How can you describe the Shattering? How do you put an event of such violence into words? How do you describe the mutilation of a planet, the sheer fury and terror of it all?
The ground swung and leaped like a ship in a storm. Vast canyons suddenly yawned open, swallowing people and cities. Winds beyond gale force swept whole forests aside like so many matchsticks. The sky itself screamed in agonized, brassy tones.
Spherus Magna ejected almost a quarter of itself into space. Two moon-sized chunks of earth and stone burst free from its surface in two cataclysmic eruptions, and the shock of their passing crumbled mountains.
One chunk took most of Spherus Magna's ocean with it, draining the rest beneath the crust. The other dragged with it a significant portion of the world's most verdant jungles and almost all of its northern ice cap.
Dust shrouded the sun for decades. It blanketed the planet. It suffocated its remaining vegetation under a layer of sand. It polluted the last of its water with silt.
Days later, when the last of the quakes had passed, one such survivor slowly picked himself up on trembling legs and hands. Caked-up sand cascaded from the joints of his armor. More sand replaced it, carried in sheets by the wind.
The survivor looked up. There was no light. There was no sky. The dust hid it from him, turned everything a gritty orange-grey. But then the sand parted. For the briefest of instants, the curtain fell away, and revealed to the survivor a radiant night sky. And in the seconds before the curtain snapped shut again, he saw it. It hung in the sky, its light somehow comforting.
A red star.
Five hundred years after the Shattering. Bara Magna was devoured by sand. The oceans have drained and the planet had split. It seemed as though all forms of life were annihilated. Some, however, held on.
A relentless sun hung in a cloudless sky. Its rays shone down on the ruins of a city, which gleamed dully in the light. The fraction of the ruin that hadn't been swallowed by sand would eventually be worn away by erosion and time. That is, if scavengers didn’t get to them first.
Thin lines of smoke trailed upwards, towards the sun.
Generally speaking, five hundred years is a long time: long enough for civilization to begin the first steps towards recovery. The Agori tribes, fragmented and scattered, were yet to reconnect and reunite, but isolated villages had managed to set up lines of communication and trade all the same. These were farming communities, for the most part – clustering around rivers and oases, trading food and water for technology and raw materials. It was hardly an easy life. It was survival, plain and simple. But it wasn't the only way to survive on Bara Magna.
“Get out,” said Fentorius. His fingers drummed the hilt of the sword sheathed against his hip.
Atrox tilted his head. “Want to say that again?” he asked, grinning.
Fentorius sniffed and looked the elite-class Skrall in the eye. Considering he was an Agori, he had to look somewhat high up.
“Get out,” he repeated. Every word was enunciated clearly. “Get out or we will kick you out.”
The black-armored warrior lifted his hands, spreading them wide in mock plaintiveness. This drew attention to the sword and shield strapped to his back. “Now, you can’t be serious,” he said. “Can’t you spare even a little food for some lost and weary travelers?”
“Come back when you have something to give us in return,” came the reply.
“Is charity dead?” sighed Atrox melodramatically, letting his hands fall back to his sides. “If we can’t come to terms, there’s going to be a fight, and a lot of people are going to get hurt, and I really don’t want that.”
“You’ve heard my terms,” spat Fentorius. “You are a thief and a bandit, and you’ll get nothing from us. Now, there are six of you and nine of us – “
“Eight and a half, more like,” muttered one of the other Skrall, sending the whole band into snickering.
“And nine of us,” growled Fentorius, reddening, “and if you don’t get out right now we will have you thrown off the highest building in Cortis.”
Beside Fentorius, eight Glatorian tightened their grips on their weapons. Behind him, a derelict city housing some forty Agori of the Fire Tribe stood. The smoke of their cooking fires and forges drifted into the sky. In front of him, six Skrall warriors slouched in casual repose, the sun glinting conspicuously from their sharp-looking blades.
Atrox shrugged. “Well, you heard the man,” he drawled, looking at his companions. “I guess we’ll just have to – attack!”
As it turned out, Fentorius wouldn't be throwing the Skrall off of anything.
“You’re sure you found all of them?” asked Atrox. “Not a lot for such a big city.”
With the Glatorian defenders defeated, the raiders had next set about rounding up all the residents of Cortis. Just a few bio away, a small crowd of Agori huddled. Two watchful Skrall guarded the lot.
This had once been a courtyard in the ruined city. Atrox lounged atop a long-dry fountain, his three other warriors within arm’s reach. One of them held the shoulder of Fentorius, who glowered with commendable ferocity. The captured Glatorian sat in their own group between the four Skrall and the forty-three Agori, their weapons confiscated and their arms and legs tied together.
