My name is Sahmad, and maybe a name you've heard around the homefires of the Agori here, whispered around the Glatorian as they stand watch. It's a name spoken with respect, and with fear, and that is how it should be. History will tell you that I am a monster, a slaver, someone who made a living capturing my fellow Agori and selling them to The Skrall. I'd be a fool to lie and pretend I did not do those things, of course I did. But there is more to the story than just that, and there is one thing you always need to remember about history: the winners write all the books. I am a member of the Iron Tribe, and not that you could tell by the color of my armor, that's intentional. Advertising that you were part of that tribe was, and probably still is, an invitation to the eyes of the monsterous mob of lives being cautious. We're not welcome in the nice little villages of the other Agori, and good enough to share their food and drink, clean enough to trade with. We're creatures to be told in late-night tales to new guards. "You'd better stay sharp or some Iron Agori will get you". It wasn't always this way, of course.
A long, long time ago, well before the Core War or The Shattering, my tribe lived in the mountains of Bota Magna and worked the mines. We sent the iron we dug out of the rock to the Fire Tribe for forging, and in return they provided us with finished tools and weapons. We were rough and corse, but we were honored for our hard work and treated like any other Agori. Iron Tribe members lived a life full of hard, honest work, and didn't ask for anything more. Outside of some arguments with our neighbors in the mountains, The Skrall, we didn't have any conflicts with anyone. When the end came, it came swiftly and quietly, like a dagger thrust in the back. A few miners on the outskirts of our land began to act strangely. They were distracted, coralsome, and as days went by they got worse. When I asked them if they felt sick they said "No!". The only odd thing that they could report was that their sleep had been disturbed, for they had stopped dreaming. Most of us laughed. After all, what mattered was the strength of our backs as we carve metal out of rock and haul it up to the surface, it wouldn't matter if our sleep was just that? Sleep, unmarred by illusions and fantasies... and if you can't dream, you don't have to worry about nightmares, right? Wrong. If you can't dream, your waking life becomes the nightmare. The affected miners went from irratable to violent, in short order, and from violent to mad. Dreams, it seems, are needed to release the bad energies that accumulate in all of us... Without them, the mind tears itself to shreds in time. Worse, what we now saw as a plague, was spreading. More and more of my tribe lost the ability to dream. Those who's condition was far enough along died as raving lunatics, those who were more recently infected were seized by horror and desperation, knowing the fate that awaited them. Some of us seemed to be immune. Myself, Telluris, a handful of others, and naturally our neighbors would still ask about why we were still able to dream, though none of us knew the answer. That wouldn't stop others in our tribe trying to find out, even if their efforts would mean our deaths. We banded together and hid in a cave, ready to defend ourselves from mad Agori who used to be our friends. As things got worse, our village leader appealed to the other tribes for help. The Skrall just laughed. The other tribes wouldn't even allow them to cross the borders into their lands. No one wanted the little bit of iron we dug up, fearing it might somehow carry the disease. All trade came to a stop. When one of the still-healthy Agori tried to join another tribe, he was driven off into the forest and killed by one of the beasts there. As far as we were concerned, he might as well have just been killed by the Agori who rejected him. Being a member of the Iron Tribe now carried a death sentence. If the plague didn't claim you, your one-time trading partners would.
Telluris came up with the idea of using minerals to change the colors of our armor and helmets, and the hope of posing as members of some previously unknown tribe, and finding sanctuary. It was a stupid idea, but I went along with it. I don't need to tell you how well it worked. Still, we survived. We watched our tribe die off one by one, until there were too few left to be in any condition to threaten us. We made our escape, but there was nowhere to go. And to that, none of us were sure if one of the others might be a carrier of the plague, and you can see why we chose to go our seprerate ways. I headed south, not knowing Telluris was as well. I lived off what I could scrounge or steal. I saw the Core War erupt, and so Agori killed by weapons made of Iron my people had mined. And I laughed. When the Shattering happened, I was in Bara Magna. I had found a wagon and gained the loyalty of a Spikit in the only way possible (I fed it). I didn't know what the future had in store for me, but I had transport. And I had hate. I would find a way to marry the two and gain my revenge. Telluris took a different path. He started roaming the desert in a war machine based off the Skopio, acting like crushing a caravan or two would somehow make a difference. I made other plans. I would turn the other tribe's Agori into commodities. I would sell them to the Skrall, and leave them wishing they had died in the plague along with my friends. Much has changed in recent days. The Skrall have been driven from Roxtus, and two giant men made of metal were battling in the sky for reasons I cannot imagine. I have no doubt the end of the world is upon us. But before that happens, I have a task I want to perform. Somewhere, someone knows that would happen to my people. They know if the plague was accident or attack, error or experiment. Before Bara Magna crumbles to dust, I am going to find those answers. And if someone caused this fate to befall my tribe, then I hope somewhere they are dreaming of me, and waking up screaming...
