The crimson red of Helscape’s twin suns were just beginning to turn the morning sky by the time Aradias Kane crested the last dune and looked down upon the town of Black Tide. He’d been riding through the Wastes four straight days and nights. Kane took a moment to admire the breaking dawn. Shafts of golden orange and red burrowed through the last vestiges of night.
Dark clouds were being shoved aside by the morning breeze, allowing him to make out the lowermost crags of the gorge off in the distance. Kane frowned as he compared the changing light to blood running down the mountainsides.
Even after four days in the Wastes, he couldn’t bring himself to smile on civilization. Black Tide was far from hospitable. A grimace souring his face, the Slayer stopped at the edge of town and collected his thoughts. Already covered with sweat, he could tell it was going to be hotter than usual today. That wasn’t a problem, though. The real problem lay in the town itself. Mercenaries and bounty men aching for a payday had taken this one-road town in the northern part of the Wastes through the years and turned it into a seedy place. Some used it to hide from the law, and others turned it to their advantage. Either way, Aradias detested the place.
Species from a hundred different worlds roamed the decayed streets. Most were the descendants of mercenaries and professional soldiers who’d come to fight the Berserker threat all those years ago when the wizards first meddled. For one reason or another, the survivors stayed here and continued the fight. The wizards were long gone, victims of their own arrogance. Kane seldom paid attention to the different species anymore. He’d seen more in his lifetime than he ever wanted. Out here, it didn’t matter if your skin was green or covered with fur, if one was reptilian or human. Death cared not. In the end, it was the Berserkers who decided who lived or died.
Dilapidated buildings and mock shelters comprised the outer ring of settlements. A foul odor perpetually choked the air. A miasma of depression kept Black Tide from ever achieving the first settlers’ dreams or aspirations. Most of the current population was comprised of refugees from ruined villages who struggled to survive while offering their services to the lowest bidder. Jobs were hard to come by, and unless one had a valuable trade, there was little room in the scheme of life. The sole purpose for most of the people was to collect enough money to make it back east, across the Angril River where the threat of Berserkers was an unpleasant dream.
Kane looked down into the vacant stares of passersby and, for a moment only, felt the sorrow in their lives. Two saurian mercenaries dressed in flight suits leaned against the side of a building and watched him through slit eyes, their forked tongues gently flickering. A yellow-skinned Itholian in rags crouched on his four legs near them, clearly wallowing in self-pity. Kane brushed off the flicker of memory reminding him that he had been this low at one point in his life with no family and no hope, only his hatred to keep him warm through the cold, dark nights of his personal lament. Another had rescued him from this bitterness and bestowed a purpose upon him. Aradias Kane wouldn’t rest until every last Berserker was dead.
The Slayer wove through the crowds to the ramshackle hospital servicing the town. Most folks gave him a wide berth. There was no mistaking a Slayer. He was the type of man that the majority of them secretly wanted to be but were too smart to try. Kane forced a smile. He sometimes wished that he had been given a different life. Such trivial distractions were pleasant, but a waste of time. Aradias Kane was a Slayer and no more. He ignored them and dismounted.
The doctor was just as pleasant as Prentiss had been, but more thorough and hopefully more effective. Kane passed on the pain medicine, thanked the man and went about his business. He decided to walk, unfettering his horse and leading the way to the largest hotel in Black Tide. Kane gave the horse a hearty, reassuring slap on the flank. They’d been here a hundred times. The horse responded with a snort. Never a smile crossed Kane’s face as he tethered his jet black mount. He enjoyed the stays here even less than the horse. His footsteps echoed heavily as he went up the handful of steps and crossed the ancient wooden porch of the hotel.
Kane pushed the door open, and the rusted hinges groaned. A heavy scent of perfume hit him, and he turned his head to the stairs where a half-naked girl of no more than twenty stood patiently waiting for her next customer. She leaned over the rail enough to give him a clear view of her small cleavage and, with a wicked grin of innocence, blew him a kiss. Kane tried to smile back as she curled the ends of her long, strawberry blonde hair. The temptation was certainly there. She smelled of freshness he’d long forgotten. Unfortunately, that was not the reason for his visit.
There had been a time, back in the days of his youth, when there would have been no hesitation in running up to her youthful embrace. But those days were behind him and surprisingly no longer important to him. She would have to wait for another. The owner of the hotel stepped out from the back room at the sound of the bell with a trusting smile on his face. His relief was evident upon seeing the Slayer. There weren’t too many around who didn’t know of the legendary Aradias Kane in one way or another.
“Don’t mind that one, my friend. She’s new,” he said with a smile.
