I realize this doesn’t really much to most of you other than a much needed day off and a bbq with friends. And that is great. Truly. Part of the reason I joined the Army was tradition, and a bigger part (that I learned down the road) was because I had no problem doing those things that the vast majority of the country will never have to. Someone’s got to do it. I never asked for thanks, gratitude or any of that. It was my job and I loved well, most of it.
That being said, it is with a very humble attitude that I thank every man and woman who has ever donned a uniform and picked up a rifle to go halfway around the world because a guy in a suit said so and put their lives and families on hold for endless days to brave the terrors of war.
It is no easy thing, especially when the constant threat of harm is forefront in the mind. The dread of losing friends is always present and continues to haunt us long after the bullets stop flying. Each year at this time I start to see ghosts. Always fond remembrances of those no longer with us. Sharing a laugh in the motorpool. Seeing the medevac fly off in a race against the clock, even going to a complete stranger’s house to inform them that their son had just been killed.
I’ve seen and done things most of you will only see in movies or read in books. For me, the reality of it all continues to form who I am and what I am. I like to think I am a better man for what I’ve done and with that I will close this.
Happy Veteran’s Day to my brothers and sisters and a heartfelt Airborne! to my closest friends. You are what makes America special.
Sorry for the delay, gang. Yesterday was a rough one on all counts. Let’s get back in the saddle and push through to the end. Hooah.
Heroes and Monsters
The shock wave threw them to the cavern floor moments before the front of the palace exploded outward. Hundreds of aroused Berserkers were caught by the blast whose sheer force drove them into the Black Lake under a hail of broken stone and sand. The Viper was the first to regain his feet.
“No more wizard,” the Mad Hosking stated.
The Viper growled. “And we don’t have the time to mourn him, either, soldier boy. There’s a ton of squaffa about to get dumped on us if we don’t get the Hells out of here.”
He pointed to the mass of Berserkers picking themselves up and looking for those responsible. It wasn’t going to take long time find them. Body parts lay scattered for as far as the eye could see. Mournful cries went up from a hundred places, and the Berserkers wanted blood. The horde massed forward to claim revenge. The Viper had no intention of waiting to see what happened next.
“What about the others?” Nathan asked, matching the assassin stride for stride.
“Even if they survived the blast, there’s no way they’re going to escape that horde. Don’t worry about them. We have our own problems to face.”
Incoming rounds from captured rifles began hitting all around them. Snake Eyes thanked the Gods the Berserkers weren’t good marksmen. The assassin ducked behind the nearest pillar to return fire while the others dashed past. Blue flame spit out the barrel, and an acrid smell burned the air. The body count slowly climbed.
This is more like it. He laughed. More monsters fell under his fire, and there was no sign of letting up. He continued his attack until the charge ran dry and he was forced to retreat. He’d forgotten his team in the firefight and found himself searching to see if they were still here. A frown creased his brow when he realized what he was doing.
Xill was in the fight of his life. The Berserker outweighed him twofold and was the meanest creature he’d ever come across. Saliva burned his exposed flesh. The pain was almost too much to bear, but he struggled through it. Fist after fist pummeled down on his chest and head until the Berserker smelled the kill. The monster reared his head back and bellowed.
The opportunity was slim at best, and Xill needed every bit of strength he had left. He brought his forearm crushing into the monster’s throat. Bone and cartilage snapped and broke. Gaining momentum, Xill jammed his knee into his enemy’s stomach and threw him off. He saw Emerald groggily getting to her feet and knew they only had one chance.
“Blow the charges!”
Emerald wasn’t so sure. Every last one of them would be caught in the blast if she did that, and she didn’t particularly feel like dying today. Another monster charged down from the ceiling. She squeezed off a well-aimed burst, and the monster crashed into the palace wall. Dozens more rose to take his place. There seemed little choice in the matter. Emerald had to blow the charges.
The Berserker hit the crumbling steps and quickly rolled to his feet. Both were in sore condition, bleeding with broken bones, yet neither was willing to give up. The Berserker charged again. He went high, focusing his energy towards decapitating the gray man, but Xill was too fast. The soldier dropped low and drove his combat knife up into his opponent’s chest. His body went slack and slipped from the blade. Satisfied with his victory, the Crendaphidian snatched up his rifle and ran to Emerald’s side.
