Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 43

Took a week off to refocus and get back in the game. Let’s get back to the fight. And please, if you have enjoyed this story, leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. It is much appreciated.

FORTY-THREE

Desperate Hours

The Viper ripped his blade clear of the Berserker’s chest. The others weren’t far behind. Time was running out. Carefully exhaling a deep breath, he pulled the pin from a thermal grenade and marched towards the returning war party.

“Go kill them. I’ll handle this group,” he told Snake Eyes when he passed.

Snake Eyes immediately shifted around to laid down a steady stream of fire into the onrushing Berserkers. Ion rounds shredded the first to ribbons before they scattered. A three-legged monster bounded towards Hosking, who ducked and rolled, coming up on the right side of the monster and driving his Imperium-issue dagger deep into the Berserker’s throat. It died with a frothing growl.

This was what it was all about. A projectile whistled past the Viper, brushing his arm and exploding into the rock wall beyond. The impact threw them all to the ground, Berserker and invader alike. Only by the Old God’s grace did he manage to keep a hold of the grenade.

The Berserkers howled and attacked. Slowly getting to his feet, the assassin brushed some of the dirt and rock off and waited. Again, they howled, the mockery of their foe arousing their bloodlust. The Viper flung the grenade into the mob and ducked. The blast melted flesh from bone, limbs from bodies. More than half of their number died in the flames. The others rolled over and attacked only to be cut down by a thick rain of ion fire.

“Viper, we need to go!” Nathan yelled. “More are coming from the Hive.”

Normally, he wouldn’t have cared, but his vision had other ideas. He wasn’t supposed to die in an empty tunnel. He took another look at his handiwork before running off.

“The whole damned horde’s coming down on us,” Snake Eyes said with concern. This clearly wasn’t how he planned on going out. “Which way do we go now?”

“Keep right. I think I can make out the near edge of the lake. If Lady Luck is real, we might be able to sweep around the far side and hit them from behind.”

Further discussion being pointless, they ran for their lives.

 

Torches in grime-encrusted candleholders lit the way through the murky corridors. Once marble and polished to a bright sheen, the floors now lay in broken ruins. Large pieces were cracked and broken beyond repair. Shadows played with their minds, pushing Kane ever closer to the brink of sanity. They crept past crumbling statues and dust-covered mirrors, always in search of a lurking monster.

Xill recommended they fan out in a tight wedge. The wizard stayed in the middle, careful not to step in front of their rifles. Kane’s wrist was throbbing again. He couldn’t think about it now. Somewhere in this madness waited the one responsible for stealing his hand. Revenge kept him going when all the other fires were died out.

“How much further, wizard?”

Gage looked around, patiently trying to remember. “I don’t know. I don’t recognize this part of the castle. There seems to be a block on my ability to see things. I’ve felt it since we entered the tunnel.”

“It’s a good chance they probably know we’re here.” Kane frowned. “We’d better keep moving.”

 

Palace guards and grunting battle lords drove the tiny band into the shadows time and again. Kane sat watching as three more Berserkers squabbling in a foul language entered the room at the far end of the hall. Satisfied with what he’d seen, the Slayer crept back to the others.

“That makes thirty-five in the last half hour. It’s got to be the meeting hall,” he told them.

“No,” Gage said, shaking his head. “It’s the throne room. Kargosh is inside.”

“How can you be sure?” Emerald asked. She didn’t like the thought of being so close to the Berserker lord.

The old man smiled softly and kindly. “I can feel him. It’s time we went about our tasks. I must face the devil alone.”

“You’re crazy,” Emerald exclaimed. “Going in there alone is suicide.”

“There is no choice, child. Each of us has our own demons to face. Allow an old man the right to deal with his own. You cannot help me. He has the magic in him. It seems that we have come to the zenith of our adventures. The nadir is upon us, and what we do in the next few moments will define the lives of every man, woman and child in the Wastelands for generations to come. Plant your charges and flee. I must do what I was sent to do. Go.”

 

The Black Lake, as Nathan took to calling it, appeared to stretch on forever. The foul pond was over a mile wide and twice as long. Air bubbles popped across the surface, and they moved a little further away. The Viper had warned them of the monster in the water before they entered the Hive. Nathan was the first to notice that something wasn’t right with the water, so he knelt down and dipped his fingers in. The substance was more slime than water, slicking his skin. Sudden realization hit him, and he smiled for the first time since entering the cavern.

“Do you smell that?”

“Smells like fuel,” Snake Eyes said.

“That’s right. It’s pure, unrefined gasoline,” Nathan said.

“You’re telling us this is one big bomb?” the Viper asked.

“That’s right. We blow this baby, and all our troubles are over. I think we’ve just found our ace in the hole.”

Snake Eyes laughed. “All we need to do now is get the horde down here for a group photo.”

“I’ll handle that,” the Viper said. “As soon as we round the lake, split up and plant the charges. We meet back here in twenty minutes. Questions?”

Nathan whispered, “Yeah. What the hell is that?”

They followed the length of his arm out towards the center of the lake where a monstrous tentacle broke the surface. The skin was a sickly gray-green. Lesions and open sores covered the body. A pasty fluid seeped from several open wounds. The creature gave off a putrid odor, even from this distance. They could make out rows of razor sharps claws lining the tentacle. None of them cared to see what else lay beneath the surface.

“Please tell me we don’t have to fuck with that,” Nathan whispered.

“Must be another surprise created by the dead wizard,” the Viper mused.

Bubbles rippled up from the bottom of the lake, and the weary band, grim faced and determined, started splitting up.

 

“Enter.”

The impish Berserker slithered forward, unconcerned with the gathered crowd. His sole focus was on staying alive after he delivered the message to Kargosh.

“Lord Kargosh, enemies are inside. The guards are dead, as well as over a score of warriors,” his said in a cruel speech.

