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Go West, Young Agori

Eiji Hino

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--The Wastes.  Two Days Ago.--


Granus the wounded Fire Agori crawled slowly along the ground, carving a path through the sand with his body, his bloody hands staining the sand an ugly color.

     Behind him, the caravan was in ruins.  The wagon burned, the few goods that hadn’t been stolen perishing in the blaze; the Spikit lay bleeding on its side, one of its heads blown off; bodies of his fellow Agori- two Fire, one Water, one Jungle- littered the site.  And all around, the Bone Hunters, those infernal desert bandits that plagued Bara Magna, danced about on their Rock Steeds, whooping and hollering with glee at the wreckage they had caused, at the things they had taken, at the Agori they had killed.

     A boot suddenly fell hard across the small of Granus’ back; he released a cry of pain.  A rough hand lifted him off the ground by his collar, and a voice whispered in his ear.  He could smell alcohol and raw meat on the Bone Hunter’s breath.  “Heh heh.  Thought you could get away while we wasn’t looking, did you now?”  To one of his comrades, he shouted, “Oy!  Ranion!  C’mere, we got us a live’un!”

     The sound of a Rock Steed’s claws on sand grew louder, as the one called Ranion rode over to where his comrade was holding Granus.  Ranion dismounted, the spurs made of teeth rattling on his heels, and lifted the wide brim of his hat to inspect the captive.  Granus met his gaze, staring into Ranion’s misshapen, bristly, scarred face, with resigned terror.  He knew that in the end, it had been pointless to try to escape- how could he have forgotten that the Bone Hunters left no survivors?- but at least he would die the same way his friends had died.  He only prayed that his death would be quicker than theirs.

     Without a word, Ranion drew his Thornax launcher, cocked it, and aimed it at Granus’ head, motioning for his comrade to stand a little aside.  Granus closed his eyes and waited for the shot...

     Granus the headless Fire Agori fell unmoving upon the ground, leaving a divot in the sand with his body, the blood spurting from his neck staining the sand an ugly color.



A Western Tale Written by Scrubbish




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And the Sand Fox You Rode In On…


--The Dunes of Treason.  Present Day.--


“Mental note- never buy a map from an Ice Agori.”

     Kume shook his head as he scanned once more the map that an Ice Agori by the name of Honley had peddled him.  Despite his friend’s protest, he had approached Honley for a map so that he could get to Tajun easily.  The shifty Ice Agori had taken his time retrieving a parchment, and now Kume had a hunch as to what had taken him so long- he had most likely sabotaged the map.

     His eyes fell on where Tajun was marked, a large blue area just west of Sandray Canyon.  He looked at where he was- well, where he thought he was- north of the canyon, in the lower part of the Dunes of Treason.  A large pillar was marked on the map right around his position, but when he raised his head, the pillar was nowhere to be found.

     A breeze began to pick up, softly at first, then with increased vigor.  It threatened to blow Kume’s brown, wide-brimmed hat off his head.  The Fire Agori rolled up his map, stuffed it back in his bag, and surveyed the landscape again, though he knew that he was probably doing so in vain.

     Though the Bara Magna desert was harsh and unforgiving, it was majestic in its own unique way.  The breeze shifted the sea of grit ever so subtly, sparse vegetation bowing in its wake.  The sun, in the right corner of his field of vision, cast shadows behind him as it set, tinting the endless sand orange and obscuring what lay ahead.

     Kume sighed and slumped in his saddle.  Beneath him, his pet Sand Fox and trusty steed, Perennial, sensed his disappointment and yipped, as her attempt to make him feel better.  He patted her fluffy silver fur, scratched behind her ears, and gently dug his heels into her sides, goading her on.  She stepped lightly across the sand in that prancing gait of hers, straight ahead, where Tajun hopefully lay.


--Near Knee Island.  Present Day.--


Twilight was now upon Kume.  He began to get nervous now; his father had told him not to continue riding once the sun had gone behind the horizon.  Though considering what lay in the dark, his father didn’t need to give those warnings; not riding at night was simply common sense.

     Unfortunately, common sense was now out the metaphorical door.  Having expected to reach Tajun by now, Kume hadn’t brought any camping supplies, any torches, any… anything.  He had to get to some safe place before all the light was gone, or else the Vorox would get him.  And eat him.  He nudged Perennial forward, more urgently this time, and she loped on.

     The wind was on the howling point now.  It kicked up sand, getting in Kume’s nose and mouth.  He pulled his blue scarf up over his lower face to filter out the sand, and clamped his hat tighter on his head with one hand.  He squinted in the failing light, searching for…

     Waitaminute.  What was that, there, silhouetted on the horizon?

     It looked like… a town?  Could that thing that looked like a town be Tajun?  But he hadn’t reached Sandray Canyon yet.  How could he have found Tajun if he hadn’t even found the place that let travelers know that they were close to Tajun?

     No matter; getting to it was his best bet to avoid getting eaten by Vorox.  Kume tugged on the reins to point Perrenial toward the thing that looked like a town, and goaded her once again; she, detecting his drastically increased urgency, broke into a gallop.

     And just in time, too.  Behind Kume, the noise of sand shifting met his ears, followed by hissing and words barked in a guttural language, and then a loud shriek.  The telltale sounds of Vorox emerging from the sand to hunt.  And judging by the loud shriek, they had found their first prey.


