Strakk violently struck his ice axe against the table with enough power to scatter its surface with a loud crack. Metus budged nervously. "No!" Strakk yelled. "No. Definitely no." Metus wasn't cheerful about that. He's been advertising duels and training warriors for years. Many of them were just as stubborn as Strakk, but hardly any of them used to throw dangerous objects around without thinking. Obviously, he should have predicted this. Glatorian would never do anything for free, but Strakk was extraordinarily greedy. There was a joke common all over Iconox, saying that Strakk wouldn't even open his eyes at sunrise if he wasn't certain that it would pay off. A desire to leave all this alone sprung into his mind. However, he soon realized how important it was to recruit Strakk. "You owe me something," Metus reminded him. "Just think, what would have happened to you without me? After all, how often do I ask you favors?" "Well... What about that duel with Kiina last month?" Strakk replied. "A year ago you asked me to help you train that bully, remember? I had to spend a few weeks at healers', because that guy had forgotten that it was only a tutorial fight. There was also this..." "All right, that's enough," Metus axed his speech. "I don't want to hear the story of your life. It's a quick, easy job. You can earn a lot within one week. Are you in it or not?"
Metus was lying blatantly. He would often do so during negotiations with his warriors. The job he was offering to Strakk wasn't quick nor easy. It was all about a transport of precious exidian - the payoff for a fight lost by another warrior called Gelu - between villages of Iconox and Vulcanus. Usually, the caravans were taking the shortest southeastern route through Dunes of Treason directly to the fire village. It wasn't the safest way, but you could travel there quite well. However, the last few weeks saw the dunes changes into lethal trap by groups of barbarians called "bone hunters". For reasons unknown they decided to stop the trade between the villages, sealing them all, especially Tajun, the village of water, off the rest of the world. Travelling through the desert has become very risky. Caravans were attacked and, more importantly, none of their escorts ever returned home alive. The inhabitants of Iconox had no choice. If they didn't keep the deal, their warriors wouldn't be allowed to participate in duels anywhere in Bara Magna. So they've managed to find a different route which made them able to reach Vulcanus safely.
"Let me think." Strakk said. "You want to send a cart full of cargo to the east, through Black Spike Mountains, then south through the Dark Falls, and finally through Creep Canyon? Each of these places is more dangerous than a desert bat with a sunstroke! And you want me to escort this convoy?" "Yes," Metus nodded. "No,"Strakk repeated. "I'm a Glatorian. I'm given money for fighting whenever my village wants something from any other village. I'm no way a guardian, pathfinder or messenger. I fight with other Glatorian. I do not fight with bone hunters. They have this bad habit of making everyone's lives shorter." Metus knew that Strakk was right in this field. You shouldn't trespass bone hunters' territories if you can avoid it. Their mounts, called Rock Steed, have several rows of sharp teeth and tails with poisonous stingers, like those of a scorpion. Their amazing sense of smell makes them able to smell the enemy form many kilometers. The hunters themselves are no more friendly - if they were, they couldn't have survived all those millenia among wastelands. They are ruthless, violent and greedy. If you could name any advantages of theirs, it should be their endurance - they would never stop a pursuit - as well as precision. They keep attacking the caravans, leaving nothing valuable... and no witnesses. The Agori left the room. The Glatorian followed and continued his moan. "What about Skrall? Remember? Huge guys in black armors ... once they put their hands on somebody, they change them into goo, just for fun. They're hiding behind ever stone at Black Spike Mountains!" "Take it easy," Metus said. "Just look. We've hired the best ones." Metus pointed his hand at the cart, already loaded, aboard which there was an Agori from Iconox, called Kirbold, and some Agori in green armor, from the village of Tesara. "Since when do Tesarans send their Glatorian to support Iconox? - Strakk asked. "Since the bone hunters made their lives equally difficult as ours," Metus replied. "They want to check the new route themselves. If it proves safe, they'll start using it, too. This Agori is called Tarduk. He is said to know the area. Metus turned around and looked deep into Strakk's eyes. "Iconox people want to send their Glatorian with this convoy - you should understand that. If you agree, I'll certainly manage to book a few duels in Vulcanus for you. And they'll call you a great hero in here." Strakk laughed coldly. "A great hero... Heroes end up two meters underground. Some of them are given a stone on the grave as a memorial. But I am reasonable... sometimes. Okay, I'll go... if you double my usual fee." Metus swallowed hard. This meant that Iconox will have to give lots of weapons and resources to Strakk. After all, there was no other way.