“If we don’t blow them now, we’re dead!”
“I can’t,” she shouted back. “Not until I know the others made it back to the tunnels.” Tears clogged her eyes. She knew she was going to die. The only thing keeping her going were thoughts of Nathan and what might have been. Her death would be worth it if he lived.
“Give me the trigger, and get out of here,” Xill roared above the hissing Berserker’s.
“I’m not leaving you!”
More Berserkers fell dead.
“Get out of here, Emerald!” Kane warned.
Mnemlath laughed. “Yes, sickly puppet, do as the dead man commands. Run to your little friends and die.”
Xill’s eyes turned cold, and his thumb slipped off the safety and dropped the trigger. The first charge went off deep in the palace ruins.
The Mad Hosking was running for his life. The world was crashing down on his head, and there was little he could do but kill more Berserkers. Death wasn’t the problem. Failure was. Huge segments of the ceiling were collapsing, making it perilous to take a step. Hundreds of frantic Berserkers died with each cave in, but the horde was only growing. Soon, he’d have no choice but to stand and face his demons.
He caught the fleeing images of the gray soldier with the redhead and suddenly knew the end. Hosking stopped running and turned to face the horde. The lake’s heated waters lapped against his heels, and he laid down a murdering fire. Berserkers were ripped in half under his aim, and still they came. Ten, fifteen, twenty. The body count was rising. A wicked smile creased his troubled face. He was slowly avenging every friend who had died in the Gorge. Justice was upon the wicked.
The monster of the lake was stirring also. The smell of combat had aroused it. Fresh blood and gore brought its desires surging upwards. The great beast snapped up its prey. Blood trickled from Yonash’s mouth. He felt his bones breaking from the pressure. Hosking glared down at his killer and laughed. A trickle of blood sported his cheek.
“You’ll need…do better than…that…murderer!” he gasped, the life slowly fading from him. He emptied his rifle into the beast and was pulled under before he could reload.
Water and something else spit into the cavern, causing Emerald to stop. She managed to make out Hosking’s body enclosed in the grasp of a great tentacle before he disappeared. His death hit her harder than watching a division of strangers mercilessly slaughtered. She now understood that there was no way out. Xill grabbed her by the elbow and kept running. His middle eye closed in prayer. Perhaps Yonash had finally made his peace with the Gods who’d seen fit to torment him for so long.
Another explosion shook the world. Tremors rippled throughout the cavern, and more of the ceiling rushed down. Time was nearly up.
Blood dripped from his upper lip. Mnemlath hadn’t expected a one-handed man to put up such a fight, but he liked it. All of his warriors were dead, leaving him to deal with the Slayer alone.
“You fight better than I gave you credit for,” he complimented. “Will your death be equally commendable?”
Kane remained quiet, refusing to play the game. He was out of breath and exhausted, but the Berserker wasn’t in much better shape. The two old foes continued to warily circle each other.
“One of us has to die. Make it easy on yourself, Slayer. I promise to kill you quicker that way.” He smiled. “Just like your family.”
Rage swelled within him, but Kane struggled to keep it suppressed. Giving in now would only serve to feed the Berserker’s hatred. He cleared his mind to prepare for the final attack. The Berserker flashed his blade from hand to hand. Its tip was broken off among the rocks, leaving hints of a painful death. Hundreds of screams rose from around the Hive. The castle behind them was utterly ruined. Wizard and explosives had seen to that. Most of it was already collapsing in on itself. The end wasn’t far off.
“Can you hear, demon?”
Mnemlath cocked his head, willing to play along for a spell if only to regain a measure of energy.
“That’s the sound of four hundred long years of oppression being lifted. Your threats are idle.”
Be that as it may, Kane knew he was only going to get one chance at winning his private war. Helscape’s future may be bordering on security, but he was going to die. The rock face behind the monster was threatening to drop, giving Kane an idea. A look of pain crossed his face, and he dropped to his knees. His sword fell from his grasp, leaving him defenseless. Mnemlath laughed and moved in for the kill.
