Happy Monday y’all! Hope you had a refreshing and relaxing weekend. Nothing like some good whiskey- no mixers please, we’re not animals after all- a fantastic couple of cigars and an afternoon at the pool to get me back in the mood to create. I was thinking through some generational issues with my kids and it got me to a point. The only way I know how to handle a problem is to attack. Right? There’s no point in avoiding the issue. Attack it, beat it, and advance. These kids today hide behind their fears instead of confronting them. Makes me think D Day would never have succeeded with this generation. Oh well, let’s jump back to Helscape and see what old Kane and his crew are up to.
The silence of the chamber dwarfed those seated within. There was none of the usual chatter passing back and forth before the speaker took his place, no joy to be away from the stress of everyday work. The hundreds assembled struggled to stay awake, and those who did were in a far off place. Gladak took the smallish stage under a blanket of anxiousness.
“Today,” he began in a low, grating voice, “marks the beginning of a new era for this proud division. The division chaplain will deliver a memorial to our fallen friends as soon as I am finished here. Hopefully, this will put our demons to rest and allow our focus shift on matters at hand. Today, I received official orders to report back to Amicir! This war is over. Everyone north of Minion will begin withdrawing at sunrise. Brigade commanders have the order of march.”
His eyes formed tight slits, and his heart filled with pride at their sudden renewal of life. They had purpose again.
“Hold your banners high so that every living person knows who you are. Take pride in your uniforms and your deeds. Indeed, you are all heroes in the eyes of the universe. Long live the 76th!”
The assembly broke out in cheers and fierce battle cries.
Gladak held up his hand for silence and began again. “It has been an honor and a privilege to serve among you, which makes my next statement more difficult to say.
“The division is being deactivated upon its return. Those of you willing to stay on with your careers in the military will be given reassignment to the unit of your choice. And if the rest of you feel that you have reached an end with recent events, you will be allowed to exit the service. Heed me, though! Take the lessons learned here, and put them to good use. Never let anyone say that you are a coward. I thank you all for the opportunity to serve you.”
His salute sent waves of sadness and elation across those gathered. The moment was more emotional than when they’d finally sat down to figure out if they were alive or not after the battle. Singly and then in groups, they rose to applaud their newest division commander. He was the man who was leading them home in pride. Gladak left the building with a grim impersonation of a smile. The Extinction Campaign was finally over. Helscape had won.
The Viper stepped back and drank long from Snake Eyes’ bottle. “I have nothing else to say. You have been given what you need to make it to the Hive with relative safety, not that it matters. You’re all going to die anyway.”
His part of the quest finished, the assassin moved to the back of the room and calmly lit his pipe. The soothing flavors of his smoke did much to liven his spirits while he sat and listened to their fractured arguments. A part of him admired Kane’s determination. The two soldiers were showing serious misgivings about their decisions, the apparent initial motivation for revenge wearing off. The Viper was silently laughing. Even if the fools made it there, the Berserkers would tear them apart in no time.
His eyes focused on the lawman with saddened conviction. It was as if the man had no choice but to tag along. Oh well, to the fires with them. What cause did it serve to go off and die a hero when there were plenty of jobs right here needing to be done?
“It’s getting late,” Braxton said, stretching his old bones. “I have work to do and must go. Good night.”
“And our bottle has just about reached the bottom,” Snake Eyes added. “Care to join me, Xill?”
The Crendaphidian snatched up his jacket with a smile. “I seem to have no choice.”
Nathan felt it was time to go as well. He was dead tired and needed some time along to digest the dangers he’d learned. Sunrise was fast in coming when he made his good-byes for the night.
He smiled. Her voice was the one thing he wanted to hear.
Emerald returned his smile and said, “I don’t think I got the chance to thank you for saving my life. I’d like to do that now.”
“I appreciate that, but there’s no need. I did what I did because you were still alive. Any man would have done the same.”
Emerald frowned. That was not the answer she was looking for.
“Look,” he said in attempts at amending whatever he said wrong, “how about I buy you a drink? Maybe we can get to know one another that way.”
“I’d like that.”
Together, they casually strolled their way to the Inferno.
Kane and the Viper were the last ones there. They sat staring at each other from across the room. The assassin plumed great smoke rings of changing color. Kane saw that it was time to make his bid.
“You spoke of the old Empire.”
“What about it?” the Viper cautiously asked, not sure which way Kane was going.