Breaking a promise given to Vulcanus would threaten the concept of Glatorian arena matches, fights that solve disputes between the tribes. Even so, Metus should find himself bankrupt before long.
"Alright," said the recruiter. "I'll try to explain it to the tribe's elders. Get ready to move soon."
"I am already on the move," Strakk smiled. "Get my reward ready - I'll be retrieving it shortly.
If you're lucky, Metus thought. And where you're heading, luck is not enough.
They set off few hours after the sun rise. Gresh wanted to go sooner, at dawn, but Strakk insisted on packing as much Thornax ammunition and additional weaponry as possible. Gresh thought it would be wiser to travel with less weight - it would shorten the trip through the desert.
"Yea... I used to know guys like that, traveling with less stuff," grunted Strakk."It sure made their trip faster - to a grave. Listen, young one, you do know what makes the Bone Hunters famous. There will be more of them then us. Are you able to defeat at least a few of them before they get to you? If so, then maybe - just maybe - you have a chance of surviving this."
"Do you think we should fight them?," asked Gresh.
"No, no," Strakk replied. "I think, we shouldn't have taken this job in the first place. But since we're already doing it, let's do this the smart way. Pushing straight through their territory won't make an escape possible. That's why we need something to fight with!"
Strakk did not know Gresh that well. Their roads have crossed before, on a desert way to the Vulcanus village. When they had a little fight with the Bone Hunters, but came out of it alive. Ever since then Strakk hasn't stopped covering his back. Bone Hunters do not forget such things easily.
He wasn't very fond of Gresh. The young Teserian warrior seemed too modest and noble for Strakk. The only Glatorian who had good relationship with Strakk was Malum from Vulcanus. Though, it's said that he was exiled from the tribe after an incident on the arena, where he attempted to finish of his opponent. For Strakk, it was clear proof that the inhabitants of Vulcanus did not understand how a Glatorian life works.
Strakk went ahead of the convoy. The Two-headed spikit, the one pulling the cart, gazed upon the bumpy road ahead mindlessly. The white Glatorian hoped that there's enough food on the cart. Spikits are strong and enduring draught animals, but when hungry, they eat anything in sight, the cart and the driver included.
"I heard, Tarduk," Strakk said to the harness holding tesaran Agori, "that you've traveled a lot."
"That's true," Tarduk replied. "I savage artifacts - old armor, weapons, scrolls... little bits of history. I spend a lot of time in ruins, looking for those sorts of things."
"Mmm, pretty... interesting," admitted Strakk. Wow! What a loon!, added in his mind.
"I always wanted to see the Black Hills," Tarduk continued. "There's probably a lot of treasure there!"
"Wait now...you're our guide," said Strakk stupefied, "and you never went there?
"No," said Tarduk with a smile on his face.
"Then why...?" Strakk lost his voice.
"Besides him, there weren’t any volunteers," Kirbold explained. "He was easily accepted."
"Stop talking so much," said Gresh quietly. "Your voice spreads all around. You don't want the Bone Hunters hearing you."
"You're an optimist my friend," said Strakk. "If they are here - and that's a given - then they already know of us, since the moment we left Iconox. Let's just hope they don't know what we took with us."
"And what, if they know?" asked Gresh.
Strakk pointed at Gresh's Thornax launcher.
"Then we'll see if you can use that, young one."
An inexperienced observer would call Bara Magna a simple desert. When in fact, no matter where you look, the horizon is filled with pyramids, dunes or flatlands. In some places the wind blows over the sand grains with such strength, it could damage even a glatorian armor.
