We’ve Come So Far

But have so much farther to go! I never envisioned what success would be like. Sure, I’ve had dreams and a goal- a positive direction I wanted to move in. I knew what I wanted to achieve, but I never stopped to think about the actualization of it all. Getting emails, comments on social media, and reviews good enough to make me blush from people across the globe are not only validation, but achievement.

The army part of me doesn’t care what people think of me. I do what I do and that’s it. The writer side is a whole different animal. Your validation of me keeps my fingers dancing across the keyboard. Where would I be without all of you?

Let’s keep reading.

FOUR

Dark Conspiracy

Night dropped around them as they moved from shadow to shadow. None of them were in the mood to answer questions, and, thus, they tried their best to remain undetected. The journey hadn’t even begun, though the anxiety was mounting. Only the Gods remained to watch their actions. Nathan was in the lead, followed closely by the other two. He was the only one with normal clothes and at least looked like he fit in. Snake and Xill moved like soldiers on a patrol.

“It might go a little easier if you’d relax some,” Nathan offered. The prospect of being caught like this wasn’t one he enjoyed.

“Do you have any idea what will happen to us if we’re caught?” Snake snapped back.

“Do you have any idea how much attention you’re going to draw our way if you keep acting like soldiers?”

Xill chuckled.

They found Skrapp waiting right where he told them he’d be. Nathan would have been impressed with the saddled horses and laid out garb if he didn’t know a little about the old man. He looked at the horses and marveled. They were bred from the finest Wasteland stock. Each was born and raised to survive the harsh desert conditions and was equally enormous. He’d never seen a horse so big and defined. Braxton was off in the shadows, focusing his sole eye on Xill.

“Punctuality suits you, Mr. Bourne,” he announced, stepping into the lamp light.

“Tell that to my ex-wife. Are we ready?”

Skrapp gave a curt nod. “As soon as these two get dressed.”

He returned Xill’s deep stare, as if to answer an unspoken question. “We’ll soon find out, won’t we?”

Nathan and Snake Eyes stared at each other but remained quiet.

“Come on, boys. We’ve got a friend to rescue.”

The old man led the way, being the first to climb aboard his horse. Nathan was atop his own and grinning at the sight of Snake trying to figure out what to do. Apparently, soldiers weren’t necessarily exceptional horsemen. His own parents were in the business of raising and selling horses back in New York’s scenic country. Nathan used to love spending a day riding and being with the mighty beasts.

Skrapp offered a hearty laugh at their cumbrous movements. “You’ve got to talk to her, lad. The damned thing got a mind of her own. All she needs is a little sweet talkin’ and some trust.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Snake Eyes replied, struggling to stay on.

Skrapp gave him a disapproving glare and said, “Let’s get on with this. It’s not going to stay dark forever.”

Black Tide was known for its one road going down the middle, but a hundred alleys and side streets came later. It was through these that Skrapp took them, knowing which way to turn to avoid Imperium patrols and the city watch. They passed several who knew him, and each of them walked by wondering what could have made the old man go back on the hunt. No one spoke as they rode by. The party was at the rudely constructed city gates before long.

The men on duty had an empty look to them, as if it was a chore rather than a duty. Nathan looked closer and noticed they wore the same regimental crest as Snake. This may prove a problem if they looked too close. Despair started taking root.

“Where are you heading to this late in the day?” asked the sergeant while he looked over Skrapp’s papers. “Roads aren’t safe around this time.”

“Furnace Island,” the old man answered. “We’re hunting down the man responsible for murdering this one’s family.” He was pointing back at Xill.

Not finding anything wrong with the papers, the Sergeant had no choice but to let them proceed. “All right, you can go, but be careful. Open the gates!”

Cowls helped conceal their identity from the guards as they rode past. The sergeant suspiciously watched them until they were lost in the darkness.

“I thought we were made,” Nathan told Skrapp once he was satisfied that they were out of sight. “Where did the murder story come from?”

“It wasn’t exactly hard to think of. Things like that happen almost daily in these parts. All you need to do is sit at the end of the bar and listen. Just because we’re at war with the Berserkers doesn’t mean we can’t still be at war with ourselves, Mr. Bourne. Go ahead and ask those two. I think they can tell you.”

Nathan dropped back a little and stayed quiet. The idea was absurd. A people on the verge of annihilation, and they wasted time killing one another. It didn’t make any sense.

They stopped a few hundred meters from the mouth of the Gap. Skrapp wheeled about and asked, “Is there anyone not ready for this?”

Silence answered him.

“Good. From this point on, there’s no unnecessary noise. The desert has eyes and ears in the night, and the damned Berserkers may still be lurking beneath us. No talking, no noise. Break out the glow rods when we get in that mess. Come on.”

Scavenging zorinths stared at them with vile red eyes, refusing to give up their meals until the last possible moment and then scattering off to a safe position in the nearby night. Shadows came alive, conjuring images of bloodthirsty Berserkers lining the canyon walls. Nathan shuddered and looked to see if anyone had noticed. A sense of relief came to him once he saw the others dealing with their own ghosts.

The ripe smell of sun-baked, rotting flesh was the first thing to strike them. They were past the teeth and driving into the Gorge. One of the horses skittered and tried to bolt but was brought under control. Snake Eyes wove his way through the bodies and found himself fighting a thousand flashbacks. It hardly seemed like the horror had happened a few days ago.

“This is an evil place,” Skrapp whispered. His horse tossed her head back in agreement. The same evil feeling was creeping down her spine as well.

