As always, if you enjoy what you have read, please go to Amazon and leave a review. Much appreciation for you all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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?
Howling winds swirled across the dead town. Shadows turned into demons breathing brevity and a bitterness toward life. Night was black. The light of a single star hung from the sky, offering no assistance to the scared man creeping through the ruins. Despite a grievance with the world, all was exactly the way he wanted it to be. Sunlight would only give him away, and, though infrared sensors would easily be able to pick him up, it was going to take more than that to catch Smythe Menzel.
He’d returned to Helgscroft with the hopes of finding it void of Berserkers and thinking the Imperium would never dream to look for him in the west. A public execution was awaiting him upon capture. The degree of his crimes was such that justice demanded no less. He could only hope his distractions back at Fort Evans were sufficient enough to keep them off his trail long enough for his plan to work.
That dream had died as soon as he’d arrived. His ship had already been blown apart and all of his bodyguards but one killed in the first hour of being in the ancient city. Now, alone and without hope, Smythe Menzel hid in the shadows and prayed his stalkers thought him already dead. It was the only way he was going to escape.
Menzel uncapped his canteen and took a long pull. The brick wall behind him exploded outward as he went to stretch. His remaining guard turned to push him out of the way and was shredded by ion fire. Blood and mist sprayed the shaken Menzel. He ducked and frantically searched for a place to hide.
“Did you hit him?” asked Kreegin Faul into his headset. He knew for certain the first guard had been slain by his fire, but the haze prevented him from seeing what happened next.
“I’m not sure,” came the steady reply from Kelg. “Looks like ‘e went into t’at building for cover.”
“Menzel’s the only one left. How about we sweep down and bring in Kelg?”
“Okay. I’ll go left, you go right, and we’ll pinch him in the middle.”
Leggis Fint had to smile. He’d been waiting for a long time to get revenge on the weasel of a man, and they were so close he smelled the blood. Day after day of Kreegin’s constant complaining over the little things was wearing thin. He knew it was a mistake to secretly deal with so many of the Imperium’s top officials, but the money had been too good to pass up.
Money. That was the reason they were in this mess in the first place. If he’d been thinking with his brain instead of his purse, he never would have flown to Neen last year. An entire year of his life was wasted, lost on this desert world. Menzel was going to die very slowly.
All three of them were moving, converging on Menzel’s hiding place. Fint had a good idea how many more were waiting on the shuttle, but they were of little concern, being so far removed from the action. A well-placed thermal charge would easily solve that problem. All they had to do was capture Menzel alive.
He was beginning to feel almost giddy with excitement. Closure for this sad chapter in his life was very near. They’d been on Helscape for far too long and it didn’t look like any form of payment was in their near future. All that effort wasted.
An explosion at the far end of town sent metal shards and shrapnel scattering into the ruins. Ancient rock and mortar crumbled under the assault, and the streets filled with great clouds of smoke and dust. The ground trembled, throwing Fint and his team down.
“What the Hells was that?” Kreegin growled.
Leggis Fint’s eyes narrowed. “A diversion. He knows he’s a dead man.”
The firing had stopped. Smythe Menzel sat trapped in the corner of an old store waiting for death. He had to get back to a ship. His diversion wouldn’t fool the mercenaries for long. They stalked him as relentlessly as Lady Death himself. If he could just find his murderers’ ship, he stood a chance of getting away. Any way he looked at it, it was his only chance of escape. As much as anything, Menzel was no fool. He knew his chances were slim.
Quiet as a thief in the night, they crept through the darkness, searching for the latch on the back door. Menzel fought the urge to break through the rotted material, and it was a good thing he won. He had no way of knowing it, but Fint’s team was almost in perfect position to surround them. The door groaned open, half of it falling apart.
He cautiously poked his head out to scan the general area before taking the first step from hiding. Everything looked clear, and he wasn’t about to second-guess himself. It was only another hundred meters to the edge of town and where he thought the shuttle was. Menzel sighed, a glimmer of hope in his eyes. He just might make it!
Kreegin Faul dropped to a knee, panting from exertion. Dust speckled his white hair, and he was angry. The warehouse they’d searched had been empty.
“I almost got that bastard, but he ducked away. What do we want to do now?” he asked Fint.
The Idorian mercenary was busy brushing some of the dust from his tan jacket, hoping his smooth green skin wasn’t too affected. “We wait for Kelg.”
“Have you ever once sat back and enjoyed the moment?” Fint asked with a raised eyebrow. “You have too much stress built up. I think you need a vacation.”
Kreegin growled. “What the Hells are you talking about? We need to find him and kill him before the other group does.”
“I hardly think there’s a group out there. Relax will you? You’re almost making me nervous.”
