Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 19

A new week, a new adventure. I don’t know if any of you watched the AMC show: Turn: Washington’s Spies, but it ended on Sat. Great show about the spy ring that helped win the American Revolution. These men- and women- did what they did out of loyalty and didn’t expect recompense. Perhaps more people should be like that. The world might be a better place. At any rate, here is this week’s chapter:

NINETEEN

Down Time

The majority of Minion’s civilian population knew nothing of the coming storm, but the soldiers did. Tonight was theirs to celebrate what might be the beginning of the end of their deployment here on this backwater world. Except for a few patrols and everyone not on duty, the garrison was given forty-eight hours of down time. It was their one chance to forget about the worries of a losing war and to have a drink to the future before the relief division arrived. They’d been waiting for this for half a year. Tonight was their one chance to forget the troubles of the war and let go.

Snake Eyes led his troops through the streets in search of his favorite bar. He had every intention of using the Old Man’s orders to the fullest, especially after the last time their liberty was cut short. Russell hadn’t really bought his story about Scoops getting killed, but there was no way for him to find out the truth unless he decided to use an interrogator. Writing it off as a combat loss, Russell had bit his lip and said nothing more on the matter.

The odors of the seedy nightlife was like a blessing to the weary sergeant and his squad. This was his element, the place where he always managed to do his best work. Though still quite young, Snake Eyes had made a career out of two-bit hustling and gambling. Always a sucker for a good card game, Snake left his men at their tables and went on the prowl.

Most of the platoon splintered off into smaller groups, leaving Xill with five others. Ardn Kelg, his spotted yellow fur shining in the light, motioned for a serving girl with flaming eyes to take their orders. She swayed to them seductively and gave Xill an extra smile before making the trip to the bar. She was back before any of them had a chance to ride Xill about it.

“Here you go, boys, compliments of the house,” she said in a voice laden with sexy images. “Our finest brew. Guaranteed to get you drunk after three!”

The first swallow, always bitter to the tongue, burned down their throats. This was the first time they’d been able to drink in over a week, and it felt damned good. Out of the platoon, Lal-owk was the only one who elected to stay behind, using this time to catch up on some reading and copy a letter to home. The rest of them didn’t plan on remembering the night by the time the suns started to rise. Besides, no one wanted to think about what might happen in the near future. Some things were best left unsaid.

“T’is is the worst brew I t’ink I’ve ever ‘ad,” spat Kelg.

“Tastes good, doesn’t it?” Seli T’lain replied with a smile. Her blue skin looked almost purple in the discolored lights. “Beats water and salt tablets.”

“If you say so. You know, I’ve been ‘ere a year already, and I still can’t get used to ‘ow terrible everything is.”

Seli leaned forward, a smile on her face, “Does anyone on Hynomida pronounce an h at all?”

Kelg snarled but held his tongue.

She continued, “Ironic that the bloody planet begins with an h.”

The rest of the table broke out in laughter.

Across the smoke filled bar, Snake Eyes found what he was looking for. From the looks of it, the game was right in its prime, with a pot bigger than his last paycheck. He cracked his knuckles and started thumbing through his gambling money. The other players welcomed him in, every last one of them eyeing his purse. Snake caught a glimpse of Klausky sitting at the bar with a red feline-like prostitute on his lap and smiled. Everyone got to spend their money however they saw fit.

The dark thoughts of a few days prior were beginning to fade. Word spread quickly that the first wave of the division was already landing across the river. That was all well and fine, but Snake knew it was going to take more than that to worm the Berserkers out of their holes. The 76th was a first strike unit, designed to hammer enemy lines once the air strikes finished. None of them were used to fighting a guerrilla-style war with a foe who never showed himself until the last moment. Maybe that was why they were failing already.

Snake didn’t want to die as a soldier. He knew the higher powers had something special in store for him; it was just a matter of waiting long enough to find out what. The possibilities of a happy life weren’t far off, and he often fantasized about what he’d do when he had the freedom to choose again. His greatest fear was that the military was his last hope for a decent life and that he’d wind up like one of the old timers who didn’t know anything but the service. They were the thirty-year men who were too afraid to leave, knowing they had nothing valuable to give to the outside world.

A cutthroat smile briefly flashed as he won his first hand. The game was on now.

 

Nathan swallowed another mouthful of the harsh brew the bar maid kept bringing him and watched as the Snake and his squad came through the doors. He couldn’t really care less about this Imperium and its wars, but there was a danger of them sending someone out to find him and bring him in. Aside from that, his main concern was finding a way to get home. He turned to tell Kane of their arrival but found the Slayer already moving through the crowds.

Kane had left as soon as he saw that first glimmer of shining red hair tied seductively atop her head. He knew she’d eventually show up. The lure of the promised invasion was too much to ignore. After himself and Braxton Skrapp, she was the third most dangerous Slayer he knew. Kane only hoped he could reach her before the Imperium did. But confronting her within the confines of the inn wasn’t going to help his cause any. No, he was going to choose how they renewed their acquaintance.

Outside the bar, he relished the feeling of the wind blowing through his hair. Helscape was a world ripe with magic and fantasy, but he was always uncomfortable underground. Kane passed by Kimel and his men on their way in and was glad they failed to recognize him. They were beyond the limits of their reasoning, from what his experience under Rook Mountain had taught him. All they had were incredible weapons and probable solutions to the same problems. They still had no concept of how deep the myths and fables ran out here.

The streets were nearly deserted, which surprised Kane. It was still very early, barely an hour past dusk, and there was hardly anyone moving around. He almost welcomed the ghostly image offered, but instinct told him otherwise. A deserted street like this could only mean trouble.

Hiding in the shadows, Kane watched the striking speed of a petty thug pinning an innocent man up against the nearest wall, blade to his throat. The trembling man was struggling to produce his purse, his eyes wide with terror. Kane cursed himself for not bringing any weapons save his long dagger made from a sand dragon’s tooth. It was an effective enough tool, but the man was going to be dead long before Kane would be able intervene.

Temporarily forgetting his quest for the redhead, Kane shrugged out of his jacket and made ready to attack. The thief jerked back and screamed before Kane had a chance to move. His blade clanged against the street, and the victim dashed off. Sensing danger, Kane slipped back into the shadows and scanned the area for the source of this new threat.

Using what little strength he had left, the thief crawled to his knife, rolling to a sitting position. “Come on out, you bastards! Come out and face me like a man!”

The silence of the wind was his only reply. Struggling to his feet, the thief ignored the loss of blood and waited for his attacker to reveal himself. Kane knew what was happening and could only lean against the wall and watch. His conscience told him that a life was a life, regardless of how one chose to use it. He also knew that, if he went into the open, he’d become a target as well. Still, there was a familiarity to this scene he couldn’t quite place his finger on.