     Kume shot a glance behind him, and his heart leaped into his mouth.  Several Vorox were crawling rapidly toward him, sand streaming off of their rusted, worn, tan armor, red eyes glowing in the dark, mouths dripping foam and saliva, stinger tails gyrating with the rhythm of their movements.  Some had gotten up on their hind legs, brandishing spears and Thornax bows in a frenzy of base emotions- primarily hunger and anger.  Accompanying them were a handful of Zesk, their vile offspring who were rumored to be even more flesh-hungry than their adult forms.  All of them were shrieking.

     Kume hunched down lower in the saddle, trying to increase his speed.  He let go of his hat, which promptly blew off his head, though he was too busy fleeing to notice or care.  The hand he had now freed from holding his hat scrambled for his Thornax launcher; once he got a grip on it, he shakily aimed it in the general direction of the Vorox and fired.

     The shot didn’t kill, but it did wound the lead Vorox.  It screamed louder, barking unintelligible words at its companions.  Apparently, they were commands to use the bows and spears.  A Thornax whistled past Kume’s ear, dangerously close to hitting him in the head.  Fortunately, the fruit hadn’t been overripe enough to cause an explosion and just made a divot in the sand.

     The thing that looked like a town was getting closer, and now Kume could see that it was indeed a town.  A glimmer of hope shone in his eyes as he smacked Perennial’s hindquarters, egging her on further.  She was now going as fast as she could go, but was it fast enough?

     Increasingly overripe Thornaxes and spears were hurled at the Fire Agori and his Sand Fox.  One spear glanced off of Perennial’s hind legs, making a shallow gash in her flesh.  She whimpered with pain, her gait faltering.  Kume began to panic.  “Just a little more, girl!” he cried.  “Come on, girl!  You can make it!  We’re almost there; just a little more!”

     He shot another glance behind him, and found that his words were now empty.  The Vorox were gaining on him.  Any second now, he’d be food for those savages-

     The sound of a Thornax launcher rang out in front of Kume.  He ducked instinctively, but he found that there was no reason to; the shot hadn’t been directed at him.  He looked behind him to see the lead Vorox’s arm blown completely off.  The Thornax launcher sounded again, and another Vorox lost its head.  The third time it sounded, a Zesk was blown completely to pieces.

     At the edge of the town, Kume could see an Agori, wielding an oddly long Thornax launcher, gesturing frantically for Kume to get into town.  “Faster, muchacho!  Faster!” he was yelling- she was yelling?  It was hard to tell with the sounds of scared Vorox behind him.

     Either way, he took the advice.  Perennial put on another final burst of speed, through the pain in her leg, as the Agori at the edge of town continued firing at the Vorox.  With a skid, she passed the other Agori, coming to a stop shortly down the town’s main road.  Kume dismounted, reloading his own Thornax launcher and helping the other Agori fend off the Vorox.

     After several shots, the Vorox finally took the hint that their potential prey could bite back.  They scampered back into the desert, whining.  They’d have to find something else to eat tonight.

     Holstering his launcher, Kume dusted himself off and turned to his savior.  The other Agori was a male, hailing from the Water Tribe, clad in rather beat-up blue armor, with a faded red neckerchief and an odd glyph scratched on his right shoulder.  He remained oblivious to Kume for the moment, choosing instead to focus his attention on lighting a cigarette and reloading his long Thornax launcher.

     “Uh, hey,” Kume said.  “Thanks for, uh, thanks for the help back there.  You’re a pretty good shot with that.”  He gestured to the other’s launcher.

     Kume’s thanks were met with silence for a moment.  Then the Water Agori turned, with a blank expression on his face, and asked, “What in heck’s name were you doing out at night, muchacho?  You know what comes up when the sun goes down.”

     “I didn’t mean to be out this late!” Kume replied, holding his hands up in a gesture of apology.  “I just thought I’d be in Tajun by now.”

     “Tajun?  Tajun’s ten miles that way.”  The Water Agori pointed, and Kume turned to follow his finger.

     “I knew I couldn’t trust this map!” the Fire Agori exclaimed, yanking the map out of his bag and unrolling it to show it to his companion.  “The fellow who gave me this definitely sabotaged it!  I should have been here earlier-” he pointed to where Sandray Canyon was marked- “but going with what you said, I ended up somewhere over here!”  He pointed at the general are he thought he was in, still in the southern part of the Dunes of Treason.

     The Water Agori retained his blank expression as he said, “This map wasn’t sabotaged, muchacho.  Everything you just said was right.  It’s obviously not the map that was the problem, it was you.  You didn’t look up from this map long enough or often enough to notice landmarks right in front of you.”

     Kume let those words sink in, and slapped his forehead.  He knew that the Water Agori was right; that he had kept his nose so far into what he had assumed was a faulty map, he had failed to actually check his surroundings.  He felt foolish.  “God, you’re right.”

     “Hey, chill, muchacho.  Not everyone’s an expert navigator.  Plus, this is, what, your first time heading to another village by yourself?”

     “How could you tell?”

     “You didn’t bring any camping supplies.  Obviously, you thought you could make the trip in one day.  Rookie mistake.”


     “But like I said, don’t worry about it too much.  You still managed to get within ten miles of where you wanted to go.  That’s not bad.  Not at all.  I’ll hook you up with a traveling buddy in the morning; he’ll get you to Tajun, no problem.”

     “Thanks.”  Kume looked around.  Now that he wasn’t being chased by hungry Vorox, he could observe the town he had stumbled upon better.  The town was divided into halves by the long, wide road that stretched through the middle, the imprints of countless footprints in the sand.  The town’s buildings themselves were constructed from stone and wood- Kume wondered how such heavy buildings could remain standing on sand- and had a slightly rustic look to them.  In front of every building window, a sputtering lantern and a sign covered in peeling paint swung in the wind.  Many of the buildings’ windows were lit, displaying Agori patrons.