Kane watched the squat man. He was overweight and middle aged and had thin strands of hair badly combed over his balding head. Kane knew the man wasn’t the most upstanding citizen in Black Tide, but that fact meant nothing in a town with no official law.
“A room,” was all Kane said. He didn’t have patience for the fat man.
The innkeeper pulled out a key and nodded. “Room number two, sir. Right above the lobby overlooking the main street.”
The innkeeper tried not to stare at the dried blood on Kane’s jacket. Berserker blood. A tremor of fear rippled through him. Slayers were known to exact their vengeance on more than just Berserkers.
“Perhaps you’d care for one of the lovely ladies you see here?” he asked. “That one there is very good. On the house.”
Kane felt his anger rising. “I’m sure you sample them before they come to work for you? Keep your toys; I have no need of them.”
He collected the ion rifle he’d laid down on the counter and snatched up the room key. The Slayer had no tolerance for these things and even less use for men like the fat innkeeper who was lacking in courage and conviction.
“As you wish, sir,” the innkeeper mumbled to his back.
Kane quickly passed the young girl on the stairs without as much as a smile. The raw sounds of lovemaking whispered through the second floor hallway, savage and almost feral. A door to his right was open enough for him to see a pair of raven-haired women, one covered in dark purple and blue hair, licking and caressing each other. Men and women both hid in the shadows, watching in their own half-naked attire, while even more stood in the hall. Kane walked past without a second glance.
Once inside his room, he dropped his saddlebags and surveyed the room. It wasn’t much, not even for this town, but the linen was fresh, and it had the view he was looking for. There was a small latrine in the far corner, complete with running water and a new bar of soap. Kane smiled at that.
As much as he wanted to hit the tub and soak, his horse had to be taken care of first. Storing his weapons, Kane tucked a long knife into his belt and holstered his sidearm, just in case. He snatched his key and went down to the innkeeper to deliver instructions for the stable boys. Once satisfied, he went back up and began drawing a cold bath, stripping off his dusty clothes.
His body was lean and muscled, the product of many years of rugged life, and he was covered with scars. His lips were thin, constantly pursed. His hair was long and thick, darker than midnight. His hands were calloused in the way only a working man could defend. It was a hard life, but one he’d grown accustomed to with ease. The hardest part was always trying to adapt back to civilization. Kane put his foot into the water and quickly sank in to his neck. His mouth contorted from the shock of it, and he felt his muscles tightening.
His mind went over his last battle with the Berserkers. Brutal images flashed. The smell of death. The bodies, the whispers of broken dreams. He saw the mocking grin of Mnemlath taunting him through the haze and smoke of destruction. Kane slapped a hand on the water, splashing it over the side. Anger swelled, and he felt the rising desire to go back out and hunt his enemies. Kane grimaced. There was no point in doing so. Too much time had elapsed already, and the Berserkers would be long gone. Still, the innocent men, women and children of that village deserved better than to be buried by a lone man in a nameless grave.
Finally, he relaxed and let out a long sigh. This was the most treasured time in his days. The grime and dust was dissolving, and he was actually feeling like a person again. An hour later, he emptied what few possessions he had in his pockets and tossed his clothes in. Hanging them on the cord stretching across the balcony, Kane sat down and began cleaning his weapons.
The suns were already going down by the time he was fully dressed and refreshed, and his stomach was rumbling. He hid all but one of his weapons and went out in search of a good meal.
Kane did his best to ignore the rotted smells of society as he stood on the hotel stoop taking in all the town had to offer. The streets were already emptying at a terrific rate, and the suns weren’t even half-set yet. Whether from the overbearing threat of a Berserker attack — though they’d never been known to strike at something so large — or from petty thugs and thieves, Kane wasn’t sure. Even in a guarded settlement like this, men knew better than to travel the streets at night.
He watched a pair of Kordites strolling through the crowds. They were the most peaceful species on planet and seemingly innocent of the wars going on. Squat and green, no more than three feet tall, they had large round bellies and squared faces. Kane admired how they managed to find goodness in all of this and prosper where so many had failed.
Kane stepped off the porch, intent on his destination. People passed him secretive stares as he walked down the street and did his best not to respond. Most hustled by in distrust or quickly turned away to avoid his gaze, but there were a few here and there that smiled and offered greetings. Kane couldn’t blame them for either reaction. These people lived in fear every day of their lives, so how could they even think about being trustful in an environment such as this? The Kordites passed him, each with an enthusiastic smile.
The cold night chill began to set in behind the retreating daylight. Somewhere down the road, a horn sounded the beginning of the night patrol. Kane soon found himself at the door of the Inferno, one of the more reputable establishments in Black Tide — or even the Wastes, for that matter. Citizens were already beginning their nightly trek to the bar. Some were thieves, some were drunk, but most were everyday scared people trying to forget the pains of the day at the bottom of an empty mug of ale. Kane managed to pick up on bits and pieces of conversation as he worked his way through the crowd. Most concerned the recent increase in attacks along the Frontier, the western borders of humanity and Berserker territory. Ill tidings seemed to befall this land with uncanny frequency.