The thief’s back was covered with running blood — his blood. Stretching to reach the weapon in his flesh, he jerked it out while stifling a cry. It was a feathered dart. The dart had pierced his left shoulder right under the bone and gone on through to puncture his heart. He knew this was going to be his last moments and wanted only to confront his killer. Maybe he’d be able to avenge his death.

“I’m waiting!” he cried out, using everything he had to handle the pain and its dulling effects. “Let’s get this over with you son of a….”

“Son of a what?” interrupted a soft, female voice.

Kane smiled to himself and re-sheathed his dagger.

The thief turned to face the threat. A slender woman stepped from the far shadows, and he stared dumbfounded. She was young and much too attractive to be the one responsible for his death. Her long red hair had fallen a bit out of place, with strands falling down across her face and shoulders. A fire burned in her green eyes, and he knew there was no chance for escape. Preserving some form of dignity his only recourse, the thief forced himself towards her.

Bracing herself for the blow, she met his attack by ducking under his swing and bringing her knee up into his abdomen. His breath forced its way out, and the thief buckled. The knife hit the streets again. The thief dropped on one knee and swung his arm around in a mighty backhand designed to catch her in the throat, but she danced away and was back before he could follow through. The tip of her short sword split his rib cage, severing the spine on its way out the back. Muttering a curse through frothing blood, the thief dropped to the ground.

The woman tore her blade free of the dying man, gouts of blood and strings of flesh still clinging, and towered over his hapless form. “Remember this moment when you enter the next life, scum,” she told him in a threatening whisper. “Remember who did this to you and why.” The thief was dead before he hit the ground.

Kane decided to show himself. The woman wasn’t at all surprised when he came into the open; in fact, she had a smile on her face. They stopped a few feet apart and quietly enjoyed the sight of each other.

“I knew you were out there,” she said.

“It’s been a long time, Emerald.” Kane nodded.

Wiping a tiny trickle of blood away, Emerald said, “I’ve been here going on a cycle now. I knew you were going to show up down here.”

Kane held his next comment, mindful of how things had a way of being known around Minion, especially if you didn’t want them to.

“You want a drink, Aradias? Because I could sure use one.”

He laughed. “After your little performance, I think you deserve one.”

 

Nathan downed the last swig of half-warm ale and decided he’d had enough waiting. He did his best to forget he was actually on an alien world, surrounded by a hundred different species of murderers and cutthroats, and tried to fit in as just another traveler here for the big hunt. The smells of smoke and drunkenness enveloped him, helping make him feel more at home.

Xill blinked his middle eye when he noticed the Earth man heading towards their table. A part of him knew he’d seen the last of the strange man when they’d reached the edge of the city. The Crendaphidian kicked out an empty chair, offering it to him. “Go ahead and have seat. We’re not too picky about who we drink with.”

“Especially now,” Ardn Kelg snarled.

Nathan went ahead and accepted the offer, still uneasy with the situation. It was as if they were expecting him. A fresh drink was placed before him, complemented with a pat on the back from Seli. He carefully eyed each of them, remembering most and feeling a strange closeness to them. Someone was missing, though.

“Where’s the sergeant?” he asked.

Xill motioned to the distant corner. “Probably taking a few guys’ pay stubs by now. What brings you over here? I thought you were only interested in going back home.”

“Yeah, well, I guess that has to wait now that the way I came here is under a few hundred tons of rock. But there is something I very much need right now. I want to know what’s really going on here.”

“Forget about it,” Ardn Kelg answered. “We’re getting drunk.”

“You’re pretty funny for a talking pussy cat, you know,” Nathan countered.

Seli laughed again, sweet and charming in sound. “Looks like you’re not going to win tonight, Kelg.”

Xill leaned closer and said, “If you really want to know, come to the main gates in two days. Right after morning chow. Snake and I will be there waiting for you.”

“I’ll be there.” He shifted uneasily in his chair. An inexplicable nagging tickled the back of his mind. Trust wasn’t easily given and Nathan was still having a hard time admitting that any of this was real.

For some reason, Xill didn’t doubt him.

***

The First One sat alone in his ruined chambers. Once a grand meeting hall for kings, the Berserker way had transformed it into a vision of despair. Broken pillars carved with intricate figures of legend held up what was left of the ceiling. All around the crumbling throne were the remnants of statues marking the height of a desert empire long since lost to darkening memories. Many were missing arms or legs, and not one of them had a face. Kargosh seethed at their likeness of humanity, for his hatred was bitter. Their faces were lost now, destroyed in a way in which he ached to finish this desolate world. Always alone, Kargosh plotted his vengeance.

To him, it couldn’t have been more appropriate. This served as reminder of their struggle for survival. Soon, his kind would be walking under the light of the suns. Kargosh smiled at that thought. Too long had his horde kept to themselves. They seldom ventured out into the populated areas anymore. He worried his minions were losing their fighting edge. Desert peasants posed no threat or challenge for the genetic superiority of the Berserker warrior. War was needed, and war was coming. Soon, the Berserkers would unleash a fury unlike any the world had ever seen.

The heavy knocking on his chamber doors shattered his inner peace. In walked three of his warriors, failures he couldn’t afford to punish. He watched them with disdain, for they had failed him again. Even in defeat, Mnemlath approached with thinly veiled disgust. Kargosh resisted the urge to strike him down, for there was need of the battle leaders. But once the offensive was done…

They knelt at the base of the throne, heads lowered in wary anticipation. The First One unfurled his wings, knocking the dust away. He didn’t like being made a fool of, and this matter was pushing him over the edge. “How is it you managed to get my warriors killed under the great mount?” he snarled down at them.

Mnemlath stiffened. “Ambush. Slayers waited for us.”

“Indeed.”

“We should not have met with the fleshlings,” the Berserker went on. “The army needs to be raised and pushed south toward their major city. The fleshlings know too much of us. We must strike now.”

Kargosh spit fire at his subordinate. “We strike when the time is ripe.”

Mnemlath bowed his head in the attempt of hiding his hatred. Animalistic by nature, the Berserker war leader struggled with the impulse to kill Kargosh. The thought had been burning through his veins for years. It was all he could do to keep from acting on it.

“As you command, First One,” he seethed through clenched teeth.

The First One drew back in a whirl of motion and launched an assault on the lesser Berserker. When the dust began to settle, Mnemlath lay on the ground, bleeding from long gouges in his chest.