“Well then!” Atrox announced. He stood on the rim of the fountain, rolled his shoulders, and clapped his gauntleted hands together – the very image of unconcern. “This trip went much better than I could’ve ever expected. All I needed was your food, but… “
The elite Skrall shrugged, a smug grin plastered on his broad face. “I suppose our glorious leaders back at Black Spike wouldn't mind a few extra slaves.”
Atrox assumed a look of consternation. “Keeping an eye on you all is taking all of my men, though. We can’t quite go rifling through your stores just yet. But don’t you think about rebelling!”
“For one thing,” he said, pointing towards the bruised Fentorius, “We have him. Any wrong move from you lot, he dies instantly. And for another,” he said, pointing over the head of the Agori crowd, “There’s more of us coming. Five more, by my last count, with the Sand Stalkers we need to carry the food away. Five plus us six equals enough to kill the rest of you without too much trouble.”
“Then what?” called Fentorius. The Skrall holding him raised a fist as if to strike him, but Atrox waved him down.
“We might not be a big village, but we’re an important one here,” said the Agori. “Caravans come and go all the time. It’s only a matter of time until one comes and sees what you did here. And what’ll happen to you then?”
Atrox stepped off the fountain and strolled towards the defiant Fentorius. He knelt, bringing himself face-to-face to the Agori.
And then he backhanded Fentorius, knocking him to the ground. The Agori’s helmet slid across the tiles.
Fentorius shook his head, trying to clear the stars from his eyes. Slowly, he started picking himself up –
- and Atrox slammed a metal boot on his back. Fentorius fell. Something cracked.
“And then?” said Atrox. He shifted his weight, leaning on the Agori. Fentorius wheezed. The world went red with pain. “Who do you think we are?”
The burly elite laughed. "We are Skrall! We can do whatever we want to you! Nobody can stop us!"
A hush followed. And as if on cue, everybody in the courtyard suddenly became aware of a sound.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Footsteps. Unmistakably footsteps. One set of feet. A calm and unhurried pace.
They were coming from Atrox’s right. The elite Skrall turned, squinting, as did his subordinates.
A figure appeared in the heat haze, walking down the dusty street. It wore a rough brown cloak, tattered but serviceable, that shrouded its whole body and sunk its face in shadow. Despite the cloak, there was no mistaking the stranger’s build – a Glatorian, tall and muscular.
Atrox shared a look with one of his Skrall. Neither knew anything.
All eyes were upon the newcomer as they walked into the courtyard. If they were worried at all about the gang of Skrall occupying it, nothing about their stance showed it.
“And who are you supposed to be?” asked Atrox. His hand slid down to his sword.
The figure remained silent. A dusty wind tugged at its cloak. It was very dramatic.
“And who are you supposed to be?” repeated Atrox, louder.
The figure inclined its head. The hood shifted slightly, enough to reveal a hint of the newcomer’s face, but nothing of his eyes.
“Why are you doing this to these people?” he asked. His voice was rough but clear.
“Does it matter?” replied Atrox.
“It does. Very much,” said the figure.
Atrox sighed. Another moralistic type. He caught the eye of the three warriors beside him. “Get him.”
Immediately, the three sprung into action, indolence suddenly replaced with violent movement. Whatever their appearance, these were Skrall, the warrior race of the North – none could match their talent for battle.
The trio raced towards the stranger, shields up and swords high. They coordinated without words: trained so well that all it took to form a plan of attack was the relative position of their bodies and subtle differences in movement. Two sped forward, prepared to spear the newcomer, while the third broke away to circle around and attack from behind if the first two unaccountably failed to kill him.
As they charged, one of the leading Skrall leveled his Thornax Launcher at the stranger and fired. The spiked fruit hurtled through the air, hard as any rock and lethal as a cannonball.
The stranger caught it out of the air.
There was no warning, no indication of movement – his hand was simply there, instantly, with the fruit caught in its grip. Metal shone on his fingers.
The Skralls’ charge faltered. They stared.
The stranger turned his hand and drew it close to his face, as if he was examining the projectile. His fingers quivered. A sharp crack split the air. Nectar, blackish and tarry and smoking, began to drip glutinously from the Thornax.
He tossed the fruit over his shoulder. Overripe, it bounced over the cobbles behind him and exploded.
Even the Skrall jumped a little at the detonation. Only the stranger remained unmoved. Framed by smoke and fire, he took his cloak by one hand and flung it away.
