Labor Day has come and gone, fled like the summer. It’s amazing how fast time seems to go when you have things to do and drags on when there’s nothing doing. Hurricane Harvey got me thinking. Security. We all crave it. We desire it. Need it to carry on with our everyday lives. How secure are you in these odd times? Surely more than our heroes…..
“I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist this place,” Kane said, taking a step closer to the Viper.
Puffing lightly on his pipe, the assassin replied, “Business interests keep me moving. Not good to stay in one place for too long. You should know that. The competition would be too much to work with!”
“Cut the act,” Kane said. “Why are you really here?”
“I have come into the service of the Imperium — contracted, of course. I hear you’ve done the same?”
“You knew my intentions before we left Black Tide.” Kane didn’t like playing games, especially with a man as dangerous as the Viper.
“Quite right, though you can’t possibly understand my motivations in this endeavor.”
The assassin fell silent, waiting for the slew of inevitable questions, but none came. Sighing, he continued, “Back when I was in the Black Pits, I honestly thought I was going crazy. The ground trembled with little quakes nearly every hour. There were no signs of anything alive, not the smallest form. Bones were everywhere, but I doubt the gases from the pits did it. Sand dragons and argots, even a few rib cages from some poor individuals who got too close. And the area smelled worse than fresh death.
“The tremors increased, leading me towards the low foothills due west of the Pits. That’s where I found the cave. It was on top of a ruined mountainside, must have been an old castle or the like. Towards the back was a tunnel. I don’t know how far down it goes, maybe a mile. Maybe more.”
Kane folded his arms across his chest, more interested in this tale than he let on.
“I knew I was on to something big, Kane. Bigger than that job under Rook Mountain,” he paused to enjoy his smoke. “When it finally began leveling out, I felt like I was being watched. It was easy to stay hidden; there was nothing but shadows down there. I crept along a little more with my blaster in hand.
“That’s when the voices began. I followed after them, against better judgment, and was about to round a sharp corner when a group of Berserkers came from the walls and went on by. I hid in a tiny crack, hoping they wouldn’t be able to smell me. I have stood at the gates of their hive and come out alive! It was the hive, the damned underground hive no one’s been able to find. Right under our noses the whole time, and I made the discovery.”
Kane soaked in his words, praying there was nothing more to it. Certain elements of the tale made no sense. Even the Berserkers would have had guards on the off-chance of someone doing what the Viper had. And why weren’t they able to smell him out? He wanted to ask these questions and many more, but common sense told him he would get no answers.
“And you headed south to find the highest bidder?”
The Viper touched a finger to his nose with a smile. “Can’t fool you, can I? Aradias, I’ve been sitting on this information for cycles. After our little fight under Rook Mountain, I decided it was time to sell it. The Imperium Intelligence Corps paid a pretty sum for what I had to say. Don’t think I’ll be able to spend that much in the rest of my lifetime.”
“You mean to lead them to the hive? They’ll all die,” Kane said.
“Maybe,” shrugged the assassin, “maybe not. That’s not my problem. We both know they were going to attack, with or without the information I provided. All I did was guide them in the right direction.”
There was deception involved here. Kane caught the gleam in the Viper’s eyes. “You’re not going with them, are you?”
His laugh resonated from wall to wall. “You must be joking. I’ve been paid in full and have every intention of living to enjoy the spoils. But you! I can see by the look in your eye, whether you admit it or not, that you plan on joining this merry band of fools. There’s still time for you to back out. You might just save something of your life in the process. What do you say, Kane? We worked pretty well together out there in the desert. Could make for a great team.”
“Matters are slightly more complicated than that. I have given my word to more than one and am honor-bound to live by it. If they are to die, then I shall be there with them.”
Kane fell silent, an ill omen passing through him. What secret part was the assassin playing in all of this? There had to be more than he was telling. Wanting to put his demons to rest for a while, Kane headed back towards the inn.
“Think about it, Kane. Is it really worth dying for? A cause you’ve bled for without end. Now that a major operation is under way why can’t you sit back and let them do the brunt of the work? I’ll tell you. You can’t stand the thought of offworlders getting the glory you’ve felt just beyond your fingertips. Abandon this foolishness and join me while there’s still a chance.”