“Go to the fleshlings’ fortress and learn their secrets. I want to know what they want of us. The one they sent to me was hiding something. Find out everything, but do not get caught. If there is the slightest possibility of being detected, return to the Hive.” He paused to consider the other two. “Go, and do not come back until you have done as I require.”

Mnemlath pushed his warriors off after they raised him to his feet. “Stand back,” he snarled with wounded pride. Skulking from the decayed chambers of ancient leadership with the dreams of his future evolving in his mind, Mnemlath could think of only one thing better than stealing the mantle of leadership. He desperately wanted to kill the Slayer. Perhaps they would run into each other in the fleshling city. They stalked through flickering shadows with newfound intent. If things worked in their favor, it would soon be their time to shine.

Kargosh sat on his broken throne contemplating what needed to be done. The issue with Mnemlath was not uncommon. Many of his warriors felt the same way. But only he had been given the intellect of the Creator. Only he had been given the gifts of magic and a complete working knowledge of the fleshlings. He’d mastered their languages and mannerisms, learned of their deceptions and self-destructive nature. But none of that mattered to their underdeveloped brains. They’d been bred to kill and conquer, whereas his sole mission was to rule the empire once it was founded. Now that rule was in peril. Something must be done if he was going to retain his powerbase. His dark mind took him through many possibilities, most of which would result in a civil war among his kind. Perhaps none of them would notice a silent assassin moving through them, waiting to strike until the moment was right.

The First One smiled. That was exactly what the situation called for. He summoned his imp, thus setting the solution in motion.

A whole new adventure is coming your way

I am a man who cannot turn off the idea engine. To give you all a thank you for reading along with me these last few years, I’ve decided to share the cover for my forthcoming novel: The Children of Never. This is a continuation of my war priests of the award winning Purifying Flame short. Not going to say much. Just know that the time is fast approaching. Children of Never E book.jpg

Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 18

Now we’re getting into the meat of the story, but we’ve still got a long, twisted road to travel. Ready? Buckle up and hang on. Reinforcements are inbound.

EIGHTEEN

General Pierce

The dormant red light sprang on, and the sublight engines of the Imperium 7th Fleet cut down to cruising speed. They were still a good distance from their destination, but the risk of running into a moon or small planet was too great. Imperium navigators went to great lengths to keep their vessels safe. The universe had thousands of shipping and transport lanes open to all commercial and military ships, but it was near suicide to cruise through a system with sublight engines. Alarm sirens began sounding, alerting crews and passengers to possible danger.

Captain Soutack watched the planets in the system come to life in a superior way. It was one of the most serene things he’d ever bore witness to and the primary reason for his continued service to the Imperium. Looking down on a planet as you passed by was as close to touching the hand of a God as man could ever come.

“We’re now entering the Telgeise System, sir. Estimated time to planetary orbit is seven hours and twenty-two minutes.”

“Bring up the immediate sector to include all neighboring systems on screen one. I want to know if the Xemp’s or the United Federation has anything nasty waiting for us.”

The Tech’s fingers moved faster than the words could come out, and soon everyone on the bridge was staring at this tiny corner of space.

“Defense grid is all clear, sir.”

Soutack grinned despite himself. He didn’t envy the men and women he was about to strand here, but he was sure glad it was the only thing he was responsible for. The hardest part now was going to be getting his fleet out before one of their two enemies picked them up. Cut off from the rest of the armada and at the edge of controlled space, his fleet was a disaster waiting to happen. He wanted to drop the ground pounders off and be gone before anyone noticed they were here.

“Inform General Pierce that we have entered the target system. Planet fall will commence in twelve standard hours.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ensign, alert all ship commands. The fleet will deploy into defensive array and head for the staging areas in thirty minutes. I want all staff officers in the briefing room for mission brief and deployment orders at once. Let’s make this painless so we can get the Hells out of here, gentlemen.”

Soutack took his chair and watched a bluish-red planet come up on the main screens. “Gods help them,” he whispered.

 

Major General Joneth Pierce stood examining his uniform for deficiencies. Of course, there were none, but a good soldier always double-checked — especially before he made an entrance among subordinates. Pierce had an overabundance of ribbons and awards for the thousands of campaigns and battles he’d been privileged to participate in. A scar ran from the corner of his left eye down to his shoulder. He kept closely cropped hair, gray and nearly gone now. A perpetual snarl twisted his ashen face, even when he was pleased.

His career was only twenty-four years young, and many were whispering his name for the next chair on the Imperium War Staff. As was the case with most of his career, he found his reputation preceded him when he arrived to assume the command of the 76th. It was already a famous division, but with Pierce’s brilliance in strategy and the natural ability to bring out the best in his troops, it fast became the most feared in the Xempsarillian War. Every one of them would follow unquestioningly where he chose to lead. He could ask for none better. They were his pride and joy, and he theirs.

The very air about him held an air of authority and respect the ensign had never felt. Pierce was known for his lack of humor, and many of the brass were against the style of tactics he often employed, but none could dispute the overall efficiency with which he accomplished his goals. It had been many years since the last time he had left the field in defeat.

The klaxons sounding general quarters had gone off not too long ago, heightening his arousal of the situation. The thrill of the hunt was flowing in his veins, filling his lungs with vigor and violence and compelling his soul to unseen heights of rage and fury. Glory beckoned him. This was the moment he had been born for.

Some men spent their lives searching for that one way to better humanity, but not him. Joneth Pierce had little time for the weakness and frailty of the species. He was a killer. The deep sense of satisfaction he felt when his army stood on conquered ground was more than those who lived for peace would ever know. The irony came in how well he accomplished his missions. How many worlds had he helped cultivate by having them burned to the ground?

This invasion was to be the crowning achievement in his already storied career, though it had a taint to it. He didn’t like what he was being asked to do. When General Gulluette had come to him, he’d been skeptical. It wasn’t like the Imperium to barter with native tribes. Despite his ill feelings, he’d accepted the mission. Joneth knew he’d betrayed his principles that day, but the opportunity to command a full Corps was something he couldn’t pass up. Besides, history only remembered important men. No one remembered the names of the footmen. A wicked smile sat upon his face as he stared at his image in the mirror. A lot of his people weren’t going to be coming back from this, but none of that mattered now. Destiny was his to control. Pierce was in his own private world.

His decision to skip the Captain’s brief was an easy one to make. His Colonels and aides were more than capable of handling the minor affairs of planet fall. This was time to spend with his soldiers. There was a certain ambiance to the cargo holds during this part of an operation. The hopes and fears of thousands of men, women and aliens blended into one as they prepared themselves for war. Whistling as he walked, Joneth Pierce went to absorb it all.