Kane waited until his foe was standing directly over him, sword raised over his head to deliver the final blow, before flinging a handful of dirt and sand in his eyes. The Berserker stumbled and then staggered from the heavy boot hitting his chest. Kane rolled to safety and fired his magazine into the trembling rocks above.
Tons of rocks and dust started to fall on the dazed Berserker. Kane watched until the dust was too great to see. A quick look around told him he was relatively safe, so he waited until the dust settled. The Slayer limped towards the partially concealed broken body but felt no satisfaction. Dark blood escaped the monster through his eyes, ears and nose. The Berserker managed to cock his head and look into the eyes of the man who’d killed him.
“A trick,” he whispered.
The Berserker’s last breath escaped him, and his body spasmed in death. Kane’s battle was finally ended. He dropped down to a knee and poured the remainder of his canteen over his head. A strange part of him was empty, as if a piece of his soul had died with the Berserker. Kane had spent so long hunting Mnemlath that he was lost now. The burning rage and desire of decades was spent upon the sands of the Wastes.
“You were worthy, demon,” he said in salute.
More explosions shook him back to reality. He gathered as many weapons as he could and ran off to join the others almost at the tunnel mouth. A ball of bright flame spewed from the palace doors, as if to signify the end of the Berserker empire. Kargosh was gone, and the horde was in rout. Kane could almost feel happy again. His feelings of joy were short lived, for a monster of horrific magnitude rose from the ranks to quiet the horde and train their efforts on the fleshling enemy still alive. Slowly, the horde began assembling into a great army. They weren’t finished yet.
As always, your comments and reviews are appreciated.
A Long-Awaited Reunion
Ganelin D’mala knew his life was drawing to a close even before Kargosh emerged from the shadows on the far side of the ancient throne room. The Berserker appeared to glide across the dust-crusted marble floors, halting a dozen paces from a man he once knew. There was no emotion in his eyes. No anger, nor hatred. Berserker and wizard both understood what was about to happen.
“Long have I waited for you to return, old man,” Kargosh croaked. His voice danced among the darkness.
Small fires growled and cackled, licking flames upwards.
“Two hundred years has not seemed long enough,” Gage answered.
Kargosh laughed. “Has it been so long? The Creator’s death is still vivid in my mind. He warned me you’d return.”
“Perhaps he knew something none of us could figure out.”
“You should not have come back,” the Berserker warned. “There is no way out of here. Consider it your tomb.”
“Time will tell. You and all those like you have no place in this world. Make your peace with the Creator, for soon you shall be held accountable by his memory.”
This threw Kargosh off guard. “All by yourself? I wouldn’t have guessed you had the heart. Small matter either way. You’ll be cut down before you get this far.”
Only Gage’s heightened senses alerted him to the diving shadow speeding towards him. The gleam of steel blinked off the wavering firelight. Gage still felt the monster’s belly brush against his left arm, but the sword clashed against a broken pillar. The Berserker rolled and circled around the ceiling to strike again. His red devil eyes blared down on the human.
Again, the monster attacked, and again he was beaten back by the wizard’s will. A third pass was made, all with Kargosh patiently awaiting the results. He saw no point in tiring himself on menial battles.
Gage feigned a duck, and the shadow wraith flew into the sharpened tip of his staff. The steel ripped his stomach open, and gravity saw to the rest. Entrails and organs splashed across the floor. The Berserker howled before coming to a crashing stop. He twitched once and lay still.
“Invisible assassins. I see Aragin’s magic was wasted on you,” Gage taunted. He was tired and breathing heavily. The Berserker’s blade had managed to slice open his left arm, but the wound wasn’t as bad as it felt. He whispered a spell, and the wound meshed close.
“I am the last of those sent to redeem this planet. Know this and despair, demon! I am Ganelin D’mala, last of the great wizards of Helscape, and I have come to kill you.”