Not to forget the murderous heat. The sun of Bara Magna fries the desert with such diabolical heat, that it’s visited only by the Bone Hunters or the desperate traders running from them. The sand is so hot, even its touch burns. Anyone stuck here without a supply of water dies within a day.
At dusk, the sun hides behind the horizon, as it was a torch, extinguished in hurry. When the temperature lowers significantly, the Agori start a fire for warmth. The desert is twice as dangerous at night. Nocturnal predators go out from their caves, from beneath their rocks and sand, where they hide from the heat. In shadows, the Bone Hunters can come as close as less than a dozen meters from the village, to capture a guard who heedlessly left the cover of a torch light. An old Agori saying goes: “At least you see death coming in daylight”. No one has that sort of luck at night.
However, those who know Bara Magna well enough are aware, that the world is something more than a desert.
They remember times when the Skrall River wasn't the only stream cutting through this once green land. They know that Tesara has not always been a miniature oasis, but a part of a vast, rich jungle. And they can still hear the screams of water birds flying over the ocean waves, which crushed into the shore a long time ago.
Everything vanished almost 100 000 years ago, when the great cataclysm changed the planet's face forever. After that, no one had time for history lessons. Worries on how to survive another day would occupy their minds.
The cart pushed through the hot sand, though Strakk saw this land as it once was. He came from the far north - Iconox was not his home. He was just nearby when the catastrophe took place that was later called "The Collapse". It was impossible to return to his home, so Strakk seek refuge in Icanox. At that time everything changed: a desert took the jungle's place and the heat melted the glaciers. Nobody knew how much there were left... and since then life became a struggle for survival.
Strakk turned his head behind. Iconox was already hidden deep beneath the horizon. He ordered his Stalker to stop.
-This should do - he said. - We can stop now.
Gresh looked at Strakk surprised.
-What are you talking about?
-And what do you think? - Strakk replied. - You didn't think we would bother dragging all this stuff the whole way up to the Black Mountains? If you really believed in my little tale about fighting the Bone Hunters, then keep your head from the sun from now on.
- But that's our mission - said Gresh.
- Alright. Here's the plan: the Agori leave the cart and we take the exidian and hide it. Then we break the cart into tiny bits. Back in the village we'll just say the Bone Hunters attacked us and took everything from us.
Both Agori looked at each other. Tarduk shook his head, clearly stating that he also does not know what's going on.
-Couple of weeks pass by, we return here and we dig up the treasure - Strakk smiled. - Then each of us gets his share and goes on his own. And nobody gets hurt.
- Except the Iconox villagers. Vulcanus will not forget a debt so easily - said Gresh after pointing his launcher at Strakk, a bit awkwardly though. - Well, then here's another plan. From now on you will ride ahead of us. If you try to escape, then believe me, you won't get too far.
-Are you stupid, or what? - Strakk growled - We have a fortune in our hands!
Gresh pointed the way with the launcher.
-Go. We have a job to finish. We will do the right thing.
Strakk looked at Gresh with disbelief, but then he commanded his stalker to go and went ahead, mumbling:
-So many Glatorians on this world, and I got the one that has to do "the right thing".
Gresh looked at Strakk without much thought, and then asked Tarduk:
-So what do you think? What awaits us there? I don't like surprises.
-Everything you would not want to see - Tarduk replied. - It was rather peaceful here, but since Vorox proliferated on the Dunes of Treason, sand bats, dune snakes and even giant cave scorpions escaped to the north. There's so many of them, all the way up the Black Mountains.
- It's not the worst thing we can find - Kirbold cut in - Ever been on the Sand Sea?
Gresh shook his head. This "Sea" was found south of the Vulcanus village. It looked like a simple desert, but mostly it was made out of wet mud, that pulled anyone in. Luck and skills rarely helped, but those who lacked both now lie in it's depths.
-There are a few similar places here - said Kirbold - Not many, but still as bad, maybe worse. Imagine just going through the desert, minding your own business, and then...