 

Klaxons went off at the same time throughout the massive ships of the Seventh Fleet. Hangar bays bustled with crews and mechanics as final checks were made on the drop shuttles. Fighter escorts were launching from the carrier class ships. Docking bay doors hissed open and long lines of combat shock troops began streaming to their shuttles. All had a look of death about them as they were counted and strapped into their seats. Equipment shuttles were already dropping from the cargo ships, taking down the division’s tanks and heavy artillery. Deck chiefs finally cleared their levels for drop, and the unnecessary personnel hurried out of the bays before the vacuum seal was opened. Despite the dynamic intensity from everyone involved, the drop was going to take more than a day to complete. This was merely the first wave.

“One minute to drop time! One minute to drop time!”

Captain Soutack stood in the command office overlooking the main deck with apprehension twisting his features. As impressive as the sight was, Soutack wanted to be done with the task and back within the safety of Imperium space. He caught a glimpse of Pierce boarding a distant shuttle. The man actually had a smile on his face! A certain sadness crept into Soutack as the bay lights dimmed and the droplights flashed. Once, twice, three times.

It took only the push of a button to wash the oxygen into space as the airlock was broken. The hangar floor began to retract, leaving the dozen or so shuttles suspended only on their own engine power. Helscape was a grueling scar beneath them. It was the last time Soutack ever wanted to see this place.

“All shuttles, prepare to drop on my mark.”

Soutack placed his hand on the window in silent prayer as much for his fleet as for the men and women about to drop and watched. “Five…four…three…two…one…mark. Engage drop engines. Good luck, people.”

The shuttles plummeted from the belly of the beast, screaming through open space to the planet below. Soutack closed his eyes, knowing that most of them would not be coming back. It wasn’t some kind of prophetic revealing, merely an indication from the past. He’d been assigned to run troops out here before, and more always came back in bags than on their feet.

Satisfied with what he’d come to see, Soutack wasted no time in heading back to the bridge. The sooner they left, the better he’d feel.

 

Fifty combat-ready troopers filled each shuttle, each of them feeling their stomachs rise into their throats. Most of them had lived through this a dozen times over, but for the rest, it was a new experience. Sure, Imperium combat training required them all to pass a mock planet drop, but there was no substitute for the real thing. They were the ones still gripping their harness for support, much to the amusement of seasoned veterans. It was an ages old ritual, ever since the first combat drop by Imperium forces thousands of years ago.

Pierce grit his teeth as the immense force of Helscape’s gravitational field threatened to tear the shuttle apart. It had been so long since his last drop that he’d almost forgotten how superb this feeling was. The force tearing at them lessened once they broke through the atmosphere, and Joneth unbuckled himself so he could mingle with the troops. Ever since his first battalion-level command, Pierce had insisted on dropping with the soldiers rather than his command staff. You could learn more from your people than from sitting with a bunch of stuffy officers.

His troopers came to expect this out of him, and each, in turn, offered a thumbs up and curt battle roar. He gave them a slap on the shoulder here, a reassuring nod there. It was all part of the role he lived. There was nothing like it in all the worlds of the universe — the sheer knowledge that, when the shuttle touched down, all you had to depend on was the fellows to your right and left. By doing what he did, the morale of the units far exceeded the standard in Imperium infantry units.

The crew chief hollered his name, and Pierce turned to see two fingers raised. Pierce smiled and took his seat. The Chief double-checked everyone to ensure they wouldn’t be jarred loose before strapping himself in. They had one minute.

A sense of accomplishment

I’ve been writing since I was a little kid. Not that what I was writing could be considered good, but it has developed over time. 20 years spent in the army inspired stories and ideas. There is no better feeling than reading a comment from a fan who loves my work. The money is nice. Seeing sales rise is fun, but what keeps me writing are the emails and messages from you.

The solitary nature of writing suits me fine. I’ve spent countless hours churning out what I hope books you enjoy. Sometimes it takes a long time. The forthcoming Immortality Shattered series began in a barracks room on Camp Casey, South Korea in 1997. Two years ago I dusted it off, polished it up and well, you can see the results below. All four books will be released later this year. Just in time for the holidays.

Immortality Shattered PromoI never wanted to crank out series, instead focusing on single volumes that stand alone and have multiple stories in the same world. My 2nd publisher convinced me otherwise. Without that coercion I never would have written the Northern Crusade. Hammers in the Wind (in case you didn’t know) was the overall #1 free book on Kindle 4 times. That’s pretty cool.

THE NORTHERN CRUSADE RETURNS!

Regardless of the direction my writing takes me I know there is comfort in seeing all of you enjoy what I’ve written. It feels like I have been doing this for a long, long time, but it’s only been a few years since I retired from the army and decided to write full time. Don’t worry friends, fatigue hasn’t set in just yet. There is still plenty more to go. You keep reading and I’ll keep writing. Deal?

http://christianfreed.wixsite.com/christianwarrenfreed

Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 17

It’s that time again. A new day. A new week. What better way than to start it off with a bang! Have a great one friends.

SEVENTEEN

Minion

The drums of war were beating by the time the squad made it back to Fort Evans. Minion was still asleep, but the army was up and moving well before the dawn. Cadence calls from units running the streets and the grunts and groans of others as they pushed their bodies to the physical limit echoed throughout the base. There was a tinge of excitement riding the air, and it soon spread to Snake Eyes and his troops.

The calamity over the last few days was minor at best but much anticipated. Word came down that the invasion fleet was entering the far end of the system and would be making planet fall in a few days. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Berserker attacks along the Frontier were increasing, and equipment was finally starting to give out. They were taking heavy casualties, and it looked like the maintenance personnel were going to be the heroes of the day, provided they had the capabilities to work miracles with aging machinery.

Artur Russell found himself marching through the fabricated hallway of the command center. Instinct told him something big was about to happen. The air choked from the rising tension. The great war that everyone had feared and wanted for the past four hundred years was coming. The taste of battle reviled him. Too many men and women had died under his command here. Once a staunch supporter of the war, Russell often found himself tired and with little patience. He hoped this was the last campaign on this damned world.

An uncharacteristic fog had settled over Minion and the neighboring Fort Evans during the early morning. Many of the soldiers saw the fog as a sign of good things to come, but Russell knew better. He knew that Pierce and his division were going to be hard pressed to win. Pierce was good, but he had no idea what he was facing out here. The last time the Berserkers were beaten, it had taken nearly everyone of fighting age on the entire continent, and then they’d lost but barely. Regardless, the garrison was ready to go home.

“Major Gregorson.”

The graying executive officer looked up from his computer. “Sir?”

