I went grocery shopping yesterday and couldn’t believe people were buying candy. I could only look at the shelves and think “I remember when I used to like that”. Not that I don’t enjoy it, but damn, my kids came home like they’d robbed a candy store on Halloween.
The calm before the storm is passing. Anyone who has ever been on the verge of battle knows there is a certain restlessness that plagues us. You can’t sleep. Don’t want to eat. Drinking water seems a chore as your mind races over the thousands of possibilities of what might happen.
Imagine what these poor men and women (and aliens) of the 76th are feeling right about now?
The Last Moments
Snake Eyes dropped the heavy sack of letters and holocards as his soldiers began filing towards him. This was the one time of day when they actually felt needed. Mail was an important item to any soldier, especially ones seemingly forgotten on a world far away and without importance. He was amazed at how quickly they were able to adapt. Just last night, the Military Police had burst in and arrested Ardn Kelg on murder charges, and here they were on the brink of one of the largest invasions of the modern era. Half of the garrison was assigned to deploy with the 76th, and Snake’s men were damned near on point for the operation. He held his hands up for silence when the bag was empty.
“Quiet, now, I’ve got some info to put out,” he said. “Formation is at zero two hundred. Bring all of your equipment; we won’t be coming back to Fort Evans until the war is over. Ammo draw is at zero three. We still don’t have a rollout time yet, so stay loose. You guys know I don’t go for those last minute squaffa speeches to try and motivate you. All I can say is do what you have to come home again. Lights out in ten, people. Good night.”
Snake Eyes closed the door behind him and exhaled a long, slow breath. A grim-faced Xill met him on the steps. Snake seriously doubted any of them would be able to sleep. There were ones and twos who never seemed effected by things like this, but the rest were scared solid. The taste of the Helscape cigarette was almost enough to make him gag, but the smoke calmed him. It was about the only thing that did these days.
“Ready?” Xill asked, pushing away some of the smoke that blew towards him. “Can’t really see that we have a choice,” Snake Eyes answered.
The suns were slowly dropping over the horizon, already letting in the chill of the desert night.
“You got what they need?”
Xill tapped his jacket pocket and nodded.
“Then let’s get this over with so we can get a little sleep.”
Every time he shuffled his feet over the floor, Nathan stirred the multi-colored dust into new patterns. They reminded him of the dual-colored sand toys his grandmother had brought back from Hawaii for him when he was a child. This wasn’t quite like home, but it helped steady his nerves. A thousand thoughts raced through his mind. He wondered if he was going to make it back to see his family again. Or even if they’d want him. Nathan was no stranger to combat, but that had been with an army of normal people fighting a normal war. He still wasn’t sure what to make of this. Most of his feelings were directly attributed to prewar jitters. Everyone dealt with the situation differently, as was apparent with his current roommate. He looked across the room to where Kane lay calmly dozing on and off.
“How can you sleep like that? It feels like my stomach is going to twist itself right out of my body and you find the time to get some rest?” Nathan finally asked him.
Kane, keeping his eyes closed, answered, “This is nothing new, just on a much grander scale. Besides, you forget how long I’ve been looking forward to this day.”
He was about to respond when a hollow knock drowned his thoughts. Kane’s hand slid down to his blaster, but he stayed where he was. The knock repeated, more insistent this time. Nathan’s hand glided across the handle, his other hand filled with the cool feel of his pistol.
“Who is it?”
“Snake and Xill. You plan on opening the door or are we going to do this through a damned piece of wood?” Snake Eyes snapped.
Kane smiled to himself as Nathan closed the door behind them.
“Who’d you think it was?” Snake Eyes asked him sarcastically and sat down.
He motioned towards the half-empty whiskey bottle and smiled. Nathan barely agreed before the top was opened and Snake was pouring a drink.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is sneaking through a town where there is almost no military presence? Just terrible,” Snake announced and drowned the first drink.
Kane sat up and asked, “What news is there?”