Fentorius, still on the ground, couldn't help but stare. In a world where full armor and a good weapon were all but required for survival, this man went both bare-chested and unarmed. And that chest! “Muscular” couldn’t describe the stranger’s body. His torso seemed a solid wall of granite.
The only armor the stranger wore encased him from the waist down and down his forearms. Machinery ran through his elaborate gauntlets – pistons and tubes and tiny vents visible where the armor jointed. The colors he wore were unmistakable – this Glatorian came from the outcast Iron Tribe.
The two Skrall began to advance towards the stranger once more, more cautiously than before. The stranger settled into a fighting stance as the Skrall approached. He turned sideways, legs apart, one arm forward, the other back, the hand level with his head.
One of the Skrall darted forward. His sword whistled as it lashed towards the Glatorian's bare chest, faster than a dune wolf – cutting only through empty air. The stranger was gone.
Warrior reflex told the Skrall that the mystery Glatorian was suddenly – impossibly – behind him (how could he move so quickly?). With near-instant reaction time, the Skrall began to spin around, arm and sword angled for a horizontal slash through the stranger’s midsection.
For all the warrior’s speed, he might as well have been moving in slow motion.
The stranger’s metal fists blurred. In the span of a second, he struck the Skrall eight times, precision jabs running up his spine and shoulder blades. Each blow was punctuated by a high-pitched cry. A whirling kick provided the finisher – his heel ramming against the side of the Skrall’s head, spinning the black-armored warrior into a short-lived cartwheel and slamming him into the ground.
It only took a handful of instants to deal with the first Skrall. But in that time, the second was already moving. He lunged, the tip of his sword describing an upward curve to carve open the stranger’s bare chest. Even the most experienced Glatorian warrior might have had trouble reacting fast enough to counter the strike.
But just like before, the stranger evaded the blade with graceful ease. He shifted his body just slightly – the sword missing by the barest of hairs – and then he ducked under the upraised arm and launched another rapid flurry of punches down the Skrall’s forearm and elbow.
The Skrall felt nothing – bringing his sword down for a lethal counterstroke – but the stranger deftly sidestepped the strike, and the sword sailed out of the Skrall’s suddenly nerveless fingers. It clattered through the dust.
“My hand!” he cried, stumbling back. He clutched the numb appendage, tried to flex the fingers. They barely twitched. “What did you do to my hand!?”
The stranger stood, tall and poised, just behind the warrior. “My gauntlets allow me to strike pressure points, even through armor,” he intoned. “I simply disrupted the nerves that control your fingers.”
“You sand-mite!” howled the Skrall. He still had another weapon available to him - he swung around, the razor edge of his spinning shield poised to slice through the stranger’s throat. Then a fist slammed into his chin. Such was the force of the blow that the Skrall’s feet left the ground for a few seconds.
He collapsed, armor clattering like a sack of tin cans.
The stranger looked up from the unconscious warrior and caught the eye of the third Skrall. He raised an eyebrow. The Skrall hunched, baring his teeth, but began to edge backwards.
Then he charged at the stranger.
The Skrall tumbled across the ground, skidding to a stop in an undignified heap at Atrox’s feet. The warrior groaned once and passed out.
Every eye in the courtyard stared at the stranger with undisguised astonishment.
Atrox looked from his fallen warrior to the stranger and back again. And then he started smiling.
“Well,” he said. “Well, well, well.”
The elite Skrall kicked the still-prone Fentorius aside and began to walk forward. “Well, well, well, well, well, well, well.”
“So,” he said, laughing. “A challenger appears!”
Fentorius crawled aside, clutching his chest. It hurt. At least one of his ribs was fractured, he was certain.
“Tell me,” grunted Atrox, putting his hands on his hips. He now stood some distance before the strange Glatorian. “Where did you learn to fight like that?”
“It is a forgotten and ancient art of the Iron Tribe,” said the stranger. “It is called the Scarlet Sun Titan Fist.”
Atrox nodded. Then, with great deliberation, he drew his sword… and threw it aside.
Now swordless, he raised his right hand and gestured to one of the Skrall watching the Agori. On cue, the warrior removed his Saw Blade Shield and flung it, discus-like, to the elite. Atrox caught the spinning blade with a deft movement of his fingers and hooked his hand into its straps in one fluid motion.
Skrall shields were much more complex than a simple blade. It could read the movement of its bearer’s fingers, activating a small but powerful motor that sent the shield spinning like its namesake. And now Atrox wielded two of them: one on each arm.
“Now, it’s normally against regulations to do this,” called Atrox. “But we Skrall have a few tricks, too.” He flexed his fingers, and the paired shields began to rotate, faster and faster.
