The weekend came and went so fast I almost forgot today was Monday! Things continue to pick up for me and the pace never slows. Not only is the Lazarus Men free this week, but I gave away almost 500 copies of the Dragon Hunters last week. Not a bad way to go. Now if only all of you would leave reviews for the books you’ve read I might sleep a little better. Let’s get back to our story.
“Ease away from the door nice and slow. Do as I say, and we all walk away a happy crew,” the Viper warned in a low voice. “Mess this up, and I call the morgue.”
It was all Nathan could do to restrain his rage. The assassin had betrayed them. “You son of a bitch!”
This brought a smile to the Viper’s face. “You didn’t really think you could trust me, did you? I find it extremely hard to believe one could be so naive in times as these. Step aside.”
Xill balled his fists and stepped forward to block the way.
The Viper leveled the laser sight on his chest and smirked. “Do you really feel the need to be a hero? Up against the wall, all of you.”
War often makes strange bedfellows, and this assortment was ragged indeed. He’d never thought to find such a group assembled, not even in the Wastes where anything was possible. Impressed as he was, it took only a second to reach a decision.
“Lawman, you just got drafted to open the door. You two stand fast unless you feel like testing my resolve,” he added.
Snake Eyes and Xill stood silent.
The Viper saw slight surprise in Nathan’s eyes and laughed. “Come, now, did you honestly think you fit in with this bunch? I smelled you out before you got to my table. Hurry up and open it. I don’t have all day.”
“And if I refuse?” Nathan asked. He was sickened by the thought of being caught weaponless like this.
“You die, and I do it myself. How many people are inside?”
“Couldn’t tell you,” he shrugged.
Snake Eyes spat, “Open it, and find out.”
The Viper almost liked the man, but Nathan was at a loss. His choices were limited, with none going in their favor. Snake Eyes scowled but remained motionless. There was little doubt in his mind that he’d be gunned down the moment he went for his sidearm. The assassin’s falcon watched them with a steely gaze. Nathan’s hand reluctantly grasped the doorknob and twisted. His breath came out exhausted as the door groaned open with an agonizing screech.
A few chairs and a table were the only things in view, forcing the Viper in to get a better look. The room was heavy with the smell of sickness, confirming that Kane was in there.
“Good work, Lawman,” he cooed. “Now get over there with your buddies. This isn’t going to take long. I promise.”
He kicked the door open and stepped inside. The Viper knew why Kane had sent for him. Oh, yes. The damned Slayer intended to accuse him of setting up the Imperium. Too bad he was in no condition to follow through with the threat. In just a few minutes, Kane was going to die, and there wouldn’t be any witnesses.
The Viper turned to the three against the wall and barked in hushed tones, “Throw your weapons inside.”
The weapons scuttled across the aged wood floor. The assassin smiled with how easy his opponents were making this. A Helscape man would have at least put up a fight. It took a second to come in sight of the bed and draw a bead on his prostate target, but there was something missing. This didn’t feel right. He caught something flying towards him out of the corner of his eye but too late for him to move aside. The Viper braced for impact, knowing it would do little good. The metal bar caught him across the temple and dropped him to the dusty floor.
Exhausted, Kane collapsed next to his unconscious foe. Nathan led the others back in to help as needed, stepping over the assassin to get Kane back into his bed. The Slayer was covered with sweat matting his filthy hair across his face. None of them would ever learn the amount of energy and determination it took for Aradias to get out of bed and save his own life that day.
“What about him?” Snake Eyes asked. He wanted to kill the man so bad.
“Don’t kill him,” Kane managed through harsh gasps. “A coward and murderer he may be, but I have no desire to harm him.”
“He damned sure had it in his mind to finish you,” Snake Eyes said.
“Sometimes we need be stronger than the rest. Tie him to the chair, and let’s wait for him to wake up. There are many questions needing to be answered here.”
“Come on, Xill, give me a hand with this guy,” Snake Eyes reluctantly agreed.
They stripped him of his overcoat and all the weapons they could find, though there were undoubtedly more hidden where none of them had the desire to look. His falcon had flown off right before Kane struck and was now skulking in the rafters in the corner. Xill was half-impressed with the intensity of firepower the assassin carried. There was enough to arm a small rifle squad. Snake Eyes poured himself a glass of whiskey and sat down to wait for the assassin to wake up.
Twenty minutes later, the Viper started showing signs of life.
“Move me closer to him,” Kane said. “I’ll not sit here like an old man.”
It took a bit of doing, but Nathan and Xill finally managed Kane into a better place from which to interrogate. The Viper groaned one time and tried to rub an aching temple. He wasn’t surprised to find himself tied down and slowly bleeding from a small cut over his right eye. Grinning at the backwardness of it, the Viper looked at the faces surrounding him. “So this is how it’s going to be?” he asked.
Kane nodded. “Until I get the answers I want.”
“That was a pretty good hit for a man with one hand.”
Twisted memories crept back, but he knew it was the Viper’s way of trying to take the advantage away. “Why did you try to kill me?”
