The Deep Desert
Days passed slower than any thought possible. Nights were imposing now that the quest had marched well beyond the borders of civilization. The attack by the sand dragon was also in the past. A pointless experience that shouldn’t have happened. Enough of Kane’s party, as they secretly began to call each other when they thought he wasn’t listening, were veterans of the Wastes and knew what signs to look for. Each had failed and now Klaa was dead.
A small loss in the grand scheme of their quest.
Gage threatened to become despondent, his loss so egregious it rendered him senseless. They’d been together for so long he couldn’t remember a time without the Kordite. No better assistant could he have asked for during his exile. Late at night when he thought the others were fast asleep the wizard stalked out beyond the edge of camp and wept quietly.
Emerald found him there, wrapped up in his robes atop a lonely dune. Without a word she sat down beside him, drawing her knees up and wrapping her arms around them. Night lizards scampered in the distance. Their clawed feet kicking up small puffs of sand in passing.
“I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before,” she ventured.
Gage used the heels of his palms to clear his eyes. Red rimmed and burning, he struggled to keep them open. “What?”
“The stars,” she said.
He joined her in looking up. The orange glow from Furnace Island was gone, a fading memory. Instead of lights the night sky was impossibly dark. Thousands of stars pinpricked the eternal veil.
“I haven’t looked upon them in a very long time,” he admitted.
She offered an almost child-like grin. “It almost makes me think there can be a better world.”
“But there is.” Gage seemed surprised. He’d been trapped here on Helscape for so long he often forgot how most of the indigenous population had never been off world. The notion was somehow unsettling. “An entire civilization comprised of hundreds of planets.”
“Are they all like here?” she asked.
He shook his head. The scruffs of his beard brushed against his robes, reminding her of sandpaper. “No, my dear. Very few are as desolate as Helscape. Most are filled with jungles and oceans. Entire worlds filled with crystal blue water.”
“I can’t even imagine.”
“Perhaps one day you will have the opportunity to see some of them. It is the least you deserve after enduring the mess I helped create.”
Any joy she once had bled away to sorrow. Whatever gods guided their fates seemed intent on ruining his self-esteem even while propelling him closer to an inevitable confrontation with the machinations of his past. Emerald felt…what exactly did she feel? Not remorse. Nor guilt.
“How are you responsible? You told us it was your colleague who went mad and created the Berserkers,” she demanded.
“He did, yet I had a role to play in all of it. If only I had been a little stronger, Aragin might have been stopped before his genetic experiments took off,” he lamented.
“What if scenarios never made much sense to me. Actions happen and we must live with our decisions,” Emerald said. “That’s all there is to life. Nothing more.”
He almost smiled, but the action was still too delicate to endure. “I’ve quite forgotten how youth has a special insight to wisdom. My generation should know better. Thank you, Emerald.”
A tender hand slithered over to rest atop his. “I know that Klaa’s death haunts you. If you should ever need it, I am here to listen.”
His face returned to that strange combination of sorrow and dour. “Thank you, but not now. My heart cannot bear the hurt.”
“I understand,” she said.
Emerald offered a quick squeeze of reassurance and returned to the camp, leaving the ancient wizard feeling oddly refreshed and no small part satisfied for the time since battling the dragon.
The Mad Hosking never felt more alive. Leagues of open desert with very few living creatures in sight left him feeling liberated from the false constructs of modern society. He’d only been a mediocre officer and, quite honestly, was surprised that any of his platoon managed to survive the ambush in the Gorge. Not that he’d done anything to help them live. He’d abandoned his soldiers the moment the battle began in earnest. Some might label that cowardice. He preferred to think of it as initiative. Only through wading into the slaughter was he able to transcend his mortal shackles and become what he was now. A killer. A victim. A hero. Hero?
Hosking never considered the hero aspect to what this quest proposed. He wasn’t a hero. Heroes were fools who gave up their lives in the vain pursuit of glory. No, Hosking wanted so much more than glory. He wanted infamy.
