I spent a few days last week re-editing this book- and the 2nd. They are my babies, you see. The first books I wrote in my adult life. That they haven’t been given the love of my later books troubles me somewhat. My last publisher gave me garbage covers and left the books out to dry. Hopefully I can do them better service in the near future. Enjoy, my friends.
A soft wind blew across the dunes, stretching out to kiss Kane’s cheeks and tousle his hair. Out here, alone in the world, he found it easy to forget the strain of everyday life. The sounds of Black Tide soon faded, leaving him lost in the soothing croon of the winds. Argots patrolled the skies in search of the unsuspecting meal. The leathery birds seldom bothered with humans, though often was a menacing glare cast. Kane smiled to himself. He was at peace; the desert was his home. The only sign of civilization he had seen since leaving Black Tide was a peddler’s caravan en route to one of the bigger cities in the south. Most carried goods from Furnace Island and the Northlands beyond — goods unobtainable in the south. Heavily armed and watchful, the caravan passed the two travelers without a word.
Kane and the Viper rode on in silence. There was nothing needing to be said following their debate from a few days ago. Each received a measure of solace they sought. The truth would come out when they engaged the enemy. For now the peace was strained, but in place. It wasn’t ideal but Kane quickly accepted it for what it was and came to terms. He could live with the Viper…for the time being.
They rode at a leisurely pace, ensuring the horses weren’t overworked. Without a word, they stopped at the first well. The sun was at its highest, burning into the sands. A man unaccustomed to the heat and emptiness would have already succumbed. The desert was as unforgiving as the night. Nowhere was it safe.
Towards dusk, Kane spoke the first words of the day. “There’s a storm brewing.”
The assassin craned his neck to check the skies. He too knew the ways of the sand. “We should find shelter.”
“There’s a small rock formation about a league ahead. I think we can make it,” Kane said. Dark clouds were brewing on the far horizon. They rode a little faster, anxious to miss the desert storm.
It was a long and cold night. The storm hit much sooner than they’d anticipated. Kane and the Viper lay huddled in the cold without even a meager fire to keep them warm in a small cave they’d found just after dusk. They sat in silence for the most part; neither had anything to say to the other. There was something unusual about the way the Viper was carrying himself, making Kane’s nerves stand on end.
“Rough night, eh?” the Viper called above the howling winds.
Kane nodded. “Rough enough, but I’ve seen worse. Pretty sure we both have.”
The Viper only nodded in return. They watched the storm rage, neither comfortable with the prospect of going the night without a fire, but there were too many creatures about. There were far worse things than Berserkers in the deep deserts. Dragons and shadow wraiths stalked the night in search of an unsuspecting traveler for an easy meal. Once upon a time, long before the Berserker nightmare began, young men used to venture forth into the dunes in the name of quest and glory. Of course, many never returned. But it was a more civilized age then, when men could walk the night untouched and unafraid. Those days had been long lost for this decaying society.
The Viper left Kane sitting in the dark and went to the cave’s mouth. Kane could smell the aroma of the tobacco even before the pipe was lit. It was a foolish thing to do, especially for an experienced man like the Viper, but the assassin knew what he was doing. Kane saw it as a way for him to expel his fears and calm down. Both of them had spent the majority of their lives traversing these dunes hunting the bad guys. And the Viper always felt he had more to fear from civilization than from the things that go bump in the night.
Inhaling the smoke deep, he enjoyed the rich flavors. A smile came to him as he imagined a scowl on Kane’s face. “You’ll give us away,” he’d say. Who really cares? Few men had control over their time and place of death. The Viper considered it a luxury to know all that. He was looking forward to it. The thrill of the unknown. To his satisfaction this night, he believed it was going to be somewhat peaceful.
“What’s out there?” Kane asked as he quietly slipped beside him.
“What are you talking about?”
“You’ve been acting strangely since we left the Inferno. I know the look when a man thinks he’s being hunted. It’s a look you’ve been carrying for days now.”
The Viper offered a thin smirk. “You always think you’re one step ahead of the game, don’t you, Slayer?”
“It has nothing to do with that, and you know it. What’s out there?”
“I don’t know, but I feel. We’re being followed, and I’ll be damned if I know by what or whom.”
Kane followed his gaze out into the desert for a moment. He already knew he wasn’t going to find anything. Whether it was man or beast out there, they all knew enough to remain covered somehow and wait for the two to drift off to sleep.