“Do you know the whole legend?” he asked.
The Viper watched him pour a drink and then painstakingly made his way to a chair next to him.
“Enough to know better,” he shrugged. “It was never important to me, but I assume you’re going to enlighten me?”
“With bits and pieces. Everyone knows how the old Empire ruled in splendor before the invasions, but since the first Berserker entered creation, no one has set foot within the old palace. Can you imagine the wealth accumulated down there? An entire empire lost forever. The Berserkers have no need for jewels or riches, and the Northern armies kept their loot stashed there when their king took over. Even you might be able to profit from this incursion. Think about it.”
The Viper laughed. “Think how many ways you will die! You really are crazy, aren’t you? I’m not about to risk my neck for some dusty pieces of gold when I can get paid for hunting men down. The rewards are the same, but the price is far less dangerous. Keep your forgotten treasure, old man. I’ll stick to killing men.”
“Legends say a terrible sandstorm was conjured by wizards, burying the palace for all eternity. Ask yourself, what would the Berserkers do with that wealth? They have no allies, no friends to purchase weapons from. What would you do with the fortune?”
Kane smiled to himself. He knew it was going to take some time for his words to sink in, but the Viper couldn’t resist the lure of wealth. This was far from over.
“The treasure is still there,” he went on. “All alone in those cold caverns waiting for the right master to claim it.”
The Viper knocked the tobacco from his pipe and placed it inside his jacket. “Aradias, you need let your wound heal before you go off on some fool crusade. And watch your back when you do. They may be good people, but they know nothing about what they’re up against. Ignorance will get them killed.”
The door swung shut behind him. Kane let out a sigh. The bait was set, and he knew it was only a matter of time before the Viper bit.
Thalon entered the smoke-filled bar room and was taken aback by the stark contrast to his own home of Redemption. A place like the Inferno there wouldn’t dare have windows, much less the mirth and merriment going on here. There hadn’t even been a fight since he walked in. This was definitely not a pirate’s paradise. His silk clothes and overall appearance drew immediate attention from the few local women, but as much as he liked to indulge in their darkest fantasies, they were going to have to wait. Maybe later, though, his looks suggested.
He scanned the crowd with a cold eye until he was rewarded with the one he sought. Thalon slipped through the crowds to meet the one the wizard had spoken of.
“What can I get fer ya, lad?” Braxton asked.
“You are the owner, Braxton Skrapp, are you not?”
The old Slayer’s hand slipped down to the rifle he kept under the bar. “Aye, but I don’t seem to recall you.”
“That is unimportant right now. I have been sent from Redemption to find you,” Thalon said. He caught how Skrapp’s hand moved and smiled. This guy was no fool, but he left something to be desired. “I assure you, sir, you have no need of that with me. I am looking for Aradias Kane. I have news that may interest him.”
Confusion slapped Braxton across the face. Only seven people knew about the plan, so how in the Seven Hells did this one find out?
“Guided by a wizard’s hand,” Thalon whispered when he saw the older man’s confusion. “Are you the right man, or shall I find another?”
“He can’t be seen tonight. And you’ve not told me who you are yet.”
Thalon was close to getting upset. “I have no time for this. I need to see Kane at once. I was not given an option of when and where, Skrapp, so neither are you. The wizard has commanded! I must be on my way back to Redemption by mid-morning.”
“Who’s this?” Nathan asked as he and Emerald took seats.
Thalon smiled, the look of a shark watching his prey. “Ah, yes! Nathan Bourne, the offworlder. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, but I do not have time for this. I need speak with one man, and he is Kane.”
“Buddy,” Nathan scowled, “you’ve got some answers to give before you get to see anyone. Start talking.”
“All will be revealed when and only when I see the Slayer named Kane,” Thalon angrily spat. “Not a moment before.”
Nathan, Emerald and Braxton stared at each other.
Heavy rapping on the stained wooden door echoed down the half-lit hallway. Most of the inhabitants were locked away by sleep, so the rapping grew louder when there came no answer. The door finally groaned open. Kane took a defensive step back when he found himself staring into the cold eyes of a stranger. Weaponless and still haggard from his experiences, the Slayer made ready for a quick doom.
What he saw surprised him.
Nathan looked at his friend with an odd expression. “You’re not going to believe this one, but I think you need to hear it.”
“Come in,” the Slayer finally said.