The Berserkers fell silent in disbelief. No one had ever dared invade their home before, especially not on the eve of their greatest campaign. Kargosh’s fist crushed the fragile bone arm of the throne to pieces.

“Who dares strike us in our home?”

“They are elusive. Warriors are searching the tunnels now.”

They had to act fast if there was any chance at stopping the invaders before too much damage was done.

“Alert everyone. I want the fleshlings found and brought to me. Summon Mnemlath to my chambers. I have an odd feeling in my bones. Rouse the host!”

The lesser monster wormed past the crowds, flinching at kicks and angry fists. The Berserkers were furious and unconcerned upon whom damage was wrought. Kargosh sat back down and concentrated. Not even his gift of sight had warned him of the invaders. He was getting old, and there were too many lurking beyond his reach to seize the throne. If it was going to be war, he chose to keep his enemies close. Mnemlath was going to have to wait another day to take the broken crown.

 

A tiny light blinking from green to red was the only sign that someone had been there. Xill dug into his pack for the next demolition and stalked off to the next position. They’d already rigged the palace with enough explosives to wipe out an Imperium battle cruiser. He hoped the other team was having as much luck as they were but wasn’t naive enough to believe they were going to make it out alive. The charges could only be detonated manually; meaning one of them was going to have to stay behind to set them off. Xill checked his bag. Four more charges, and they could leave.

Four more charges until Gage was left alone in the Berserker lord’s crypt. The Crendaphidian worked hurriedly to finish his task. A hundred Berserkers must have stormed by already, each murmuring about an invasion. There was no doubt that the Viper and his team had been discovered. Xill hoped they had enough time to finish their part.

 

Mnemlath spent the majority of the early morning walking alone along the shore. Too many thoughts clogged his head, a matter he found exceedingly troubling. The war with the fleshlings was progressing rapidly, and soon it would be time for him to make his move. Kargosh was old and weak, growing more so every day, and unfit to lead them into new worlds. A few more days, and all would be in place to overthrow the decrepit ruler.

He was close to the tunnel mouth when the grenade went off. A heavy ring spit into the Hive, confusing and horrible. Mnemlath had no idea what could have made such a commotion, at least not until a handful of shadowy figures dashed into the Hive to disappear in the darkness. They were under attack!

Heedless of the risk involved, the Berserker warrior charged into the tunnel with the hopes of killing. Soon, he found himself stepping over twenty-five bodies and pieces of several more. Burn marks scored the walls, and a handful of spent casings were sprinkled over the engagement area. There was no remorse for the dead. They happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time against a heavily armed foe with the advantage of surprise. But as much as it pained him to know that a mere handful of fleshlings had broken into his home and wiped out a full strength war party, Mnemlath was impressed by their audacity. Smoke drifted up from ion wounds in several bodies, but those were few. The majority of the dead were covered with burn marks. The fleshlings had come prepared.

A ray of hope settled on him, and the Berserker dashed back into the cavern to ready himself. There were few who would dare attack the Berserker Hive outright, and he had a good idea who one of them was. Mnemlath felt giddy at the thought of meeting the Slayer one final time.

 

“How many charges do you have left?” the Viper asked. Another group of Berserkers had just marched by and he was getting worried. Time was getting tight. The whole Hive was waking up and fanning out to search for them. He really didn’t feel like being around when they found out who was responsible.

Snake Eyes rummaged through the sack. “Two more.”

“Hurry up. We don’t have much time.”

Passing seconds went by so fast the Viper was feeling his life end. His dream was slowly unfolding, allowing him to set the stage for his greatest act. He didn’t want to die, but there was no escape from the death dream. His only hope was that the other team was having as much success as he was.

 

Finished with his mission, the Mad Hosking quickly became engrossed with the comings and goings at the palace doors. So many demons and so few rounds, he mused. There was definitely something important going on. Hosking stroked the barrel of his rifle lovingly, soothing it with a cool voice while Nathan put his last charge in place.

“That’s the last one. Let’s get out of here,” Nathan came up and said. Sweat was pouring down his face.

He tossed the empty bag down and unslung his rifle just to be safe. Hosking didn’t move.

“Damn it, come on! We don’t have time for you to sit and stare. We need to leave now if we’re going to make it to the rendezvous.”

“You go,” Hosking warned him. “I have a dream to fulfill.”

This was ridiculous. Time was running out. More and more Berserkers were out and moving, searching for the intruders. Nathan didn’t care how crazy Hosking was; they had to move fast. Reaching out, Nathan grabbed the insane man by the elbow before Hosking realized what was happening, and they ran for their lives. They used the pillars as much as possible to cover their movements, and so far, it was working. Nathan refused to slow down until he was out of breath.

“The charges are all set,” he managed between gasps.

The Viper stepped from behind the other side of the pillar, never once taking his eyes off of the moving Berserkers.

“It may not be quite that easy,” he replied. “Have you seen any of the others?”

“No. They must still be inside.”

Or dead. The thought was most prevalent, but none of them wanted to voice it. Anything was possible, especially with Gage lacking self-confidence. An outburst of rifle fire forced them to duck and prepare to return fire before any of them recognized what was happening. The Mad Hosking was the first to understand.

“Look. The Slayer.”

A battle had erupted on the palace steps between three humans and a host of foes. Two Berserkers were already dead, and another was leaping into the air. An explosion from inside the palace trembled the caverns, bathing the world in a foul green light.

 

Xill took off at a light jog, weapon trained on the path ahead. He collided with a dozing guard shy of the main door, knocking the Berserker to the ground and punching a round through his chest. Dark blood splashed up to stain his trousers. Kane and Emerald pushed past him. The decayed doors kicked open with a groan, revealing the immensity of the Berserker Hive to them for the first time. A score of Berserkers was awaiting them on the broken steps. Kane wasn’t surprised to see an old enemy staring back at him.

Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 42

Our time is winding down on this one and I hope you all have enjoyed the ride thus far. If you have, please hop over to Amazon or Goodreads and drop a quick review for Tomorrow’s Demise: The Extinction Campaign. I would greatly appreciate it. And you can pick up your paperback copy now.

FORTY-TWO

Into the Hive

A score and a half of heavily armed Berserkers marched from the cavern under the watchful gaze of the sentries. Some carried packs laden with obscene instruments alien to the invaders. Snake Eyes and Nathan watched from their hiding spot. Nathan felt an old anger building. His imagination swept in to take momentary control. It didn’t take much to imagine this force heading for the buried portal under Rook Mountain and then Earth. Should that happen…Nathan shook his head, unwilling to think of the consequences if he was right.

“Victory!” called down the winged sentry on the right, gnarled fist raised high.

“To the Quest and the Creator!”

The troop rumbled on, erupting in harsh cheers at their leader’s response. They were eager to get underway. Rook Mountain was still many days travel. Renewed fires kindled in their hearts, for they were confident of their victory. Soon, the Berserker horde was going to be unstoppable.

The Berserker siege machines marched on, unaware of what was developing around them. Kane inched forward as the last warrior disappeared down a tunnel. This was the only shot he was going to have. The Viper had the rest of them ready to break and run as soon as the second shaft was in the air. Fighting his nervous heart, the Slayer took aim and fired. Death was upon the Berserker with a faint whistle, the silver spear striking deep in the monster’s chest. The second shot was fired before the first hit home.

“Run!” bellowed the Viper.

Mortified by the nightmarish scene unfolding, they ran for their lives. A pierced body crashed atop a pile of yellowed bones, blood and gore splashing away. Then the Viper was past the twin pillars marking the Hive’s entrance. Wasting time to hide the bodies was useless. The next war party would discover the missing guards and raise the alarm without fail. One by one, the others shuffled by.

“Where to, wizard?” Kane asked. “We don’t have much time before they figure out what has happened.”

Gage struggled to catch his breath. He was far too old to be running around the world and playing hero. “The main cavern lies down the right. Left are the forbidden tunnels of the old kings.”

“Are you ready?” Kane asked the Viper.

He offered a curt nod, hardly a movement at all.

“Take your team and go. I’ll see you when this is done.”

Nathan found himself thrown into the whirlwind of combat for the second time in as many months. Not only that, but he was forced to leave behind the one thing in all of Helscape that mattered to him. Every bit of him wanted to run to her and hold her one last time. They passed longing looks instead.

“Let’s go, lover boy,” seethed the assassin. Emotions could get them killed if he let it get out of hand. Best to nip it in the bud now. “We don’t have all day.”

Nathan bit his tongue. There’d be time enough to argue with the man at the end.

“We climb. The wizard says that ledge runs all the way into the cavern. Hopefully, we get there the same time the Slayer hit the keep. Now climb.”

The Mad Hosking was quick to pull his way up the twenty meters of broken stone and sand, matched closely by Snake. Both were Imperium-trained rock climbers, an often overlooked skill suddenly quite necessary Snake Eyes only hoped it didn’t get him killed in the process.

 

Dark, winding corridors carried them deeper into the Hive’s bowels. The way was straight and sloping for the first quarter mile before leveling off and coming to an end. Two centuries of dust and grime coated the massive double doors blocking the tunnel. Each was easily the size of a man. They made several attempts at prying the doors open and met with failure each time. Gage bade them move aside so he might try a spell. With no further use for the current situation, Kane and Xill moved back up the tunnel to take up defensive positions.

Standing by Gage’s side, Emerald patiently waited for the doors to open, spewing forth hundreds of soulless monsters.

“Can you do this?” she asked when she noticed a slight delay.

His hand waved her off. “Yes, yes! All I need is a bit more time and for you to stop pestering me. Thank you very much.”

“We don’t have time,” she growled. “And if you make any more noise, we won’t be alive, either. Now be quiet and get these damned doors open.”

Wisdom and power faded, leaving the old man balking at her harsh words. It had been a very long time since the last man had talked to him in such manner. Emerald huffed up the tunnel, leaving him to whatever evils he created. His weathered hands coursed across the aged wood, searching for weaknesses. Wood and rusted metal groaned under pressure. Dust clouds rose to choke the already stale air. One great push, and the seal was broken.

“So far, so good,” he whispered to himself.

Kane was already entering the tunnel.

 

Step after step proved arduous and deceitful. The Viper had never cursed so much in all his life. The ledge was wide enough for a man, if barely, but it was old and decayed. Any mistake and he was going to fall. Thoughts sped by too fast to grasp, so he cautiously reached for the next finger hold. A sudden chorus of foul voices froze him in place.

His first instinct was to stop the others. A noisy pebble striking the ground was sure to get their attention. A more damning thought followed. The Berserkers would be at the guard posts shortly, and the bodies were in the open. Time grew alarmingly shorter. The demon troop was marching closer, so close they could feel the ground shake from terror. The Viper knew that stopping now would only lead them to death. The assassin crept forward.

Ill fortune was awaiting them around the next bend. Time and corrosion had helped erode the shelf, leaving gaping holes in the path before them. Snake Eyes cursed. He guessed they’d gone no more than a mile and had another two to go before they were in the cavern. The gap facing them was over the length of a man. There was no way they were going to be able to jump it. They had to go back down.

Nathan honestly believed Fate was a woman with a fickle attitude. Dim torches lit the walls at normal intervals. Not enough to light the tunnel but plenty to give them away to the next war party to come along. They teetered on the shelf until the Viper decided it was safe to move, and there was no other way around it. One by one, they began the descent. A storm of pebbles escorted them, but the Berserkers cared little for goings on behind them. Worlds were awaiting conquest.

“Looks like we made it out of that one,” the Viper whispered in a panting breath.

Nathan wasn’t so sure this was much better than the shelf. “What now?”