“How light a sleeper are you?” the Viper asked.
“We’re going to have to wake up fast sometime before dawn.”
Exhaling a series of immaculate smoke rings, the Viper smiled and went back in. He double-checked his horse and weapons before curling up in the far corner and going to sleep. Kane watched him, a measure of mistrust still lurking. Was he being set up? The thought had occurred to him that this may be some elaborate scheme designed to get him away from any contact so the Viper might collect the bounty on his head — though, to the best of Kane’s knowledge, there wasn’t one.
He’d always felt a certain peace out here but was never able to fall asleep so quickly and soundly as the Viper had. The dangers far outweighed the securities. Kane knew that harm wasn’t going to fall on him unless he went and sought it out, but still…. For a brief moment, he found himself thinking about what it would be like to live in the plush green valleys and forests he’d heard so much about across the river. He went to sleep with a smile for the first time in many months.
Kane shot awake, reaching for his rifle. He risked a glance across the shelter and was surprised to find the assassin already manning the heavy weapon. Kane noticed a single bead of sweat trickling from his brow. He was about to comment when a low, baleful moan drifted across the dunes. A latent fear clutched deep in Kane’s stomach. He knew that dreadful sound and hoped the creature hadn’t smelled them. More men had been killed for their carelessness by the graack than any Berserker attack. Luck was not with them this night.
Loose sand broke free and spilled over a small ledge to Kane’s right. Heavy footfalls trembled the ground, gradually growing louder. The graack had picked up their scent. Risking their protection, Kane leaned out into the darkness just enough to look into the desert. Colorless moonlight blocked by a thin layer of clouds added a haunting effect to the sleeping world. Shadows moved and shifted, offering nightmares free reign on the minds of men and beasts alike. The footsteps loomed as thunder in a mountain pass, yet Kane couldn’t find the source.
And then he saw it. The graack was surrounded by a thick cloud of mist. Twenty feet tall and as massive as a small house, the graack was marching directly towards them. At first, Kane wanted to believe his tired eyes were playing tricks on him, but there was no mistaking it. The mist was gathering and moving their way. He wasn’t sure, but he could have sworn he picked out the burnt orange eyes of the monster glowering at them from the distance. Bipedal with a short tail used primarily as a club, the graack was an ancient monster of unknown origin. Little was known about the species other than they had an unquenchable thirst for fresh blood and flesh. Bones and carcasses had been found since men first laid claim to the Wastes.
The graack wailed again. It smelled food.
“Get back behind me and feed me ammo when I tell you,” the Viper commanded in a smooth voice.
Kane wondered if the man knew fear — not that it mattered, but a brash man might get them both killed. The Slayer slowly did as he was told. His kind took more chances than was often necessary, but he was no fool. You didn’t live as long as he had by putting yourself purposefully in harm’s way.
“I hope you’re ready for some fun,” the Viper said. Again, his voice betrayed no emotions. “It’s going to be an interesting night, to say the least.”
“Have you faced a graack before?” asked Kane, passing the assassin a sidelong glance.
The Viper smiled menacingly and patted the side of his machine gun. “Not with one of these. Get ready. It’s coming.”
The smell hit them first. A combination of decaying flesh, bile and feces permeated the air, announcing the monster’s presence. Cold tendrils of mist stretched into the small cave. The graack was very close now. Kane fought his revulsion, forcing the vomit back down his throat. His body trembled from the sudden cold. Instinctively, he tightened his grip on the machine gun feed. The monster’s heavy breathing assaulted their ears. It was so close, they caught images of its pale yellow flesh, sickly and scaled, through the mists. Patches of green-black hair littered its body. Lesions and puss-dripping sores covered a vast majority of its skin. The graack looked as if it had been dead for many nights, but it was anything but. The graack was fully alive and hungry.
The graack’s hulking mass blocked out the waning moonlight, filling the shelter with shadow and dread. With a smile so small it was barely noticeable; the Viper charged his super weapon and squeezed the trigger. Ion residue flew from the discharged rounds, falling on their exposed hands and burning off the hairs. Haze mixed with the mists, interrupted by a steady stream of bright orange flame spitting from the barrel. The Viper roared above the carnage for more ammo. Kane glanced at the barrel, which was already beginning to glow a deathly red.
