A good question. Imagine being almost slaughtered in an ambush and trying to recover. I wouldn’t want and am thankful it never came to that. The same can’t be said for our heroes. I hope you all are enjoying their journey. Remember friends, it always gets darkest before the dawn.
Dusk settled in on the day after the Imperium’s worst defeat in one hundred and fifty years. Morale was virtually nonexistent. All told, the division lost over fourteen thousand troopers in the ambush. Two hundred more were in critical condition and not expected to last the week. Billions of credits’ worth of equipment and countless lives were lost. Word of the defeat had already been forwarded to command, and it was widely believed that the division was going to be disbanded upon its return to Amicir. Soldiers were going to be given the opportunity to go home or be reassigned to new units. Other wars had to go on.
There seemed little doubt that this travesty would smear Pierce’s once grand name. It was a shame, for Pierce had been of the best leaders the Imperium military had ever had, despite his seeming ignorance of the planetary situation. No one was going to learn how things actually happened or why. His name would be disgraced and crucified for incompetence rather than lauded for his sacrifices.
Medical support was already on its way up from Trusgar and Fort Evans. Major Gregorson received word of Russell’s retirement and was forced back to the southern post to ensure things flowed. Helscape was fast falling apart. Gladak was down with fever, and doctors said he wasn’t going to be up to full strength for some time. The upside to all of that, from Gregorson’s perspective, was there weren’t many troops left to seek guidance.
Outlying villages along the Frontier quickly learned of the disaster, and hysteria surged across the lands. People fled for fear of what the Berserkers might do next. Growing concern over Kargosh and his army of marauders drove them from their homes in record numbers. Most tried to find a way to the safety of Draken, leaving the Wastes wide open to invasion. Total defeat was but a breath away.
But none of that was a concern for Nathan.
The hot water was the best he remembered ever slipping into. He must have stayed there for close to an hour before the heat cooled. The water was nearly black from grime and battle. A part of him hoped the bath was the first step to recovery from the horrors of the battle. Nathan closed his eyes and tried to forget the ordeals of the battle, of the beautiful woman he’d rescued. Of Snake Eyes riding down on him and carrying them all safely back to Black Tide. Of the dozens of lives he’d personally taken. It was all too much for one soul to bear.
Two months of his life had already been wasted on this rock of a world, and he honestly didn’t see it ending any time soon. Hire was going to be hard to find if he wanted to go back out into the deep desert. He wanted to go home — or did he? Too many thoughts were going through his head to distinguish themselves. Despite his best efforts, the tragic events in the Gorge continued to play out.
His recent thoughts often carried him full circle and always centered on the strange redhead he’d pulled from death. Emerald. Who was she? Where was she from, and why did she want to fight the Berserkers? He may never know those answers, making the mystery of her attractions all the more potent. His final thought before drifting asleep was of Kane and if the man was still alive.
Some men truly believed the gods clung to a perverse sense of humor, laughing at the expense of trials constantly heaped upon mortals. For himself, Yonash Hosking wasn’t sure. Nor did he particularly care. He’d never seen a god. Never felt their blessed presence standing just behind his shoulder. As far as Hosking was concerned the gods could go screw themselves. He was in control of his own life- at least until the Berserker ambush cast his world in flames.
He died at that moment. His will evaporated, the drive to fight on captured and in ruins. Hosking dropped his helmet and waited for the minions of the Seven Hells to take him away. Tired and without hope, Yonash Hosking sank to his knees.
“Why did You do this to me?” he asked the heavens. “Have I been so wrong in my life as to deserve this?”
Hosking’s arms dropped lifelessly down, and his chest slumped. “I had such promise,” he whispered. “Such promise, and You took it all away from me. Left me alone in this Hell with my failure to keep me warm. How could You do such a thing?”
It was then that Yonash Hosking refused to believe in the Old Gods. There weren’t any Gods, and there wasn’t any force controlling his destiny. He was alone and abandoned in a cruel world where he could only count on himself. He didn’t need the Gods after the truth of self-preservation became evident. That unforgettable moment when the realization of only two possible outcomes was possible. You either lived or you died.
Yonash always had been alone, not only now. And he’d always came through. So why should this time be any different? He’d risen from the ash and sand a new man. A machine with newfound purpose. Hosking finally learned what he was always meant to be. There, at the fractured end of sanity, Yonash Hosking knew he was a reaper of souls.
A fresh spark ignited in his soul and brought changes through his mind. The darkness suddenly became clear. I will not die like this, he told the crusted Gods. I will not die like this! Purpose and direction became aware of the future. They told him it was time to exact revenge for the countless numbers of companions who could not. They had laughed at him. Mocked him for his inexperience and insecurities. Now it was his turn.
Glory and reward would be heaped at his feet. Then the world went black.
The concussion Hosking had suffered in the final critical moments of the battle did little to strip him of his self-appointed mission. He awoke in a hospital bed with the same inner fire discovered during the war. His life had become a monument to the fallen, and he was content with it. Friends and family back home would learn of his death shortly, no doubt shattering the illusions held by his father. He laughed at his imagined secrecy. Laughed because he was alive. No one else did. The newfound joy was almost too much to bear. Tempting images of grim-set Berserkers haunted the gray areas in his mind. They poked and prodded his inner corners. Goaded him into a preemptive strike.
