Well gang. Here we are again. Hopefully you enjoyed Beginnings enough to keep reading.
It had become death. The night sky, once so innocent and pure, cowered behind walls of black smoke. Fires pock-marked the landscape, raging to a tempered song both unholy and enchanting. The ground bubbled and blistered from the searing heat, and the land lay broken. Great tears in the mantle of the world widened with the fury, ripping across the desert into a series of lesions boiling fire and dust. The world had gone mad.
Aradias Kane sat atop his horse watching a scene he’d witnessed far too many times. His black hair danced on the wind. His fists, encased in worn leather gloves, clenched the reins furiously. Pain and hatred collided in his silver eyes. Another village. Another mindless raid by the inhuman Berserkers. Kane was convinced his enemy would not stop until every last human in the Wastelands was dead. His horse bucked impatiently as the ground continued to tremble. Kane pat it gently on the neck as if to say, “Soon.”
He gazed down at the flames and wondered how sand managed to burn so easily. An aged ion rifle slung over his shoulder, overused and faded silver, felt every bit its nine pounds. It was an older weapon, but he could easily fire off a few hundred shots with a full charge. The scene was always the same. People were dying. But no matter how many times this game unfolded, it always brought a tear to his eye. Kane felt helpless. A drop trickled down his weathered cheek as the flames continued to devour.
The clay brick homes of the village helped intensify the heat, baking those who were still alive. Kane smelled the burnt flesh on the winds and struggled to fight back the urge to vomit. He knew this town and many of the inhabitants. Indeed, there were few out here in the Wastes that the Slayers didn’t get to know. Most of the settlements west of the Angril River had either been destroyed or abandoned, leaving the sparse handful that remained easy targets for the Berserkers.
Kane hid in the shadows off the sparse rock clusters and dying cactus. If he made his presence known now, the Berserkers would tear him to pieces. The carnage was recent enough that he knew his hated foe still lurked. Kane’s silver eyes managed to catch fleeting glimpses of the monsters as they moved in and about the fires. His hands were sweating in his gloves, and he got that old feeling he got in the pit of his stomach right before he went into battle. He tied his long, dark hair in a tail behind him to keep it from getting in the way. His body was lean and lightly muscled, his skin a dark copper from years of exposure to Helscape’s twin suns.
Constant exposure to the harsh desert elements had made him appear much older than his years, and his constant battle against the Berserker horde took him beyond the limits of obsession. The Slayer checked his weapons as he prepared for the impending confrontation. His double barrel spear gun was loaded and resting comfortably across the saddle. Knives and daggers filled his saddlebags. He was a tool of war, created to defend and destroy. Setting his binoculars to thermal imaging, Kane took a final look into the dying village.
He counted seven of the monsters — a typical raiding party. Berserkers liked to travel in small packs and strike out of nowhere. The attack here today was the same as they always were. The village, which had stood nearly two hundred years, had been enjoying a quiet dawn with no cause for alarm when the tremors began. They had been taken by complete surprise. The Berserker war party had torn through their defenses with reckless fury. Determined to build a life of hope and prosperity, the people of the village had long ago given up their warring ways, trading their weapons for farm tools in the hopes that the Berserkers would recognize them for what they were and leave them be. The quiet wealth brought by peace was a temporary situation at best; it had done nothing to stop the monsters stalking the sands.
The Berserkers struck in an incredible whirlwind, demonstrating centuries of finely tuned experience and efficiency as well as a terrible thirst for death. A feeble resistance had been raised, though it did no good. Every man, woman, and child had been slaughtered in a bloody mess. Disemboweled. Dismembered. Unseen by the dead, their murderers remained to celebrate their dark victory. It was an unholy thing, the devouring of half-roasted flesh and washing it down with challises filled with blood, but that was the way of the Berserkers. Demons, some called them. Monsters and terrors. Masters of the deep desert, there was no other terror quite like them.
They ran through the flames with wild abandon, howling insanity. Each wore tattered remains of clothing, for they were built much like their human prey. No two were the same. Some had horns and tails while others were made in a broken image of man. They were the perfect killing machines bred for one purpose: destroying human kind. Dark blood stained their bodies and ran from their frothing mouths. Bipedal, the Berserkers were the result of decades of genetic manipulations. No one remembered where they had come from, but the devastation they wrought had changed life in the Wastes forever.
