We are getting down to the end of the road. Who live? Who dies? Honestly, I wrote this so long ago I don’t remember!!! Guess you’ll have to keep reading to find out.
The Black Pits
“What is that smell?” Snake Eyes asked. His stomach was urging him to vomit. Heavy mists clung to the land, refusing to diminish with the strengthening suns. A foul and strange odor ranged across the ground, seeping from the sickly colored sands. Dread and despair encompassed them, and they faltered. Each doubted their reasons for going on. It wasn’t until Gage reminded them of the quest that their horses would go another step forward. As enchanting as the landscape proved, the wizard’s magic forced them to ride.
“Tar and sulfur.”
Nathan tried shaking the stench form his mind, but the world had other ideas.
“We have reached the outermost edge of the Black Pits,” Gage spoke up. “A fell place lost in legends before the world was old. Many have entered, yet few ever returned.”
“Remind me to add this to the list of vacation spots,” Nathan growled.
Xill smiled. The odors weren’t consuming him like the others. He’d been around the smell of death too long to be bothered with mere sulfur. “Patience is required, my friend. Our travels will soon be over.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
They could make out sharp spires of twisted rock twice the size of a man with sharp edges ready to slice open anyone careless enough to brush against them. Violent eyes peered hungrily at them, disappearing as soon as someone looked their way. Hot tar bubbled and spat from huge pools surrounding them. Nathan wondered just how many had been caught in this maze and seduced by its charms. Nothing he’d experience on Helscape thus far prepared him for the nightmare stretching out before him.
“Focus on the path,” Gage warned. “Mind nothing but the road else you will be ensnared by the evil here.”
They were already too deep into the Black Pits to back out and go around, so the weary band struggled forward. Most of the passages were too small for the wagon to fit through, forcing them to twist and maneuver until they lost all sense of direction. Frustrations were mounting, for the Black Pits were hypnotic and demanding.
The air was a pale yellow, caused by the sulfur in the air as much as the twin suns beating down. Sweat poured from their bodies, drenching their clothes and making life generally uncomfortable. Their stomachs were growling in discontent, but Kane advised against stopping. Missing a meal or two wasn’t going to hurt them. Hour after hour went past, and still there loomed more of the foul blackness. A spatter of tar would strike one of their legs or burn a horse’s foot from time to time, not to kill but enough to let them know the Black Pits were angered by the wizard.
“We’ve been trapped here for hours, and it feels like we’re going in circles!” Snake Eyes fumed. “Is there an end to this?”
“Soon,” Gage said in a calming voice. “The path out of danger will be shown to us soon. We are nearly through.”
“Another day of this, and I’ll lose my mind.”
Hosking laughed, deep and long. “Then you shall not be alone!”
Dusk came and went without much fanfare, save for the strange glow cast off a hybrid moss on the rocks. Kane was finally shone the way around the midnight hour, and he wasted no time in spurring his horse forward to break free of the oppressive death trap. Mist and a dark night concealed the Berserker mountain, but the fresh air poured into their lungs. The weight given off by the Pits was lifted, and a harsh sobriety settled back in place. The Hive was only a day away.
The Viper reined up next to Kane, a stern look etched in place. “We should move on a little while longer to make sure none of those creatures can attack us. Dawn will find us soon enough, but I like not the lay of the land here.”
Kane nodded and rode on.
Dawn showed them the might of the Berserker mountain, and they at once knew fear and awe. Soon, they would be so close the suns would be blocked out, leaving them in a permanent shadow.
“At last we arrive at the doom of your ideas, Aradias,” spat the Viper. “A more fitting end to such misfits will never be seen again, I tell you.”
The assassin dug into a pocket and produced a small silver flask. He popped off the top and raised it to them. “To us all. May the Gods see fit for us to meet an end bathed in glory.”
He drained the contents in one long swallow and cast the empty flask down. Speechless for fear of letting his secret out, Kane offered a sharp nod and motioned them on. Another week was drawing to the end, closing the long road they’d been down. Heated discussions consumed them every time they stopped, for there was little time left to plan and position themselves.
“We’ll be there tomorrow,” Gage solemnly said after stretching out his aching muscles and feeling some blood flowing again. “The shadows of the mountain are more powerful than the Black Pits. I would not be surprised to find many of our foe awaiting us in hidden places.”
“We could really use a map,” the Mad Hosking offered. “I may be mad, but I’m not stupid.”
Everyone stared at the madman in shock. Despite insanity’s best efforts to control him, a small part of the trained Imperium officer continued to break free from time to time.
The Viper laughed. “This entire expedition has been blind from the moment you all decided to sign on. I can help you but so much, for I wasn’t here long the first time. You’d best hope your wizard can be of more assistance.”