“I’m going to find you,” he whispered. “I’m going to find you and kill you all.”
Pain subdued him to unconsciousness with the oath still wet on his lips.
Emerald was surprised she managed to wake up. She was alone in a private room and disorientated, but alive nonetheless. Moans and sorrowful gurgles seeped through the walls. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t heard before. Frail wooden crutches were over by the door. The pain in her leg hit before she had time to figure out what was wrong. She barely recalled surgeons resetting her leg and binding it in a cast.
Her only clothing was the hospital gown, drab grey and shifting. Emerald smiled once she found her own clothes, washed and mended on the table across the room. A full-length mirror hung on the wall next to it, so she decided it was time to see how bad the damage was for herself. Her reflection wasn’t as kind as she was hoping, but she was still alive.
Bruises littered her body, leaving no cause to wonder how brutal the fighting had been. Bandages covered her forehead and rib cage. Her right leg was in a cast below the knee, and she looked worse than she felt. Rather than having those damned orderlies come in and bathe her again, Emerald opted for getting dressed and moving back to her hotel room. She hoped she was still in Black Tide.
The gown fell in a pile at her feet. She slid her shirt down over her head, flattening it out in a vain attempt at making herself feel better. It wasn’t until she tried slipping into her pants that she realized her leg wasn’t going to fit. Determined not to spend her entire recovery in this room, Emerald cut the pants at the knees and wiggled her way into them. The style wasn’t to her liking, but they were on, and she wasn’t anywhere near as exposed as she’d been in that gown.
Content but not satisfied with the way she looked, Emerald hobbled her way into the sunlight and back to her hotel.
Some people were born lucky. Some weren’t. Snake Eyes had never considered himself to be a lucky man despite his nickname. Still, he was about to be cited for the highest medal of heroism the Imperium had, and he just couldn’t see why. He’d done what he was trained to do, what any good noncommissioned officer should do: take charge in the absence of orders. Sure, his actions had saved hundreds of lives, men and women he was never going to see again. It was a small thing, but no matter how many medals he received, they weren’t going to be enough to bring back those friends he’d lost in the Gorge.
It was just past noon, and he was standing in the hospital tent’s open doorway staring at the rows of wounded. Klausky was in there. Seli T’lain was too. Others weren’t as fortunate. The Slayer was missing and presumed dead, along with Lieutenant Hosking. Thirty-six others were dead and gone; his platoon had deployed with forty-five and came back with nine. That was war.
Having seen enough, Snake fished out a native cigarette and enjoyed the flavor. The division was still in shambles, and there was no duty roster. He had nothing to do but mope around or make sure everyone else was getting better. A leader always opted for the second choice. Stuffing his hands in his pockets and shifting the smoke to the corner of his mouth, Snake went back to his tent.
Xill was the only one up. He’d volunteered to guard the weapons so the others could get some of their strength back. Snake was glad to have him along. Crendaphidians were good in a fight, but Xill was the only true friend he had. Having him in the squad made things a lot easier than they should have been.
“How are you holding up?” he asked his three-eyed friend after taking up a stool next to him.
“A little sore, but not too bad. How about you?”
Snake Eyes snorted. “Do you have to ask?”
“I suppose not. Is there any word on Kane or Nathan yet?”
“Bourne moved into the Inferno downtown, and no one’s seen the Slayer since we left. He’s probably dead.”
Xill shifted uneasily at the word. “I don’t think so, Sarge.”
“What gives you that idea?”
“He doesn’t seem like the sort to die easily. My money is on him. We call men like that qruxliam. Chosen. My people have a sense about them. Kane’s alive. I can feel it.”
Ancient myths and cultures were beyond Snake’s ideas of reasoning, and he wasn’t about to consign himself to their beliefs now, no matter how good a friend Xill was.
“No one has seen him, Xill. He wasn’t with the main body. You could have overlooked this in the middle of the fight.”
“Possible, but unlikely,” Xill shrugged. He wasn’t about to give up. “I want to go back out there and look for him.”
Snake Eyes choked on the smoke in his lungs. “You know they’re not going to approve that. Hells, they won’t even think about it. No one gets in or out of here without the commander’s authorization.”
“He’s alive, Sergeant Kimel. I know it.” Xill was normally passive unless in the middle of combat, but his voice was raised to the point of anger.
“There’s a lot of good people dead out there. The Imperium doesn’t give squaffa about one local who volunteered to come with us. I really think you should reconsider the notion that Kane’s dead and focus on the rest of the platoon.” Snake Eyes got up and left without saying another word. He didn’t have time or inclination to give in to Xill’s superstition. So many were lost it was next to impossible to gain accurate accountability. The only things he knew he could trust were himself and his weapons. Everything had to be proved.
But still, there was a certain fondness for the lost man in him. Kane was a good fighter and a wise man. They might even have become friends in another time and place. Helscape’s fresh, bitter air stung him. Smoke from earlier battles burned his lungs.
The cigarette dropped away, and he cursed. He owed the man at least one honest effort. Finding him was going to be a pain in the ass, especially among so many bodies.
“Aw, Hells,” he cursed and stalked off in search of something he still had no idea of.