The burly elite chuckled, taking a few steps backwards. “Watch this.”
Atrox charged forward. The stranger braced himself, but before the Skrall had crossed even a quarter of the distance between them, he suddenly leapt – a whirling, spinning flip – and at the apex of the jump, he hurled the shields at the stranger.
First one, then the other, the lethal spinning blades hurtled towards the stranger, wheels of death striking sparks and dust from the sand-strewn pavement. So fast, they were little more than black-and-red blurs.
The stranger evaded the first with inches to spare, and spun to avoid the second. The shields sped off behind him, still trailing sparks. The Glatorian looked at his opponent.
Atrox, now crouched on the ground, smiled. He waved an admonishing finger.
Instinct alone made the stranger move. And even then, it almost wasn’t enough. And as the twin shields suddenly boomeranged back around, whistling through the air, one of them grazed the stranger’s cheek even as he tried to dodge it.
Atrox leaped again, catching the still-whirling shields on each hand. He spun to a halt, facing the stranger, his smile now a vicious, toothy rictus.
The stranger knew where the balance of power lay – as long as Atrox had the ranged advantage, he would never get close. He wiped the cut on his cheek. And then he sprinted towards the elite Skrall, fists at the ready.
Again Atrox spun and leaped, sending the shields spinning through the air. One flew to the side in a circular arc that would intersect the stranger’s charge, a horizontal saw blade – the other ricocheted unpredictably off the ruins framing the courtyard, gashing the rusting metal.
The Glatorian rolled under the first shield – it buzzed as it whirled over him – and vaulted the second as it hurtled towards him at knee-height. But at that moment, the blade decided to return to its owner – and the stranger just barely managed to avoid being split in two, and even then the whirring shield cut into his side on the flight back to Atrox’s hands.
Again, the elite Skrall caught both of his blades handily. But there was no time to throw them again: he brought the shields up only just quick enough to block the stranger’s first punch.
Metal rang against metal. The air rippled from the force of the blow, but Atrox’s shield held firm.
Then Atrox stepped forward and rammed the blunt face of the shields into the stranger. The Glatorian staggered back, then darted to Atrox’s left, throwing a jab at the unprotected shoulder pauldron – but the Skrall elite moved even faster than his subordinates, and he deflected the punch with another thrust of his shields.
The stranger shifted right, hurling a second strike at Atrox’s elbow – yet just as before, the Skrall moved with equal speed, and his shields stopped the blow cold.
Undaunted, the stranger unleashed another rapid-fire flurry of fists at the Skrall’s defenses. Each blow was once more punctuated by a high-pitched yell – and each was blocked, turned aside. The shields remained unscathed.
Atrox laughed, taking another step forward, hurling another brutal ramming impact into the stranger. “These babies are Exsidian-reinforced. You can’t break them!”
He planted his feet and twisted his torso, throwing all of his massive strength into a third shield bash: the sheer power threw the stranger backwards two bio. A collective gasp rose from Fentorius and the watching Agori – matched by cheering from the remaining two Skrall warriors.
“You’re tough, for a Glatorian,” said Atrox. “I’ll give you that. But I am Atrox! I am Skrall! I cannot be defeated!”
The stranger got to his feet, slowly. Fresh bruises spread across his torso. His face showed nothing but steely resolve.
“You should only gloat after you win, Atrox,” he said. He clenched his fists.
Smoke began to rise from his gauntlets. Then fire started to dance from their joints, growing rapidly in size and intensity. It wreathed his hands, flickering tongues of red and orange and white.
Once more, the stranger settled into a fighting stance. Then he lunged, his hands engulfed in flame, as he drew back one last fist. Atrox again raised his shields to block. Burning fist met reinforced metal –
There was a burst of sound, and a flash of light, and a wave of heat, and Atrox soared over the heads of the crowd, smoke trailing from his armor, shields twisted and shattered. He landed hard, painfully, slamming into the ruined and sun-baked façade of what had once been a shop, hundreds of years ago. The battered stone teetered. It cracked. And with a roar, it collapsed. Rubble buried the Skrall elite.
Footsteps sounded. The crowd began to part. Even the Skrall guards made way in the face of the Glatorian stranger, his gauntlets still trailing smoke.
He stopped in front of the pile of stone that marked where Atrox had fallen. Nobody made a sound.
And then the Skrall elite erupted from the rubble. Powerful legs catapulted him forward. Massive hands reached out for the stranger’s throat. Atrox howled in pain and fury, overwhelmed by the thought of being defeated by a mere Glatorian.