I like to sleep. I like to sleep because I like to dream. Dreaming reminds me that I'm still alive.
Last night, I dreamt I was back in the village of iron, working in the cold and damp of the mines. The air was filled with the rhythmic ching-ching of pick striking stone. Spherus Magna was generous that day and we emerged from the dark with loads of iron. I stood upon a peak and saw the Rock Agori in the distance scrambling to and fro like spider beetles. Then they stopped and turned as one to stare at our village. I turned to see what they might be looking at, and that was when I saw the first Iron Agori vanish. One moment he was unloading the ore cart, the next he was gone. In the next few moments, more disappeared, and then more. I knew that something terrible was happening. I had to stop it.
I ran through the village in search of the woman I loved. When I found her, I took her in my arms and held her tight, and an instant later, my arms held only empty air.
Help. We needed help. I rushed down the mountain toward the Rock Agori, I shouted for them to aid us, but no one paid any attention. I screamed, I pleaded, to no avail. I moved to strike one of the villagers down just to get their attention. And then I looked down and saw nothing. I had disappeared.
I woke up in a sweat. I had camped not far from the Skrall River. I took off my armor and knelt on the bank, trying to wash away my nightmare. In the moonlight, I could see something massive in the distance. When I took a better look, I saw it was the Skopio vehicle Telluris had built, now sprawled out on the sand like the carcass of a dead animal. The owner himself was crouched beside it. I hitched up the Spikit to my wagon and rode to Telluris. He seemed to be in mourning.
"What happened?" I asked.
"They ruined it," my tribesman answered. "The Glatorian, they sabotaged it. It won't work anymore."
I always thought the Skopio was a gaudy waste of time and materials. No matter how big your weapon, someone else can always build a bigger one. You don't conquer your enemies with something they can see coming ten miles away. You do it by working your way inside like the larva of a spiked worm, making yourself a part of their society, and then blotting them out from the inside. The Skopio was Telluris' crutch, his way of throwing an armed and armored tantrum at the world.
"You can't fix it?" I asked.
He shook his head. "I don't have the parts."
I looked at him. In a couple days, maybe, he would think to stop missing his machine and get out of the sun. By then he would be in no condition to be of use to anyone. But unstable as he was, he was still Iron Tribe, one of the few left, so I owed him.
"Maybe we can find what you need," I offered. "I'm headed north. Come with me."
Telluris glanced up at me, then gestured to the dead Skopio. "I can't just leave it."
"It's not going anywhere," I answered. "And when we come back, we'll rebuild it, bigger and better than before."
Telluris got up and climbed in the wagon. I yanked on the reigns, and the Spikit started plotting north. I wasn't sure exactly where we were going, but I had an idea. If the death of my tribesmen wasn't an accident, then it was murder. And if it was murder, someone had to benefit from it. Whoever that someone was, I was going to make them pay for every dead Iron Agori. I couldn't return to the scene of the crime because Bota Magna had split off a hundred thousand years ago, and wasn't coming back. All I could do was go north and hope I learned something, preferably before the two robots slugging it out overhead wrecked what was left of Bara Magna.
We had been traveling for a few hours when the Spikit suddenly reared up, both of its heads arching in panic. Telluris jumped off the wagon. He pointed to something, shouted, but I had already seen it myself. A long, gray serpent was coiled in the sand up ahead, a serpent with blue eyes, and there was madness in those eyes.
"Kill it!" I said to Telluris.
My tribesman grabbed a blade from the wagon and advanced on the snake cautiously. It was some kind of a viper, poisonous to the extreme, and it was of no use alive. Dead, it would at least be dinner. Telluris raised the weapon and was about to bring it down when the snake reared up, as if it were going to strike, but instead of attacking, it spoke.
"Go ahead," it said, "Kill me. I can't take this anymore."
Telluris looked to me to see if he had gone crazy. I nodded to let him know I heard it too. I was reminded of some wild tale I had heard from a few Rock Agori. They were fleeing Roxtus after losing a battle to the other villages, and claimed an Ice Agori named Metus had been turned into a snake. Sounded to me like they had been eating too many rotten Thornax, but now... Well, there were plenty of weird things in the Bara Magna desert, but talking snakes isn't one of them.
"You're... Metus?" I asked the serpent.
It hissed in response.
"They said you were vowing revenge for what happened to you," I said. "Give up on that, did you?"
"I still want revenge," Metus replied. "Being turned into this monster wouldn't stop me, being turned into an insect wouldn't stop me, I would still find a way somehow if it weren't for..." He stopped.
I waited. When he didn't continue, I said "Except for what?"
The serpent slithered through the sand and looked up at me with pleading in his ice blue eyes. "I've stopped dreaming," it whispered.
Suddenly, the desert seemed to grow very quiet and still, and all I could hear was my own voice saying "It's starting again."
To be continued.