     “If this isn’t Tajun, then where am I?” he asked, half to himself, and half to the Water Agori.

     “We call this town Kelio’s End, in honor of the Agori who founded it,” came the reply.

     “How come it’s not on any map I’ve seen?”

     The Water Agori shrugged.  “Hey, don’t ask me, muchacho.”

     “All right.”

     A sudden whimpering reminded Kume that Perennial was injured.  He rushed over to her, petting her in order to try and soothe her.  He hunkered down to check the gash on her thigh; it was shallow, and not bleeding too much, thank God, but it still looked like it hurt.  He made shushing noises as he tapped the area around the gash.  He considered wrapping the leg up in his scarf to keep the sand out, but decided against it.

     The Water Agori came up behind him.  “Oh, is your ride hurt?  I know someone who can help with that.”  In the direction of a nearby building, he shouted, “Hey, Lan!  Get out here, we got another Sand Fox for you!”

     From the building that was yelled at, which turned out to be a corral-slash-stable, a Jungle Agori emerged, hastily donning his black hat and scarf while rubbing his eyes.  He looked different from most of the other Jungle Agori he had seen- he lacked a hunch, his hands and feet had no claws on them, and the spikes that should have been on his shoulders were noticeably absent.

     “A Sand Fox for me?  At this hour?” the Jungle Agori asked sleepily.  All pretenses of sleepiness vanished as he caught sight of Perennial.  “Ah!” he exclaimed, hurrying up to Perennial and hunkering down next to Kume to examine the wound.  After a moment, he said, “It is not a serious injury, but it will take a short while for it to stop paining her.  I will take her to my stable and treat her, sir; with luck, she will be just fine by morning.”  His cultured accent surprised Kume.

     “Uh, thank you,” Kume said, nodding gratefully and removing his saddle and bag.  The Agori called Lan nodded in return, took the reins, and led Perennial back to the stable.

     The Water Agori watched as Lan departed, then returned to Kume and said, “You may want to look into getting a room at Nager’s.”  He gestured to a very large building a short way away.  “The hotel over there,” he explained.

     “I will,” Kume replied.  “Thanks.  For, uh, for everything.”  He made to leave, then thought better of it.  He turned back to the Water Agori and said, “I, uh, don’t think I got your name.”

     “Truka,” was the reply.  “Truka, the night watchman of Kelio’s End.  And you are?”

     “I’m Kume.  Just… Kume.”

     “Well met, Kume.”

     “Well met, Truka.”

     And with that, Kume departed for Nager’s, leaving Truka standing at the edge of town, staring off into the night desert.  From his left, a portly Fire Agori in a bowler came blustering out, saying, “Truka!  I heard launcher shots?  What in the blue, blithering blazes is going on?”


--Nager’s.  Present Day.--


Nager’s turned out to be a lot nicer on the inside.  The floors were finely carpeted, the wood walls were smoothed and polished, and there were no stains anywhere.  Basically, it was like a hotel in Vulcanus, but several times better.  The small wing of the building off to Kume’s right housed a small bar-slash-casino called The Bottom Half, where Agori of all different tribes were enjoying all kinds of vices.

     Directly ahead stood a thick, wooden desk, behind which bustled a mustachioed male Ice Agori and a younger female Fire Agori.  The pair sifted through papers, rolled through keyrings, and did other assorted hotel-running things.  The Ice Agori looked up from his stack of papers and smiled warmly at Kume, who approached.

     “Welcome, stranger, to Nager’s.  The finest hotel in all of Kelio’s End,” he said.

     “That’s because it’s the only hotel in Kelio’s End,” the Fire Agori quipped.

     “Hush,” the Ice Agori reprimanded.  “You will have to excuse Lusa’s brusqueness; apparently, being the assistant manager of a hotel doesn’t sit well with her.  But we are not here to dwell on that.  I am Nager, owner and proprietor of this hotel.  What may I do for you this evening?”

     “I’d like a place to sleep for the night,” Kume replied.  “Nothing too fancy; a cot in a closet will do just fine.”

     “Nonsense!” Nager sputtered.  “Utter hogwash!  I will not have any guest in my hotel reduce themselves to such lowly accommodations!  You will have a proper room!  With a proper bed!  And windows!”

     Kume couldn’t help but crack a smile.  Nager’s bluster was charming, in its own way.  “All right.  I’ll take a proper room, then.  With a proper bed.  And windows.”

     “Perfect!  Lusa, give this gentleman the key to room 343.”

     Lusa rolled through another massive keyring before pulling off a shiny brass one, handing it to Kume over the counter.  “You’re in luck; room 343’s one of our best,” she said.  “Normally, the fancy-pants upperclass folks get it, but Nager must really like you.”

     “Why do you say that?” Kume asked.

     “Why else would he give a dusty old stranger the key to one of the hotel’s best rooms?”

     “Lusa, hush!”  Nager reprimanded again.  “How many times must I tell you not to mouth off to the customers?  We could lose business because of your quips!  And we can’t have that!”

     Kume decided to steer the conversation away from Lusa’s mouth.  “How much do I owe you?” he asked.

     Nager stroked his mustache.  “As a means of apology for Lusa, I’ll reduce the price of the room to half, just for you.  Twenty-eight.”

     Kume whistled softly.  Twenty-eight was still a good amount, even if it was only half of room 343’s price.  He dug into his money purse and withdrew twenty-eight Exsidian coins, placing them on the counter next to Nager’s stack of papers, whereupon the Ice Agori swiftly scooped them up and placed them in a jar at the very end of the desk.