Each day he was forced to listen to the others wallow in their self-righteous misery. All the way complaining on how hard their lives were and what they’d do once this nightmare ended. Only he knew a secret. None of them were going to make it back. They were all going to die in the ruination of the Berserker hive.
The fools. Preening about with the audacity to think themselves above the laws of survival. Let them pretend. Once we enter the hive, all of their ambitions will come crashing down upon their heads. Only then, in those final moments before demise will they realize the truth. We were always meant to die.
“What are you saying?”
Hosking jerked at the sound. “Eh? What do you mean?”
Kane stood but a few feet away, arms folded in an openly aggressive manner. “Who is meant to die?”
“I didn’t say anything! You lie. Putting words in my mouth so the others will think me…me…insane! Ha! Think I don’t know? I watch everything. Listen to the sounds of desert mice scampering over boots.”
“We ought to just kill him and leave his body for the argots,” the Viper chimed in from beside the fire.
Kane cast him a withering glare. “I don’t believe he was spared by the gods only to be murdered by your hands, assassin.”
“Have it your way, Slayer.”
Satisfied, Kane returned to Hosking. “You know something don’t you?”
Wild laughter was his reply.
Undeterred, Kane knelt in front of the broken man. Sharp eyes searched Hosking for any sign that he was privilege to something they were missing. Something vital to the success of their quest. The others thought him stark raving mad but Kane held on to his doubts. Hosking was mentally fractured but not the total loss the others believed. There was an enigmatic mystery surrounding the man. One Kane needed to get to the bottom of before they reached the hive.
“Forget the others,” he cautioned before Hosking could protest. “All that matters here, now is you and me. Hosking, Lieutenant, I need to know what I’m getting into. The situation is almost within our grasp. Please, tell me what I need to know.”
Hosking stopped laughing, his face hardening as his mind played over random scenarios. That Kane was tricking him foremost in his eyes. His upper lip curled. Hosking waggled a finger, almost playfully. “Ha…haha! Secrets. Yes, we all have them. The truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.”
He paused, only continuing when Kane didn’t bite. “This quest, your little adventure, is the prelude to a greater cosmic act. You, me, we are all going to find our destinies beneath the sands. Death is almost upon us.”
“Death for whom?” Kane asked.
“All of us.”
The flat answer surprised Kane, rocking him back on his heels. “That doesn’t imply failure.”
“Doesn’t it? Does it really matter? Live or die, the Berserker reign is coming to an end. Down there, deep underground, we are all going to die. But shhhh. Keep that between us until there is no choice.”
Hosking turned his back, ending the conversation. Confused, Kane could only stare away into the night. We’re all going to die. Not if I can help it.
“Hey, you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Xill’s third eye blinked rapidly. “I wasn’t thinking anything in particular. Maybe that it gets too cold for me at night.”
“What? No dummy. I wasn’t thinking about the weather,” Snake Eyes fussed. “Did you hear that bit between Kane and Hosking?”
“And?” Snake Eyes asked.
Xill shrugged, unsure what he was expected to say. “We already know they are both mad.”
“Mad is an understatement.”
Xill questioned, “Why are we with them if this is all bound to end in doom? I would like to go home again.”
Snake Eyes paused. It had been so long since he last visited his home world he couldn’t remember. Faces, places, and names escaped him. So dominant was the Helscape experience he had forgotten nearly all else. Sad, when he stopped to think on it.
“Home,” he echoed.
Xill nodded. “Home.”
“I think I want to go home too.”
A pack of zoranths howled in the unseen distance as they picked up the scent of fresh blood. The lizard-beasts charged towards the sight of the kill as hunger took control. Life in the Wastelands continued on pace, regardless of the wishes or desires of a handful of brave fools marching intently towards the end of the world.
Don’t forget to pick up your copy of book one: Tomorrow’s Demise: The Extinction Campaign today!