“We run. It’s another two miles to the cavern, and the others should already be deep in the tunnels by now. Time is against us, Mr. Bourne. Cling to the walls, and don’t stop unless we run into more Berserkers. Let’s go.”

More of the Berserker world was revealed to them, and still deeper they went. They picked up a quick jog, reminding Nathan of his days in the military when they’d awake before the crack of dawn and run four or five miles. The Mad Hosking chose to stay in the rear, just as in the desert. Oddly enough, the others found it more comfortable that way.

 

“Which way?” Kane asked.

The tunnel suddenly branched out, leaving them with a half dozen choices. Gage had a nagging in his brain, urging him down the dark path. No doubt Kargosh had laced the old ways with traps and hidden terrors of wizardry. Gage could feel the spell clouding his senses with distress. Quiet voices beckoned him down the wrong paths. Tempted, it was all the wizard could do to stay their might. The battle was long and arduous and went unknown by the others.

Finally, Gage prevailed. The way was shown.

“Down there,” he said confidently.

A faint gleam came from the direction of his finger, but Kane resisted the urge to question. The Slayer tightened his grip on his rifle and plunged forward into the growing light. The intensity became so much they had to shield their eyes. Xill’s mouth fell open when they finally entered the chamber.

“Amazing,” he whispered.

Untold riches covered the floor in massive piles. Gold and jewels mined before the old empire collapsed under the Northern invasion lay next to the crowns of kings long forgotten. This was the last of the old empire’s wealth, covered in dust and forgotten through generations. It had been stashed in this chamber by the last band of resistance right before Aeginion Xurilious had fallen at the gates of his beloved city. The plundering raiders had never discovered it. Kane smiled. The Viper was right after all. The very treasure he’d been so adamant about, and Kane knew the assassin was never going to see it.

“A king’s ransom,” Gage said.

Emerald was smiling. “So it really does exist.”

Slight hints of guilt betrayed Kane against the Viper. He’d coerced the man into joining them and now denied him the possibility of dying in satisfaction. They never liked each other, but the assassin deserved better than what the future had in store.

“Perhaps there’ll be time to live as kings later,” Kane finally said. “The others are counting on us, and I have no intention of failing them. We need to be in position soon.”

Unable to hold out any longer, Emerald gave in to temptation and slid a long string of red pearls inside her shirt. The necklace sent pleasurable chills through her as the soft beads caressed her silky flesh. Soon, there wasn’t going to be any need to think about the welcomed chills. She hurried to follow them through the tunnel at the back of the chamber.

 

Luck was a fancy for half-time gamblers and peddlers, but it was giving the Viper pure hell. Nothing was going his way, and he desperately wanted to shoot something. Yet another war party ambled by, and he was slowly beginning to think they were never going to get inside the cavern.

“There’s not going to be much of an offensive if we keep having to do that,” he cursed once the way was clear.

“That takes care of the need to bring the roof down, then,” Snake Eyes added. “They’ll all be dead in tunnels.”

The two killers enjoyed a quiet laugh, confusing the Mad Hosking. He failed to see the need for humor at a dark time as this. “We need to continue.”

“No shit,” Nathan snapped while wiping the tears from his eyes. He figured that they were all dead anyway, so they might as well enjoy a good laugh. Anything to take his mind off Emerald and her perils.

Five minutes of uninterrupted sprinting brought them within eyesight of the familiar glow of fire. The tunnel steadily widened, making it nearly impossible to keep hidden. Sweat ran down their bodies, and exhaustion was setting in, but they’d finally made it to the doorstep of the Berserker empire. A new dread entered them.

So intent with their own thoughts and revulsion at what lay before them, none noticed the heavy shadows fall in front of them to block the way. Nathan caught on in time to see a Berserker draw his sword. Confidence welled in the Viper. He watched the snarling Berserker drawback to swing and felt those emotions rage through him. He calmly stepped forward, blocking the rushing Berserker, drawing his own blade. The clash of steel rang across the tunnel mouth.

A tremendous roar came from down the tunnel, and a great commotion was raised. The dead guards had been discovered. Snake Eyes turned to face the returning Berserkers. How in the Hells were they going to get out of this one, he wondered.

 

Gage and the others trudged on without knowing the dilemmas assailing Kane. Questions without answer filled his head so much it was hard to concentrate. He couldn’t figure out why the Viper was troubling him so much. Surely, his heart wasn’t so small as to condemn the souls of everyone in the Wastelands for a meager treasure. All Kane could do was pray the Viper held true to his word.

The wizard had demons of his own to vanquish. He alone knew where they were going, and a host of nightmares lay in wait. Somehow, Ganelin D’mala had always known his life was going to end with this one deed of redemption. Oh, Aragin, he sighed internally, if only you never succumbed to the darkness. We could all be home now, enjoying the summer sunrise in the Edula Mountains.

“We are here,” he said with finality. “The old palace lies on the other side. Do what you must to ready yourselves.”

“Is this going to be as hard to open as the others?” Kane asked.

“Not unless the entire horde is expecting us.”

A short spell later, the door groaned open.

Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 41

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FORTY-ONE

Final Recon

Dawn arrived with unusual splendor, even under the presence of the Berserker mountain. Crimson and gold ribbons of light spread through the darkness, adding a touch of royalty to the depressed lands. Clouds lost their gray cocoons, emerging in degrees of sparkling white against the light blue backdrop. The air wasn’t as cool as it had been, and there was no foul stench to pollute their nostrils. It might have been the start to a glorious day had they not been so close to death.

“Red sky at morning,” Nathan idly said.

Emerald looked at him and asked, “What does that mean?”

“Just an old saying back home,” he answered, slightly startled. He hadn’t realized he’d spoken out loud. “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. We’re going to be in for one hell of a day.”

She kissed his cheek ever so softly. “We’ll be fine.”

He wished he could believe her.