     “Wonderful!  Thank you for your business.  Enjoy your night,” Nager said.  Lusa nodded, a grim look on her face.  Kume gave a small wave as he ascended the stairs next to the desk, taking a last glance at The Bottom Half before he went (a commotion had broken out at the cards table; many Agori were shouting at one in particular).

     As soon as he entered room 343, he dropped his belongings on the upholstered chair in the corner and flopped onto the thick, comfy bed, not even bothering to take off his sandy scarf, Thornax launcher holster, or dirty boots.  He was exhausted, and he planned to get an early start tomorrow.  With luck, he’d reach Tajun by tomorrow afternoon.

     He closed his eyes, snuggling further into the soft covers and pillow, and almost immediately fell asleep.


--Kelio’s End.  The Following Day.--


Kume awoke to the sounds of Thornax launchers and screaming.

     “Oh God!” he shouted, head popping immediately off of his pillow.  He grabbed the pouch of spare Thornax fruit from his pile in the corner and bolted down the stairs of Nager’s to investigate, ignoring the owner’s protests.  “Sir!  Don’t go outside!  It’s not safe!”

     Panic greeted his eyes.  Left and right, Agori were scrambling to get to safety; mothers dragged their children indoors; men clumsily followed them, hands on their Thornax launchers, staring at the leftmost end of the main road.  Through the commotion, he spotted Truka storming toward whatever lay at the end of the road, toting his long Thornax launcher and sporting a determined expression.  He attempted to follow, to ask what was going on, but was stopped by a familiar Jungle Agori.

     “Sir?” Lan asked.

     “Lan, what’s going on?  Why are they panicking?” Kume asked.

     “I will explain in a moment, but first, you must come see this.  Do you remember the Sand Fox you rode in on?”

     “Perennial?  What does she have to do with anything?”

     “I am afraid that the threat these Agori are reacting to involves your Sand Fox.  Hurry, follow me.”  He grabbed Kume’s arm and dragged him in the same direction that Truka was going, toward his stable-slash-corral.

     Kume’s heart dropped.  He saw the problem before they got there.

     There, in the corral, among many other Sand Foxes, lay the body of Perennial, her distinctive silver fur matted with blood.  A huge hole had been blown in her side by a Thornax fruit, and her left forepaw had been completely severed.  Other wounded Sand Foxes moved, albeit slowly and painfully, but not Perennial.  She didn’t move at all.

     Kume cried out in despair.  “Wha… who… who did this?

     Lan didn’t need to answer, for the answer revealed itself almost instantly.  At the end of the road, whooping, hollering, and shooting sounded.  Kume looked up, anger in his eyes, and saw the ones responsible for his Sand Fox’ death, and the cause of the civilians’ panic.

     Bone Hunters.


“The Devil went down to Georgia.  He was lookin’ for a soul to steal

He was in a bind cause he was way behind.  He was willing to make a deal”


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  • 2 months later...


The Devil Went Down to Roxtus


--The Wastes.  Three Days Ago.--


Skren shifted in his Rock Steed’s saddle as Ranion’s shot landed.  The head of the unfortunate Fire Agori on the receiving end exploded into thousands of gory pieces.  Skren averted his eyes; he still wasn’t used to seeing gore like that.  Animals he could stand, but other Agori… Yeesh.

     Fero, the one who had been keeping the Fire Agori held down, dropped the body, chuckling.  “Heh heh.  That’ll teach ‘im.”  He bent down, stuck his finger in the bleeding hole in the top of the Fire Agori’s body, and licked it.  When it was clean, he did it again.  Skren made a mental note to keep far away from Fero every chance he got; habits like that were unsettling at best.

     “Fero, will you stop doing that?” the Bone Hunter next to him called.  “It’s disgusting.”

     “It’s delicious,” Fero retorted.

     Skren kept his mouth shut.

     A gesture from Ranion kept the two from arguing further.  The leader of their patrol resumed his position atop his Rock Steed and glanced at everyone to make sure all was right before they left for home.  And everything was- three Bone Hunters had the stolen supplies secured to the backs of their saddles, Fero was… well, being Fero, and Skren…

     Skren flinched visibly as Ranion’s gaze fell upon him.  His heart started palpitating when Ranion started to ride over to him, stopping right next to him, facing the other way.  He tried to keep his eyes forward as the leader’s eyes slid over him, but he couldn’t.  He looked over to see an impassive expression on Ranion’s face; he tried very hard to keep from cringing as the boss’ hand landed on his shoulder.

     He stared into Ranion’s eyes, and found… he couldn’t quite figure out what he found.  Dissatisfaction?  Quiet anger?  Possibly… pity?

     Ranion removed his hand after what seemed like forever, reaching into his satchel and withdrawing a beat-up silver flask.  Skren’s eyes fell to Ranion’s throat as he began to drink, lingering on the old wound that had never quite healed, watching in horrified fascination as some of the contents of the flask leaked out through Ranion’s still-open wound.

     Though he wanted to deny it, Skren knew exactly why Ranion had approached him the way he did.  His eyes were unreadable, but his grip said it all- he was disappointed in Skren.  And why shouldn’t he be, he asked himself?  He, Skren, had stayed back and avoided getting directly involved in their little heist, after all.  That was a surefire way to get Ranion’s attention… and not in the good way.

     Ranion rode up to the front of the pack, gesturing again.  It was time for the Bone Hunters to go home.