The stranger shifted, grabbing Atrox out of the air and using the maddened Skrall’s own momentum to flip him around and throw him into the ground, face-first. Three straight-fingered jabs struck home against the back of his neck. Atrox gagged and coughed and lay still.
“Wha— “ he gasped. “—my body—“
“I have paralyzed you from the neck down for the next eight hours,” said the stranger. “Use that time to think about what you’ve done.”
“There are others,” spat Atrox. “Be here—soon—“
The stranger smirked. From his armor, he produced a jagged shard of black metal – unmistakably a sliver of Skrall armor. Wordlessly, he cast the fragment onto the ground, next to Atrox’s head. The elite Skrall goggled at it.
“You two,” called the stranger, pointing to the two Skrall still standing. “Gather your leader and your friends. They should be coming around now. Go away from this place and never come back.”
He touched his bleeding cheek. “Because if you return, so will I.”
The Skrall hastened to obey. And as the crowd began to cheer wildly, the stranger turned to help the injured Fentorius.
“We’re all very – very thankful to you,” stuttered Fentorius. Thanks to a well-placed nerve strike, the stabbing pain of his ribs had receded to a faint buzz. He’d get the fracture checked out later. “If there’s anything – anything – we can do to repay you, just let us know and we’ll see what we can do.”
Granted, even considering all that the stranger had done for Cortis, there were still some who kept their distance from the Iron Tribe exile. Prejudice died hard.
The stranger, once more shrouded in his cloak, shook his head. He stood a little apart from the Agori chief beside him, watching the Skrall convoy recede into the distance.
“Just a little bread, and a little water, if you can spare it,” he said. “The desert is harsh, but I can take care of myself.”
Fentorius nodded. He frowned. “Is something wrong? You look… upset.”
“I am. For the Skrall.”
“About – for them? You’re sure?”
The stranger touched the bandage on his cheek, unconsciously. The one on his side was concealed under his cloak. “They suffered in the Shattering, the same as you. The Rock Tribe came out of the disaster better off than any other tribe, but even then, it wasn’t easy for them. They lost their homeland.”
He looked down at Fentorius. “They came here because they’re also struggling to survive. They have more mouths to feed in one place than any other village, and they don’t have the farmland to support themselves. Yet they’re too proud to trade with the other tribes, and they simply can’t conceive of making alliances with anyone besides themselves.”
The red-armored Agori stared at the stranger for a while, then looked down. He kicked some grit.
The Skrall convoy had all but vanished over the horizon. The stranger sighed. Sorrow tinged his words. “They know nothing of love or brotherhood. If they do not change their ways, they will one day collapse. But that day is far from now.”
Fentorius shrugged. Then he nodded. Then he said, “Well, if you’ll follow me, I’ll see what our stores can supply you. Where are you going, anyways?”
“Some Sand Tribe nomads are supposed to have set up camp west of here,” answered the stranger, turning to walk with the Agori. “I have heard disturbing things about its people. I must see if there’s any truth to the stories.”
“I doubt they’ll let you anywhere close to their village,” said Fentorius. “The Sand Tribe’s never been keen on outsiders.”
The stranger grinned crookedly. “I think we’ll get along. We’re both outcasts, after all.”
Despite himself, Fentorius chuckled. The two of them stopped in front of an old bakery, its ovens salvaged from ruin and returned to use.
“That exploding fists thing…” started Fentorius.
“An extra function of my gauntlets,” said the stranger. “Just in case I encountered someone like Atrox. It will be some time before I can use it again.”
Neither of them made a move to go inside the building.
“You know, you didn’t have to help us out back there,” the Agori said, seriously. “I mean… why did you go to all that trouble? Not that we don’t appreciate it, of course.”
A distant look crossed the stranger’s face. It was a while before he spoke, and then he spoke as if from far away. “A long time ago, just after the Shattering, I saw a big red star in the sky. It didn’t twinkle like a regular star. It simply glowed. It was gone a few seconds later. And for a long time after that, I kept thinking, ‘what could it mean?’”
He looked down at Fentorius. There was a kind of serene warmth in the lines of his face. “I think I understand it now. It’s why I learned the Scarlet Sun Titan Fist. To me, that star said, ‘no matter how dark the world gets, there will always be a light, and that light should be protected!’”
The sun was beginning its trek down over the horizon. As it went, so did the heroic stranger. Fentorius watched him go. A few of his Glatorian guards stood with him. As the stranger vanished into the distance, Fentorius realized he’d never asked for his name.
He looked to his left, then to his right. Then he asked, “Can any of you tell me what the junk just happened?”