Undaunted by circumstances, the tiny band of wizard, aliens and warriors trudged to their objective. Their faces were painted in brown and green, camouflaged and ready for war. Any item capable of giving them away was either taped down or discarded. Gage’s spells wouldn’t work against sound. There wasn’t anything they could do about their rifles humming, not if they wanted to live. Knives were doubled-checked for sharpness, and huge amounts of ammunition filled their pouches and bandoleers. They were as ready as they were going to be.

They left the horses tied to a small rock cluster close to the tunnel mouth just in case they had to flee. Though he’d never considered himself a horseman, Snake Eyes patted the beige mare’s neck one last time before heading towards Gage. The old wizard was already mouthing the incantation, his eyes rolled back into his head. The air around them thickened, pressing in on them from all sides. A single rainbow of colors washed into them, and it was done.

“That’s it?” Snake Eyes asked. He was starting to have serious doubts about Gage’s abilities.

“That’s it.”

Time was wasting. The Viper stepped into the tunnel’s mouth. “We move at five meter intervals. No noise unless the whole damned horde is on top of us. No lights either. Stay behind me, and don’t touch anything. Are you sure the spell is working?”

Gage shrugged. “Only one way to find out, isn’t there?”

“Good enough. Let’s do this.” The assassin looked deep into their eyes one last time, his thoughts returning to the days when he worked alone. They were better than most, except for Hosking, so good, he honestly couldn’t think of anyone better to be with him in the end. He’d had a partner once, but that was long ago. Drawing a deep breath, for it was the last time he’d smell fresh air, the Viper entered the tunnel.

Green-black mold lined the time-smoothed walls in randomly placed blotches, lending a musky smell to the already vile odors assaulting them. Rotting flesh and refuse were in plenty down below. Water was dripping from the ceiling, each drop louder than the last and effective in concealing the group’s movements. Time and harsh conditions polished the stone and sand to a smooth finish. The potential of being one of Helscape’s natural wonders was there, but no one would risk their lives to see it.

Few places were fouler than the entrance tunnel to the Berserker Hive, or so Nathan was thinking. He tightened his grip on his ion rifle and tried to ignore a host of latent fears springing to life. This was the first time he’d ever been in a cave, and he knew why. Insects were crawling along the floor and up the walls, chirping and clicking a crisp symphony. He crushed a large spider beneath his heel and jumped when it screamed out. Lovely, he thought, even the bugs are against us.

Any light the suns put out was well out of reach by now, and they carried on in near total darkness. Only a handful of people would know what had happened if they were never seen again. Shapes slowly took form with definition. Their eyes had grown accustomed to the dark. Jagged rock teeth speared down from the ceiling, reminding Nathan of their encounter with the sand dragon. He’d rather face another of those than the whole Berserker horde.

Pure and total, the dark was the Viper’s preferred environment. His rifle was continually sweeping across the width of the tunnel. Death went through his mind a dozen different forms, and it was all he could do to keep his mind focused on the task at hand. His shoulders were getting sore from the burden on his back. He found himself missing his pet raptor, a true friend. It had been decided that the Hive was no place for the bird, so he’d let it fly free with the knowledge that he’d never see it again.

A cluster of fist-sized bats launched at the sound of approaching footsteps. The irony struck him as odd. An entire month in the desert with minimal life, and here they were, at death’s doorstep, and life was overabundant. He didn’t know how deep they were, only that it was some time before the faint glow of fire came into view. They were almost at the Hive’s entrance. He knew there were guards along with a hundred entrance and exit tunnels burrowed into the walls. Getting past was going to be their biggest challenge.

He left Snake Eyes crouching on point and doubled back up the tunnel. “It’s bottoming out. Another five hundred meters, and we’ll have the guards to deal with. Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

Aradias Kane had spent a lifetime being ready. “We need to scout ahead.”

“Agreed. The last thing we need is a full-blown engagement. Let the others know the plan and come find me. I’ll be waiting about a hundred meters ahead.”

The assassin was gone. Kane forced himself to admit how good the Viper was, but he doubted the man was good enough to keep them alive. Snake Eyes heard the figure rushing past telling him to stay and did as he was told. He wasn’t in much of a hurry to get killed anyway. A few minutes later, Kane came down and pulled him close to keep the noise from echoing.

“We’re going down to recon the area. You’re in charge here. Should anything happen to us, take the others and flee.”

“I can’t do —”

“You don’t have a choice. Run, or you’ll die. Nothing will be able to help us. We’ll be back in a few minutes if all goes well.”

The Slayer left him as fast as a wind through the grass.

Memories of old battles came back to him. Snake Eyes found himself for the thousandth time wondering what was going on. He visualized the way the Berserkers came through the ground when no one was expecting. Suddenly, the tunnel wasn’t safe anymore. They had just as much chance of getting killed here as they did rushing into the Hive. Better men had died for less.

Minor sounds progressively amplified to the point where they felt sure they’d been discovered. Weapons ready and hearts pounding, the assassin and Slayer crept down to the base of the tunnel. Kane shuddered. Even the tunnel felt evil. They may well be under observation already by Berserkers lurking for the kill. Kane closed his eyes to will away the dark thoughts. He needed a clear mind more than anything, for the mind would filter into his deeds. The glow grew brighter.

They kept moving until the harsh sound of Berserker voices could be heard. Barrel first, the Viper eased against the wall and slowly poked his head around the corner. A wrong move now would spell doom for them all. Massive sweat beads formed and began trickling down his face, dripping from the tip of his nose. Relief relaxed him, if only slightly, upon discovering a large boulder blocking him from the sentry’s view. The voices were getting louder, and he still couldn’t see anything. Checking to see if Kane was in covering position, the assassin crept forward.

