Can you believe we’ve come this far? Already half way through book 2. It’s been a long ride and there’s plenty left to travel. One thing for sure is I am glad I’m not any of the main characters.
Snake Eyes groaned at being shaken awake and tried to turn over. A cold wind was blowing across the lands, pushing an invisible wall of sand to its whim. The smell of a fire scattered across the terrain, for Kane felt there was no immediate danger that night. Dawn was fast approaching, and most of the camp was already up and tearing it down to move. He hated mornings, even when he hadn’t been out all night drinking.
“Sergeant Kimel?” Kane asked.
This had to be a bad dream, the soldier thought. He rubbed his eyes to wipe the sand away and saw that it wasn’t. Kane was standing over him.
“It’s your turn to join me on the perimeter sweep.”
Snake didn’t like the way the words came out. “Is there trouble?” he asked. He’d slept with his rifle and reached down to charge it.
“I’m not sure. Certainly nothing to worry the others about yet.”
He could tell Kane was holding something back. The Slayer answered his questioning look before he could say anything.
“I noticed a few things a while back, and I want to make sure it won’t come back to haunt us when we’re not expecting it.”
Dressed and ready to fight, Snake and the Slayer stalked off. Xill nodded and made his way atop the wagon where the machine gun was.
Satisfied that they were far enough away from the camp, Kane reined in his horse and said, “I believe we are about to be attacked.”
“How can you be sure?” Snake Eyes asked him, nervously looking around the area.
“The road. There are too many fresh tracks. We have been discovered by raiders. How many, I cannot say exactly, but I’d guess between thirty and forty,” Kane answered. “They don’t usually travel in large groups. We’ve already passed a dozen campsites along the route, and I’ve noticed many trails leading off into the desert.”
“Maybe they’re just changing the way they operate,” Snake guessed. “The Berserkers have a lot of people spooked nowadays.”
“No,” Kane said. “We have been seen, and they are in front of us now.”
“How much time do we have?”
“Half a day, maybe less. It’s hard to say, but I think they will attack at dusk.” He looked to the brightening skies. “They’ve already lost the advantage of the night. We need to return and make ready.”
They finished their patrol in silence, ever fearful of events to come.
“Very good, Slayer. Very good, indeed,” the lone rider applauded from behind his thermal binoculars.
He was impressed with the prowess with which these six fools went about their business. They had an almost casual demeanor towards the impending battles. Finished with watching them for the time being, he made quick work of a light breakfast of cheese, bread and dried fruit. He could smell the impending battle riding the winds, lending him a long smile with the knowledge that he would finally be put to test. It’d been so long since the last time he’d fought for good’s sake, he couldn’t remember. At last, he was going to do something worthwhile. The rider went to loading and charging his vast array of weapons.
A glance at his watch told him it was almost time. “Well, Aradias Kane, let’s see what you do next.” He spurred his horse forward to get a better view.
Snake Eyes was in his element. The threat of impending combat had been building in him all day, and he couldn’t wait to make camp for the night. He was doing what he’d been trained for — indeed, doing what came second nature. Of course, most of the time, he was blessed with close air support and artillery waiting on his call as well as a platoon of battle-hardened soldiers. Times were changing, but the fight was the same. A good soldier was able to improvise along the way. Chuckling, Snake Eyes went about his rounds.
“I hope to God this works,” Nathan said as he and Xill were finished checking the head space and timing for the heavy machine gun.
“As do we all,” the Crendaphidian said. “Come on, we should help with the trip wire before it gets too dark.”
Kane was sitting atop his horse, watching twilight crawl across the desert. They’d gone another day without being caught, but the trap was set. He was fairly certain they were surrounded now, and the raiders were merely letting them sweat it out. The more worried their prey became, the easier it was for them to attack.
It took an hour for them to put all in place. The camp returned to normal, even with a fire so as not to rouse suspicions. Xill cooked a meager meal, a motley stew filled with chopped vegetables and a type of meat Nathan didn’t want to guess at. Fighting to swallow the first spoonful, Nathan smiled and silently vowed never to eat the Crendaphidian’s cooking again. Night slowly dragged closer.
The temperature was cooling, and the first shivers set in. Minutes ticked away the first hour, and still nothing. The waiting was in its tedious stage where boredom was a threat. Boredom was the true threat. Each sound might be the enemy. Each hint of movement a potential disaster waiting to happen. Boredom led to complacency. Complacency killed.
They sat in silence, facing each other around the fire but watching the desert. Nathan was the first to catch the soft rustling of something human in the unseen distance.
“What was that?” he whispered.
Kissing winds echoed across the dunes, quieting the noises of the night. They sat forward on edge, waiting for the inevitable to happen. It wouldn’t be long now. Their rifle’s humming added a calming effect to an otherwise eerie scene. It was the peacefulness of the moment Snake enjoyed — the quiet right before the first round was fired. The ensuing shrill whistle ripped him from his sanctuary.
“Incoming!” Xill bellowed.