--Roxtus.  Three Days Ago.--



     The City of a Thousand Caves.  The City of Conquerors.  The City Constantly Entrenched in Warfare.

     In other words, home.

     Skren dismounted his Rock Steed, scratching it under its chin, and handed the reins off to Orse, the Bone Hunters’ stablemaster.  Orse nodded his aged head in acknowledgement, and escorted the Rock Steed back to the stables, to be washed and fed.

     Skren rubbed his backside; he was saddle-sore.  Two of his companions noticed the action, and started chuckling.  He didn’t do anything about it.

     Out of nowhere, a voice sounded in his ear, an awfully familiar voice.  “Hey, newbie,” Fero growled.  “Couldn’t help but notice that ya didn’ really do much to help out in our little raid back there.  What was th’ matter?  Didn’ have the spine for it?”

     “N-no, it’s not that,” Skren said quietly.  “I-I just… wanted to see how it was done before I did it myself.”  He knew it was a feeble excuse the moment it left his lips, but he didn’t care.  It was better than telling a bully like Fero the truth.

     Fero didn’t buy it, just as predicted.  “Naw, it wasn’t that,” he chuckled; the blood on his breath was overwhelming.  “You knew how it’s done before you went out with us.”

     In a sudden gesture, he shoved Skren in the back, sending him sprawling.  He let out a yelp as he landed, which only set the two other Bone Hunters laughing harder.  Fero planted his boot on Skren’s shoulder, digging it into his flesh.  The fact that the boots had spikes on them made the whole experience worse.  He tried to bite back his whimpering, but to no avail.  The two Bone Hunters continued to guffaw.

     Fero got close again.  “What you did back there, that was cowardice.  Plain n’ simple.  An’ you know that the Bone Hunters ain’t got room in our ranks for cowardice.  So you best get ridda that ‘fore our next outing, or I’mma have to trample it out of you m’self, just like this.”  And he stomped on Skren’s shoulder once, twice, three times more.

     Mercifully, he stopped after the third stomp.

     Weakly, Skren looked up, and saw why.

     Ranion loomed over him and Fero, his grim expression even grimmer.  He obviously disapproved of Fero’s actions; Fero picked up on his leader’s dissatisfaction and stepped away, muttering under his breath.  Ranion, for his part, reached down and offered Skren a helping hand up.  Skren accepted.

     At that moment, a messenger-looking Rock Agori approached Ranion, wringing his hands.  “Excuse me,” he said.  “The Devil has received word of your return to Roxtus.  He requests that you and your hunting party come to his chambers as soon as you can.”

     This news visibly unnerved several of the Bone Hunters present.  “Th-th-the Devil?  Wants to see us?” stammered one.

     The messenger simply nodded.

     The Bone Hunters were right to be unnerved.  The one known far and wide as the Devil was one of the most feared beings in Bara Magna.  Tales were told of his unbridled brutality, boundless greed, and immense anger.  Stories were spread that he had been personally responsible for the nigh-extinction of the Iron Tribe of Agori, that he had once broke the peak off of one of the White Quartz Mountains, that he had bitten the head off of one of his attendants that had displeased him.  Many of these stories were likely exaggerations, but still, even if they did turn out to be untrue, the Devil’s name alone was more than enough of a red flag, warning those who heard it to stay away.

     Fero laughed.  “You chickens.  I ain’t afraid of no Devil.  Take me to ’im,” he boasted.

     Skren, for his part, merely nodded meek acknowledgement.  He hadn’t heard many stories about the Devil, but taking into account some of the others’ reactions, he decided it’d be wise to display a healthy dose of caution in this situation.

     “Very good,” the messenger replied.  “Follow me, then, please.”

     Gulping, Skren trailed behind his companions, further into the depths of Roxtus, rubbing the cleat marks in his shoulder all the while.


--Roxtus.  Three Days Ago.--


The journey to the Devil’s chambers was long and confusing.  They didn’t call Roxtus the City of a Thousand Caves for nothing.  The Bone Hunters’ journey led them in one cave and out the other, through tunnels tall and short, in gaps spacious and cramped.

     All along the way, Skren observed the populace that he passed as he trailed behind Fero.  The vast majority were Skrall.  Skrall dressed in white collars and cuffs; some even had bolo ties.  Skren shuddered, not because of the horrible contrast between terrible people and the nice clothes they wore, but because those terrible people actually looked good in those nice clothes.

     The Skrall were all preoccupied with something.  Some were counting out stacks of Exsidian coins, others were flipping through ledgers; some were smoking cigars or pipes, others were drinking dark-colored fluid from cups.  One of them, who was sharpening his sword, glared at Skren as he passed.  The knot in his stomach tightened; the Skrall weren’t just brutal businessmen in the metaphorical sense, they were brutal in the literal sense, too.

     He made a mental note to never strike a deal with one of them.

     Among the Skrall meandered the odd Rock Agori, also clad in white collars and cuffs.  They were engaged in the type of labor meant for servants- shining the Skrall’s boots, sweeping the floors, polishing the desks.

     After what seemed like hours, though it was probably only a few minutes, the party arrived at a large set of double doors, twice as tall as any Skrall.  They were made entirely out of Exsidian, no doubt an expensive investment.  Carved into their surface were scenes of battle, depicting, in perhaps an exaggerated fashion, the Skrall’s conquest of all of Bara Magna’s minor territories.  A small tower stood just to the right of the door, atop which stood a Rock Agori.  He called down to the messenger leading the Bone Hunters.

     “Ahoy, Smoke!  These the ones that the Devil wants to see?”

