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Dawn arrived with unusual splendor, even under the presence of the Berserker mountain. Crimson and gold ribbons of light spread through the darkness, adding a touch of royalty to the depressed lands. Clouds lost their gray cocoons, emerging in degrees of sparkling white against the light blue backdrop. The air wasn’t as cool as it had been, and there was no foul stench to pollute their nostrils. It might have been the start to a glorious day had they not been so close to death.
“Red sky at morning,” Nathan idly said.
Emerald looked at him and asked, “What does that mean?”
“Just an old saying back home,” he answered, slightly startled. He hadn’t realized he’d spoken out loud. “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. We’re going to be in for one hell of a day.”
She kissed his cheek ever so softly. “We’ll be fine.”
He wished he could believe her.
Undaunted by circumstances, the tiny band of wizard, aliens and warriors trudged to their objective. Their faces were painted in brown and green, camouflaged and ready for war. Any item capable of giving them away was either taped down or discarded. Gage’s spells wouldn’t work against sound. There wasn’t anything they could do about their rifles humming, not if they wanted to live. Knives were doubled-checked for sharpness, and huge amounts of ammunition filled their pouches and bandoleers. They were as ready as they were going to be.
They left the horses tied to a small rock cluster close to the tunnel mouth just in case they had to flee. Though he’d never considered himself a horseman, Snake Eyes patted the beige mare’s neck one last time before heading towards Gage. The old wizard was already mouthing the incantation, his eyes rolled back into his head. The air around them thickened, pressing in on them from all sides. A single rainbow of colors washed into them, and it was done.
“That’s it?” Snake Eyes asked. He was starting to have serious doubts about Gage’s abilities.
Time was wasting. The Viper stepped into the tunnel’s mouth. “We move at five meter intervals. No noise unless the whole damned horde is on top of us. No lights either. Stay behind me, and don’t touch anything. Are you sure the spell is working?”
Gage shrugged. “Only one way to find out, isn’t there?”
“Good enough. Let’s do this.” The assassin looked deep into their eyes one last time, his thoughts returning to the days when he worked alone. They were better than most, except for Hosking, so good, he honestly couldn’t think of anyone better to be with him in the end. He’d had a partner once, but that was long ago. Drawing a deep breath, for it was the last time he’d smell fresh air, the Viper entered the tunnel.
Green-black mold lined the time-smoothed walls in randomly placed blotches, lending a musky smell to the already vile odors assaulting them. Rotting flesh and refuse were in plenty down below. Water was dripping from the ceiling, each drop louder than the last and effective in concealing the group’s movements. Time and harsh conditions polished the stone and sand to a smooth finish. The potential of being one of Helscape’s natural wonders was there, but no one would risk their lives to see it.
Few places were fouler than the entrance tunnel to the Berserker Hive, or so Nathan was thinking. He tightened his grip on his ion rifle and tried to ignore a host of latent fears springing to life. This was the first time he’d ever been in a cave, and he knew why. Insects were crawling along the floor and up the walls, chirping and clicking a crisp symphony. He crushed a large spider beneath his heel and jumped when it screamed out. Lovely, he thought, even the bugs are against us.
Any light the suns put out was well out of reach by now, and they carried on in near total darkness. Only a handful of people would know what had happened if they were never seen again. Shapes slowly took form with definition. Their eyes had grown accustomed to the dark. Jagged rock teeth speared down from the ceiling, reminding Nathan of their encounter with the sand dragon. He’d rather face another of those than the whole Berserker horde.
Pure and total, the dark was the Viper’s preferred environment. His rifle was continually sweeping across the width of the tunnel. Death went through his mind a dozen different forms, and it was all he could do to keep his mind focused on the task at hand. His shoulders were getting sore from the burden on his back. He found himself missing his pet raptor, a true friend. It had been decided that the Hive was no place for the bird, so he’d let it fly free with the knowledge that he’d never see it again.
A cluster of fist-sized bats launched at the sound of approaching footsteps. The irony struck him as odd. An entire month in the desert with minimal life, and here they were, at death’s doorstep, and life was overabundant. He didn’t know how deep they were, only that it was some time before the faint glow of fire came into view. They were almost at the Hive’s entrance. He knew there were guards along with a hundred entrance and exit tunnels burrowed into the walls. Getting past was going to be their biggest challenge.
He left Snake Eyes crouching on point and doubled back up the tunnel. “It’s bottoming out. Another five hundred meters, and we’ll have the guards to deal with. Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
Aradias Kane had spent a lifetime being ready. “We need to scout ahead.”
“Agreed. The last thing we need is a full-blown engagement. Let the others know the plan and come find me. I’ll be waiting about a hundred meters ahead.”
The assassin was gone. Kane forced himself to admit how good the Viper was, but he doubted the man was good enough to keep them alive. Snake Eyes heard the figure rushing past telling him to stay and did as he was told. He wasn’t in much of a hurry to get killed anyway. A few minutes later, Kane came down and pulled him close to keep the noise from echoing.
