We’ve gone through a roller coaster of emotions, haven’t we? The invasion is over- or so it seems. The Imperium has been kicked hard and pushed back. Here’s the interesting part. The part movies and television seem to lack (for the most part). How do soldiers deal with the aftermath? How do we pick up the pieces and go on, knowing that our friends are no longer beside us? It’s not an easy feat, let me tell you. The first time I came home from Afghanistan in 2003 it took well over a month just to reintegrate. But you don’t want to hear about me. Let’s get back to the story.
Mornings were Nathan’s least favorite time of day. Working third shift for the last few years hadn’t contributed much to improve that assessment. His recent experiences here on Helscape had only made things worse. Sleep had captured him not long after his bath the night before and had held him until a heavy rapping struck his door. He groaned and rolled over with the pillow over his head, hoping they would go away. The knocking only grew louder. Nathan finally gave in and tried to wake up.
“Bastard’s persistent, I’ll give him that much,” he muttered and struggled into a pair of pants.
“All right, already! Hold on, damn it, I’m getting there!”
He threw the door wide open and reflexively stepped back. It wasn’t who he was expecting.
“What do you want?” he asked in surprise.
Snake Eyes pushed his way past the half-naked man and said, “We need to talk.”
Double-checking the hallway to ensure there were no other surprises in store, Nathan closed the door.
“Come on in.” His sarcasm went unnoticed to his already seated guest. Snake actually looked refreshed. What the hell? Bastard doesn’t even look like he was in a fight.
“You’re one of the last people I expected to see again. Frankly, I’m amazed and a little impressed that you’re still alive. A lot of trained bodies are rotting back there, but here you are. Funny thing war is, wouldn’t you say?” Snake Eyes asked, offering him a smoke at the same time.
“Shit happens,” he said, graciously accepting the cigarette. “I hope you didn’t come all this way to try and figure out the why of the matter.”
“No. I didn’t.”
Nathan was confused. “Ok, what then?”
“It’s Kane. He’s missing.”
Nathan remained quiet. He imagined Kane was dead along with almost everyone else. The pain of it was still too near to him for his liking. Aradias Kane was the one man who’d looked after him without question and stayed loyal, for reasons Nathan had yet to discover, while they were together. That kind of loyalty was rare in a man on any world.
“I lost track of him in the fighting,” he finally said in a quiet voice. “It’s possible he’s dead; otherwise, he probably would have turned up by now.” The Earthman had to stop as a tear settled in the corner of his eye.
“I already tried to argue that point with Xill, and I lost. It’s a long story, but I think I’m going to need your help.”
The sucker punch was coming any second now. He tensed.
“Tonight, I plan on taking a small team back into the Gorge to see if we can find him. This is completely unauthorized, and we’ll be on our own if anything happens. What do you say?”
There it is. Nathan smiled. “Why me?”
“Two reasons. First, you made it out without any major injuries. You can still fight if it comes to that. Second, you’re a civilian. No one will miss you.”
The idea wasn’t sitting well. “At least you’re honest. Why not wait until your boys go back in to police up the bodies?”
Snake Eyes let his head droop a little. “Because it hasn’t been scheduled yet. Look, I know it sounds hokey, but there’s a chance he’s still alive. That puts me in a difficult position. I’m morally obligated to rescue him. We all fought and bled on the same sand. And I agree that no one man is more important than another, but a unit is just like a big family. Like it or not, you’re part of our unit. In or out?”
Nathan thought long and hard. He failed to notice his cigarette burning all the way down until it scored his knuckles.
“What do you need me to do?” he finally asked. The wizened sergeant couldn’t help but smile.
“We’re going to need civilian clothing, for myself and Xill. Then we need to find some horses, at least four. I’m pretty sure the army will frown upon us taking a tank out there. Which brings us to the last thing. We’re going to need local help getting out of town. Got any ideas?”
Nathan nodded. “I think I know just the man for the job. Meet me in an hour at the Inferno, and leave the rest to me.”
Daily life was usually the same, normal routine for a bar owner. The early mornings were spent cleaning up and getting ready for the coming nights. Braxton Skrapp often wondered why he’d chosen this job in the first place. The Inferno was his baby, and last night was the busiest in its questionable history. After all, what better way was there to relieve the fears running wild than with a cold draft of ale?
Recent events were disturbing. The arrival of Kane’s friend a short while ago was at the top of the list. Most Helscape natives chose to let the dead stay that way. Neither of them wanted to admit that the scheme was futile, but the thought was there. They waited in silence until Snake Eyes poked his head into the office.
Skrapp glanced up and said, “By all means, sit down and explain this to me.”
He took a nervous seat and struggled to find the right words.