Resting atop a slowly burning home, Mnemlath, the Berserker leader, sat watching his warriors celebrate. They had been the undisputed rulers of the Wastelands for three hundred years, genetically created with the very worst attributes, yet still he could not find it in him to let his guard down. He knew, as did most of the others, that the Slayers were never far off. Be it one or more, they seemed to sense when an attack was made.
Mnemlath was heavily muscled, lean from constant struggle. His face was an amalgam of human and beast. Heavy brows protruded over his smallish eyes. Fangs, some broken, some twisted, crept from the edges of his lips. Finger bones hung from a necklace, trophies from past kills. His chin sat heavily on a gnarled fist, long hair billowing in the wind. Coal black eyes scanned the open dunes, searching for signs of his foe.
A feather drifted down in front of him, landing at his feet. Leisurely reaching down and snatching it away from the flames, the Berserker snarled and looked up. Dozens of carrion eaters had already flocked to the scene in search of a satisfying meal. Argots, huge dragon-like birds that were the scavengers of the desert, roared as they waited for the Berserkers to leave. He scoffed at their boldness and growled a warning. This bloodbath was still his.
One of the larger males dropped from the sky to land just far enough away from the brooding monster. Arching its back, the argot hissed a call with forked tongue, challenging the creature to either fight or flee. The Berserker laughed at its audacity and asked, “Have you ever wondered when you’re about to die?”
The argot burst back into flight before the Berserker could draw his blood-smeared cudgel. Something else had spooked it. The Berserker lifted his nose to the winds, hoping to pick up a scent. He smiled in anticipation. A Slayer was coming. He stood abruptly and shifted his gaze to the lookout placed atop the blackened church spire. A winged Berserker with a long snout and the muscles of a great wolf sniffed the air but found nothing. His wings spread in anxiety. Frustrated, the beast reared back and bellowed a challenge to the empty sands.
Aradias Kane watched the howling demon as its cry bleated out. Challenge had been issued. It was time. This desecration had gone on long enough. Kane turned from the slaughter and calmly made his way down the back slope of the dune. With all the smoke and fire, he still had the element of surprise. Even from here, he could see the fingers of flames going up into the heavens. Kane loosened the front of his sand-colored duster and crept to the edge of the village.
The Slayer slid to the ground and laid his spear gun over the horse’s back. His breathing slowed. Reflex took over. Kane carefully took aim and fired. None of the Berserkers heard the shot or saw the silver flash of steel as it sped through the air. A dull thump followed, and a scream ripped into the morning. The scout fell from his perch, a welded spear of fine silver running him through. A rope of dark blood hung in the air as he fell. Mixed cries of alarm and revenge erupted throughout the shadow spawn. Battle had been renewed.
Mnemlath twirled his cudgel overhead and jumped to the ground. Acting as one, the Berserkers burst through the burning village towards the safety of their tunnels. It was a safe and highly efficient way to travel, especially when they were hunted at every chance. A Berserker attack was always foreshadowed by a quake; the bigger the quake, the larger the attacking body. Now they served as the monsters’ only means of escape. Kane knew this and made his assault.
The first grenade exploded just as Mnemlath recognized the threat. He squared his shoulders and barreled into his closest brother. Both monsters hit the ground and rolled out of the way as the shrapnel screamed overhead. The second grenade struck the side of a ruin, spitting rock and debris for meters around them. The concussion of the blast tore at their ears. Mnemlath groaned his way to a knee and looked for their hunter.
Sharp winds tossing his hair about, the Berserker leader stood against a background of red and black. He found the Slayer rather quickly, considering the amount of smoke and dust flying around. He could think of no better place than this apocalyptic village to do battle. FleXaeng his muscles, he bellowed in challenge. Mnemlath growled, and the others went into action once the Slayer worked his way into a corner. They struck with alarming fury.
Electricity dancing between his horns, a massive shell-covered Berserker rose from the dust and pitched both arms towards the Kane. Dark blood trickled down his flesh. The Berserker ignored the sting of the grenades as a hail of steel flechettes spit from his hands. Kane heard their shrill cry and ducked. The missiles struck the wall behind him a fraction of second later, forcing him to roll left. He came up firing. Kane’s ion rifle shot over five hundred rounds of sizzling, pure energy a second, so fast it looked like a golden stream ripping into their ranks. A huge Berserker twirled a battle hammer overhead, moving faster until it whistled, and then loosed it. The side of the hut Kane was using for cover exploded under the impact, sending both clay and man to the ground. He cried out and rolled, trying to extinguish the flames catching on his duster. Another Berserker drew his blood-stained scimitar and charged.
