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 spear 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.