The old man held up his hand. “Save your speech, soldier. Mr. Bourne here has told me all about your little plan. Can’t say as I blame you, but you’re wasting your time. If it was his time, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“That’s just it,” he replied. “We think he’s still alive.”
“And what in the Seven Hells makes you believe that?”
Snake Eyes went on to explain the Crendaphidian beliefs and his whole conversation with Xill. The tale helped ease some of the tension choking the room. Some, but not all.
“A wise people,” Skrapp agreed, “but that doesn’t tell me why I should commit so many resources at a high risk.”
“I thought you said Kane was like a son to you?” Nathan asked.
“He is,” snapped the barkeep. “Both of you, listen close to what I have to say, and you might just learn a little of what life is really like on this rock.”
Embarrassment left Nathan with the feeling he’d been scolded by his granddad.
“This tale begins nigh on eighty years ago. Humph, didn’t realize it was so long ago. I was in my prime then. One of the best in the business. There weren’t many who could match me when it came to skill. I was out on a hunt, riding my way through the Northern Wastes, when I stumbled across a burning village. Always a sad thing to see, you know. Anyways, I decided to stop and see if there was anything I could for the survivors. See, that was back in the days when the Berserkers first come up with the idea to slaughter everyone.”
“We really don’t have time for this,” Snake began.
Braxton cast an evil glance, forcing the soldier to back down. “My bar, my rules. You don’t like it the door is right behind you.”
Snake shifted his anger towards Nathan, who could only sit back in a vain attempt at getting out line of sight.
Satisfied, Braxton reached for a glass on the bar back. He drank heavily from a glass of brown water that Nathan decided wasn’t healthy for anyone. Talking always left his throat a little sore these days.
“I made my way through the ashes. My stomach was turning. There must have been over two hundred bodies there. Never even knew what hit them. There was nothing I could do, so I kept riding. I found a lone house almost intact on the edge of town. That still amazes me. A couple moments later, I heard someone crying.”
“I slid from my horse and stormed the building, ready to kill anything that moved. Well, it was a little boy I found that day. He was looking all sad-eyed and covered in blood. Some of it was his, some wasn’t. Had a dagger in his hands, even held it like he knew what he was doing. That amazed me, for his whole family lay murdered throughout the house. What’s more important was the Berserker body lying at his feet.”
“I ask him his name. Aradias Kane, says he. Then I asked how he come to kill this monster, and he showed me the dagger. I had to laugh. The boy was practically born for the job. It took me a good while to pry that steel from his fingers, being scared as he was. Guess he let go once he found out I wasn’t a threat.”
Skrapp paused to clear his throat.
“I introduced myself and got down to dressing his wounds. The boy even offered to help me take care of the dead later on. My plans were to drop him off with a woman I knew here in Black Tide, but he started to grow on me. Always insisted I show him the how and why of the business. I was against it at first, but then I figured, who was I to deny him the revenge of his father? I raised that boy as my own flesh and soul.
“Aradias was an awkward lad, not much for coordination. But he had the fire in him. Trained him for ten years did I before he was ready for his first Hunt. The boy had no fear. He’d lost it when he saw how a Berserker can die just like a man. We rode out into the desert with one thing on our minds: blood. The revenge ate him up inside. I don’t know how he holds it all in. Would have killed most men. Damned sure would have done me in.
“We spent two full weeks out in the sand before we ran into anything. Down a few dunes was a Berserker raiding party getting ready to hit another village. ‘Might be the same ones that hit yours,’ I told him. ‘No,’ he says. ‘I know the face of my father’s killer.’ Boy slid from his horse, and we crept up to them. I killed one, but it was Kane who did the real work. He moved faster than a sand storm. Killed three and nearly another before they had the chance to run. That mark’s still unheard of, especially by a rookie boy.
“Aradias has a power in his soul. I can’t explain it and don’t try to anymore. If he is alive, that’s what is doing it.” Braxton fell silent to let his tale soak in.
His guests wondered and amazed over the life journey of a boy forcibly turned into a man. Hard decisions needed to be made. They exchanged pained looks, suddenly embarrassed for the manner in which they’d come to the Inferno. Men like Kane deserved better.
“Okay,” Skrapp finally conceded. “I’ll have the clothes and mounts ready in the hour. When do we leave?”
“You don’t have to come,” Snake Eyes told him.
“I spend an hour of my life telling you a story, and you didn’t keep your ears open?” Skrapp exclaimed. “When do we leave?”
“Right after nightfall, with the rest of the trader caravans.” Snake smiled. He was starting to get a good feeling about this.
“Meet me in the stables, then.”
Maybe Xill’s crazy scheme had a chance after all.