“I need you to run down to the main gates and see firsthand how well our efforts are going with finding scouts to lead the division. I know what the reports say, but I don’t put much faith in that. Also, have a runner go down to the barracks and inform Sergeant Kimel and his men that they need to report for debriefing in one hour.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is there any word on that man they found? Either him or the Slayer? I’d like to get both of them to join us if I can.”

“I’d have to check on that, sir. Apparently, they split company when they returned to Minion,” Gregorson replied and then disappeared on his mission.

“Colonel Russell?”

He nearly balked when he noticed how young the private addressing him was. The boy couldn’t have been more than nineteen standard years, and he already looked aged. “Yes son, what is it?”

“Ah, sir, we were wondering if this new offensive means we can finally go home?”

Russell allowed himself a smile at the thought. “I sure hope so. We all need some time with our families after this.”

Giving the boy a final, reassuring nod, Russell headed for the stairs. The question was as good as any he’d heard in his career, but it was hard to digest. No one knew what was going to happen in the next few weeks, and only a fool would let his emotions take control. But still. He suddenly realized how much he missed his wife and kids, making the hurt that much more. Going home was a pleasant enough thought, but he’d long since left the dreaming to the new generation.

 

Aradias Kane marveled at the contrast between Minion and Black Tide. He’d been here before, but that was long ago. His business kept him in the far north with no need to come this far south. His amusement doubled when he saw the look on Nathan’s face. There was no way to know what was going through the man’s mind. He did know that the man refused to trust him. When Kane had asked Nathan why he chose to stick with him, the man had merely grunted, saying that there was no room for him in the army life.

Two soldiers ambled by. Hardly ever around the foreign soldiers, Kane stared after them. He immediately noticed an air of defeat about them, and it showed in the appearance. Their uniforms hadn’t been pressed in a good while, and their boots, once sparkling from the shine, were crusted and dull. The pride they’d made planet fall with was long gone, reflected in the hollowness of their eyes. It was a sad thing to see.

Minion itself was quite the opposite. From here, it was only a few days right east to the Orn Bridge and the green half of the continent. This city was a symbol of strength and perseverance against the impossible living conditions of the Wastes. There was a thriving community, mostly underground and relatively safe from the threat of attack, all secure behind a ten-meter-thick steel wall plunging deep into the ground. Life actually prospered here, due mainly to the presence of Fort Evans only a click away.

Securing rooms in one of the more respectable inns, Kane led Nathan down into the heart of the city. Both of them stared at a hundred different species of life passing here and there. For Nathan, this was right out of a sci-fi movie. A bounty hunter with leathery skin bumped into them when they tried entering a nearby bar, and Kane braced himself for the unexpected. The drunken bounty hunter merely mumbled his apologies and staggered off.

“Nice place,” Nathan commented.

Kane could only nod. A cat-like female with red fur and a near perfect female form caught his eye from across the room. She smiled affectionately and sauntered their way. Nathan passed glances to both of them but held his tongue.

“Ooh, Kane, it’s been so long,” she purred. “And you brought a friend too!”

“Aren’t you a long way from home, Kazad-ayre? It’s a hard ride to Black Tide from here.”

She laughed. “And it has nothing on this place. Besides, there are so many lonely soldiers here. So easy to take from. What’s a girl to do?”

“They’re also trying to fight a war.”

“Everybody needs to relax once in a while.” She leaned towards him and gave him a sinful kiss on the cheek before dashing off into the thinning crowds. “That’s your business, Kane,” she called over her shoulder. “I deal in pleasure.”

Finding an empty table away from the bulk of the crowd, Kane ordered for both of them. Nathan struggled with his surprise at how much business a place like this was capable of so early in the morning. Then again, most of the patrons were either entirely intoxicated or in a uniform of sorts. He was told they were members of the Night Patrol coming off duty. His food had a bitter tang to it, and the water wasn’t much better, but it was free. Kane paid the bill and did his best to avoid small talk. The only reason he agreed to keep Nathan with him was that the military would interrogate him to death, provided they got the chance. No one deserved that.

Nathan ate and watched the locals. It was then he decided he had two immediate problems. The first was that he needed to get some new clothes that would allow him to blend in better. The second was almost worse than the first. He had only a pistol and no ammunition. He was defenseless. His deliberations were cut short by the subtle gaze the Slayer had. Kane watched the crowds, clearly hoping to find someone.

Nathan leaned forward and asked, “Just how long do we plan on staying in here? Much longer, and I’ll be hungry again.”

“We stay until I find who I’m looking for,” Kane answered in a low voice.

Nathan had always hated the type who never said anything more than what was needed to get by.

“So what does he look like?”

She is an old friend who happens to be somewhat important to things at hand.”

Nathan let out an exhausted groan and settled back for what he believed was going to be a long wait. It seemed like home was an ever dwindling possibility.

 

Even before he opened his eyes, his first instinct was to strike down the man responsible for shaking him awake. Letting out a deep growl, he partially opened his eyes. The murk reduced everything to dark blurs, and the blinding light from the nearby window wasn’t helping much either.

“Sergeant Kimel?”

Snake Eyes sat up and spat, “This had better be good, trooper.”

The trooper swallowed timidly and said, “The Colonel wants you and your squad up in the debriefing room in one hour, sergeant.”

Figures, he thought. Even on a day off, the army still liked to play. “All right. Tell the Old Man we’ll be there, shined and pressed. Now get the frig out of here before you really piss me off.”

Corporal Xill burst out with a deep, resonating laugh from across the bay as soon as the door closed behind the scurrying private. “Rise and shine, Chief! Our R and R is over. I already woke the rest of the squad”

Snake Eyes heaved his pillow at the man. “Doesn’t anyone believe in sleep around here? Just once, I’d like to be able to control my own actions.”

“Not in this army, Sarge.”

 

“On your feet!”

They snapped to attention as one, heels clicking in the sharp precision brought about by endless hours of drills. A ragged mix of hardened line soldiers and clean-pressed officers stared forward as their commanding officer marched to the podium form the rear of the room.

“Carry on,” he ordered when he was halfway there.

Colonel Russell took his place behind the podium and sipped the glass of water already prepared for him while he looked over the squad’s mission accounts.

“Good morning, gentlemen. I trust you’ve all had the chance to get a bit of rest and a hot meal in you?”

“Yes, sir.”

The Colonel smiled, knowing it was a lie. He’d been that young lieutenant once and knew exactly how these troops felt. Those were the glory days of his career, and he suddenly found himself missing them. There was no comparable feeling to when you took your men out and came under enemy fire for the first time. But that sort of thing was for the young now. He was much too old.

“Very good.”

He took another drink and leaned down on the podium, studying each of their faces. “I have finished your reports, and I must say that this was not what we were expecting when Major Gregorson dispatched you. Sergeant Kimel, would you please begin from the time your squad made contact.”