Rising as fast as he could, Kane knew he had little time for aiming. The Slayer squeezed his trigger. Ion rounds ripped the air. The first burst missed wide right. The second tore into the monster’s stomach after a quick adjustment. Organs and gore splattered outward. The Berserker howled and dropped in a tattered mess. An eerie silence gripped the battleground. The maddened Berserker leader stood a few hundred paces from the weary Slayer. Both stared hard at each other and were surprised to see they were looking into familiar eyes. Almost human eyes. Kane paused as unforeseen doubts emerged. Surviving Berserkers used the distraction to begin dropping into the tunnels.
Mnemlath charged, desperately trying to give his war party time to escape. Kane let his rifle drop and drew a long dagger. Man and monster met in a sickening clash of bone and meat. The Berserker was excessively strong, and Kane was hard pressed to keep his snapping jaws away. Hot saliva dripped onto Kane’s cheek, burning him. The Slayer winced and managed to push a forearm up into Mnemlath’s neck. The Berserker gagged violently and drew his head back. Kane ripped his dagger across the exposed stomach. The wound was superficial, no more than a bloody scratch.
Mnemlath roared and drove his forehead into Kane’s face. Stumbling backwards, he tripped over a dead Berserker. Kane twisted and struggled to get to his feet. Mnemlath was on top of him in an instant, kicking the Slayer in the ribs. The dagger spun uselessly away. Kane spit blood. His vision swam. His body ached. Jets of pain shot through his nervous system. He looked through blurred eyes at the Berserker circling him. Victory shone in his enemy’s eyes. Kane slowly reached into his belt and drew a smaller blade. Mnemlath attacked.
Kane jerked right and drove his blade deep into the Berserker’s chest. Mnemlath screamed in agony and twisted back. His claws raked Kane across the back, ripping clothes and skin. Fate smiled at him, for Kane looked down to see his ion rifle. The Slayer rolled right and felt his fingers clutch the trigger guard. He forced himself up, ignoring the rising agony.
Dazed, the Berserker yanked the blade from his muscles. Dark blood ran freely down his hand and sweat-covered chest. Fortunately, the weapon did not penetrate his lungs. He looked down at the Slayer and froze. The shiny barrel of the ion rifle was pointed at his chest. Kane squeezed the trigger. An empty click replied. He was out of charge.
The Berserker took portent in this and decided to leave. He had had enough. This Slayer was stronger than most, and he was unsure if he could survive single combat. Mnemlath folded his arm across his chest and made an elegant bow, disgustingly similar to human behavior. “Another time, Slayer.”
And then he, too, was gone. Aradias Kane stood over the body of his newest trophy, panting and covered in grime and sweat. He stared down at the tunnel holes. A sense of failure crept into his head despite having killed two of the monsters.
“Count on it,” he whispered.
Emotionally and physically drained, Kane collected his weapons and went to make sure the two Berserkers were dead. The winged one still had some life left in him — not much, but enough to taunt Kane. “War is coming, Slayer. All humans will die,” he said, choking on his own blood right before he passed his last breath.
Aradias pondered the words. He’d heard much the same from every other Berserker he’d killed in his sixty years of action, lending him no cause for concern now. But a nagging feeling lodged in his brain. Something wasn’t right. Unable to do much about it at the moment, he removed his duster and began the hardest task a Slayer had. It would take him almost two full days to dig enough graves for the two hundred plus residents of the village, and when he was done, he’d do the same thing he always did.
Kane pulled deeply from his canteen. His back ached from the exertion. He planted the last makeshift cross on the freshly filled grave and slumped to the ground. The sand was oddly comforting to his tired and sore body. Dawn was breaking across the endless desert sea. Most of the fires in the village had died out. The acrid smell of smoke clung to him, though, refusing to let go as if it were the ghosts of the villagers. A lesser man might have been spooked, but Kane had been a Slayer for a long time. His emotions were all but burned out now.
Satisfied that there was nothing left to do, Aradias Kane stowed his shovel back into his saddle bags and stretched. It was a long ride back to Black Tide.