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Kane rode down into the Puream Oasis with a weary sigh. Even for an experienced Slayer, the desert was no easy matter. He had ridden east for a few days since the battle and bordered on sheer exhaustion. His eyes never stopped roaming the endless sand dunes. His nerves were a mess, and his body had yet to recover from his fight with the Berserker leader. It was the first time he had ever let the war get so personal. He saw the monster’s eyes leering back at him. The angles of his face. The hatred in his body stance. Kane prayed he would meet the Berserker again.
A cool breeze shuffled the fronds on the ancient palm trees. They offered some small measure of solstice that he found only rarely. He knew the oasis had a deep well and various fruit trees. It was a favorite resting point for Slayers on the hunt. There was a small lean-to, just large enough for two or three men. Kane often enjoyed spending quiet nights here. The silence helped him exorcise his demons. Tonight, there would be great need of it. More dead villagers crowded his conscience. He knew he was barreling towards a breaking point, only he wasn’t sure how to avoid it.
Small black flies swirled around him. Dozens covered his horse’s lathered neck. Scorpions and the occasional sand viper scampered by, off in search of their next meal. Stiff reeds bristled and clacked in the breeze. Scrub grasses waved temptingly to him. Kane finally admitted how tired he truly was. His mind focused on what needed to be done. The horse came first, as always. After that, he would bathe in the pool and try to wash some of the blood out of his clothes. He really needed someone to look at the wounds on his back, but that would have to wait until he reached Black Tide. Tonight was for him alone. He would do what he always did: lie on his back and question the stars.
The smell of cooking meat drifted to him. He frowned.
“Looks like we won’t be alone tonight after all,” he murmured to his horse.
The horse tilted its head back as if in response. Horse and rider continued down into the oasis. Kane noticed the small fire. A brown horse was tethered behind it. A pile of dirty clothes lay atop well-worn saddlebags. Kane dismounted and took up the opposite side of the oasis. He couldn’t tell who it was from the equipment and, truthfully, wasn’t that concerned. He saw to his horse. The first pangs of hunger crawled through his stomach when the wind blew the smoke his way again.
Presently, a large man with a barrel chest and massive arms came strolling up from the water. Naked, he had a towel thrown over one shoulder. Water dripped from heavy curls of black chest hair. His beard hung down past his collarbone, challenging the thick black hair on his head. Scars crisscrossed his chest, and there was a large chunk of flesh missing from his left triceps. That, Kane recognized. Old friends and familiar faces were a rarity in the Wastelands.
“Hello, Prentiss,” he said. “Well, well.”
Prentiss Kolm, forgoing modesty, took the towel and started to dry his hair. Kane began to strip down. The lure of clean water was too strong to resist. Prentiss was fully dressed and sitting before the fire by the time Kane returned. The bigger man was finishing his meal, and Kane was pleased and surprised to find that Prentiss had left some for him. Smiling in gratitude, Kane reached out and took what remained of the desert lizard and a handful of dates. It was a meager meal but more than enough to sustain him until he made it back to town. Besides, they’d shared worse during previous hunts.
“Aradias Kane, I’ve been hearing your name a lot these days.”
Kane shrugged and took a bite. “People talk too much.”
Prentiss smiled. Half of his upper teeth were missing. “That they do. Seen any action?” “Back west a few days. I ran into a war party in Deret.”
Prentiss nodded. “How many did you get?”
“Two, but not until after they slaughtered the village.” Sorrow clung to his words.
The other Slayer shook his head genuinely and stirred the fire. “That is always the case. Do you know what the problem is?”
“There’s too damned many of those things and not enough of us who want to step up and hunt them down. We’ll never beat the Berserkers that way.” He shook his head, suddenly angry with…what he still wasn’t sure.
“People want peace and security. Ours is not an easy life, Prentiss.”
He snorted. “Neither is theirs. How many more villagers have to die because they refuse to stand up and fight? Bah, cowards!”
Cowards? The notion was confusing at best. Could any man who willingly stood up to an ancient enemy determined to kill him actually be considered such? He didn’t think so, the very idea proved mildly disheartening.
“Perhaps we are the true cowards,” Kane offered. The idea that anyone could go on under the constant threat of Berserker attacks almost left him inspired.
Kane rubbed his calloused palms together. “Think about it. We have nothing to tie us down. No responsibilities other than to ourselves. Slayers. We are running from that which we fear. Normal life is nothing but a chain for us, men like you and me.”
“I don’t think I like the sound of that. You make it sound like we are wasting our lives out here,” Prentiss scowled.
Kane’s eyebrow peaked. “Aren’t we? How many of us die without anyone so much as remembering our names?”
“We do what we do for good purpose.”
“I agree, but there has to be more. Don’t you ever dream what it will be like once the Berserkers are finally defeated?”
Prentiss barked a deep laugh that echoed across the oasis. One of the horses jerked at the sound. “You are an idealist, Aradias. These Berserkers have been here for how many hundred years now? Hells, we don’t even know where they come from. They kill a hundred of us for every one of them, and you think there is hope of defeating them?”
“We are nothing without that hope.”
