Brace yourselves, gang. It’s all coming down to this. Who lives? Who dies? Buckle up, it’s about to get bumpy.
Victory or Death
Kane was running and firing as fast as he could. The relative safety of the tunnel was still a good distance away, and he wasn’t sure he was going to make it — especially with the fragmented horde regaining some of its pride and former semblance. He stumbled and fell more than once, and it wasn’t until his friends stepped forward to lay down a suppressing fire that he crawled into their safety. The killing behind him was fast and easy, though the sheer numbers of the horde seemed to be swelling.
“Touching reunion,” the Viper scolded, “but we need to focus. The horde’s organizing for a counterstrike.”
“We can’t hold off that many,” Snake Eyes said.
“Oh, but we can,” the Viper said. “The last hand is still ours to play. Kane, take them and get to the entrance. You’ll be able to make a good stand there.”
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Nathan asked.
The assassin smiled. “That’s my concern. Tell me one thing, Kane.”
“Was there really treasure down there?”
Aradias nodded. “Yes. Beyond measure. Just like you said.”
“I knew it. That certainly eases the pain of dying. At least I’ll be with it forever,” he said with a genuine smile.
The Viper turned and ran back into the Hive, leaving the haggard Slayer to lead his friends closer to escape. The assassin knew where he was heading, but not the name. Mnemlath had named it Companion’s Rock, and it was there the Viper planned on making his stand. After all, it looked like the perfect place to die.
Wave after wave of the horde charged towards the fleeing humans, reorganized and bitter. Their new leader spilt them into battle groups, hoping to catch them in the open and finish them in a pinching maneuver. Another groups headed towards the lake to deal with the monster. Enough of their kind had fallen in the past.
The Viper caught all of this from his viewpoint and grinned. Odds were in his favor, not that it really mattered. The lake monster was turning out to be an unexpected ally and greatly appreciated. It was killing more of the Berserkers than the Viper and his friends put together. The Viper blew the first charge and watched part of the world explode around him. He hardly had enough time to finish laying his arsenal out before a piece of the horde was upon him.
Nathan tripped on a small rock and fell. He was able to throw the grenade on his way down seconds before it would have exploded in his hand. As it was, only small bit of razor sharp shrapnel came back at him, ripping into his legs and arms. Snake Eyes was dragging him clear when another pillar burst apart, burying hundreds. Fortune may be on their side after all.
They had gained the cover of the tunnel, and Snake Eyes stepped forward to do what came naturally. “Take cover on both sides, and hit your lights. It’ll blind them just enough for us to use. We don’t have any secrets left to hide.”
He and Xill had both been in this type of situation before, too many times for their liking, and the results were never the same. Sometimes, they won. Sometimes, they lost. The Imperium didn’t particularly care which so long as the majority of troops returned home to fight another day. Snake took in his battered group and sighed. They weren’t much to stop the whole horde.
Kane was in no shape to fight, let alone walk. Emerald and Nathan appeared to have their heads in the game, but he couldn’t be sure. Both had that look in their eyes suggesting distraction. It looked like it was up to him and Xill to carry the brunt of the load. He whistled for the razor wire, and he and Xill tied it off chest high across the gap. Xill then reached into a sack filled with maybe fifty sensor mines designed to detonate when a target got within two feet.
Nathan looked at the wire, tempted to reach out and test its sharpness.
“It’ll slice you in two,” Xill calmly said.
He wondered what kind of fighting these men were used to seeing.
“Here they come!” Emerald shouted.
Howling and cursing monsters rushed on, spitting foul oaths and throwing short spears towards them. Snake Eyes warned them all to stay behind cover until the mines had all gone off. The charges didn’t care who they killed. Another explosion rocked the cavern. The Berserker lines raced down the tunnel, the hunger for blood a terrible thirst. The largest one stood in the center of the front rank, snarling orders. Confusion gripped some, others howled for revenge.
The mass halted for the briefest moment.
“Come on, just a little closer,” Nathan whispered.
A heavy burst of ion fire raked the front lines. The horde coiled back as the bodies dropped. Their new leader fumed at the outrage and ordered the first wave in. A hundred Berserkers were blown to pieces in the minefield. Hot blood struck the Berserker’s cheek. He wiped the blood from his face, bringing his fingers to his lips. Lesser monsters cringed in fright and bewilderment. Sheer desperation sent another wave in. To all of their surprise, the attack won through.
The Berserker snarled, every muscle in his body clenching in anticipation. “Attack!” he bellowed above the clamor and stormed to the front of the advance.
Xill slipped from behind a boulder to empty a full charge into the front ranks. More bodies hit the ground, causing others to trample over them. Five grenades snapped out of the darkness to explode within their ranks, and Snake Eyes joined his friend.
“Come on, you dogs. Come and get some,” he enticed.