“Same squaffa,” he responded with a refilled glass in his hand. “We’re getting up way before dawn to sit on our backsides until someone decides to say go. You two need to be there before dawn to keep suspicions down and link up with us.”
“What about getting on post?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem. Most units are sending men down to the gates to link up with their scouts. You two should be able to blend in. Lal-owk will be there waiting for you,” Snake said.
Xill dug two cards out of his pocket and passed them out. “These are your identification passes. They have your names and platoon designators on the back. Present them to the guards on duty, and they’ll let you by.”
Raising his glass, Snake announced, “It’s going to be one hell of a day.”
The darkness swirled, taking on unexpected colors ill defined by the mortal eye. Out of that darkness bloomed a new world born on the death throes of the old. Foreign dreams swept in to crush those already deep-rooted in the psyche. It was only through strength of mind that a man, any man, might find solace in the span of decay quickly devouring the world.
Kane was surrounded by a sea of human bones. Broken and decayed, they lay strewn across the world. A chill mist dropped the temperature below freezing, though Kane felt nothing. He caught the faint glow of fires and decided to make for them. Perhaps they held the answers to all of this. The thunder of hooves raced across the emptiness, making Kane instinctively seek cover. Horse and rider sped by, concealed by the mist. Kane saw enough to know he was sorely outmatched. Another and another went past. All of the riders were shrouded in mottled gray robes and atop jet black steeds. There must have been a score of the ghouls. Weaponless, Kane made ready for a battle he knew he couldn’t win. The ghouls never passed him a second glance as they rode on.
A chorus of wails and screams followed in their wake. The roiling clouds churned and frothed, forming a million empty faces. They stared down on the Slayer in silent judgment. Kane moved slowly, carefully picking his steps through the thickening fog. He’d heard others tell of this place but never put much stock in the rumors. It wasn’t until the Children of Sorrow began to appear that Kane began to believe.
They arrived by the dozens, silently appearing from nothing and taking up perch on the piles of bones. Their hollow eye sockets watched his every move with great interest. Each looked the same, practically indistinguishable from the next. They were barely half the height of a man with shallow faces rounded to a perfect circle. Excess flesh hung low past their cheekbones, giving them the appearance of a constant pucker. Each held a harp made of rusted copper in malformed hands.
The Children whispered to each other as the last one took his place. Their voices blended into a prolonged hiss, intensifying until the first one struck a note. Hundreds of harps began playing a strange dirge intent upon making the traveler forget his way and lose his will to go. The Children started wailing as one in a sorrowful pitch.
Kane knew that, if he stopped walking now, he was dead. He did his best to avoid their deadening stares, for they warned of a violent demise. He’d just passed the last of them when the skies filled with pale yellow lights with no defined shape. They acted as a line for him to follow, leading Kane closer to the fires. Behind, the Children wailed louder. It was an old tale passed down through the generations, and Kane knew the better of it. They weren’t children at all but the damned souls of those slain over the course of history. They were the helpless victims every Slayer failed to rescue.
Kane ran on until he found himself at the foot of a great mountain with one broken path leading up. The spire was lost deep into the judging clouds, but it was here the lights lined for him and here where he would find the reason behind this madness. Kane searched for a reason why, already knowing the answer, when a bolt of sharp blue lightning scored the ground beside him. The Gods were goading him up the hill. No choice in the matter, Kane began the ascent.
The upward path was lined with overgrown thorns with poison barbs. He could hear things moving among them, slithering and crawling. Whether they moved towards him or away wasn’t clear. Whatever they were better remained hidden. Kane walked for days, seemingly making no progress. Just when he was about to give up and turn around, the way before him opened up. The fog was lifting, allowing him to see his goal for the first time. A full moon rose from the mist, bathing the mountaintop in a foul light.
Kane looked over his surroundings, searching for anything he could use as a weapon when the need arose. There was little in the way of anything up here — no place to hide and nothing sufficient to defend himself with. Trusting his fate to the Gods, Kane slowly walked towards the lone tree in the center of the mountaintop. The tree had but one single branch jutting out halfway up. It was barren of leaves and bark, and made strange creaking sounds as the wind rocked it.