Kane kept walking, too many things going through his mind for him to talk. He had to admit that some of what the Viper said did play some small role in his decisions, but in the core of his being, Kane knew that this could be his one chance to rid the world of the Berserkers. His one chance to avenge the wrongs committed so long ago. Perhaps.
“I’ll be right here waiting for you, boy-o. Find me when you change your mind,” the Viper called out.
The sudden explosion threw both of them to the ground in a storm of rock and dust. Pieces of the broken buildings were showering down on them, and the city quaked from the aftershock. The Viper growled and flipped himself to his feet, weapon in hand. His ears were pounding from the concussion, accompanied by a trickle of blood running from his nose. He tried to fan the dust away and catch of glimpse of Kane, but it was still too thick.
Townsfolk were starting to come out to see what had happened, their curiosity pushing them to the brink of danger. A frightened, half-dead youth came crawling through the destruction and collapsed in the fading sunlight. There were smatterings of blood on his uniform, from the explosion and something else.
“Help me,” he whispered with an outstretched hand before unconsciousness claimed him.
Kane and the Viper reached the fallen guardsman at the same time. After checking the extent of his wounds, they were able to revive him. A gut feeling tore at Kane, leading towards a terrible realization. Fumbling for explanations, the youth stammered and went on about monsters. Sweat poured from him and his flesh was clammy and flushed. Kane noticed two shades of blood on the boy’s jacket and pointed so the Viper could see.
“Get yourself together, boy!” the assassin growled.
“What’s your name,” Kane asked.
“An…Anrack,” he panted, the words stuttering out. “Third District City Guards.”
“Who did this to you?” the Viper growled.
Anrack doubled over, shooting pain tearing at his insides. “Monsters! They were monsters.”
A woman screamed. A baby cried. And the old knew it was the beginning of the end of the world. Monsters could mean only one thing: Berserkers.
“Take us now!” Kane ordered.
The Viper clamped down on his arm. “Hold on a minute. Two of us against a Berserker war party isn’t exactly my idea of heroism. We go down there, and we die.” He watched for a positive reaction from the Slayer and was forced to abandon those thoughts when he got none. “All right, go and get your friends, boy. Just tell us where they are.”
“Second level guard room. Right under the Sanctum Hotel,” he paused as fresh tears began falling. “The screams. I’ve never heard anything like them.”
“Pray you never do again,” the Viper warned as he and Kane headed down to the stairwell.
“There’ll be more if you don’t find help,” Kane added.
Neither of them was afraid, despite the fact that this situation was new to them. The usual uneasiness was there, but the threats were higher. Fighting underground and in an enclosed area put the advantage in the Berserker’s hands.
Kane was the first to exit the stairs. His blaster was pointed down the darkened street, and he found himself wishing for a rifle once more. Soundproof walls were preventing the sounds of battle from running wild through the underground level. Normally, this would be a good thing, but the dangers were far greater here in the confines of the city. There was nowhere for the people to run if the Berserkers charged through the door.
Kane narrowed his eyes when he caught their scent. In the flickering darkness ahead, a door whined as it partially opened and closed. Sparks showered down on the mass blocking the way. They neared the door, and the object and Kane’s head drooped in sorrow. Half of a body was wedged into the doorway, with fresh blood coating the nearby walls. The Viper clicked off his safety and leveled his rifle towards the room as Kane held three fingers up.
One finger dropped, and the Viper gritted his teeth. Kneeling close to the body but still out of sight of whatever might still be in the room, Kane dropped the second finger. They might both die when the third finger dropped. The assassin felt his body tense when the final finger went down. Instincts took over as Kane jerked the corpse out of the way and wedged the door open. An ancient battle cry preceded the Viper’s perfectly timed attack. Blinding flashes of ion fire shredded the darkness of the room.
A terrible thunder echoed down the halls long after the sharp metallic click announced that the rifle was empty. The Viper jumped back to cover. Residue from so much condensed fire stung their flesh and burned their eyes. A light haze was filtering out from the room, blanketing the hall.