Through the compiling clouds of smoke drifting to the ceiling, off in a secluded corner of the bar, a lone man sat with eyes intent on the Slayer. He stroked his black beard leisurely while puffing on his long-stem pipe. There was no urgency in this man. Beneath his loose-fitting clothes rested an incredibly muscled animal of a man and a wide assortment of weapons. The leather glove on his right hand and forearm protected him from the claws of the mighty falcon now perched upon his shoulder. His cloak was heavy and frayed at the hem, and it dragged on the dusty wooden floors, the hood cast back. His beady, red eyes pierced the clouds of smoke and bored twin holes in Kane’s back. His legs, propped up and crossed, allowed him the luxury of sitting back and enjoying his drink. From there, he sat, he smoked, and he watched.
“Well, I’ll be damned by everything holy!” a booming voice exclaimed. “Aradias Kane. You’re still alive, eh?’
Braxton Skrapp, owner of the Inferno, choked down his drink when he noticed the gaunt, familiar face of an old friend sitting at the end of his bar. Fighting a smile, the old man gave his silver beard a tug and walked to his friend.
Kane returned the smile and handshake. “For now; that is always subject to change quickly, though.”
Skrapp fixed a round of drinks from his finest stock and all but forced his friend to drink with him. It had been years since they’d last had the opportunity to do so, and he had no intention of letting this moment go to waste. Each was amazed the other was still alive. Skrapp had managed to build himself a respectable place and a finely tuned potbelly to match. And even though he wasn’t a Slayer anymore, he still kept his old familiar under the bar top. Old habits were hard to shake, and he wasn’t about to start trusting anyone in Black Tide.
“Finally got an eye patch, I see,” Kane said after biting back the sting of his first sip.
“This stuff keeps getting worse.”
Braxton laughed, the echoes turning heads. “Ladies like the patch — adds a bit of mystery to me. But tell me, boy-o, what brings you back to Black Tide after all these years? I’d have figured you to be dead by now.”
“I should be so lucky.” Kane shook his head. “But no, there’ve been a lot of attacks up north. I’ve already ridden through three dead villages. Killed two, maybe three Berserkers, but most were gone before I got there. Bad things are coming, Braxton.”
“I figured as much. There’s been strange things going on of late,” agreed Skrapp. “The whole Wasteland seems to be edgy. A call’s gone out for scouts to serve in the comin’ army.”
Kane snorted. “And they think this will solve the problem? It’ll only make matters worse for all of us.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” The old man shrugged as he passed another drink. “But it’s the best chance these people have. We were never a match for those monsters in the way of numbers. Them soldiers need more than what the few Slayers can offer. Every day those damned Berserkers kill another town, and we suffer the more for it. This has to end somewhere, Kane. This invasion may not be a bad thing.”
“So it comes down to all-out war with the Imperium? They’ve done nothing for us in the three or four years they’ve been here.”
“Seems that way, but they need us to walk ‘em through the Wastes. Maybe then we can at least go one up on the Berserkers. This war can’t last forever.”
“Face it, Braxton,” Kane groaned, “the Wastes will never change. The only decent place anywhere on this planet is east of the river. When’s the last time you’ve seen anything green? Even if it was no more than a scrub brush? We’re doomed to live with the mistakes of the past.”
“Aw, Hells, Kane,” Braxton roared. “This is our chance to rise above the past. It may be the only chance we get to finally be free of the Berserkers.”
“‘Hope’ is a foreign word to me anymore.” Kane rose and dropped a silver coin on the bar.
“Give it time, boy-o. You might just change your mind.”
Skrapp passed the coin back to him and wished him a good night before he was lost in the crowd. He’d given Kane much to think on during the night and the trip back to the hotel. The Slayer stalked his way through the empty town. Mixed emotions warred in his head. He wanted the Berserkers dead to the last, but the thought was often revealed as an unobtainable reality. The Wastelands had suffered under this specific form of Hell for so long, no one living knew anything else. He just couldn’t see how the Imperium was going to make that much of a difference. Their actions thus far had been anything but stellar.
Kane arrived at the hotel, closed the main lobby door behind him and went upstairs. He wasn’t surprised to find the tempting blonde from the stairs in the arms of some ruffian right where she’d first seen him. She had a wicked smile for him in attempts to bring emotion of any sort out of him but only frowned when Kane brushed by. He had better things to do than worry about the pride of a prostitute and left her about her business without as much as a thought. He unlocked his door and slipped into the inviting darkness inside.