Snake Eyes groaned to himself and began the long tale. He told the story faithfully, careful not to miss anything vitally important. But Snake was a seasoned trooper and knew when to hold his tongue about certain issues. Like any good storyteller, he softly twisted the truth a bit here and there so as not incriminate himself in the death of Scoops, a man who never should have been there in the first place.

Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 16

And here we go…..

SIXTEEN

The Journey South

“Tell me of where you come from,” Kane bade a tired Nathan as soon as they had time alone.

Things had started going downhill the moment they’d left Rook Mountain. Air power had been diverted to support another mission, leaving Snake Eyes and his men awaiting one of the slow-moving armored personnel carriers. It had taken almost a day for it to reach them. Matters had grown worse form there. The APC had been first to go. They’d begun having trouble with the engines less than a kilometer from the mountain, and it was still spitting out heavy streams of black smoke. Snake Eyes was still kicking and cursing hours after everything had gone wrong.

They’d found an easily defended shelter for the night in a thick rock outcropping just a few clicks shy of Fulcrum’s Outlook, a forbidding spire winding high in the sky. It was an old legend that you could see all of Helscape from the top. In truth, it had once been a sliver of a mountain equal to the might of Rook Mountain. A terrible war between wizards caused it to shatter. Now, all that remained was a thin spike to remind them all of the terrible power the ancient wizards had possessed and how that power had caused them to lose their own humanity in the process.

Nathan shifted uneasily from the placidity of this stranger’s question. The subject bothered him for reasons he wasn’t willing to think on at the moment. Since he’d regained consciousness, he’d been under a constant bombardment of questions from this one and most of the soldiers. All he wanted to do now was go home and sleep the experience off. His biggest regret came from the decision to follow the monster.

“What do you want to know? Are you some kind of intelligence officer? Want to know everything about my world so you can invade it? Or do you just want to study us for a while at your leisure?”

His words were harsh, and they did indeed sting Kane, but the Slayer let them fall away. He stared at Nathan, hoping that the hate inside wasn’t going to tear him apart before he could learn more.

“Okay, fair’s fair, I suppose,” Nathan agreed. “I live in a place far different from all of this. Our monsters are people. But not anymore. Now we can’t even feel safe in our own homes because of monsters from your world! A world that, by all rights, shouldn’t be possible. And just what in the hell was that? You owe me that much, at least.”

Kane stood abruptly and gathered himself. “I think I will leave you for now. But do remember one thing during your stay here. Nothing in your world is comparable to what the Berserkers have done here. Good night, Mr. Bourne.”

“You didn’t answer my question. Is everyone here so afraid of what those things are?”

The faint howl of the wind was his answer. Digging through his pockets and mumbling a curse, Nathan watched the slim man stalk off. Relief and disappointment overcame him in the same instant when he opened his pack of cigarettes to find only one left. He really needed to go home.

He welcomed the smoke as an old friend, inhaling deep and taking the time to look around for the first real time. There was nothing to see, not for the endless miles stretching out around him. Damned world. This was far worse than those seven months in Iraq. At least there, he’d had a mission. There was nothing here for him. Not a damn thing. Then again, that seemed to be the way his life was taking him. Everything was undefined and probably had been for quite some time. He’d been too blind to see it. Resigned to whatever fate had in store for him, Nathan leaned against one of the smoother rocks he found and enjoyed the flavor of his last smoke.

 

Day broke much sooner than any of them cared for. It was compounded by the lack of sleep and fears of being stranded this far out. They hadn’t dared move during the night, not in the lumbering track that was down to its last legs. For some reason, Snake went on to explain, Imperium technology wasn’t able to pick up Berserker movements in the night. They were the universe’s superior military force, both in the quality of the soldiers they enlisted and the caliber of their equipment, yet they failed to detect the slightest of movements.

Snake Eyes let them rest. They deserved that much. He also posted a three-man guard throughout the entire night, the troopers rotating shifts every two hours. The next-day effects were depressing. Anyone who’d ever worn a uniform and put in their time in the trenches could attest to that. He couldn’t care less if they slept or not. That was secondary to keeping the wounded alive. Too many troopers died of carelessness rather than from wounds sustained in combat. He had three who were still clinging on, and it was all he could do to keep them alive until they reached Fort Evans. It was a small comfort to know he was doing some good, but it was enough to let him sleep peacefully during the long Helscape nights.

The track lurched to life again, sputtering and choking, and they were off. Fort Evans was more than two days away, providing they had enough power left. Snake Eyes made it his mission to make as many people unhappy as possible once they returned. They’d been ordered into harm’s way and forced to find their own way home. There was nothing you could say to convince him of that one.

He soon found his thoughts leading towards the impending invasion and the man chosen to lead it. Joneth Pierce had a reputation far exceeding his reach. He was the man who’d led less than five hundred against an enemy force of over five thousand and came out of it with prisoners. There weren’t many, but they were the entire enemy left alive. His brilliance on End’s Eye and the winter campaign had propelled him through the ranks, making him a powerful force in the Imperium military. His very name inspired hope in the hearts of his troops and deep-felt fear in those of his foes. Pierce had yet to lose a major battle, and it was for that reason he was coming to Helscape. There was no doubt in Snake’s mind that they’d all be home within half a year.

“Got an extra one of those?” Nathan asked him, deciding to try to learn more about his captors and smooth out the language differences. “You know, I was in the military once. Even made it to sergeant before I got out. Went to war in pretty much the same kind of place. It wasn’t pretty then, either. What’s out here worth fighting for?”

Snake offered him a smoke and smirked. “I’ve been asking myself that same question for the last two years.”

“And?”

“I guess it all comes down to life. Most of these civilians don’t have the means to protect themselves and are too stubborn to pick up and head for safety. Can’t say as I blame them, though. I don’t think I’d want to give up my life and start a new one.” He fell silent for a time, letting Nathan think on what he’d said.

“This all started out as an easy place to conquer and set up as a staging area for the war, but I don’t think there are many left here who remember that. Most of the original ones are long dead. What we’re doing here is keeping a way of life for these people. I didn’t come here by choice, and I sure hate this place, but I’ve been here too long to leave now. Do you know what it’s like to look into a mother’s eyes after you’ve saved her child? That’s why I’m still here.”

Nathan was surprised to find himself starting to like a few of these soldiers. Though they were all bipedal, few of them could be classified as human. The strange man with the yellow fur and dark spots was constantly watching him with a glare that was suspicious and dangerous. The primate medic, though, held no such reservations, making good use of his time as squad medic to learn as much as he could from Nathan. Then there was the blue-skinned female who never stopped cracking jokes at her fellows. Nathan was shocked to learn that she was one of the best troopers in the entire company.