A stronger stench clung to the rocks, but he fought through it. He gained the relative safety of the boulder without incident. A lesser man would have been afraid, but the Viper already knew his death, and this wasn’t it. The assassin moved closer to the grunts and snarls. He knew he was within killing range of both guards. He took as little time as necessary to scale the rock’s backside to where he had a good vantage point of the guard chamber. His only concern was how well the wizard’s spell was working.

The opening was huge; a hundred paces long and nearly fifty wide. A large opening gaped on the far wall. Massive fires lit the four corners, offering faint warmth to those on duty. Dozens of exit tunnels were burrowed along the main way. Twin pillars served as posts for the sentries, each sculpted long ago in the hideous fashion of grotesque heads staring down on passersby. Getting past those guards was going to be tricky. Having seen what he needed to, the assassin crept back past Kane and up the tunnel. The sound of approaching footsteps was enough for Snake Eyes to aim his rifle and pray. He wasn’t really prepared to die yet.

“Hold your fire. It’s us,” the Viper whispered.

Snake waited until they slipped by to say, “Lucky you said something. You were damned sure dead if not.”

“Gather the others,” the assassin ordered, ignoring Snake’s statement. He took a long drink from his canteen while waiting for them to move down the tunnel. Cool water had never tasted so good.

“This is it,” he whispered to the assembled faces. “The entrance is just around that bend, and there’s no turning back once we hit it. Anybody wants to leave, they’d better do it now.” He was half-impressed when no one moved. “There’s exit tunnels lining the walls by the entrance, so watch out for incoming troops. I didn’t see any activity, but who knows what can happen by the time we get down there. Surprise is still working in our favor.”

“The guards will alert the Hive should we start firing,” Xill expressed his worries.

Kane was already holding his spear gun. “I’ll handle the guards.” His voice was solemn and grave. The moment he’d spent his entire life pining for finally arrived, and, handicapped with only one hand, he’d never felt more lethal. There was death in his eyes.

“We need to be moving once you squeeze off the second spear. Anything can go wrong if we get caught out in the open. It’s a good run to the cavern opening so no tarrying. Run as fast as you can, and keep a good eye out.”

A bad taste filled Emerald’s mouth. “What if we get caught between hunter parties? Not even Gage’s spell will help.”

“Squaffa happens,” the Viper smiled. “This entire trip has been a chance. Some good, some not. Take your pick. You fancy yourself a gambling man, right, Kimel?” A nod. “Ready to risk it all for the pot?”

“Let’s get it over with.”

Another smile graced the assassin’s face, wicked in the faint glow, and he took off back down the tunnel. One by one, the others filed down. Gage stopped halfway down, the old memories tormenting him. He didn’t move until Emerald stopped to check on him. The old man wouldn’t say what was wrong, only that it was a torment he alone was able to deal with.

What seemed like hours later but, in reality, was mere minutes, they gained the boulder and waited while Kane took up firing position. The Slayer let his heavy coat slide off his shoulders and took aim. It was hot in the chamber, and he was starting to sweat. His first target was a heavyset beast more horrid than any he’d seen. The demon stood atop his post with impunity.

Kane almost smiled at his good fortune, for there couldn’t possibly be a better shot. His finger hesitated on the trigger, patiently waiting for the next exhale. A great commotion came from down one of the tunnels, and his finger hastily moved away from the trigger. Kane did his best to slip into the shadows before the war party arrived.

Lessons Learned: An examination of failure and reward

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Admitting we are wrong is never easy, but that is what I am doing today. I spent September 14th at a book festival where almost no one showed up and it marked the first time in my almost decade long career where I failed to sell a single copy. Hell, I didn’t even try. I had a few conversations with people but you know when they are or aren’t going to buy anything. This wasn’t the right crowd- and it wasn’t just me. No one around me sold anything either.

That’s when I came to the realization that I have done everything wrong since firing my publisher almost two years ago. Everything. I thought small, let financial commitments hold me back, and failed to pull the trigger when I should have. Most of my actions resulted in the wrong outcome. This is not to say I haven’t expanded my empire and made sales, but they are nowhere near what they should have been. And it’s my fault alone. Period. No excuses.

Now, I’ve never felt sorry for myself a day in my life and I’ll be damned if I start now. A long career in the Army successfully beat any sense of doubt or lack of confidence out of me. I approach every problem head on and never run from a fight. So I got to talking with the two fellas on either side of me. I picked them for intel for almost 8 hours while we all lamented the futility of the event. There is still the chance for victory in defeat.

I learned what I was doing wrong- without exposing my shortcomings to them. Now, I have an actionable plan and have never been more focused and motivated than I am now. I have super fans from around the world, from Moscow to Korea to Boston (ugh- sorry folks, Yankees fan here) to right here in NC. That doesn’t happen on a fluke. They deserve better. I deserve better.

So, invigorated and ready to fight, I feel like I did the night before the Iraq invasion. Nervous, anxious, and ready to kick ass. I can’t tell you all the things coming, but I will give you a little taste. Right now I am finishing writing the sequel to the Lazarus Men. These books are a little James Bond, little Maltese Falcon, and a little Total Recall- in space. They are about a shady organization that has been run by the same man for centuries with the goal of manipulating governments and armies to get what he wants. Now he’s got his sights set on an interplanetary war. Throw in a treasure hunt and some good old fashioned thriller and we’ve got a book. I have a book with a major publisher, one with an agent, and another in consideration at a smaller publisher. I’ve got comiccons, book signings, library readings, and so much more. On top of that I’m finishing my thesis for UNC Chapel Hill which will eventually become the sequel to my So…You Want to Write a Book?

Sit back, buckle in, and get ready for the war. The opening salvo has just been fired. If you haven’t read any of my books I invite you to check them out now. There is plenty to choose from. If you have, please leave an honest- seriously, honest- review on Goodreads or Amazon. Every one of them counts. Thanks for sharing the ride this far. But like the Carpenters said, we’ve only just begun.