He was laughing by the time Ardn Kelg came stalking out of the darkness. The leopard man had a smile.
“I got one of t’em. Not sure if it was Menzel, but only one is left.”
Faul passed him a hardened look. “We already knew that, genius.”
Fint’s smile widened. “You see, Kreegin. This is getting easier. We go back to the shuttle and wait for dawn. I’m fairly certain that was Menzel’s shuttle exploding, so we needn’t worry about him getting away.”
They marched out in single file, Fint in the lead. He had never been so glad to talk to a local before, and a part of him wondered what the Viper and his friends were doing.
The night was the coldest Smythe Menzel could recall. Hungry and alone, Menzel was fighting for his life. Desperation drove him on, though he knew there was little chance of escape. His hunters were simply too diverse. He was still confused about the exact number of men searching for him, but there was enough evidence that more than one group was in Helgscroft.
His most trusted troopers and friends were all dead; some in the old ruins and others back in Minion. There was nothing left connecting him to the conspiracy shocking the Imperium. The only thing left was the formality of killing him. Menzel was raised by strong parents, and he had no intentions of giving up. Armed with a blaster only partly charged, he crept from shadow to ruin in the hopes of making it just a little further.
All of the dreams and aspirations he’d meticulously pieced together over the course of five long years were shattered. He was broken and forgotten. Once he was dead, it would be as if he’d never been. Smythe Menzel had no motivation left. The will to continue his quest was ebbing away, leaving him a shadow of the man he used to be.
Dark thoughts crept into his mind. He still had a gun and enough ammo to finish what needed to be done. The last thing he wanted was to be taken alive by those murdering bastards out in the ruins. It became very clear to him what he needed to do. He suddenly found himself laughing uncontrollably. His laughs turned to mournful sobs, worsening until tears streamed down his cheeks. Alone and broken, Smythe Menzel slowly moved blaster to his temple.
“How much longer do you plan on keeping us here?” Kreegin asked. He was tired and growing increasingly bored.
“Until I see his damned body,” Fint replied.
“He’s alone. His ship’s destroyed, and we’re a good three days from civilization. We are wasting our time here, and you know it.”
“W’at’s your ‘urry?” Ardn Kelg asked.
“Maybe because we’re not getting paid anymore? Oh, and did I mention that I’m fed up with the damned desert? This place is murder to my skin.”
“You do look a lot older, you know.” Fint smiled.
“Funny,” the mercenary snorted. “Now can we just find this bastard and move on to a better job?”
“Preferably a world with endless beac’es and ‘alf naked women,” Ardn agreed.
“Don’t forget the exotic drinks,” Fint added.
It was all Kreegin could do to contain his anger. He was about to snap off another rude comment when the shot rang throughout the ruined city. All three mercenaries went for their weapons and prepared for the worst.
“I suppose that’s that,” Fint admitted after feeling for a pulse on the dead body.
The small issue hand gun lay clutched in Menzel’s hand.
“Waste of a whole year, if you ask me,” Kreegin complained. As far as he was concerned, it couldn’t have happened to a better man. “Can we go home now?”
Fint stood up. “I think it’s about time. Menzel’s dead, and our job is finished. There has to be a better paycheck waiting for us somewhere.”
“This time, I get to pick the job,” Kreegin said as the three walked back to their shuttle. Soon, Helscape was going to be a bad memory.
General Gulluette paced. It was all he could do. All communications with his co-conspirators in the Berserker mission were either missing or already jailed. His network of spies, once vast and competent, was reduced to hiding in shadows in the hopes of staying alive. All he had dreamed of achieving was lost.
The realization that he had failed was sobering. Gulluette considered leaving. Taking what he could and finding a quiet planet out of the way where no one would think to look. Considered and rejected. He was a general in the Imperium. Only cowards ran in shame.
What he’d attempted to do might not have been sanctioned or orthodox, but it was, in his modest opinion, what was best for the Imperium. They needed the Berserkers to throw against the rising tide of the Xempsarillian forces. He’d concocted the perfect scheme and found a willing dupe who thought he was marching to glory. Glory. Gulluette snorted. Fools sought glory and found it at the end of a gun.
Now it was all gone. His dreams of salvaging the Imperium and rising to the rank of Grand Marshal were crashed upon the shores of broken hopes. His war was over. Gulluette knew they were coming for him. It was only a matter of time. All of his fellow co-conspirators were either dead or in custody. Word of Biyo Ibroo’s betrayal reached him some time ago. The end was sealed in that moment. Gulluette had no fight left. He’d already sent away his staff, choosing to wait out his final moments alone. After all, they’d done nothing wrong. Not even Vitor could punish them for that.
