian from the river. It seems to me that the metal’s been useful in finding you worthy foes, Strakk.”
“Yeah, that’s real funny,” Kiina replied, “but the Vorox are ahead of us and the Skrall are behind us. Maybe we should fight?”
“I have a better idea,” Ackar said. “Gresh, Strakk, who do the Vorox hate more than anyone?”
“The Skrall,” said Gresh.
“And who do the Skrall consider vermin to be eradicated?” Kiina continued.
“The Vorox,” Strakk smiled, guessing the intentions of Ackar. “Oh, no. This will end badly… I like it!”
Ackar ordered his Stalker to gallop faster, heading directly for the group of Vorox. Once they were close, he pulled the Spikit to a halt in front of them. He then quickly pivoted the cart around to face the Skrall.
“Our Vorox friends arrived just in time!” Ackar shouted with all the force in his lungs. “Attack the Skrall!”
Hearing this, the elite Skrall screamed in anger. Stronius despised the Vorox with all his soul. The fact that these creatures allied with the Glatorian only made him angrier. These wretched creatures of the sand act so boldly against us? Stronius thought. They will pay the price!
Malum also heard Ackar’s words, and immediately understood what his old friend planned. He knew he wouldn’t be able to escape from this trap without a fight. Ackar had used the eternal hatred between the Skrall and the Vorox to his advantage: now, the Skrall would have to deal with the entire group of Vorox.
“Shoot them!” Stronius cried. “Destroy them! The Glatorian and the Vorox alike.”
His warriors fired at the Vorox with their launchers. The Thornax made direct impact with the Vorox, seriously wounding three of them. The rest forgot Ackar quickly. They had been attacked by the Skrall – their instinct told them they should hit back. Infuriated, the Vorox rushed the warriors of the Skrall. As the Vorox pack attacked their most hated enemy, Ackar’s group decided it was an appropriate time to flee from the battlefield. The Glatorian, Agori and the cart left quickly. The sounds of exploding Thornax and the moans of the wounded soon died out.
“You thought we would lose,” Kiina said, delighted. “So you got them to fight amongst themselves.”
“No, I wanted this to end differently,” Ackar admitted. “We may not have good relations with the Vorox, but they did not deserve to die at the hands of the Skrall. But today our lives were at stake.”
“After all, the life of a Glatorian is more important, right?”
Ackar reined their Stalker and turned around. Behind them was Malum, mounted on a Stalker, and armed with the sword and shield of a Skrall. He was alone. Ackar immediately drew his sword.
“I see that now you ally yourself with thieves,” Malum said.
“We aren’t looking to fight you,” Gresh cut in. “You found us, remember? You asked us to steal the sword in Roxtus. And we did – and found out that you snatched it from Ackar.”
Ackar interrupted Gresh. “How goes the battle?”
“Both sides suffered heavy casualties,” Malum said. “But the struggle continues. My Vorox know when to quit. I know the Skrall don’t know how to pursue us. We are numerous. We will recover.”
“I did what I had to do,” Ackar said. “I am sorry that your warriors have died. But they would have killed us at your signal.”
“I have no grudge against you, Ackar. Escaping from ambushes is your specialty… that is a talent both you and the Vorox have. But these two, Gresh and Strakk, entered our territory without an invitation. One day we will settle affairs.”
Gresh jumped from the caravan, sword in hand, ready to fight. “We can solve this here and now. Is that what you want, Malum?”
“We will in time.” Malum smiled coldly and shook his head. “The desert is unpredictable, Gresh. Sometimes beautiful and pleasant, other times a cruel killer. One day brings water to quench your thirst. The next day feeds you when you’re starving. But on the third day… my sword snatches your life.”
The former Glatorian pulled the reins of his Stalker and turned around. Then he disappeared into the distance.
“That’s it?” said Strakk, surprised. “He just let us go?”
“Did you want to fight him?” Kiina shrugged. “If I remember correctly, he doesn’t much like you.”
The Ice Glatorian knew Kiina was right. Malum once tried to take Strakk’s life during a match, which was what caused his expulsion from Vulcanus.
“Even if all four of us faced him, we might not win. I know him,” Ackar sighed. “The important thing is that we take the exsidian to its destination. When the Skrall finish up with the Vorox they’ll probably come after us again.”
The team traveled south. They remained vigilant, but were beginning to believe they might actually reach Vulcanus. Kirbold had decided that, upon returning to Iconox, he would request Ackar and Kiina receive the same pay as Gresh and Strakk. Without their help, this mission would have ended at the Skrall River.
“Even if we make it back, we still have problems ahead of us,” Tarduk said. “I’m not sure we can really say this route was any safer than the one through the Dunes of Treason. What do you think?”
“You’re kidding, right?” Kirbold laughed. “We tangled with Bone Hunters, the Skrall, Malum and his Vorox, not to mention desert bats, snakes, and a deadly waterfall… I’d take the Dunes of Treason in a heartbeat.”
Kiina approached Ackar. “What are you thinking?”