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Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 40

We are getting down to the end of the road. Who live? Who dies? Honestly, I wrote this so long ago I don’t remember!!! Guess you’ll have to keep reading to find out.

FORTY

The Black Pits

“What is that smell?” Snake Eyes asked. His stomach was urging him to vomit. Heavy mists clung to the land, refusing to diminish with the strengthening suns. A foul and strange odor ranged across the ground, seeping from the sickly colored sands. Dread and despair encompassed them, and they faltered. Each doubted their reasons for going on. It wasn’t until Gage reminded them of the quest that their horses would go another step forward. As enchanting as the landscape proved, the wizard’s magic forced them to ride.

“Tar and sulfur.”

Nathan tried shaking the stench form his mind, but the world had other ideas.

“We have reached the outermost edge of the Black Pits,” Gage spoke up. “A fell place lost in legends before the world was old. Many have entered, yet few ever returned.”

“Remind me to add this to the list of vacation spots,” Nathan growled.

Xill smiled. The odors weren’t consuming him like the others. He’d been around the smell of death too long to be bothered with mere sulfur. “Patience is required, my friend. Our travels will soon be over.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

They could make out sharp spires of twisted rock twice the size of a man with sharp edges ready to slice open anyone careless enough to brush against them. Violent eyes peered hungrily at them, disappearing as soon as someone looked their way. Hot tar bubbled and spat from huge pools surrounding them. Nathan wondered just how many had been caught in this maze and seduced by its charms. Nothing he’d experience on Helscape thus far prepared him for the nightmare stretching out before him.

“Focus on the path,” Gage warned. “Mind nothing but the road else you will be ensnared by the evil here.”

They were already too deep into the Black Pits to back out and go around, so the weary band struggled forward. Most of the passages were too small for the wagon to fit through, forcing them to twist and maneuver until they lost all sense of direction. Frustrations were mounting, for the Black Pits were hypnotic and demanding.

The air was a pale yellow, caused by the sulfur in the air as much as the twin suns beating down. Sweat poured from their bodies, drenching their clothes and making life generally uncomfortable. Their stomachs were growling in discontent, but Kane advised against stopping. Missing a meal or two wasn’t going to hurt them. Hour after hour went past, and still there loomed more of the foul blackness. A spatter of tar would strike one of their legs or burn a horse’s foot from time to time, not to kill but enough to let them know the Black Pits were angered by the wizard.

“We’ve been trapped here for hours, and it feels like we’re going in circles!” Snake Eyes fumed. “Is there an end to this?”

“Soon,” Gage said in a calming voice. “The path out of danger will be shown to us soon. We are nearly through.”

“Another day of this, and I’ll lose my mind.”

Hosking laughed, deep and long. “Then you shall not be alone!”

Dusk came and went without much fanfare, save for the strange glow cast off a hybrid moss on the rocks. Kane was finally shone the way around the midnight hour, and he wasted no time in spurring his horse forward to break free of the oppressive death trap. Mist and a dark night concealed the Berserker mountain, but the fresh air poured into their lungs. The weight given off by the Pits was lifted, and a harsh sobriety settled back in place. The Hive was only a day away.

The Viper reined up next to Kane, a stern look etched in place. “We should move on a little while longer to make sure none of those creatures can attack us. Dawn will find us soon enough, but I like not the lay of the land here.”

Kane nodded and rode on.

Dawn showed them the might of the Berserker mountain, and they at once knew fear and awe. Soon, they would be so close the suns would be blocked out, leaving them in a permanent shadow.

“At last we arrive at the doom of your ideas, Aradias,” spat the Viper. “A more fitting end to such misfits will never be seen again, I tell you.”

The assassin dug into a pocket and produced a small silver flask. He popped off the top and raised it to them. “To us all. May the Gods see fit for us to meet an end bathed in glory.”

He drained the contents in one long swallow and cast the empty flask down. Speechless for fear of letting his secret out, Kane offered a sharp nod and motioned them on. Another week was drawing to the end, closing the long road they’d been down. Heated discussions consumed them every time they stopped, for there was little time left to plan and position themselves.

“We’ll be there tomorrow,” Gage solemnly said after stretching out his aching muscles and feeling some blood flowing again. “The shadows of the mountain are more powerful than the Black Pits. I would not be surprised to find many of our foe awaiting us in hidden places.”

“We could really use a map,” the Mad Hosking offered. “I may be mad, but I’m not stupid.”

Everyone stared at the madman in shock. Despite insanity’s best efforts to control him, a small part of the trained Imperium officer continued to break free from time to time.

The Viper laughed. “This entire expedition has been blind from the moment you all decided to sign on. I can help you but so much, for I wasn’t here long the first time. You’d best hope your wizard can be of more assistance.”

“Damn you to darkness, assassin.”

He laughed again. “It’s already been done, young man. I’d watch my tongue if I were you. Don’t take my compliance for nicety.”

“Leave him alone,” Emerald broke in. “You’ve been negative ever since we left Black Tide, and I’m fed up with it.”

“Do we really need another scene?” he asked her. “Nothing was accomplished with your last fit, lady Slayer. Forgive me for being realistic, but I already know my fate. All of you are too blind to realize your own.”

Kane stepped into the middle to separate them. “One may know his ends, but the rest still ride the whirlwind uncertain. Bickering is pointless, especially so near the enemy.”

“I know of secret ways inside,” Gage finally told them. “They won’t even know we have invaded until it’s far too late to do anything about it.”

“How is this, wizard?”

“Memory!”

Each offered a confused stare.

“Memory is the greatest gift a wizard has, just as it is in each of you, though you choose to ignore it from time to time. I have the power to conceal our scents, and I fondly recall the interior of the Hive. Not that much could have changed since my last visit.”

Gage groaned as he took a knee. Ignoring his age and aching bones, Gage started sketching a map of the main caverns in the sand. His motions betrayed no hint of hesitation, giving the illusion he’d recently left there.