“You know how the game works, Aradias. I get to you before you can ice me. The rules of the game.”
“I have no intentions of killing you, Assassin.”
The Viper tried to laugh, but the pain was too much. “Squaffa! Why else would you send for me? You knew it was I who sold them the data. I imagine you hold me responsible for their folly in that warped mind of yours? Truth of the matter is that I didn’t kill anyone, yet. Those fools went there on their own accord and died for their ignorance.” He passed a judgmental stare towards the other three.
“Yet you made it all possible for a small fee,” Kane snarled.
“Ten thousand troopers died because of you!” an enraged Snake Eyes roared. The alcohol was taking control, making him too dangerous for the delicacy of the meeting. “I ought to give you a taste of what we went through.”
“Sit down,” Nathan ordered. “No one is going to kill anyone tonight. Let’s hear what he has to say before we pass judgment.”
Kane held up a weak hand. “We are straying from the purpose of this conversation. It doesn’t matter what happened or why. Nothing we do will bring any of them back, no matter how hard we try. But we may yet still be able to mold the future.”
“I’m listening,” the Viper said, suddenly interested.
“The Imperium will no doubt have been called off world by now, leaving us to fend for ourselves — a dire prospect considering the people here have grown too accustomed to having the Imperium around when matters get bad.”
“You’re not telling any big secrets, Aradias. What’s the good part?”
The Viper was generally an impatient man with no time to dawdle on directionless conversations.
“I want the location of the Berserker Hive.”
Every breath in the room stopped at the same time.
The midnight hour passed without much difference from the last or the next. Emerald sat alone in her room, trying to find ways to keep her mind off of the terrible itching under her cast. Her body was sore and aching, but the leg hadn’t started to itch until today. The wound on her forehead was healing, and she’d struggled through the fever attempting to consume her.
Her weapons were scattered throughout the room, some assembled but most in pieces for cleaning. Fever, sleep and delirium had passed most of her days until she’d begun to feel her battered body fixing itself. Emerald had been banged up before, on more than one occasion, but nothing with this intensity. She was lucky to be alive. It was past midnight before the water she’d drawn for a bath was cool enough to climb into.
“Tough warrior my ass,” she winced as pain assailed her with each movement.
The logistics of keeping the cast up and out of the water for so long soon became evident, but that wasn’t enough to deter her. Emerald stayed in the relaxing waters for over an hour. It did more than cleanse her. It helped her forget the ordeals of the day and let her focus on the future. The water turning cold, Emerald climbed out and hobbled over to the table. She didn’t bother with getting dressed. There was no one here to see her.
Her weapons had been cleaned a dozen times already, and she found herself looking down on them with disgust. Frustrated, the young Slayer tried lying down, but every time she closed her eyes, she could see the shadowy face of her rescuer. It was pleasant enough to purchase her smiles, though she had no idea who he was. The harder she tried keeping him from her thoughts, the more he was embedded in them. Nathan, she recalled with little effort. He’d said his name was Nathan. But who was he? He wasn’t a soldier and definitely was no native. So who was he? It didn’t take long for her to decide finding him was going to be what she needed to keep her mind away from the misery. When the morning came, she would set out in search of this Nathan, but until then, she found herself the willing servant of the lord called Sleep.
The long, dark night continued its march across the open deserts unhindered. With it went a chorus of howls and viciousness. Sand Dragons launched from their rocky tombs to scour the night. Zorinths roved in packs, and giant spiders lurked in their holes. Always there circled the hungry argots. Night went on.
A single man plucked his way through the darkness, bent on a task and not willing to rest until it was seen through. His name was Thalon Zimbele. He was dressed in the fashion of a pirate from Furnace Island with knee-high boots and billowy red pantaloons. His dark overcoat covered the ruffled black shirt he wore. This combined with a patch over his eye lent him a menacing appearance. He kept his mustache thick and drooping with blue-black hair tied back in a tight tail. His skin was steel gray, the color of the boiler cauldrons back in the cantinas.
Thalon had been riding for four days. Each stride brought him that much closer to his final destination of Black Tide. The drastic change in climate didn’t sit well with him, making it hard for him to concentrate. The island was heated by dozens of active volcanoes and never dropped below eighty degrees. Temperatures often dropped as low as freezing on this side of the river.
The bouncing motions the horse tended to roil his stomach, and he longed for the open sea. Eighty years he’d sailed the Lava Sea and so planned on another eighty. Nowhere in his designs did it call for him to ride a horse. He wouldn’t even have been on the damnable creature if it hadn’t been for the insistence of the wizard. Hells, Thalon wouldn’t have left the comforts of their ship if it hadn’t been for the wizard. Wizards were a dangerous breed when crossed, however, so he’d agreed to undertake the errand.
Only darkness loomed before him. Another day would find him in the relative comforts of Black Tide. Another day in this insufferable emptiness. He couldn’t understand why people chose to live in this environment, but it was hardly of notice. Just one more day, and he could rest.