Around them, he felt oddly at ease, as if he were a part of them. It wouldn’t take much to slip back into his former military persona, despite only having been among this group for a few days. Nathan decided that might be the best approach, in lieu of actually trying to figure out why he was here and not back on Earth. Kane and the sergeant gave off different vibes. Nathan refused to trust either of them. Always present was the thought of going home. Home. He didn’t know how he was going to make that happen or when.

He laughed and exchanged war stories with the troops and kept an eye on how the other two reacted. The slim man didn’t seem to care. He spent the break period with the track but chose to range ahead and around while the track was moving. His only real need was to fill up his canteens and check on Nathan. Snake, on the other hand, soon grew weary of answering questions and started treating Nathan like one of the privates.

By the time the steel gray walls of Fort Evans and Minion came into view, Nathan knew as little of those two as when he’d first arrived. Both were dangerous and obviously hiding their individual agendas, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it. He watched the bustle of activity, military and civilian, and knew that his adventure was just beginning.

***

The midday suns made things almost unbearable, even in the civilized parts of the Wastelands. It was a daily ritual, most citizens finding shelter and refuge inside. It never kept the soldiers at the nearby base from doing their duties, and it wasn’t about to deter the lone woman with flaming red hair riding past the outskirts of Minion now. Emerald Razorback had about her the haggard look of one who’d seen too much combat and had been on the road for a long time, but she wore it with pride.

She’d been born some forty-odd years ago and was still in the prime of her youth. The average life expectancy on Helscape, barring an untimely demise, was close to two hundred years. Hers was a life of constant sorrow however, though she did what she could to make things as good as could be for herself. Her mother had died during childbirth, and her father was long believed dead. She’d grown up an orphan, like so many others in this place, and it had served to make her stronger. The life of the Slayer had soon appealed to her, and she’d fast become one of the most accomplished in their storied history.

Her clothes were dust-covered, hair plastered down and clinging to her sweaty body. She was in need of a good bath and a strong drink. A good man for a little bit of recreation wouldn’t hurt, either, she mused. A flight of Imperium choppers sped by. Two were cargo and the rest assault birds. She shook her head at their futile attempt to save lives already lost.

Her emerald green eyes shot icy stares into Minion, subtle enough yet overpowering to those criminals with weak convictions. She’d already made it past the outer defense wall, a massive structure going deep into the ground in the effort to protecting the people from Berserker attacks, and was heading into the inner city where the crime rate was the worst. The wall did its job to standard, but the local security force left much to be desired.

Old folk wasting their days sat on their front stoops watching her go by. They were already prejudging her, as most people did. Prostitute, some whispered, while others found their opinions changing upon the revealing of her impressive weaponry. A Slayer, was she? Just like that fella over in the Dead Shot Inn. What an odd one he was, they said. Debates carried on long after she was gone. Not even the old timers had ever seen so many professional killers in one place before. Their thoughts soon turned towards the impending invasion and how it might affect their own diminishing lives.

She laughed at their innocence and rode on. Most of them would never know what is was like to let the winds blow through their hair in the open desert, never know what it was like to actually live free. Free from the worries of attack. Free from the pains of death. Instead, they chose to live their lives behind these walls and die without ever having experienced life. This was the one reason she felt sorrow for them. They were all too afraid to live.

At last arriving at the same inn she always stayed in, she slid from the saddle and took the time to stretch her aching joints while the stable boy came and took her horse for a copper. Entering the grand great room, she quickly made herself at home. The room key was handed over, and there she found it right to toss aside her bags and strip down before slumping exhausted on the bed. She soon found herself giggling like a schoolgirl as she ran her arms over the linen. It was so smooth and soft, a harsh opposite from her daily life. Now all she needed was a long, hot bath, and she’d be all right. The first part of her quest was complete, though the hardest parts still lay before her. But there would be time for that later. She groaned with a smile as her foot slipped into the steaming waters of the bath.

Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 15

Fifteen weeks into our tale and I’m only just beginning. I warned you all this was going to be a long, long ride. At any rate, let’s see what our heroes are up to this week.

FIFTEEN

Menzel

“Five minutes out, Captain,” the pilot announced.

Menzel merely nodded. He was already glad he hadn’t eaten anything before they took off; he knew that, if this journey went on much longer, his meal would be all over the control boards.

“Begin scanning for life signs,” Menzel ordered.

The view screen in front of them went from normal to infrared vision. Menzel could just barely make out the edges of an abandoned town. Good, now we can get this business over with. The town loomed larger, but there still weren’t any heat signatures showing. Where were they?

“I’m not picking anything up, sir,” the pilot said.

“Keep looking. They have to be here.” Besides, isn’t the devil’s work best done at night?

Perfectly formed beads of sweat trickled down off his chin and the tip of his nose. Menzel hated this planet. It was by far the worst experience he’d had in over twelve years of military service. But by doing this one deed, he was practically assured of going back to one of the core worlds for a much better assignment. The desert was too much for him — that, and he wasn’t doing his intended job. Before Helscape, he had been one of the premier interrogators in the Imperium. Now, he was just another intelligence asset sitting in an office. He’d almost jumped for joy when the communiqué had come through for this mission. This was his ticket home.

“Sir, we’ve got a lightning storm approaching from the southwest.”

Menzel snarled. Just what they needed. It never rained here in the Wastelands, but the lightning storms would burn the flesh from your bone. This kept getting better. Not only was it night, and he was out here alone to meet with — well, he wasn’t exactly sure what was going to be waiting for him — but it was about to storm.

“Raise the guards, pilot. I don’t feel like dying tonight.”

Looking to his left, he could already see the crisp bolts stretching up into the skies. The fingers extended for miles above them, blanketing areas of the ground. Electrical charge enlivened the night sky. Menzel knew the storm could be dangerous. The lightning rolled over them, and the pilot screamed. He flipped his visor up and covered his eyes. When the light washed in front of him, it blinded his vision. The effect was nothing less than looking into the sun with night vision on. Menzel had the sense to already have closed his eyes by then.

Another bolt hit, and then another. The chopper shuddered from the proximity, and he heard one of the engines flame out. Menzel checked the distance gauge and frowned. They were still more than three minutes away from the town, nearly an hour’s walk. The chopper was rocking now. Doing what he could, for he was no pilot, Menzel tried to level out beneath the cap of the storm. Another bolt knocked the pilot unconscious and sealed their fate.

“Hey, Skipper, what in the hells is going on up there?” cried the door gunner in the rear compartment. “We’re getting tossed pretty hard.”