-Have you heard, Strakk? - Gresh asked.
- I would never want to miss out on such great news - said the ice Glatorian - It is a great privilege to ride as the first one.
-Keep your eyes open - said Gresh - It'll keep us from trouble.
-Yeah, it'll surely keep you..." - Strakk did not hide his irony. - Just wait until I get pulled in by the mud. Then you'll just stop... and it'll keep you from trouble.
The next few moments were silent. Further away from them the Black Mountains appeared in their whole sinister majesty. Legends were said about them even in times when Bara Magna was a green paradise. Popular ones mentioned travelers who did not manage to return from their trip. Those, who did, changed. Their tales were far more interesting.
Gresh looked at Kirbold.
- And you? How did you end up here?
-I dig up the mud - he answered - I use it to seal things. It doesn't rust and it's very effective.
-You did not answer my question.
-I extract the mud. I strip the earth of it. Sure, others use it, but it was me who discovered it. In a way, it's like... mine. If it's in danger I want to be there for it.
Gresh nodded. He has heard weirder things. After all, a Glatorian wouldn't let others touch his weapon for similar reasons.
The sun was at its peak. Gresh pointed at a rock incline.
-We will set up camp there and wait until it gets cooler.
Kirbold and Tarduk left the cart in the shade. They made sure to feed the spikit before getting a meal themselves. Strakk sat down on the sand and closed his eyes. Gresh kept guard.
-You think there's something out there? - Kirbold Asked Tarduk
-Who knows? - the Agori replied - Maybe there was once civilization in those mountains, one of which we never heard of. Maybe there are some tools or vehicles left there. For someone such as I, it's a treasure waiting to be discovered.
- No, not that... I meant monsters.
-Like, what I know...if you count the Skrall as monsters...
Kirbold hung his head and gave the sand a blank stare.
-Umm, I don't think so. But if they attack us...We don't have anywhere to hide, don't you think?
They set off later this evening. Strakk sighted a desert bat. It jumped from beneath the sand and dragged in a sand fox with it. The Spikit growled loudly out of fear and anger.
-I hate those - Said Strakk. Never know when it'll jump out.
-Scorpion-giants are worse - declared Tarduk, feeling a chill on his spine. -I ran into them a few times in the past, back when I was looking for artifacts in caves.
-There is an easy way of dealing with it - said Strakk.
-Don't go frolicking in caves - the Glatorian smiled.
-I think we should worry about the dune snakes - Kirbold broke in.
-Yes? Why? - said Strakk with curiosity.
-Because they're all over us!
Gresh's Stalker panicked and pranced. Strakk's did the same thing. The Spikit kicked and was about to run when Kirbold halted him, trying to hold on to the leashes.
The Sand seemed to move in a rhythm - the poisonous snakes crawled just underneath it. It looked like ocean waves, though the sight wasn't so soothing. Dune Snakes are not afraid of picking on a bigger foe, and their venom is poisonous enough to make a single bite kill in seconds.
-It seems we crashed into their nest! - Yelled Strakk - Now what?
Gresh struggled to gain control over his stalker.
-If your animal drops dead, jump! Otherwise it will crush you!
-Thanks, I'd never have thought of that - Strakk growled - If only you'd listen...
-A gap! - Tarduk Cried - There! Look!
The sand he pointed at was not moving. Everyone knew it was their only chance of escape.
- Move it! - Gresh commanded as he made his Stalker go in that direction.
Strakk managed to set off, jumping over a swarm of snakes that just jumped out from the sand. The Spikit, even though being prodded by Kirbold, couldn't go any further.
Strakk dashed off. He did not bother to look back. All of a sudden his stalker tripped and moments later got sucked in by the fluid sand. Before Strakk managed to jump off, he was already caught in the deadly trap.
-Help! - he cried.
-We can't help you - Kirbold replied. - If we come to close it'll suck us in too.
-He's a Glatorian. I can't leave him like this - We'll go around and try to rescue him.
-But that means going back to the snakes - noticed Tarduk.