His heart skipped a beat as he instinctively reached for the blaster at his side.
“You won’t have need of that with me,” said a calm voice lost in the darkness of the room. “Besides, if I were here to kill you, you’d already be dead.”
A red tracer pointed a line through his heart. Kane saw no choice but to give up the fight and see how this panned out. His silver eyes peered through the dark and were rewarded with the bulky shape expertly hidden in the far corner with a drawn blaster.
“Who are you? How did you get in here?”
The stranger chuckled and said, “That’s not important. They call me the Viper. You may have heard of me, though I don’t really care one way or the other. That’s not why I am here.”
The Viper reached over to click on the nearest lamp, allowing Kane to see him for the first time. The tracer disappeared, though Kane knew it was still aimed at him. The men studied each other, each wondering what the next move was going to be. Kane vaguely remembered seeing this man in the common room. The falcon perched on his right shoulder gave him away.
“Don’t bother trying to remember me. We’ve never met.” The Viper’s falcon shifted from his shoulder to the chair back, glaring at the Slayer. The Viper motioned him to sit. “Please sit. There’s no reason why we can’t be civil about this.”
An uneasy silence settled in. “You didn’t seem too interested in the deal Braxton Skrapp offered. Why not?”
“When did my business become yours?” Kane replied tersely.
The Viper applauded him. “All right, then, it’s like this. I do,” a pause, “special contracts for people. Lately, I’ve been focused up around Furnace Island and the Northern Wastes. Seems more people want the Berserkers dead now that the Imperium is coming in force.”
“You’re an assassin,” Kane accused.
The Viper offered a cold, thin smile and continued, “Kane, I don’t have to tell you that this war has gone on far too long. We belong to a special breed, you and I. It runs through our blood like a high.” The Viper stood up and clenched his fist in a mix of adrenaline and anger. “It doesn’t matter to me. There’ll always be room for my kind. But for you, the days of obscurity are almost over. In comes the mighty Imperium with the chance for you and your kind to prove your worth. Think of how they would laud you as a hero for providing a map to the secret Berserker hive?”
Kane folded his arms across his chest and settled back. He didn’t believe a word the assassin said. Kane chose his words carefully before speaking. “What is it you really want? Men like you have no interest in anyone’s life but your own. So what’s the game?”
“Again with the wit,” the Viper replied. “Simple. I need a partner.” “For what?”
The assassin unrolled an old wrinkled map of the Wastelands on the small table and pointed his finger on a distant mount. “This is Rook Mountain. Familiar with it?”
“Good. It has been brought to my attention that the Berserkers have discovered something of immense power within the catacombs here. It could be a super weapon left over from the war of wizards, and if they get their claws on it, we have no chance. You lose, I lose.”
“How do you come by such information?”
The Viper stared back. “Not cheaply. I was hired to hunt down a Berserker by the name of Mnemlath by the village of Deret. He’d been accused of killing their children and livestock one night, and they wanted revenge.”
Kane’s eyes forced themselves shut. “Deret was destroyed a week ago by the very same demons.”
The obscenity escaping the Viper’s lips came from the realization of how much money he’d just lost. “This is…a brief setback at the most. It changes nothing. Along the way back from Deret, I ran into several wanderers who whispered of an odd green light glowing around the base of the mount. This tells me the Berserkers may have already activated whatever it is and are preparing to use it. I may be cruel and heartless when it comes to life, but even I can’t sit on this information.
“What I propose is this. We ride to Rook Mountain and find and destroy this super weapon before they have the chance to take it back to their hive. I can’t do it alone, Aradias.”
“You’re asking me to risk everything on the whim of a few vagabonds?”
“I am giving you the opportunity to save these people from a terrible menace before it’s too late.”
Kane rubbed his temples, deep in thought. The Berserker threat had long plagued the people of Helscape. The discovery of some super weapon would finally shift the tide. Life would end. Honor and pride demanded action, but his mind warned that something was not right. The Viper was a cold blooded murderer, not to be trusted. Still….
“What you propose requires much thought. Meet me at the Inferno in two days’ time, and I will have my answer.”
The Viper collected his equipment and opened the door. “Fair enough. Until then, Slayer.”
The door swung close, leaving the Slayer alone in the dark. Five hours later, sleep still had not come. Too much troubled his weary mind. Not even the animalistic sounds of lovemaking from next door could break the torment of his thoughts. Kane threw back the sheet in frustration and went to wash his face. It dawned on him that he now had a chance to change the world. So many had dreamed it but never seen their goals achieved. Could he actually destroy the Berserker Hive? Maybe the Viper was right. Maybe this would put his demons to rest.