     “Yes,” Smoke called back.  “Could you let him know, Pahrak?”

     Pahrak nodded, before procuring a large (for an Agori anyway) hammer with a wooden knob at each end.  He hefted it into position and swung it at the Exsidian door he was closest to.  The resulting contact let out a loud sound that reverberated throughout the hall.  Pahrak swung it again, and the sound repeated.

     With a mighty creak, the doors swung open, into the Devil’s chamber.  Smoke stepped aside, gesturing for Ranion and his troupe to enter.  They did so, with Skren trailing behind.

     “Have fun in there,” Pahrak said as they entered.

     If the doors had been large, they didn’t hold a candle to the Devil’s chambers.  Actually, chambers didn’t do the chambers justice; they were more like a small cathedral.  Pillars filled the area, carved with more scenes of the Skrall battling.  The floor was covered in mismatched tiles; some of them were made of Exsidian, while others were made of Vulcanus’ fire-forged stone, and still others appeared to be made out of Tesara’s foliage.  They were arranged without any truly distinct pattern.  Light poured in from narrow windows in the far wall, almost as tall as the doors.  A chair stood just to the left of the center window.

     As the doors closed behind him, Skren glanced over his shoulder to see two heavily muscled Skrall pushing the doors closed.  Their biceps bulged as they pushed, the steel of their battle skirts clinking as their legs shuffled.  One of them caught Skren looking; he turned away quickly, only to bump into Fero, who had stopped.

     The reason that he had stopped lay ahead of them.

     There, silhouetted in the light of the sunset, stood the Devil.

     He was tall.

     He was muscular.

     He was… being fitted for a suit.

     Many Rock Agori stood on high stools, supplied with tape measures, pins, and rolls of fabric, measuring the different lengths of the Devil’s body, rolling out the appropriate lengths of fabric, pinning areas together in the right places.  It was a bit of an odd sight.

     As for the Devil himself, his silhouette rendered his features mostly indistinct, but two things were obvious- one, that his back was turned to the Bone Hunters, and two, that he was taller than even the tallest Skrall.  Just as the stories said.

     A voice rumbled.  “Ah, the Bone Hunters have arrived.  Kneel.”

     The majority of the Bone Hunters did so, Skren dropping first, and Fero dropping last.  They took off their hats, as a gesture of reverence.

     The Devil continued.  “How went the hunt, Ranion?”

     In response, Ranion made signs with his hands.  His old throat wound had left him without the ability to speak, so he had to rely on gestures to communicate.  Wapis, his translator/mouthpiece for occasions like this, observed the gestures, before replying.  “He says that the hunt went well.  We found many goodies in the caravan.”

     “I’m glad that you found such a haul,” the Devil said.  “As per our deal, I expect the better half of all that you… collected.”

     Ranion signed.  “We’ll send it right away,” Wapis interpreted.

     The Devil nodded.  He paused for a moment, before offering some thoughts in a quiet voice.  “If I’m not mistaken, which I know I’m not, that caravan contained essential supplies for that town Kelio’s End, near Tajun.  Your ransacking and looting has denied them those supplies.  Without those, that little town will start to run down, allowing me to finish my quest to claim all the minor territories of Bara Magna for my own.  That town has evaded my collection for too long, now.  Your raid will change that.”

     In a louder voice, he continued, “Ranion, I want you to wait a few days, then head back to Kelio’s End and check on their progress.  Tell them that I can offer them more comfort than the odd caravan can give them.  Rough some of them up a bit, if you have to.  Then come back here and report.”

     Ranion signed again.  “What if the townspeople don’t accept your offer?” Wapis translated.

     The Devil growled.  “We’ll worry about that after your report.  While you wait to go back out, compensation for your efforts today are in your quarters.  I take it you’ll… enjoy them.”

     Ranion bowed his head in gratitude.

     “Now… leave.”

     At the final word, the two muscular Skrall hauled on the doors, opening them back up with a groaning of hinges.

     The Bone Hunters followed the Devil’s order, putting their hats back on and shuffling out of the chamber.  As was becoming the norm, Skren was the last to do so.  His gaze remained on the Devil’s back, in morbid curiosity; through the brightness of the sunset, he could see through the silhouette and make out something of what the Devil looked like.

     “I know you’re still there,” the Devil said suddenly.  “Trying to get an eyeful, are you?  You heard me.  Leave.

     Caught by surprise, Skren fell backwards and scooted out the door.  He wondered just how the Devil had known he was still in the chamber, if he had his back turned.  Regardless, he had gotten what he wanted- a glimpse of the one that he and his fellow Bone Hunters were working for.

     And that glimpse had been something.

     For what he had seen was the Devil’s black-skinned back, with four lime-green Agori skull tattoos marching down his spine, each one bedecked with a letter.






--Kelio’s End.  Present Day.--


Now, three days after glimpsing the Devil’s back, three days after the denial of supplies to Kelio’s End, Skren was back in the saddle of his Rock Steed, with his fellow Bone Hunters, at the town that they had choked off.  Fero had eyed him the whole way here, no doubt gauging him for any further signs of cowardice; Skren had chosen to studiously ignore his scrutiny.

     He watched Ranion as his leader dismounted his own Rock Steed, and approached the Water Agori that glared from the edge of town…


“When he came across this young man sawin’ on a fiddle and playin’ it hot

And the Devil jumped upon a hickory stump and said ‘Boy, let me tell you what.’”


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Edited by Scrubbish
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Walk the Line


--Kelio’s End.  Present Day.--


Truka stood resolutely at the edge of town, feet planted wide, hands firmly gripping his long Thornax Launcher, lit cigarette in his mouth, brows drawn together, eyes watching as Ranion approached him.