Vitor. Gulluette thought of the Grand Marshal and snarled. Younger, brighter, the current Grand Marshal was cleaving through the conspiracy with heartless efficiency. Oh yes, Gulluette admitted, he was coming. Spies confirmed as much. Gulluette was almost out of time.
He paused his ceaseless movements to stare out the bay window taking up nearly an entire wall of his main office. The sprawling military base and port bustled with activity. Rumor had it a new offensive was being planned to throw back the Xemps. He wished to have been in on the planning and perhaps the invasion itself but fate wasn’t so kind. His part in the long running war was ended.
Brutal knocking on his outer doors struck like the cold hands of midnight. His heart skipped. Anticipation was a most cruel thing.
“General Gulluette, open the doors immediately! This is military police.”
Gulluette looked down at the blaster resting ominously on his desk. How easy would it be to fire first and make them kill him? No doubt their blood would already be hot from previous captures. The irony of it. Eventually he deemed it wasn’t worth giving them the satisfaction. He was a senior general of the Imperium and would be treated as such until the very end.
After long moments the knocking ended. His massive hands clenched reflexively. The doors burst open and in rushed a dozen armed and armored soldiers. At their back strode a very confident Grand Marshal Vitor. His grin was vicious.
“Vitor, I make no excuses for my actions,” Gulluette announced boldly. “I serve the Imperium.”
Vitor watched his subordinate accept the heavy manacles. “Paedian, you stopped serving the Imperium the moment you decided to go against everything we stand for. You, old friend, have become the very threat you sought to prevent. There’ll be a short rope and a long drop in your future. Take him away.”
Shoved and prodded, Gulluette walked stiffly and with head up to his doom.
The Deep Desert
Days passed slower than any thought possible. Nights were imposing now that the quest had marched well beyond the borders of civilization. The attack by the sand dragon was also in the past. A pointless experience that shouldn’t have happened. Enough of Kane’s party, as they secretly began to call each other when they thought he wasn’t listening, were veterans of the Wastes and knew what signs to look for. Each had failed and now Klaa was dead.
A small loss in the grand scheme of their quest.
Gage threatened to become despondent, his loss so egregious it rendered him senseless. They’d been together for so long he couldn’t remember a time without the Kordite. No better assistant could he have asked for during his exile. Late at night when he thought the others were fast asleep the wizard stalked out beyond the edge of camp and wept quietly.
Emerald found him there, wrapped up in his robes atop a lonely dune. Without a word she sat down beside him, drawing her knees up and wrapping her arms around them. Night lizards scampered in the distance. Their clawed feet kicking up small puffs of sand in passing.
“I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before,” she ventured.
Gage used the heels of his palms to clear his eyes. Red rimmed and burning, he struggled to keep them open. “What?”
“The stars,” she said.
He joined her in looking up. The orange glow from Furnace Island was gone, a fading memory. Instead of lights the night sky was impossibly dark. Thousands of stars pinpricked the eternal veil.
“I haven’t looked upon them in a very long time,” he admitted.
She offered an almost child-like grin. “It almost makes me think there can be a better world.”
“But there is.” Gage seemed surprised. He’d been trapped here on Helscape for so long he often forgot how most of the indigenous population had never been off world. The notion was somehow unsettling. “An entire civilization comprised of hundreds of planets.”
“Are they all like here?” she asked.
He shook his head. The scruffs of his beard brushed against his robes, reminding her of sandpaper. “No, my dear. Very few are as desolate as Helscape. Most are filled with jungles and oceans. Entire worlds filled with crystal blue water.”
“I can’t even imagine.”
“Perhaps one day you will have the opportunity to see some of them. It is the least you deserve after enduring the mess I helped create.”
Any joy she once had bled away to sorrow. Whatever gods guided their fates seemed intent on ruining his self-esteem even while propelling him closer to an inevitable confrontation with the machinations of his past. Emerald felt…what exactly did she feel? Not remorse. Nor guilt.
“How are you responsible? You told us it was your colleague who went mad and created the Berserkers,” she demanded.
“He did, yet I had a role to play in all of it. If only I had been a little stronger, Aragin might have been stopped before his genetic experiments took off,” he lamented.
“What if scenarios never made much sense to me. Actions happen and we must live with our decisions,” Emerald said. “That’s all there is to life. Nothing more.”
He almost smiled, but the action was still too delicate to endure. “I’ve quite forgotten how youth has a special insight to wisdom. My generation should know better. Thank you, Emerald.”
A tender hand slithered over to rest atop his. “I know that Klaa’s death haunts you. If you should ever need it, I am here to listen.”
His face returned to that strange combination of sorrow and dour. “Thank you, but not now. My heart cannot bear the hurt.”
“I understand,” she said.