Both men fell back slightly.
The Berserker front line hit the near invisible razor wire and were neatly severed from the chest down. Blood splashed against the rock and moss, and again the enemy stayed their advance. There was dark sorcery before them, and they had no the ambition to deal with it directly. Kargosh was needed for the task. Snake Eyes emptied his rifle into the dazed monsters and ran back up the tunnel.
Bodies piled up in great stacks all around. Fifty. A hundred. Two hundred. If this was the price of his life, the Viper was going to die satisfied. He was down to one more full charge and a combat knife. After that….
Sweat covered his body, soaking through his shirt. It dripped into his eyes, clouding his vision. There was no glory in what he did, though songs would be song for generations of his heroism. He was tired and more than ready to leave this life behind. There were a thousand things to atone for, the least of which his own life. He hoped his father could find it to forgive him. Click. The Viper looked down at his empty rifle. Either way, he was a dead man.
The assassin had always been afraid of dying, but times had turned to make him welcome the end, for soon a thousand hands would tear him to pieces. A charging Berserker lost his throat to the Viper’s blade, and the crowd roared. He used their caution to his advantage and climbed to the very top of the rock to wait.
Slowly, the Berserkers tightened the noose. He knew they were toying with him. He was one man alone in a sea of hostile creations. They had all eternity to finish him. If they only knew. The Viper drew a thermal grenade, his last one saved special for this occasion.
Berserkers crawled up Companion’s Rock to within a meter of their prey. A smile beamed across his dirtied face, causing the enemy to halt just enough for him to toss the grenade out into the Black Lake. The last shape charge exploded off to his left, and another large chunk of the horde died. The Berserkers charged him. It was in those final few seconds that the Viper understood the truth of the human heart. He was selflessly giving his life, and nothing anyone said or did in lifetimes to come could ever take that away from him.
He blinked once before a dozen claws dragged him down from the rock. The assassin screamed once, fighting to keep the satisfaction from his murderer. None of the Berserkers noticed the lake explode behind them and burst outward in a great ball of flame. Flames filled the Hive, and the very core of the world began to crumble. Halaf Zon, the man known by all as the heartless assassin the Viper, closed his bloody eyes and welcomed Lady Death.
The distant explosion made the Berserker leader snap around. His reptilian eyes flew open in disbelief at the wall of flames rushing to meet him, a great and terrible hand reaching out to cleanse the world of their foul plague. The Berserker raised his arms to mock the Gods and met his demise alongside the rest of the horde. Bodies were instantly turned to ash and nothing.
A sickly trail of Berserker bodies lined the tunnel, many slain by the blade in bitter hand-to-hand combat. The fighting had turned bloody and desperate. Kane was already past his breaking point and bordering on death’s gates. He barely had the strength to kill his opponent before watching a twisted blade sink into Nathan’s back. The Earthling cried out and dropped to his knees. Xill finished crushing the skull of his latest opponent before another slammed him into the smooth rocks, shattering his forearm. Across the tunnel, Snake Eyes and Emerald were back to back, desperately fighting off the renewed assault. They were all dead if the Viper didn’t blow the lake soon.
The explosion rippled through the Hive like the Gods’ Bells. Combatants from both sides stopped to watch the world end far below them. An arrow struck Kimel in the shoulder with the hopes of taking another fleshling into death with them.
“Blow the last charge, and seal the tunnel!” he gasped towards Nathan. “That fireball will be here any second.”
“Everybody run!” Nathan commanded.
The five heroes inched their way back up the tunnel, leaving the Berserkers stunned in a mess of their fallen warriors. Nathan wasted no time in hitting the detonator. The blast threw them to the ground under a torrent of dust and rock debris. The tunnel was collapsing in enormous pieces, instantly crushing the Berserkers trapped between that and the fireball. Nathan would always look back on that moment and swear he heard the screams of tens of thousands dying in a fiery trial.
Small jets of flame managed to punch through the obstacles, enough to scorch the ruined guard chamber. More of the Hive collapsed, and they feared they might become trapped with their foe. Broken and weary, their tiny band moved ever closer to the end of the tunnel and the freedom awaiting them. They emerged into darkness, for night had already fallen. Kane instantly noticed a change in the atmosphere. It was how the world sighed when a great weight was lifted from her shoulders. Perhaps Helscape could return to being called by its proper name: Telgeise III.
Nathan crawled to where Kane had collapsed, and both men forced a pained laugh.
“Remind me not to play with you anymore,” Nathan said.
“We have won the war, Nathan Bourne.”
They looked back into the gaping tunnel mouth together. Snake Eyes and Xill sat facing each other, foreheads touching. Exhausted and emotionally drained, they were just glad both of them made it out alive. Emerald sat off by herself, hugging her knees. Tears formed stains down her filthy cheeks.
“But at what cost?”