Kargosh regarded him for a moment. He looked twice the size he had when they’d first met. “I know you, old man. It was I who was sent to fetch you when the Creator lay dying. Do you remember? Yes, you must. Wizards have need of long memory.” He rose to his full height suddenly, his wings spread in horrific glory. “Let this be the epic battle to end all things. Come, wizard. Come and taste the fruits of your death!”
Xill and Emerald wasted no time in raising their rifles, but Kane stepped in front of them before they could fire. Dust and rock fragments drifted down from the doorframe, washing the scene a foul color.
“Slayer! I knew you were coming. The winds told me,” Mnemlath snarled. “No more hiding.”
“I have no reason to hide,” Kane replied.
The Berserker laughed. “Broken man. I took your hand, and you still come after me. You killed my favorite warriors. This is the last time.”
Kane remained rigid, his hand easing down the seam of his trousers towards the hilt of his sword. The Berserkers caught his faint movements and reacted as one. Two leapt into the air, weapons at the ready. Ion rounds blazed the sky in long lines straight into their chests. The salvo propelled them backwards, slamming their dying bodies into the rock face. Xill dashed forward and made sure they were dead. He was about to lean down when another monster crashed into him from behind, knocking them both to the ground. His rifle skidded away.
Both brutes grappled across the ground, raising dust clouds. Emerald tried to get a shot off, but they were too close to each other. Xill was going to have to deal with the Berserker on his own. A fist came flying from her blind side and slammed against the side of her head. She fell to the ground and lay still.
Mnemlath clenched his fist from the force with which he’d hit her and went in for the kill. He stopped as he noticed the slender figure standing beside him.
“Finally,” he hissed. “Now you die.”
They met in a fury of sparks and hatred.
Kargosh’s power drove Gage to his knees. The chamber was in ruins. Statues and old pillars lay scattered across the floor, and the fires were raging harder. Exhaustion and fatigue pestered his body, but there was no giving up. He had to win. Kargosh was in no better condition. He was favoring his right side where Gage’s magic had smashed half his ribs and ruptured organs. His left wing hung limp, on the verge of being severed entirely. It draped across his back down to the floor uselessly.
“Wizard!” he called with a heavy rasp. “There is one piece to this nightmare you do not know. Perhaps my telling you will ease your troubled mind during your passage to the next life.”
Silence was the answer.
“Would it surprise you to learn your dear friend, my creator, was is alive? I stole a piece of his soul before it left him. Can you feel him here? An old friend trying to kill you. So long as I breathe air, he stays alive. Can you imagine how much hatred he’s had in him for the last two hundred years?”
Gage remained quiet, carefully plotting his next move while attempting to ignore the Berserker’s taunting.
“We still preserve the body. Care to see it? One final reunion for old time’s sake.”
Kargosh stepped into the open, his upper lip drawn back in rage. The wizard was before him with his back turned. This was the moment he’d been waiting for. Kargosh cast his spell with as much hatred as his battered body could withstand. Dark lights swirled around the Berserker. Death took form. Kargosh threw his hatred at the wizard. The blackness of filth and disease groaned through the chamber. The air shuddered as pure energy shot through the chamber. Tiny bolts of fire spit from the darkness. The magic crashed into Gage, and his body disappeared. The Berserker moved forward to inspect.
“You’ll need do better than that, puppet.”
It was a trap! The wizard had been an illusion.
“Let us see how well that works on a real man,” Gage spat.
The two stood staring at each other for long moments. Both were haggard and worn beyond their abilities. The end was drawing near for them both. Death and life struggled for possession, but at the same time, neither had any intention of dying today. Both foes started to glow in brilliant colors. Gage felt his eyes roll to the back of his head, his arms outstretched to the sides. Kargosh did the same, and the power collided in the center of the throne room. Magic wrestled for dominance, melting into a terrible ball of pure energy. Small explosions began going off throughout the room, minor sparks triggered by so much power.
Kargosh’s eyes flew open with genuine terror for the first time in his life. Gage’s body was practically dead, swaying lifelessly under the spell. Both wizards collapsed under the weight of the magic turning back in on them. Flesh and bone evaporated. The throne room exploded.
Please remember to swing over to Amazon and leave a review for book one. Much appreciated!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.