“I see no signs that we are being pursued. If we can keep this pace, we should be alright. Worst-case scenario, we may run into Bone Hunters.”
“You mean like them?” interrupted Gresh, pointing forward.
What they saw gave them chills. A short distance ahead of them, the sand had been torn into a huge crater, surrounded by the bodies of several Bone Hunters. It looked as if a tornado had passed through. There appeared to be some survivors, but their condition indicated they would be joining their companions before long. Ackar searched for traces of Thornax or remains of the Vorox’s spears, but found nothing. To do this much damage without Thornax or an army of Vorox, it must have been something monstrous.
“How long ago do you think this happened?” he asked Kiina, who had already dismounted to examine one of the hunters.
“Maybe an hour ago.” Kiina approached the hunter. “What happened?”
The Bone Hunter barely raised his head, and his lips moved noiselessly at first. When he finally managed to speak, Kiina leaned in close. He uttered a single word before dying. Kiina turned gravely to her teammates. “Skopio.”
Strakk had all the information he needed. “Let’s get out of here.”
“If this was an hour ago, maybe the Skopio is long gone now,” Tarduk asked, hopefully.
“Or it might just be hidden in the sand beneath you, waiting to attack,” Strakk snorted.
Ackar thought hard. Skopio were the largest and most dangerous creatures in Bara Magna. The giant scorpion-like beasts weren’t very fast, but thanks to their size they could move several meters in a single step. Not much was known about Skopio behavior, so it was difficult to predict whether the creature was in the same place that it had appeared, or had gone to seek new territory. If the Skopio that had caused this disaster had left, they should be safe.
“We’ll keep going south,” Ackar finally said, “and hope the Skopio isn’t following us. Hopefully we can still make it to the village.”
They resumed moving in the direction of Vulcanus. After a few minutes, the ground beneath their feet began to tremble.
“Oh, no…” Strakk moaned.
The first tremor was small. The second was more intense – Ackar’s Stalker went haywire, almost throwing him off. Then there was an earthquake. Gresh fell face-first into the sand just before it opened with an enormous sound. A crater opened up and began to pull in sand, and would soon do the same to Gresh. Just before he was pulled under, Kiina grabbed his hand and pulled him into the wagon.
Then the desert exploded. A cloud of dust rose into the air and the Skopio appeared, ready for a fight. Then it became clear just how bad things were. As the cloud of sand cleared, Ackar saw a figure in golden armor riding the beast. That could only mean one thing: the beast before them was actually a machine. They stood in the way of the Skopio XV-1, and its pilot…
“Telluris!” Ackar cried.
Strakk shot Kirbold an angry look.
“When we get back to Iconox, I’m asking for a raise!”
“If we get back to Iconox,” Kirbold corrected him.
The Skopio XV-1 was built to resemble a real Skopio, but it was faster and even more dangerous. The crazed Telluris had continually improved it over the years, using parts from other vehicles. Ever since the plague that ravaged his tribe 103,000 years ago, Telluris was obsessed with oppressing and torturing others. The XV-1 was designed with that in mind.
The team moved as fast as they could. If they could make it to Vulcanus, there were many Glatorian in training there that could help fight this giant machine. But Telluris had no intention of giving them that chance. Pressing a button on his control console, he changed the configuration of the XV-I. The four legs of the vehicle folded flat, laying their treads flat against the sand. The vehicle may not have looked as impressive now, but it could reach a much higher speed. With an evil smile on his face, Telluris hunted his new victims.
“Split up!” shouted Gresh. “He can’t chase all of us.”
It was a good idea. Gresh and the Agori took the caravan, while the others split off to the sides. Regardless of whom Telluris decided to hunt, the others could go around and attack from behind.
Watching the Glatorian flee like a startled scarabax swarm gave Telluris great pleasure. Which would he destroy first? A carriage full of exsidian did not interest him. If he had wanted the exsidian, he would have taken it from Iconox and nobody could have stopped him. But the red-armored Glatorian apparently had a brain – he was shouting orders, planning a strategy. It would be useful to silence him. Telluris pointed his gun, mounted on the tail of his artificial Skopio, at Ackar and fired. Ackar heard the Thornax whistle through the air. He pulled hard on his Stalker’s reins, turning quickly to the right. The projectile just missed him, but the force of its explosion sent him and the Stalker falling into the sand.
“Ackar!” Kiina cried when she saw her wounded friend. “Gresh, help him! I’ll take care of Telluris.”
Once she was sure that the Tesaran Glatorian had reached the wounded Ackar, she began to attack. Dodging a rain of Thornax, she rode directly toward the Skopio. Telluris accelerated, trying to run her over with his vehicle, but Kiina deftly evaded it. The Glatorian jumped from her Stalker and landed on the hull of the Skopio.
“What is she doing?” Ackar stared in amazement.
“We can help her by diverting Telluris’ attention. What do you think?” Gresh said.
Both Glatorian galloped towards the Skopio. Ackar shot at it, although he knew that Thornax wouldn’t damage the machine’s thick exterior. He just needed Telluris to focus on them rather than Kiina.