“You’re going to melt the barrel!” he yelled.
“Ammo damn it!” the Viper snapped back.
The graack screamed. Blood and great chunks of flesh flew from the monster with every impact. The air smelled burnt. Kane could have sworn he heard the sizzling of cooking flesh above the roar of battle. And slowly, the mists retreated. The Viper kept firing, not willing to take the chance of the monster regrouping to attack again. His madness forced Kane to jerk his hand away from the trigger.
“It’s gone! Save your ammunition in case it comes back,” the Slayer cautioned.
Insanity gleaming in his red eyes, the assassin shrugged his companion away and yelled back, “I’m not taking that chance. Pop a red flare. I want to finish it off now.”
Not waiting for Kane to respond, the Viper snatched up the incendiary and leapt out into the open sands. The flare whooshed into the sky, popping a hundred meters in the air and bathing the immediate area in a bright red. Against his better judgment, Kane slipped behind the sights of the heavy machine gun and scanned the desert. Of the graack, there was no sign. It had simply disappeared. Huge pools of blood mixed with pieces of rotted flesh littered the area in front of the shelter. Kane wanted to see nothing more. Any death was difficult for him, regardless of the situation. Unlike the Viper, he did not relish taking lives. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply for the first time once the red light died away.
“Would you look at this,” the Viper exclaimed in awe as he reentered the shelter.
Kane opened his eyes. He was surprised to see the assassin standing before him holding a severed finger still dripping black blood. The appendage reached his waist before a twisted nail, broken with scrapes of prior victims buried beneath the surface, curled up towards his chin.
“Nasty thing, wasn’t it?” asked the Viper. “I don’t think it’s going to be coming back any time soon.”
Aradias Kane shifted his gaze back to the sickly colored skies. Dawn was but a few hours away. He hoped the assassin was right. They’d been lucky tonight. He wasn’t so sure that luck was going to hold out.
Leggis Fint put down his binoculars and unwound the sand colored scarf from around his mouth. Even though it was night the winds managed to kick up enough sand to get in those places he never imagined. His yellow eyes were crusted with grit and he swore he’d never be able to get rid of the taste of sand for the rest of his life. He and Kreegin were more than a klick away from the fight, watching from the subtle rise in dunes. Sparse shrubbery spotted the distance between them and Kane although instead of shrinking the distance they served to increase the loneliness.
They were leagues from the nearest city, if these primitive gatherings could be considered such. Helscape was unlike any world he’d ever been to, and never wanted to go to again. Wind threw more sand in his eyes but still he smiled. He liked what he’d witnessed during the battle. This Slayer was good. Much better than most of the others they’d witnessed over the past year. Maybe after the Imperium came and went Leggis would try to recruit Kane for his crew. An extra gun never hurt in his line of work.
Kreegin Faul yawned, finally waking up. He swung his legs down off the dash and jumped out of the hover jeep. Years of experience left him with the uncanny ability to sleep through just about anything. Stretching himself awake, he squinted his eyes towards where Leggis was looking. “Are they done yet? I’m about tired of all this damned sand.”
Leggis shook his head, still amazed that even after working together for so long Kreegin could find the smallest matter to bitch about. “Yes, Kreegin, we can go now. You really should have seen this one. Most impressive. I think we should follow him for a while longer. He’s better than the rest we’ve seen so far. I want to know about these people just in case we get caught up when the Imperium’s heavy fist arrives.”
“We didn’t sign on to fight a war.”
Leggis agreed. “No, we didn’t, but if we don’t stay a step ahead of those warmongers we’re going to come out on the losing end of this one.”
“Sure boss, whatever you say.” Kreegin held out his already onyx arms. Was it possible his skin was even darker now than it had been before arriving? “Can we leave now? I need a mug of ale.”
Leggis tossed his gear into the back of the jeep and climbed aboard. “Tell me again why I hired you?”
Climbing back in, Kreegin gunned the engine and smiled. It was a horrible sight to behold. Most of his teeth were broken and yellowed, but those still intact were nearly two inches long. “Because I’m the best damned tracker in the galaxy.”
The mercenaries left the beleaguered Slayer and his bounty hunting ally to their task. Like Kreegin said, there was ale in need of drinking and Leggis needed to check in with his inside man down at Fort Evans. The Imperium was approaching must faster than any of them liked.