Drawing a deep breath, Kane aimed his blaster into the haze and stepped inside. It was a scene of complete decrepitude. The Berserkers had long since gone, no doubt moving on to a greater slaughter. The bitter stench of so much death made him cough. He was familiar with scenes like this but never used to them. He fanned away as much of the smoke as he could and walked further in. A lone table, scored from blaster fire and covered with bits of a guard and debris from the partially collapsed ceiling, was the only thing left standing, and that was tipped over to form a sort of shield.
“By the Gods,” the Viper whispered from his position in the doorway. “Poor bastards didn’t even know what hit them.”
Closing the eyes of a boy no older than Anrack, Kane nodded.
Heavy footsteps coming down the corridor announced the arrival of reinforcements. Slayer and assassin exited the room and patiently waited. They fully expected to be met by some pompous officer who had no clear understanding of what was going on. Kane also knew that all of this combined was only helping the Berserkers.
The guards pulled up in a tight formation, weapons ready. Kane caught a glimpse of Anrack skulking in the far back, not wanting to see what had happened to his friends. The Captain stepped forward and commanded them to move aside. The Viper, weapon cradled in his folded arms, shook his head.
“Stand aside or I shall you placed under arrest for interfering with City Guards business,” the Captain persisted.
“If you really want to go in there, be my guest,” the assassin scoffed. “But it’s more than any of you are ready for.”
Most of those arrayed before them were no more than fresh-faced boys working in a volunteer status. The older ones, like the Captain, had no other job. They were the ones who, more often than not, believed themselves to be on the same quality level as the Slayers. If Kane and the Viper weren’t careful, this man was going to get a lot of good men killed tonight. When the Captain finally emerged from the room, his face was pallid, and there was a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“You must now look to your hearts to see where your courage lies,” Kane told them all. “The Berserkers are already moving deeper into the city.”
“What’s the plan?” the Captain asked as he wiped the last strings of bile from his chin and tunic.
“We need to move quickly. Put the word out for everyone to stay in their homes. The less we have in the way, the easier it will be. But know this: do not let a bystander caught in the way keep you from killing one of these beasts,” Kane’s voice turned cold.
The Viper could only stare in shock, for he’d never heard words like this come from the older man’s mouth before.
“We’ll need more troops. Put the city on alert, and notify all roving patrols to shoot on contact. I’ll take one squad for now, and my partner will lead the other. You will take all commands from us if you have any hope of going home to your loved ones again.”
The Viper stood frowning at the amount of inexperience radiating off of the twenty-four guards standing before him. He hoped there were other Slayers and bounty men roaming Minion, or else this was going to be a short-lived counter strike. Anrack stood as close as he could to Kane, finally regaining his wits so he could give a half-accurate description of the Berserkers to the other guards.
A knot had formed in the pit of his stomach. He should have died with his friends, should’ve been there next to them, fighting for the city. Kane confided in him that he was still alive to serve a greater purpose. He must focus on the present. It was a hard thing to do, but Anrack needed to ignore those feeling of rage and revenge inspiring him and become one with the environment. He had to become a man much sooner than he’d planned.
Additional guards were arriving even as they developed their plans. The sight of them was enough to bolster the wavering confidence of the original squads. They were eager to be on the hunt, Anrack especially. Kane took a rifle and ammunition off the body of a dead guard and soon returned to the helm of the growing column.
“What do you think?” he asked the Viper.
“I think I must be crazy,” the assassin replied.
“We all are.”
The Viper smiled and looked around, wondering how he’s gotten himself into this mess. “Let’s get these guys moving and try and pinch the bastards between us.”
“Do you think we’ll be able to reach each other in time?”
He shrugged. “Can’t say, but I know a lot of people are going to die if we don’t move now.”
“I agree. Go ahead and take your men. We’ll file out in the opposite direction. Fate be with you.”
“All right,” the Viper growled out to the guards. “Let’s do this.”
Leading his men off on the trails of monsters, the Viper was soon lost to the distant shadows, leaving Kane with an uneasy twist in his stomach. Waiting until they were out of sight, Kane moved to the front of his column and ordered them forward. His confidence in the ability and loyalties of the assassin was growing. Once again, the Fates had thrown them in the midst of battle without any clear expectations of them. All he could do was pray for a safe return. Finished, Kane nodded to the Captain and took the first step forward.