“The ceiling is supported by dozens of massive pillars spread throughout the cavern. Here is the main castle, used by the old emperors and now by Kargosh. I will deal with this directly. Nothing you can do will aid me. If we can bring the ceiling down on their heads, you will have your victory. That, I can affirm.”

“You seem to forget, most esteemed wizard, that the Berserkers are tunnelers. Sooner or later, the survivors will dig themselves free,” Snake Eyes commented.

“With no lair to return to and in heavily reduced numbers.”

Kane didn’t like the idea more than the others, but there was no other feasible alternative. “Can you seal them in place? Keep them trapped under the collapse.”

Gage shook his head. “But, as in all matters of assassinations, our best hope lies in secrecy and speed. The majority of their lairs are in the mountainside and vulnerable.”

“So if we can hit them while they’re asleep, we stand a fair shot at pulling this off?” Nathan asked. His doubts and fears were steadily compounding, but the simple feel of Emerald’s hand in his own stole them all away.

She leaned over and kissed his cheek, offering a measure of courage she wasn’t sure she had herself. Together, their hearts beating as one, they were unstoppable.

“Do we have enough demolition to bring down the mountainside?” Xill asked.

“Yes,” the Mad Hosking answered.

“We hit the lair regardless,” Kane said. “If it means killing as many as possible, we hit them where it’ll hurt the most. What about this lake you draw? How much of a hindrance can it be to us?”

“Little to none, though I can’t say I’m surprised you asked. Yes, it is a lake, but one as I recall there is a rumor it is some sort of flammable substance. That’s just rumor, mind you,” Gage answered.

The Viper smiled. “The perfect bomb. Can it be blown, and, if so, who’s going to volunteer to stay behind and do it?”

“I can do that,” beamed the Mad Hosking. “Trust me. Yes, trust me.”

Nathan whispered to Emerald, “Who said we had anything to worry about?”

“He may wind up the lucky one,” she replied.

“No offense, bud, but you’re not the most stable of the group,” the Viper said.

Hosking stared with cold eyes.

“Whatever you decide needs to be finalized now. There is every chance that rumor is unfounded,” Gage said. “I must deal with Kargosh alone. You cannot help me for he has been given the gift of magic.”

“I am so sick of listening to you people mumble on about this destiny bullshit.” Nathan finally couldn’t take anymore. “Personally, I don’t take well to the idea of dying under a billion tons of rock, and I have every intention of coming back out alive. Some of us do have something to live for, after all.”

Snake Eyes clapped his hands. “Right. So the wizard kills the big bad guy, and we bring down the roof on their heads, kill as many as we can, and get the hells out of there. I like it. When do we start?”

 

It wasn’t long before things started going terribly wrong. They were well under the shadows of the mountain when the wagon broke a wheel, snapping the midshaft and almost tipping the whole thing over. Xill’s quick reflexes were the only thing that saved the horses from plunging forward and bringing ruin to the majority of their stores.

Staring at the wagon and knowing it was beyond repair, Kane wondered if the Gods were trying to prevent them from doing his will. There was little choice at the moment. Any delay was going to prove too costly.

“Download the weapons and explosives. Leave the food and everything else we don’t need,” he told them. They were too close to the Hive to waste time tinkering with the wagon. “Carry as much water as you can. We’ll be at the Hive before dawn.”

Hearts beat a little faster. This was it.

A Live Report from the Book Em Book Festival

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Ok, so this event happened yesterday and, to be honest, there was nothing live about it. This used to be the premier event in NC for books (so I was told) with foot traffic between 2 and 5000. Not bad right? I wasn’t in a position to go to this before and this is what I got for waiting:

NOT ONE DAMN SALE.

Never in my 8 years of doing events have I walked away like that. A beaten dog. They put us in a hallway (there’s a first for me) where I couldn’t even sit behind my table. I only saw maybe about 100 people come walking through- from 9:30- 4. The first ones started an hour and a half AFTER the doors opened. That told me everything I needed to know. For the first time ever I didn’t bother pitching to anyone. Didn’t try to make a sale. I know when people skim through who is interested, who is likely, and who is wasting our time. I only had a few real conversations with about 5 people.

Then I discover there was no marketing, no advertising, no hype build up leading up to the event. The main person running the show just up and quit back in Feb without telling anyone, leaving a huge void. The new lady in charge actually told the guy next to me that she ‘wasn’t with it at all today’. That’s leadership in action.

Now I know what some of you are thinking, he’s just bitter because it was a bad day or he didn’t do what he was supposed. Wrong. I smiled like a boss. Was ready to wheel and deal with the flirty charm I bring to all events. Problem was there wasn’t anybody to tackle like that. A bunch of little-little kids, uninterested parents, and friends of the others around me. Oh by the way, not a single one of them sold anything either.

Hands down Book Em was the biggest waste of time I have participated in. Hell, I make over 100$ a month just doing the local farmer’s market once a month. Thankfully I only had to drive 100 miles to get down to Book Em yesterday. For any authors thinking of doing this one- don’t waste your time.

Ah well, lesson learned.

The Return of A New King

Well friends, as some of you know, writing is more than a hobby, it’s a business. Not only am I the current CEO of my small empire, but I have to spend my days making business decisions that, quite frankly, I often feel are out of my depth. That’s never stopped me from jumping in deeper. I don’t run from a fight and I only know one way to approach a problem.

The Forgotten Gods is by far my favorite story to write. Not only does it combine the width of Star Wars with the expansionism of Dune, but it throws in a little horror and a lot of fantasy.  In this regard, I am republishing the first 3 books in the series with a new vendor and hoping that it finally gets the treatment it deserves. New covers, fresh editing, and a story that continues to steamroll on (now into book 5). Preorder your copy of Dreams of Winter today and share with friends. The war is coming. Are you prepared?

https://books2read.com/u/bO6Jv0

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