     “What do you want, Ranion?” he called.

     Ranion smirked, and began to sign.  Is that the way to greet me now?

     His accursed translator Wapis started to speak up.  “He says, is that-”

     “Shut your face, Wapis; I know what he’s saying.”

     Wapis looked taken aback.  Good.

     Truka turned back to Ranion.  “Of course it’s the way to greet you.  You’re a scumbag, hombre, and you deserve to be greeted like one.  Again, what do you want?”

     I just thought I’d drop in and see how my favorite Water Agori is doing.

     “We both know that’s wrong.  Will you ever stop lying?”

     I’m a Bone Hunter.  It’s what I do.

     “Aside from kill everyone’s Sand Foxes, apparently.  One more time, what do you want?”

     Ranion scowled.  If you must know, Truka, I’ve come to offer a deal to the residents of this dump you call a town.

     Truka scoffed.  He knew that the Bone Hunters didn’t offer deals any more than Iron Wolves flew.  But he decided to humor Ranion and listen.  “All right, fine.  What sort of deal are you offering?  Depending on the answer, I may have to shoot you.”

     Have you noticed recently that you’ve been… short on supplies?

     Truka scratched his chin.  Now that Ranion mentioned it, Granus was late with that shipment of goods from Tesara.  “Go on.”

     Ranion did.  Well, everybody seems to have run short on supplies lately.  Not just you.  It seems like a fairly good indication that the caravan system is growing unreliable with age, wouldn’t you agree?

     Truka remained unresponsive.

     See, the deal I’ve come to offer will remedy that.  On behalf of the Devil himself, I- we- offer the annexation of Kelio’s End into the great Empire of Roxtus.

     That elicited a response.  “No,” Truka said flatly.  “We aren’t annexing our town into that blasted empire of the Devil’s.  We’ve worked too hard, for too long, to have everything just… taken.”

     But think of the good that will come of it, Truka, Ranion signed.  You’ll be guaranteed protection from the Vorox, your wages will be higher, and best of all… He grinned as he signed, no more caravans lost to our raids.

     “So you’re the reason Granus is late,” Truka said, the situation clicking in his mind.

     Granus is late because I killed him, Ranion signed.  Yes, I’m the reason he’s not here.

     “You slimy piece of-“

     Now, now.  No need for obscenities.

     Truka rubbed his temples, trying to calm himself down.  “Look, hombre,” he said.  “I understand the benefits.  But you’re forgetting that annexation means submission.  We’d have to give not just our homes and our jobs, but our lives over to the Devil.  We’d be stuck in his blood-stained hand, dreading the moment when he squeezes his fist closed on us.  And that’s just not something I’m willing to let happen.  Tell the Devil that we decline his offer.”

     At that moment, Truka heard a familiar huffing and puffing.  He closed his eyes as Yorma, the town’s mayor, trundled over to involve himself in the proceedings.  Late, as usual.

     “What in the blue blithering blazes is going on out here?” the portly Fire Agori puffed indignantly, adjusting his bowler hat.

     Truka sighed.

     Ranion turned his attention to the mayor, and signed.  We’re here to offer this town annexation into the Devil’s empire.  Better jobs and more protection for you… at the small cost of your personal freedoms, of course.

     Yorma, who couldn’t read sign language, simply goggled.  “What do those gestures mean?” he aksed.

     Wapis translated.

     Yorma hesitated for a moment, before sputtering, “By Dume’s iron codpiece, no!  This is our town!  We’ve-”

     Truka cut him off.  “They know.  I already told them.  I also already told them to take their offer and stick it up the Devil’s-”


     “Right.  Sorry.”

     Yorma stared for a moment, as if his brain was having trouble processing the situation now.  He blinked, before patting Truka on the shoulder awkwardly.  “Good lad.  Good job.”

     Truka sighed again, as Yorma took off, back to his office.

     So that’s it? Ranion signed.  You’re not going to accept the Devil’s deal?

     “No.  I know better than to deal with the Devil.”  Unconsciously, Truka rubbed his right shoulder.  “And I think I speak for all of us when I say, even if slavery weren’t inevitable, we still wouldn’t annex Kelio’s End into Roxtus.  No deal.”

     And nothing we can do will convince you otherwise?


     Very well.  I must say, I was rather hoping you’d take the offer.

     “Your hope was misplaced, hombre.”

     It seems that it was.

     The Bone Hunters’ leader turned, as if to return to his hooligans and depart, but at the very last second, he whipped back around, his Thornax launcher drawn, and squeezed off a shot.  Truka made to dodge it, but the shot wasn’t directed at him.  Instead, the overripe fruit collided with a random Jungle Agori, blowing off his arm at the shoulder.  Blood splattered over the Agori’s wife, who screamed loudly in fright and panic.

     Truka prepped his own launcher, and aimed it at Ranion…

     Before he fired it, someone else’s shot was sailing toward the same target.

     It missed, but it was still enough to rile up the Bone Hunters.  Truka turned his head to discern where the shot had come from, and found Kume, the stranger who had wandered in last night, loading up his Thornax launcher and preparing to fire another shot at Ranion.  Before he could squeeze off the next shot, however, Truka was on him, trying to wrest control of the launcher away.

     “What in heck’s name are you doing, muchacho?!” Truka asked angrily.

     To his surprise, he found tears in Kume’s eyes as the Fire Agori said, “They killed my Sand Fox.”