“Pilot’s knocked out, and I can’t keep this thing in the air,” Menzel announced. “Brace yourselves for impact.”

If they were going to live, Menzel knew he only had one shot. Every Imperium aircraft came equipped with reverse thrust jets in their bellies. He had to wait until the bird was down to under a hundred meters and then hit the jets. Hopefully, the reverse velocity would be enough to bounce them off the ground with minimal damage — otherwise, they were dead.

His head was pounding, his body aching. He didn’t have to check to know the pilot was out with a concussion. The blast had come just to his left, forcing him to absorb the majority of the blow. Menzel grimaced as the bird rocked again from another blast. The second engine blew out, and they plummeted like a rock. Fighting the G-forces, he pulled back on the stick. Every second dropped them another twenty meters. Only another two hundred to go.

The skin on Menzel’s face was pulled and stretched back from their velocity. Lightning continued to savage the skies, caring nothing for the plight of the four men in the dying chopper. One hundred and fifty meters. It was a shame Menzel didn’t believe in the Gods, though even if he did, there wasn’t any time for it now. One hundred and ten meters. The pilot groaned, his head repeatedly striking the door. He wasn’t going to recover in time to be of any use. Ninety meters.

Menzel hit the thrust jets, and the chopper was thrown into a battle of conflicting forces. The bird rattled violently, spitting out small bolts and rivets from across the surface of the hull. The windshields were bowing out and caving in, and the machine was rattling with the force of a quake. Fifty meters.

A lesser craft would have been rent asunder by now, but when it came to military equipment, the Imperium spared no expense. Twenty meters. Menzel could swear that the thrust jets were threatening to shoot up through the belly of the chopper, and for the tiniest of moments, he felt like he was going to die.

“Hold on!”

The chopper impacted with such force that the landing gear snapped up through the floor and shot into the ceiling. Menzel instinctively balled up as much as he could as the chopper bounced up, coming down again another twenty meters forward. Electrical systems were shorting out, and he shied away as his windshield cracked, spitting glass fragments at his face. Finally, they came to rest on the desert floor in a smoking heap of metal and flesh.

Menzel coughed and called back, “Is everyone all right?”

“Jenner’s coughing up blood. Probably got some kind of internal bleeding.”

“Who’s the medic on board?”

“He is, sir.”

Damnation. Half of the crew was injured, and he desperately needed to get to the town before the other party left. A small part of him told him to stay and look after his men, but the rest condemned his frail thoughts. His mission was being mandated all the way from Imperium Command. That left little in the choice of decision.

“Sergeant, do you think you can keep him alive long enough for a rescue bird to get here?”

“I’ll do my best sir,” came the crackled response.

“Good. It is imperative that I complete this task, and I have to go in alone. Keep him alive as long as you can. I’ll radio base and give them our coordinates. Also, the pilot has a minor head injury and I don’t know what else. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve finished up there.”

He had to kick his door a few times to get it open. Menzel slid from the ruined bird, never having been so happy to have his feet on solid ground. Sand swirled at his feet, though the storm had passed. The town of Helgscroft was still close to three kilometers away. That was a lot of ground to cover in the night and the deep desert. Grabbing his pack and canteens, Menzel hit the distress beacon and began his trek to the town.

Helgscroft was once a thriving community and a pleasurable city to visit. Once, but long ago. It was now reduced to mere ruins from time and the elements. It was also the perfect place for the business being conducted tonight. Menzel watched the town from the nearest ridge. He only had normal binoculars now; the other set had been damaged in the crash. So far, it looked like the ruins were empty, but instincts told him they were there. Common sense was enough to dispel the notion he was alone.

He caught the slightest flicker of movement just to the right of what looked to be the meeting building. Whatever it was, it was gone before he had a chance to adjust. Experience told him that it was the opposite party letting him know they were still there. Menzel collected his thoughts and began the last few meters into Helgscroft. Night was getting darker, showing him that there was plenty of night left. Shadows would normally be a hazard, but both parties had agreed on meeting like this.

“Stop where you are, fleshling,” came a deep voice from the darkness behind him. He had reached the spot where the movement had been and now could go no further. Menzel knew he was surrounded and could be killed in a dozen different ways. Even with that knowledge, he’d felt more fear from the crash than he did now. He knew he wasn’t going to die; both parties had too much going for them for that to happen.

“You know who I am,” he told his captors. “I have been summoned here to meet with your leader.”

He caught a foul curse from one direction and a series of growls from another. “This way, fleshling.”

Menzel turned and followed the darkened figure deeper into the ruins. Though he still couldn’t see them, he knew the others had fallen in alongside and behind them to ensure nothing went wrong. He was impressed by their thoroughness and military ability to keep unseen. They were living up to how they were described perfectly.

“How long have you been waiting here?” Menzel asked.

The creature in front of him kept walking. Menzel could make out long horns atop his head and what looked to be plates running down his spine. He had a short tail that continually swayed back and forth and was completely muscled. He was naked, covered only by the waist-length hair trailing down his back. When they reached the end of the road, the creature stepped aside and pointed.

“In there, fleshling.”

Menzel tried to get a better look at his captor’s face when he walked by, only making out the vile tint of deep crimson in his eyes. The door slammed shut with a heavy creak and a cloud of growing dust. Menzel choked at first, and then began to breathe normally as the dust died away. The room was cluttered with the decaying wood of furniture, most of it unserviceable. Cobwebs and dust several inches thick completed the gloomy look. From the far side of the room, he heard the rustling of robes and heavy footsteps.

“You’re late, Captain Menzel of the Imperium.”

“We ran into some unexpected difficulties. I trust that my unfortunate delays have not afforded you the opportunity to change your mind?” Menzel replied to the shadowed form.

“Perhaps. We shall see.”

Menzel stopped when a dozen paces separated them, and he still couldn’t discern anything about the being before him. This was the first time he’d been in a situation like this, and he didn’t really care for it. Too many things could go wrong, and no one would even be the wiser when they came to collect the body.

A sudden fit of laughter caused him to step back.

“You wish to see what you don’t want to? Come, then, fleshling. I invite you to see into the horrors of human imaginations.”

A flame sprung from the tip of the stave he was carrying, and Menzel was able to see exactly what was confronting him for the first time. The level of malevolence emanating off the Berserker far exceeded the images he had pre-formed in his mind. Unsure what he truly saw, Menzel stood silent. Evil in its purest form looked deep into his eyes. The power coming off the Berserker made his knees tremble and his heart flutter. It was an image etched into the eternal recesses of his mind. And in that one instant, Smythe Menzel knew he would look into that bitter face every time he closed his eyes.

“Tell me of this agreement your silvered soldiers wish to make with my people.”