Anyone who has ever been to war will tell you it sucks hard. The folks of the 76th are about to find that out the hard way. The tension of waiting for a fight to start is unlike anything else. So many nerves, jitters and fears colliding in hundreds of soldiers as they wait for the first round to pop off. Fortunately you don’t have to experience it- I will take care of it for you. Sit back, strap in, and get ready for the ride. It begins now.
Taking advantage of the morning solitude wasn’t as hard as Nathan had thought it was going to be. The part of town he and Kane had gone to the other night was relatively deserted, especially at this time of the morning. It was the perfect time to go for a walk and collect his thoughts. Doubts had been assailing him since he’d stepped through the portal. It wasn’t too late for him to let it go and disappear into the civilian population and hire a scout to get him back to the mountain. The possibility of the cavern collapsing from the firefight was quite large and loomed foremost in his thoughts. If that was the case, he may never get home again.
Nathan sighed as he clasped his hands behind his back and strolled on. He couldn’t help but think about his estranged family. The dreams of weeks past still haunted him, as did the one from last night, but he doubted his wife was going to transform into a monster. Besides, as far as she knew, he was dead and gone. Now there was nothing tying them together, not even their child. Stopping against a vacant horse hitch, Nathan pulled his wallet out and thumbed through the pictures of a family he used to have. Sadness gripped at him, if only because they would never know what really happened to him.
The dying didn’t really bother him, but they deserved to know the truth. He smiled fondly at his wife’s face, knowing she had had enough of him. Nathan swore at himself for letting his impulses lead him here. A lack of concentration in the field, and he was dead. He cursed his decision to follow the monster into the forest and here to Helscape. A part of him believed there was a way to go back and right all the wrongs, but it was a small part. Too late for second-guessing, he told himself. You’re stuck here, so make the best of it.
Still torn with doubts, Nathan turned around and headed for his tent.
Dissipating pillars of smoke flared up from various points in the chamber, molding into the giant cloud concealing the ceiling. Each pillar was a different color, causing a war above as the colors fought for dominance. None of this disturbed Kane, though. He was naked and sitting cross-legged in the center of the room. His palms rested upward on his knees. A heatless emerald green flame burned in his left hand, a sharp vermilion in his right. Both were symbols of power and wisdom known by warriors down through the ages. Today, they confided in Aradias Kane in a ritual dating back hundreds of years.
Helscape had been young and green when man first performed the sacred tasks. A millennium before the wizards came and created the Berserkers, Helscape was plush and covered with life. Poor decisions by the ruling parties saw to its destruction. A dark period arose from the ashes, and men had need of help from the Gods. The ritual’s purpose was to bring the warrior soul as close to the Gods as it could and bind their wisdom and strengths into his own. The warrior was able to undergo this transformation once, for it was a terrible tax on his soul. Kane understood the risks involved but went on anyway. Sacrifice was called for if the Berserkers were going to be destroyed.
Kane’s body was a mass of weathered flesh atop tired muscles. Aged scars mingled with fresh ones to sculpt his body into a terrible picture. His eyes were closed; his heart beat only four times a minute. It was trick he’d learned long ago, but the ritual never changed, and it had helped keep him alive in the worst of times. Scarred emotionally and physically, Kane was still in his prime. There were few who could match him on the battlefield. But the upcoming war suggested he seek strength.
His arms rose until they stood directly overhead. The flames snarled and spit at each other until Kane brought them together. The colors fought a great war with neither gaining nor losing. The conflict subsided into acceptance, and they melded into a brilliance casting down upon the Slayer. He could feel their power engaging his soul and the very fiber of his essence. Fatigue left him, replaced with renewed vigor. His head was snapped back from the strength of it all, and his muscles spasmed to the point of tearing from his bones.
His body was aglow with a million shades of green and red. His breath turned a colorless voice of death. Slowly, the lights disappeared, but their presence remained deep inside, waiting to be used. Kane’s eyes rolled back into his head, and he collapsed into a helpless ball. Aradias Kane dreamed of nothing for only the second time in his life.
An unusual predawn chill stalked the dunes. Tumbleweeds lay where the winds last left them, and the night predators returned to their holes. The moons and stars slowly faded from view as the suns began to rise. If it weren’t for the searing heat and lack of comfort, Joneth Pierce might have found himself liking it here. He stood outside his tent watching the night transform into day with a passive look. It had been so long since he’d last looked into the freedoms offered that he wished for a different life. A tear welled in his eye before he could catch it.
This angered him more. Sentimentality would only serve as a hindrance in the days ahead. He needed his emotions to remain tucked away if he was going to be successful. There was no kidding himself. The Imperium was here to begin the systematic and deliberate execution of a vile race, regardless of what command said. Prisoners would be taken, though Pierce seriously doubted it was going to be in the numbers General Gulluette wanted. He was a fighting man, not one used to bowing in subservience.
“General,” Gladak called from behind him.
“Yes?” he answered, thankful for the return to reality. Pierce smiled to himself. He already knew what his second in command was here for. “The word is given, Colonel. You may have the artillery begin its covering barrage and advance.”
Gladak saluted. “Yes, sir.”
“This is a glorious day, Gladak. One that will see the rusted fragments of recent losses washed away, and it is I who will return the Imperium to greatness. Pray for them, for they won’t know another dawn. Can you feel the electricity in the air? I can smell it. So invigorating. Empowering. This is my day at last.”
The dragon warrior listened to his raving and stalked off.
“Stand by, rounds incoming,” the computer specialist hollered from inside his vehicle.
The remainder of the six-man forward observer team moved to their fixed positions. A tall blonde woman picked up her binoculars and scanned the edge of the Gorge. This was as close to actual combat as she was likely to be, but the dangers were just as real. One short round or a well-placed sniper, and they were through. Dangers aside, there was nothing like the thrill of standing a few hundred meters from the tremors of impacting artillery.
One hundred and twenty anti-personnel rounds slammed into the ground to begin the ground war. The rounds landed in a tight pattern, establishing a minefield just beyond the mouth of the Gorge. Timers were rigged to explode shortly after elements of the first brigade moved into position. Far away to the east, the suns opened their eyes at the sound of thunder.
The lead elements of the Seventy-Sixth surged from their positions with thunderous growls as engines hummed to life. The ground trembled under thousands of tons of steel. Captain Xaen glanced back over his shoulder, satisfied to see the ten vehicles under his command already making a sizeable gain over the rest of the army. His job was important. General Pierce expected him to be their eyes and ears upon entering the gorge. First contact, if any, would belong to him.
Lucifer’s Gap loomed ahead. Machine gunners swiveled across their sectors of fire. He wondered if they were as eager to engage the enemy as he. Intelligence had been unable to confirm any enemy activity for one hundred klicks. They needed to get through the gorge first, and then the deep desert beyond. The entirety of the Berserker domain followed.
And in the spirit of Christmas, read on, my friends. Read on.