     “And they’ll kill you too, if you keep shooting at them!  Put the launcher down!”

     Reluctantly, Kume did so, his eyes fixed on Ranion.

     Ranion met Kume’s gaze, a small fire lighting in his eyes.  He signed something that would be better left untranslated, before mounting his Rock Steed and signing something else, this time directed at the whole populace of Kelio’s End.  Wapis translated, “We’ll give you all time to reconsider the offer.  When we come back, we expect an affirmative answer.”

     The Bone Hunters turned tail and retreated, whooping and hollering the way they had come in, seemingly oblivious to the jeers from a few brave Agori.

     Truka watched them leave.  He spat out his cigarette, stomping on it to put it out, before returning to Kume.  “You do know that what you did was crazy, muchacho.  Shooting at a Bone Hunter, and a leader at that?  You’re very lucky they didn’t shoot back, or you’d have ended up worse than him.”  He gestured to the Agori that Ranion had shot.

     “But they killed Perennial!” Kume protested.  “I loved her.”

     “I know you did,” Truka replied.  “But an Agori’s life is worth more than a Sand Fox’s.”

     Kume’s tears started welling up again.  Truka placed a hand on his shoulder, as a way of trying to comfort him.  Comfort wasn’t really something he was good at.

     “You know what, muchacho?  I think maybe it’s time you went on and left Kelio’s End behind.  You do still have to get to Tajun, don’t you?”

     “Yeah,” Kume mumbled.  “But how am I going to get there without a Sand Fox?”

     “Leave that to me.  You go and get your things; I’ll handle the Sand Fox problem.”

     Reluctantly, Kume did so, departing for Nager’s.

     Truka was saddened to see Kume upset.  He hadn’t known the Fire Agori for very long, but there was something inherently likable about him.  It’d be best for him to get out of the too-rough town of Kelio’s End and into Tajun, where Bone Hunters and the carnage they wrought were far less common.

     He turned his attention to Lan’s corral, where the owner stood before the massacred Sand Foxes arguing with his roommate and business co-owner, another Jungle Agori named TimeLord.  “Hey, Lan!”

     Lan stopped arguing with TimeLord.  “Yes, Truka?  What is it?” he asked, a tad snippier than he (probably) meant to.

     “Do you have any more Sand Foxes in the back?”

     “Two.  Why?”

     “I need to borrow one of them.  Or rather, our stranger friend from last night needs to borrow one.  His got shot, and he needs to get to Tajun.”

     Lan removed his black hat and scratched his head.  “I do not think so.  The remaining living Sand Foxes belong to other Agori, and it would not be proper for me to go and hand off the reins to someone who, one, does not own them, and two, will not be in position to return them once they are finished.”

     Truka glared at Lan.  Lan replaced his hat, but said nothing further.

     “Give him one, Lan,” TimeLord goaded.  “It’s the right thing to do.”

     “It may be, but it’s terrible for business.”

     “Lan…” TimeLord said.

     Truka, for his part, began to lift his hand, the one still gripping his long Thornax launcher, and point it in Lan’s direction.  He hadn’t even brought it to hip height before Lan broke.  “Fine, fine.  I’ll get you one.”  He shuffled off to the back stables, clearly not happy about how the situation had turned out.


--Kelio’s End.  An Hour Later.--


Kume returned to the edge of town, with all his things prepared.  Except for his hat.  He found Truka standing there, waiting for him, holding the reins to a Sand Fox and standing beside an Ice Agori in a coonskin cap, who was already mounted on a different Sand Fox.

     “Here you are, muchacho,” Truka said as Kume approached.  “I told you I’d fix your Sand Fox problem.”

     Kume’s shoulders lifted a bit.  The Sand Fox that Truka was offering seemed happy to see him, and while she wasn’t Perennial, she’d do.  He patted her head; her eyes closed lazily, as if she enjoyed it.

     “Thanks, Truka.”

     “Think nothing of it.”

     Kume saddled the Sand Fox up and mounted her.  He looked at the Ice Agori.  “Who’s this?” he asked, to nobody in particular.

     The Ice Agori extended a hand.  “Call me Shomon.”

     Kume shook Shomon’s hand.

     “He’s the traveling buddy I promised you last night,” Truka explained.  “He’ll help you get to Tajun.”

     “God knows I need help,” Kume jested, remembering his inhibited attempt to finish his travels in one day.

     Shomon gestured.  “Come on.  If we leave now, we can get there by midday.”  He began to ride past the edge of town, before pausing and waiting for Kume to follow.  Kume did not, at least, not right away.  He hesitated, looking at Truka.

     “Go on,” Truka said.  “Tajun waits.”

     “Look, Truka…” Kume began.  “I… I don’t think I wanna go just yet.  I feel like I owe you one for saving me from the Vorox last night, and… and I want to stay here and help you with your Bone Hunter problem.”

     Truka shook his head.  “’Fraid I can’t have that, muchacho.  The Bone Hunters are our problem, not yours.  I couldn’t in good conscience let you stay here and risk your life to try and save a run-down old town from bloodthirsty rabble-rousers like them.  It’s best you move on to Tajun, and take whatever opportunities are there for you.”


     “No buts.  Get on.”  Truka smacked the Sand Fox’s hindquarters, goading her on to join Shomon.

     And so, Kume and Shomon departed Kelio’s End.  Kume looked back several times, a sad look on his face.  Each time, Truka returned the gaze, and lifted his hand in farewell.


"'I bet you didn't know it, but I'm a fiddle player, too

And if you'd care to take a dare I'll make a bet with you'"


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Edited by Scrubbish
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