“Look out!” Ackar cried as Telluris fired at them. Ackar’s Stalker barely managed to dodge all of the XV-I’s Thornax rounds.
“I have an idea,” said Gresh. “Head to the caravan.”
The Glatorian rushed to the caravan. Without stopping, Gresh leaned over in his saddle and grabbed two exsidian bars. Once he was near the Skopio, the Glatorian jumped to the ground, ran forward and shoved the two bars between the treads of the vehicle. On the other side, Ackar did the same.
exsidian was prized for its exceptional hardness and durability: it did not corrode or deform like other metals. In other words, the Skopio’s inner workings couldn’t compete with it. The sounds of metal screeching and parts collapsing inside Skopio’s treads indicated a clear winner between the exsidian and the XV-I. Meanwhile, Kiina climbed carefully onto the Skopio’s cab. At one point she slipped and toppled over the edge, only to grab the machine’s stinger at the last moment. After climbing back up, she jumped directly to the XV-1’s cockpit, landing just behind Telluris. He immediately tried to escape, but was caught by the ankle and soon found himself dangling upside down.
“You know, I’m pretty tired after all that climbing,” Kiina said, hanging Telluris’ head over the edge of the Skopio. “I’m not sure how much longer I can hold on for. And if you insist on continuing to fight us… well, my launcher is aimed at the console of your toy.”
“You know what will happen if you shoot?” Telluris laughed. “There will be a big boom and we’ll all die. You, me, and your friends down below. You understand that?”
Kiina raised him up and gave him a cold stare. “Do you think I care?”
Telluris showed no fear. Either he was immensely brave, or entirely crazy. He replied calmly, as if talking about the weather. “What will you do?”
“I’ll let you choose,” Kiina said. “I kill you and keep your vehicle, or my teammates destroy it and leave you wandering alone in this wasteland. Or…”
“Not far from here is a group of Skrall warriors,” continued Kiina. “You turn back, trash them, and return to where you came from, I’ll consider things settled.”
Telluris hesitated. He had not yet had to deal with the visitors from the far north. He knew that the Skrall were tough opponents.
“Well, what do you choose? Are you afraid of some Skrall?”
“Not at all,” Telluris said. “I’ll deal with them. But if I find you in my territory again, you will not escape so easily.”
Kiina smiled and held Telluris out over the edge of the vehicle.
“What are you doing? You said that you would let me go!” Telluris protested.
“I never said that,” Kiina replied. “You had a choice between leaving your vehicle or using it for my benefit. Me releasing you was not part of the deal.”
With that, she let go of his leg. Telluris’ screams could be heard for a while, until his body hit the sand. Ackar immediately approached where he’d landed.
“He’s alive,” Ackar said with some relief.
“Of course he’s alive. He excelled in the arena,” Kiina said, jumping down from the Skopio. “At least he won’t trouble us for a while.”
“I don’t understand,” said Gresh. “I heard what he said. He agreed to leave and fight the Skrall.”
“Oh, rookie,” Kiina shook her head. “When will you learn? He said: ‘I’ll deal with them,’ but thought ‘as soon as I take care of them, Glatorian, I’ll come after you.’ If you want to negotiate with a Glatorian, you need to learn the language of a scam.”
A few hours later, the characteristic shape of the large building at the center of Vulcanus appeared on the horizon. Soon after, the team approached the edge of the village, where they received cheers from the guards. Although Strakk never liked the fire village, he was more excited to see it than he’d ever been in his life.
Raanu, Vulcanus’ leader, was the happiest Agori in town that day. Ackar knew that his reaction was mostly due to the exsidian that had finally reached its destination. But it was also something else: Iconox had paid its debt to Vulcanus, recognizing the Glatorian’s victory for the Fire Tribe. There would be no war with the Ice Tribe. The Glatorian system had worked perfectly and nothing had changed.
Metus went over to congratulate Strakk, Gresh, Kirbold, and Tarduk. After a moment of celebration, Metus pulled Strakk from the group, and speaking softly, said “It’s all set up. Immediately after the Great Tournament, you’ll fight with Ackar. Raanu insisted that the fight take place here, so –”
“He saved my life… saved all our lives,” Strakk interrupted. “But I’d like the satisfaction of a victory and a good payout. Deal.”
At the edge of the village, Kiina and Gresh watched the sun set over the desert.
“We’ve seen that the northern route is too dangerous,” Kiina said. “So, mission partly failed. Was it worth going through all this?”
“Yes, I think so,” the Tesaran replied. “It’s true that I had to flee from the Skrall, fight the Vorox, and endure Strakk… but I also had friends. You and Ackar.”
“You have much to learn, but you’re really talented. If you find yourself in Tajun, we should practice together.”
“And you’ll teach me the move you used to get onto the Skopio?” Gresh smiled.
“I’ll teach you a lot of things,” Kiina laughed as they returned to the village. “We’ll start with how to survive the first round of battles during the Great Tournament.”
“Sounds good. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this adventure –” Gresh caught an exsidian block thrown by an Agori. “– it’s that surviving the fight is what matters.”