“We’re going down to recon the area. You’re in charge here. Should anything happen to us, take the others and flee.”
“I can’t do —”
“You don’t have a choice. Run, or you’ll die. Nothing will be able to help us. We’ll be back in a few minutes if all goes well.”
The Slayer left him as fast as a wind through the grass.
Memories of old battles came back to him. Snake Eyes found himself for the thousandth time wondering what was going on. He visualized the way the Berserkers came through the ground when no one was expecting. Suddenly, the tunnel wasn’t safe anymore. They had just as much chance of getting killed here as they did rushing into the Hive. Better men had died for less.
Minor sounds progressively amplified to the point where they felt sure they’d been discovered. Weapons ready and hearts pounding, the assassin and Slayer crept down to the base of the tunnel. Kane shuddered. Even the tunnel felt evil. They may well be under observation already by Berserkers lurking for the kill. Kane closed his eyes to will away the dark thoughts. He needed a clear mind more than anything, for the mind would filter into his deeds. The glow grew brighter.
They kept moving until the harsh sound of Berserker voices could be heard. Barrel first, the Viper eased against the wall and slowly poked his head around the corner. A wrong move now would spell doom for them all. Massive sweat beads formed and began trickling down his face, dripping from the tip of his nose. Relief relaxed him, if only slightly, upon discovering a large boulder blocking him from the sentry’s view. The voices were getting louder, and he still couldn’t see anything. Checking to see if Kane was in covering position, the assassin crept forward.
A stronger stench clung to the rocks, but he fought through it. He gained the relative safety of the boulder without incident. A lesser man would have been afraid, but the Viper already knew his death, and this wasn’t it. The assassin moved closer to the grunts and snarls. He knew he was within killing range of both guards. He took as little time as necessary to scale the rock’s backside to where he had a good vantage point of the guard chamber. His only concern was how well the wizard’s spell was working.
The opening was huge; a hundred paces long and nearly fifty wide. A large opening gaped on the far wall. Massive fires lit the four corners, offering faint warmth to those on duty. Dozens of exit tunnels were burrowed along the main way. Twin pillars served as posts for the sentries, each sculpted long ago in the hideous fashion of grotesque heads staring down on passersby. Getting past those guards was going to be tricky. Having seen what he needed to, the assassin crept back past Kane and up the tunnel. The sound of approaching footsteps was enough for Snake Eyes to aim his rifle and pray. He wasn’t really prepared to die yet.
“Hold your fire. It’s us,” the Viper whispered.
Snake waited until they slipped by to say, “Lucky you said something. You were damned sure dead if not.”
“Gather the others,” the assassin ordered, ignoring Snake’s statement. He took a long drink from his canteen while waiting for them to move down the tunnel. Cool water had never tasted so good.
“This is it,” he whispered to the assembled faces. “The entrance is just around that bend, and there’s no turning back once we hit it. Anybody wants to leave, they’d better do it now.” He was half-impressed when no one moved. “There’s exit tunnels lining the walls by the entrance, so watch out for incoming troops. I didn’t see any activity, but who knows what can happen by the time we get down there. Surprise is still working in our favor.”
“The guards will alert the Hive should we start firing,” Xill expressed his worries.
Kane was already holding his spear gun. “I’ll handle the guards.” His voice was solemn and grave. The moment he’d spent his entire life pining for finally arrived, and, handicapped with only one hand, he’d never felt more lethal. There was death in his eyes.
“We need to be moving once you squeeze off the second spear. Anything can go wrong if we get caught out in the open. It’s a good run to the cavern opening so no tarrying. Run as fast as you can, and keep a good eye out.”
A bad taste filled Emerald’s mouth. “What if we get caught between hunter parties? Not even Gage’s spell will help.”
“Squaffa happens,” the Viper smiled. “This entire trip has been a chance. Some good, some not. Take your pick. You fancy yourself a gambling man, right, Kimel?” A nod. “Ready to risk it all for the pot?”
“Let’s get it over with.”
Another smile graced the assassin’s face, wicked in the faint glow, and he took off back down the tunnel. One by one, the others filed down. Gage stopped halfway down, the old memories tormenting him. He didn’t move until Emerald stopped to check on him. The old man wouldn’t say what was wrong, only that it was a torment he alone was able to deal with.
What seemed like hours later but, in reality, was mere minutes, they gained the boulder and waited while Kane took up firing position. The Slayer let his heavy coat slide off his shoulders and took aim. It was hot in the chamber, and he was starting to sweat. His first target was a heavyset beast more horrid than any he’d seen. The demon stood atop his post with impunity.
Kane almost smiled at his good fortune, for there couldn’t possibly be a better shot. His finger hesitated on the trigger, patiently waiting for the next exhale. A great commotion came from down one of the tunnels, and his finger hastily moved away from the trigger. Kane did his best to slip into the shadows before the war party arrived.