He finished eating in silence, letting the fire steal some of the chill seeping in. Desert nights were notorious for getting cold, and no one ever got used to them. Prentiss picked a mangled piece of meat from between his teeth and flicked it into the fire. The sizzle reminded Kane of the burning bodies in Deret.
Prentiss gave Kane an appraising look. “Suppose this victory happens. What then? Where do we go from here?”
Kane didn’t know. He hadn’t let his dreams extend so far. The unrealistic possibility might easily condemn him should he let it grow too strong. “We start over,” he offered.
“Not good enough,” Prentiss countered. “The Wastes have been like this so long no one knows what it was like before.”
“Legends say there was a mighty empire out here before them. You and I have both seen the ruins here and there.”
“That was a long time ago, Aradias. Any empire that might have been is lost to the sand and the Berserkers.” He snatched a handful of sand and let it trickle between his fingers. “Damned desert. Why did anyone come out here in the first place?”
“Who can say? Freedom is a powerful lure.”
“If you call this freedom. How many Berserkers have you killed?” Kane didn’t bother to think. “I stopped counting.”
Prentiss nodded curtly, silently agreeing. “There are rumors coming from down south.” Kane looked up. “What kind of rumors?”
“Folks are saying that the Imperium might be sending in more troops to help us fight the Berserkers. Could be a big turn, maybe the one you’ve been dreaming about.”
The Imperium. Contested rulers of the universe. The armored soldiers had been on Helscape for years now and had had little if any impact on the Berserker problem. Kane doubted the Imperium took the problem seriously. He doubted he would either if their positions were reversed; Helscape was a nowhere world. The only true value lay in its proximity to the outer hyperspace lanes.
“I don’t know,” Kane answered. “It all seems too convenient. Why now?”
Prentiss snorted a laugh and produced a worn flask. “You ask too many questions.”
He pulled deeply from the flask, his face twisting disgustedly. Prentiss held the flask out for Kane.
“I don’t think so.”
“What’s the matter? Big tough Slayer like you afraid of a little homemade whiskey?” Kane knew he couldn’t avoid the challenge and reached for the flask. He winced as he felt his shoulder wounds split open.
“Stuff burns from the mouth down to your ass, but it keeps you warm in the middle of the night. I got it from a farmer down around Minion,” Prentiss explained, silently taking note of Kane’s pain.
Kane drank deep, though not as deeply as Prentiss, and instantly regretted it. He coughed and sputtered. The liquor burned on the fire. Prentiss laughed again.
“This is the worst stuff I have ever tasted,” Kane managed through watery eyes.
“Ha! Makes you a man,” Prentiss said as he took the flask back and pounded another drink. “Although what kind of man remains to be seen.”
“You should get your money back.”
The larger Slayer placed the lid back on the flask and motioned at Kane. “That’s a nasty wound you have on your back. Berserker?”
“Yes. He got me after I stabbed him in the chest.” “Damn,” Prentiss exclaimed quietly. “Kill him?”
Kane shook his head. “No, I only made him mad. But the bastard will remember me for a while, I think.”
A nod. “Let me take a look at it. I have a med kit in my bags.”
Reluctantly Kane complied. He wasn’t the sort to trust others easily. Still, it was a few days ride to Black Tide, and the risk of infection was too great to chance. He stripped off his shirt and let Prentiss examine the wounds.
“You got lucky. These are mostly superficial. Let me get my needles.”
Kane jerked sharply as Prentiss doused the wound with his foul whiskey. He cursed at the sound of Prentiss chuckling. A little cutting made him wince again. Warm blood trickled down his back. Kane clenched his body as the needle pierced and cut time after time. It definitely hurt worse than when it had actually happened. Sweat dripped off his brow. He fought the urge to black out. Finally it was done. Prentiss washed his equipment off and repacked the kit, leaving Kane to dress. They tossed the bloody bandages into the fire and covered the blood spots with fresh sand lest the aroma attract unwanted attention in the middle of the night.
“That should keep you until you get into town, but I’d see a doc if I were you. I did my best, but I’m no professional.”
Prentiss waved him off. “Don’t mention it. Besides, this is the only thing that keeps us human. I’m going to get some sleep now.”
The big man unrolled his sleeping mat and lay down. His rifle, newer and double-barreled, rested in front of him, and a long curved blade was within reaching distance. He yawned once and closed his eyes. Kane envied him. Sleep was almost as much of an enemy as the Berserkers. He shrugged the thought off and stirred the fire. The pain in his shoulder was now a dull ache and would keep him up for a while yet. The night grew deeper around them.
Kane finally fell asleep but got little rest. He twisted and turned, dark visions haunting him. A door splintered open. A young child cried out. The flash of a blade. Blood. Kane jerked awake. He groaned and wiped his eyes. Every night was the same thing. Nothing he tried came close to forcing the memories out. It was a torment he had come to live with. Looking around, he saw that the fire had burned low, and Prentiss was gone. The big Slayer must have gotten up in the middle of the night and headed out. Kane dismissed it. Men like them seldom consulted others and went about their business with grim resolve.
Kane added the last bit of wood to the fire and rose. After a partial stretch, mindful not to tear the stitches, and a quick piss, he returned and tried to get warm. Dawn was still a few hours off, and he knew sleep would remain elusive. The Slayer welcomed another day in the Wastelands.