“Damn you to darkness, assassin.”
He laughed again. “It’s already been done, young man. I’d watch my tongue if I were you. Don’t take my compliance for nicety.”
“Leave him alone,” Emerald broke in. “You’ve been negative ever since we left Black Tide, and I’m fed up with it.”
“Do we really need another scene?” he asked her. “Nothing was accomplished with your last fit, lady Slayer. Forgive me for being realistic, but I already know my fate. All of you are too blind to realize your own.”
Kane stepped into the middle to separate them. “One may know his ends, but the rest still ride the whirlwind uncertain. Bickering is pointless, especially so near the enemy.”
“I know of secret ways inside,” Gage finally told them. “They won’t even know we have invaded until it’s far too late to do anything about it.”
“How is this, wizard?”
Each offered a confused stare.
“Memory is the greatest gift a wizard has, just as it is in each of you, though you choose to ignore it from time to time. I have the power to conceal our scents, and I fondly recall the interior of the Hive. Not that much could have changed since my last visit.”
Gage groaned as he took a knee. Ignoring his age and aching bones, Gage started sketching a map of the main caverns in the sand. His motions betrayed no hint of hesitation, giving the illusion he’d recently left there.
“The ceiling is supported by dozens of massive pillars spread throughout the cavern. Here is the main castle, used by the old emperors and now by Kargosh. I will deal with this directly. Nothing you can do will aid me. If we can bring the ceiling down on their heads, you will have your victory. That, I can affirm.”
“You seem to forget, most esteemed wizard, that the Berserkers are tunnelers. Sooner or later, the survivors will dig themselves free,” Snake Eyes commented.
“With no lair to return to and in heavily reduced numbers.”
Kane didn’t like the idea more than the others, but there was no other feasible alternative. “Can you seal them in place? Keep them trapped under the collapse.”
Gage shook his head. “But, as in all matters of assassinations, our best hope lies in secrecy and speed. The majority of their lairs are in the mountainside and vulnerable.”
“So if we can hit them while they’re asleep, we stand a fair shot at pulling this off?” Nathan asked. His doubts and fears were steadily compounding, but the simple feel of Emerald’s hand in his own stole them all away.
She leaned over and kissed his cheek, offering a measure of courage she wasn’t sure she had herself. Together, their hearts beating as one, they were unstoppable.
“Do we have enough demolition to bring down the mountainside?” Xill asked.
“Yes,” the Mad Hosking answered.
“We hit the lair regardless,” Kane said. “If it means killing as many as possible, we hit them where it’ll hurt the most. What about this lake you draw? How much of a hindrance can it be to us?”
“Little to none, though I can’t say I’m surprised you asked. Yes, it is a lake, but one as I recall there is a rumor it is some sort of flammable substance. That’s just rumor, mind you,” Gage answered.
The Viper smiled. “The perfect bomb. Can it be blown, and, if so, who’s going to volunteer to stay behind and do it?”
“I can do that,” beamed the Mad Hosking. “Trust me. Yes, trust me.”
Nathan whispered to Emerald, “Who said we had anything to worry about?”
“He may wind up the lucky one,” she replied.
“No offense, bud, but you’re not the most stable of the group,” the Viper said.
Hosking stared with cold eyes.
“Whatever you decide needs to be finalized now. There is every chance that rumor is unfounded,” Gage said. “I must deal with Kargosh alone. You cannot help me for he has been given the gift of magic.”
“I am so sick of listening to you people mumble on about this destiny bullshit.” Nathan finally couldn’t take anymore. “Personally, I don’t take well to the idea of dying under a billion tons of rock, and I have every intention of coming back out alive. Some of us do have something to live for, after all.”
Snake Eyes clapped his hands. “Right. So the wizard kills the big bad guy, and we bring down the roof on their heads, kill as many as we can, and get the hells out of there. I like it. When do we start?”
It wasn’t long before things started going terribly wrong. They were well under the shadows of the mountain when the wagon broke a wheel, snapping the midshaft and almost tipping the whole thing over. Xill’s quick reflexes were the only thing that saved the horses from plunging forward and bringing ruin to the majority of their stores.
Staring at the wagon and knowing it was beyond repair, Kane wondered if the Gods were trying to prevent them from doing his will. There was little choice at the moment. Any delay was going to prove too costly.
“Download the weapons and explosives. Leave the food and everything else we don’t need,” he told them. They were too close to the Hive to waste time tinkering with the wagon. “Carry as much water as you can. We’ll be at the Hive before dawn.”
Hearts beat a little faster. This was it.