They dove for cover an instant before the missile screamed past the wagon and into the fire. Sand and debris from the explosion covered them. Most of them lost their night vision when the missile blew up. Snake Eyes wasn’t one of them. He’d been expecting a trick like that and was rewarded by shielding his eyes during the blast. The missile was commonly called the party rocket, for it was designed to blind and not injure Snake was the first one up and taking cover.
A chorus of battle cries erupted in a circle around them. The raider force of fifty men sprang up from the night with bloodlust in their eyes. Ion rounds stretched out in front of them as if marking the advance. No one was to return fire until Snake Eyes gave the signal. He wanted to wait until as many of the foe as possible were in the kill zone. The raiders quickly closed the gap. Rounds slammed into the wagon and kicked up sand close to where they lay. Each wondered who was going to get hit first, but still, they waited.
Another explosion shook the ground, louder than the first. Snake Eyes smiled. The raiders had tripped the first mine in the perimeter. Set on a two-second delay, the entire daisy chain of mines began going off. Screams went out, and body parts flew in a rain of blood. The air became thick with the smells of charred flesh and corpses. The raiders were caught completely unawares and were reduced to half their fighting strength.
It was the defenders turn to burn the night with ion fire. Streams of ice blue raced off to find their targets more often than not. The wagon rocked from the assault of the heavy machine gun, and the haze made choking clouds. Outmatched and demoralized, the raiders retreated. Moans and cries from the dying ringed the camp.
They knew it was a matter of time before the raiders regrouped and made another assault, and Snake Eyes didn’t plan on wasting it. He dropped to a knee and fired off a red flare. It exploded over the center of camp, showering sparks down. What they saw was sickening.
Two dozen bodies littered the area, and there was no telling how many more were on the other side of the dunes. They watched a man claw his way out of the kill zone, entrails dragging behind him. Three quick thumps impacted within the perimeter. Snake’s eyes flew wide, and he jumped aside.
“Everybody down!” he bellowed.
The grenades detonated with unique cruelty, sending splinters of sharp steel through the wagon and off into the night. Shockwaves rolled through their eardrums. Snake Eyes smiled. This was just like old times. He released the launcher, letting the familiar weight fall down to his side on the extended sling and raised his rifle.
The surviving raiders broke from cover to attack. Half of them rode in on screaming horses, opening safety lanes for the dismounted assault. They were concentrated and pushing for the wagon. Nathan pulled himself up and found he was caught in the open. Ion rounds stung around him, striking the wagon in a hundred points before finally catching him in the right arm. His cries went unheard as he fell to the ground.
Then the raider attack seemed to waiver. Aradias Kane was standing in the center of the camp, proud and stern. He was a prime target, but the rashness of his actions made the raiders nervous of a trap. A sharp metallic sound told them he’d drawn his saber and stood waiting. They smiled and leered, for one man with a sword was no match for tens on horseback.
They obliged him by holstering their weapons and drew their own cruel blades in turn. The lead horses spurred forth to run him down. Kane ducked under the first’s swing, the whistling blade narrowly missing his black hair. His own blade swung around and caught the rider across the kidney. Hot blood sprayed the Slayer’s face, and the rider dropped to the ground.
Hosking leapt from the darkness to climb aboard the horse. Another rider overrode Kane and was dealt a deadly blow down his spine. The heavy machine gun atop the wagon opened fire into the dismounted raiders. Three fell before they had closed with the defenders. His weapon useless, Xill slid from the wagon to fight the enemy hand to hand. Ever so slowly, the defenders were losing ground.
A blow from a heavy battle staff caught Snake Eyes in the shoulder and dropped him to his knees. Sparks of light flashed in his eyes, but he managed to see two riders heading towards him with a net between them. Snake had other plans. Drawing both blasters and firing wildly, Snake Eyes hit the rider on the left in the neck. The net dropped on him, jerking him arm aside. His rounds slammed into the horse’s belly, and it buckled, throwing the rider to the ground where the fall broke his neck.
No one, not raider nor defender, saw the lone man storming out of the night into the encampment. Four raiders lay dead before they noticed he was not one of their own. His silent actions inspired a vicious counterattack, felling seven more. The raiders recognized this new threat and retreated to lick their wounds. The battle was over. Coming to a halt in front of the weary Slayer, the rider dismounted and stood with a smile.
“I thought you were out here,” Kane said.
The Viper laughed. “Don’t kid yourself, Aradias. I’m only here for the treasure, not this damned fool crusade. Your cause is none of my concern, so let’s keep it that way.”
A semi-circle was formed around him. They were filled with amazement and wonder.
“As you wish, assassin,” Kane bowed. “But know this: we will be standing side by side in the end. War is a terrible thing.”
“Yes, it is, but it’s going to make me a very rich man.”
Kane turned his focus to his friends. “We can’t stay here. They will be back and in greater numbers. Can he ride?”
Nathan waved off his concern. “I’m fine. It’s just a flesh wound.”
“Good. Check the dead for ammunition, and pack anything left out. We need to leave at once. Time is not an ally.”
There was a new air about them, a far different feel than before. Kane led them back on the road towards Redemption.