Emerald offered a quick squeeze of reassurance and returned to the camp, leaving the ancient wizard feeling oddly refreshed and no small part satisfied for the time since battling the dragon.
The Mad Hosking never felt more alive. Leagues of open desert with very few living creatures in sight left him feeling liberated from the false constructs of modern society. He’d only been a mediocre officer and, quite honestly, was surprised that any of his platoon managed to survive the ambush in the Gorge. Not that he’d done anything to help them live. He’d abandoned his soldiers the moment the battle began in earnest. Some might label that cowardice. He preferred to think of it as initiative. Only through wading into the slaughter was he able to transcend his mortal shackles and become what he was now. A killer. A victim. A hero. Hero?
Hosking never considered the hero aspect to what this quest proposed. He wasn’t a hero. Heroes were fools who gave up their lives in the vain pursuit of glory. No, Hosking wanted so much more than glory. He wanted infamy.
Each day he was forced to listen to the others wallow in their self-righteous misery. All the way complaining on how hard their lives were and what they’d do once this nightmare ended. Only he knew a secret. None of them were going to make it back. They were all going to die in the ruination of the Berserker hive.
The fools. Preening about with the audacity to think themselves above the laws of survival. Let them pretend. Once we enter the hive, all of their ambitions will come crashing down upon their heads. Only then, in those final moments before demise will they realize the truth. We were always meant to die.
“What are you saying?”
Hosking jerked at the sound. “Eh? What do you mean?”
Kane stood but a few feet away, arms folded in an openly aggressive manner. “Who is meant to die?”
“I didn’t say anything! You lie. Putting words in my mouth so the others will think me…me…insane! Ha! Think I don’t know? I watch everything. Listen to the sounds of desert mice scampering over boots.”
“We ought to just kill him and leave his body for the argots,” the Viper chimed in from beside the fire.
Kane cast him a withering glare. “I don’t believe he was spared by the gods only to be murdered by your hands, assassin.”
“Have it your way, Slayer.”
Satisfied, Kane returned to Hosking. “You know something don’t you?”
Wild laughter was his reply.
Undeterred, Kane knelt in front of the broken man. Sharp eyes searched Hosking for any sign that he was privilege to something they were missing. Something vital to the success of their quest. The others thought him stark raving mad but Kane held on to his doubts. Hosking was mentally fractured but not the total loss the others believed. There was an enigmatic mystery surrounding the man. One Kane needed to get to the bottom of before they reached the hive.
“Forget the others,” he cautioned before Hosking could protest. “All that matters here, now is you and me. Hosking, Lieutenant, I need to know what I’m getting into. The situation is almost within our grasp. Please, tell me what I need to know.”
Hosking stopped laughing, his face hardening as his mind played over random scenarios. That Kane was tricking him foremost in his eyes. His upper lip curled. Hosking waggled a finger, almost playfully. “Ha…haha! Secrets. Yes, we all have them. The truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.”
He paused, only continuing when Kane didn’t bite. “This quest, your little adventure, is the prelude to a greater cosmic act. You, me, we are all going to find our destinies beneath the sands. Death is almost upon us.”
“Death for whom?” Kane asked.
“All of us.”
The flat answer surprised Kane, rocking him back on his heels. “That doesn’t imply failure.”
“Doesn’t it? Does it really matter? Live or die, the Berserker reign is coming to an end. Down there, deep underground, we are all going to die. But shhhh. Keep that between us until there is no choice.”
Hosking turned his back, ending the conversation. Confused, Kane could only stare away into the night. We’re all going to die. Not if I can help it.
“Hey, you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Xill’s third eye blinked rapidly. “I wasn’t thinking anything in particular. Maybe that it gets too cold for me at night.”
“What? No dummy. I wasn’t thinking about the weather,” Snake Eyes fussed. “Did you hear that bit between Kane and Hosking?”
“And?” Snake Eyes asked.
Xill shrugged, unsure what he was expected to say. “We already know they are both mad.”
“Mad is an understatement.”
Xill questioned, “Why are we with them if this is all bound to end in doom? I would like to go home again.”
Snake Eyes paused. It had been so long since he last visited his home world he couldn’t remember. Faces, places, and names escaped him. So dominant was the Helscape experience he had forgotten nearly all else. Sad, when he stopped to think on it.
“Home,” he echoed.
Xill nodded. “Home.”
“I think I want to go home too.”
A pack of zoranths howled in the unseen distance as they picked up the scent of fresh blood. The lizard-beasts charged towards the sight of the kill as hunger took control. Life in the Wastelands continued on pace, regardless of the wishes or desires of a handful of brave fools marching intently towards the end of the world.
Don’t forget to pick up your copy of book one: Tomorrow’s Demise: The Extinction Campaign today!