An empty laugh echoed across the mountain. Kane looked up to see the moon change into a skeletal face glaring down upon him. The Slayer searched about for an escape route but found the clearing was now surrounded with the same dangerous thorns. He was trapped here.
Welcome, Aradias Kane.
The hollow voice vibrated through his flesh and into the core of his soul.
“Who are you? Why have you summoned me here?” Kane asked.
You don’t know?
There was a blinding flash, and out of it strode a towering man cloaked in darkness. Fires breathed from beneath his hood but offered no glimpse of his face. He walked with a long staff capped with the skull of some extinct creature. The man came to a halt a few paces from Kane.
“It’s not my time to die,” Kane answered.
The robed man laughed again. What is time to me? I am all things before they began, just as surely as I shall be after they end.
Slamming the staff into the ground, he changed the world around them. The moon disappeared, replaced by an endless array of stars no more than pinpricks in the night. They began spinning, twirling around the mountaintop until eventually blurring into constant streaks of light.
But time has nothing to do with the deeds of tonight, Aradias. I have come to offer you a chance to see the one thing men hold true in their hearts. Destiny. For is destiny not the King of the World?
“Who are you?” Kane asked again.
The robed man lowered his hood, revealing a ball of gentle flames. I have many names, but I am always just me. I hold the fate of creation in the palm of my hands and the dreams of all men spring from my desires. He extended a skeletal hand, and a tiny blue flame sprung to life. With my very thought, I can kill. The flame vanished.
“What is it you want with me, plague of eternity?” Kane asked with a sharpened tongue. A sword appeared embedded in the ground between them.
You must prove your worth to the Fates. The Gods have spoken, and I have come to carry out their demands. You will be put to task much greater than any has ever had to endure.
It will bring your soul to the balance of light and darkness. But you are not yet ready to bear the mantle of humanity. You must face me first, Aradias Kane. Only by besting me will you prove yourself worthy of the future you seek.
At last, Kane realized to whom he was talking. This was the fabled executioner of the Gods. The killer pointed his long, bony arm towards the tree branch and nodded. Kane turned to see a noose made from the darkest material swaying in the breeze.
Should you fail.
“What must I do?” he asked, already bracing himself to grab the sword.
The reaper’s robes evaporated into black and crimson leather-plated battle armor. His staff became a mighty broadsword capable of ripping Kane apart in a single swipe. Kane dove for his life as the great blade came crashing down. The Slayer turned and rolled to his own sword, drawing it from the ground in a clean stroke. The two blades met each other in a deafening clash.
Kane threw back the reaper’s offensive, much to the amusement of the eternal. Few had lasted so long with him that it was a grim pleasure to carry on with his personal attentions. The Slayer fought like a trapped animal, knowing that he was dead if he lost. Ghostly images of his broken life spun around them, his friends and family lying dead at the feet of a faceless Berserker. A face slowly blended together, and it was the face of Mnemlath. The Berserker danced over the still warm corpses, oblivious to the small boy hidden in the corner.
The rage welling up within him finally burst, and Kane erupted into a whirl of action. The reaper gradually began to fall away from the force of the counter attack until he was forced down on one knee. Kane bellowed his wrath and cut through his opponent, severing the body at the waist. The force of the blow took him to the ground, where he knelt and cried. The reaper disappeared, leaving him alone once again on the empty mountaintop. Again, the moon became the skulls of death. Bitter laughter sang across the roof of the world.
The test has been passed. You have proved your worth to the Old Gods. Take what you have learned, for you will have need of such heart in the coming days.
The skull faded, leaving him to a compilation of his dreams and private nightmares. Kane had won, but the price was unclear. His tears dried, and the lustful revenge abated to a far corner of his mind.
Aradias awoke in a pool of sweat. His sheets were saturated, and his fists were sore from being clenched so tightly. Helscape’s three moons bled their light down on him, and he wondered if it really was all a dream.