A shadow moved. Whispers of harsh voices carried on the wind. Skrapp’s skin prickled. The enemy was here. The old Slayer slowly drew his blaster, ensuring it was charged. It had been almost two decades since he’d killed his last Berserker, but the instinct remained in his blood.

Skrapp kicked ahead to flush out the lurking monsters, be they scavenger or killer. He called back for them to stay put, willingly offering himself as bait. Snake immediately took up a defensive posture. He didn’t like how the old man just left them. Conditioning warned him something wasn’t right. Using hand signals, Snake took charge of the group. They fanned out five meters apart, weapons ready, and followed Skrapp. Although there weren’t any feelings endearing the men together, Snake Eyes wasn’t about to let another man die on his watch.

Broken spears stuck up from half-eaten bodies, and tattered banners flew on the empty winds. A thin mist blanketed the ground. It wasn’t overly thick but had enough density to lend the world an eerie effect. Twisted bodies lay strewn as far as the light would shine. This was the scene of the last battle, when the fighting had been the heaviest. An argot sang a haunting song from high above. It wasn’t long until they came upon the first wreckage. The fires that had gutted it had burned out some time ago, but the heat still simmered.

“By the Gods,” Skrapp whispered.

And then he saw them: three hulking Berserkers stalking through the desert night. The old man smiled, grim and determined. So many deaths lay around him. Revenge begged for fruition. Skrapp carefully took aim at the nearest monster and fired. The round struck the Berserker in the middle of his back, severing the spine before erupting through his chest. He died without a groan. The shot echoed off the dead canyon walls. The surviving monsters spun to meet the attack with wild roars. The larger burst into flames and attacked.

The smell of burnt flesh and hair choked Skrapp. His horse whined in fear and reared back, tossing the old man heavily to the ground. Skrapp hit hard and did not get up. Snake Eyes watched the opening moments of the fight and cursed Skrapp for attacking on his own. Jets of flame shot out towards them. Snake Eyes guided his horse right, narrowly missing a ball of fire before it exploded against a boulder. Ion fire lanced out into the darkness, striking the flaming monster in the head and shoulders. The rescuers barely had time to move away before the Berserker exploded, taking the last one with him. As quickly as it had started, the small battle ended.

Nathan was the first to reach Braxton’s unconscious form. The grizzled Slayer had a few cuts and small bruises but looked none the worse for wear. With Xill’s help, Nathan dragged the old man to a small cluster of rocks and helped him sit up. Nathan poured water over the man’s face and neck, wiping away some of the grime. Snake Eyes rejoined them a moment later with Skrapp’s frightened horse.

“That was not what I needed tonight,” he dryly remarked as he sat down and opened his canteen. “How’s Grandpa?”

“He’ll be all right,” Xill answered. “Just needs some time to rest.”

Snake Eyes looked at them questioningly. “Are you sure that’s a smart idea given the current situation?”

“No, but are you going to drag him around while we keep looking?” asked Nathan.

Snake Eyes conceded the point and turned out towards the hostile night.

Skrapp awoke about a half hour later, dazed and confused from a slight concussion. He looked around and grimaced. His head was pounding.

“Lads, I don’t know how in the Hells you escaped this, but ye have my respect for the rest of my days.”

“Too bad not many more are going to see it that way,” Snake Eyes commented. At least the conversation helped ease the pain of looking into the dead’s eyes.

“Did ye even stand a chance, I wonder?” Skrapp went on.

Xill bowed his head as if in prayer. “No. They hit us before we were ready to fight. It was the worst thing I have ever been party to.”

“And we would have been right there with these guys if Kane hadn’t warned us,” added Snake Eyes.

“Can we just find Kane and get the fuck out of here?” Nathan asked. The spooks were growing.

“Aye. I’ll be glad to leave this place.”

Their quest took them into the long hours of the night, always with the same empty results. Nathan was slowly losing hope. Half of the dead were no more than just that: half of a body. They were charred beyond recognition and could hardly be identified as human. Another hour went by with the same results. Disappointment was fast becoming a reality, and dawn was getting closer. Their hands were bloodied and soiled from handling all the dead, and, despite their best intentions, each of them wanted to be back in town right now and forget about this once and for all.

Another hour found them standing over the scene of Joneth Pierce’s last stand. Xill shined the light on his heartless body and was amazed that it was relatively intact. His enemies lay about him in a circle as if in testament to his bravery. Pierce had died a warrior, which was the only way he could have. That his body was still there meant the Berserkers had respect for the man. Snake Eyes could have shot him for his short-sighted ignorance.

“Should we bury him?” Xill asked.

“No,” Snake Eyes replied. “Leave him to his glory, and let’s hope his legacy is over.” He looked over to Skrapp and said, “We’ve come too far. We never made it this far in the Gorge.”

“So we double back and look again.”

“What if we don’t find him?” Nathan asked.

“Then we have one damned big funeral party!” Skrapp announced without caring who heard.

Hours dragged on until the dawn threatened the night skies. Spirits sagged the more they rode, and still they found nothing. With so many dead, it was next to impossible to find one man unless that man wanted to be found. They had finally resigned to failure and were heading back towards Black Tide when they detected the sound of something big scurrying along the canyon wall. Snake Eyes drew his blaster and directed the light towards the noise. The sight left him with a great sadness and sickening feeling in the pit of stomach.

“Over here! I found someone,” he called out.

They hurried to where he waited and halted, amazed and more than a little sickened. Bathed in the glow rod’s pale light was a crawling man everyone had taken for dead. He was missing a hand and was covered with cuts and bruises. Kane should have been dead, but that fire inside just wouldn’t go out. Not yet, at any rate.

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