It’s that time again friends. Enjoy.
There was a sense of freedom in the desert despite the danger lurking beneath the surface. The open air, endless for hundreds of leagues and freed from the encroachment of civilization. Rolling hills of sand blocking the far horizon. Skies of pure blue seldom occluded by clouds.
Kane enjoyed being in the desert. He enjoyed being alone. Unfortunately he was far from it. The Viper’s company complicated what he considered an otherwise plain lifestyle. Kane found the man’s arrogance choking. It forced him to rethink his decisions leading up to their tenuous agreement. Men like the Viper were cancerous in the best of times. Driven by greed, the bounty hunter was an exact opposite of what Kane represented.
He glanced over at his new travelling companion. The Viper rode on, seemingly ignorant of Kane’s radiating disdain. Sloppy, shoulders slumped, the Viper presented a slovenly appearance. Kane wondered who in their right mind would bother hiring such a man. He felt his muscles tense. Deep-rooted anger bristled just under his calm exterior. He knew without pause that he and the killer for hire would never see eye to eye.
Yet for all of the Viper’s obvious faults Kane was able to see the lethality the bounty hunter tried so very hard to keep hidden. Secrets were just as valuable currency as coin in the Wastelands.
Kane had heard of the Viper long before they ever met. A whispered name when men didn’t want attention. A shadow of a thought just outside of the realm of consciousness. There was darkness in the heart of the world. Darkness in need of taming. The Viper was the sort who thrived upon the chaos born from that darkness. In his own way, and perhaps without knowing it, he helped keep the foul powers of chaos at bay. Funny how life could be so twisted.
Kane almost grinned at the irony.
“Find something amusing?” the Viper quipped.
Kane refrained from answering, knowing it would only serve to intensify their unspoken conflict.
The Viper’s eyes narrowed. “Not speaking eh? Isn’t that a bit childish for one of your…stature?”
“I didn’t come to play games with words,” Kane finally sighed.
“Who’s playing games? You’re the one sitting there with a sly look, praying I don’t catch you staring.”
Annoyance flared. “Call it what you will, but there is no love lost between us.”
“Why should there be? We’ve never met, Kane.”
“That is not the point.”
The Viper reined in, cutting Kane off. “Just what is the point? I came looking for you, you specifically, to help me carry out a paying job. What has your dull, unimaginative mind conjured of me that makes you dislike me so much?”
“You mean aside from you pulling a weapon on me back in Black Tide?” Kane countered.
The Viper held out empty hands. “Can you blame me? One doesn’t confront a Slayer unless there is a tactical advantage.”
Kane had no choice but to stop. The Viper’s argument was sound enough. Plenty of Slayers were slightly more unhinged than Kane, but that didn’t give any man the right to take such liberties when seeking assistance. Being naturally taciturn didn’t work in Kane’s favor either. The quiet comforts of self-reflection aside, he was finding it most difficult to work alongside what he considered to be part of the scum underside of humanity on Helscape.
“Move aside,” he said.
“What?” the Viper asked, taken back.
Kane sighed, unwilling to give in to provoked confrontation. “Move your damned horse. This bickering is pointless. You came to me with a job and I accepted. We can either spend all our time arguing or we can do what we are contracted to do. The choice is yours. We move forward now or I return to Black Tide.”
And wallow miserably in pools of your own sorrow. Not a chance, Kane. We may not have met but I know you. Oh yes, I know you almost as good as I know myself. The desert owns us. Who are we to fight it? You belong out here beside me. Fighting it is pointless, even if you know it will be your demise. But you know that, don’t you?
The Viper offered a wry grin and pulled his horse aside so Kane could continue. “Very well, but don’t think this conversation finished. I’ve merely decided it was too hot out to carry on.”
Snorting, Kane clicked his horse forward. It was still days to Rook Mountain. Plenty of time for them to get back at each other’s throats. Plenty of time.
One thing about nights in the desert anyone first learns is that they are cold. In fact, temperatures on Helscape plunged the moment the second sun dropped below the crest of the horizon. Without a fire or proper equipment more than one unwitting traveler died from exposure, their bones left to dust, forgotten in the endless sea of sand.
Kane sat glumly next to the small fire they’d chanced in making. Berserkers seldom went after small targets but there were bigger, worse predators stalking the night. Rifle in hand and spear gun within arm’s reach, the Slayer stared into the fire. What he thought of was only known to him.
The soft sounds of well worn boots scuffing over the sand reached him. Kane tensed only briefly before catching the Viper’s unsavory scent. He watched as the younger man finished his patrol and all but collapsed on the opposite side of the fire. A closer looked showed Kane just how hard the bounty hunter’s life had been.
Unnecessary lines creased his face at odd places. Sun spots covered his face and hands, making him seem much older than he really was. Life in the Wastelands was hard on anyone. Kane admitted that. But it was a special, or maniacal breed of man who purposefully put themselves in harm’s way for the hard comforts of coin.
They hadn’t spoken since their earlier confrontation, each content with riding in silence. Their thoughts, however, strayed down remarkably different paths. Kane remembered his village every time his eyes closed. The smell of smoke from that fateful day continued to haunt him. The Viper envisioned coffers filled to the point he never need take another job again. It was a small dream.
It was the Viper who broke the silence, having had enough of being alone. “There’s nothing out there tonight.”
“Should there be?” Kane asked.
A shrug. “You tell me. You know these deserts better than most I suspect. What hidden dangers lurk beyond the edge of our grasp?”
“Too many,” Kane said. “Too many and yet you find it appropriate to kill your fellow man.”
“Have you ever?”
“Ever what?” Kane asked.
The Viper removed his hat, using an old scarf to wipe the sweat from his forehead. “Killed a man. Much different from those nasty Berserkers you Slayers are so fond of.”
Fond is most assuredly not the proper word. “No. Slayers only hunt the monsters. I would think you knew better.”
“Maybe you should try it sometime. There’s more sport in it, that’s true enough.”
Kane was less bothered by the admission than he would have imagined. “What could possibly be strong enough to make you want to kill your own kind?”
The Viper’s face darkened. “There are plenty of monsters among our kind, Kane. You don’t even need to look very hard to find them.”
“I don’t buy it,” Kane said after studying the Viper’s face. Secrets within lies. An interesting web woven. “You speak too plainly to be convincing.”
“Think what you will, but there is a sickness at play here, Kane. I know you’ve felt it. We all have. I am…to take liberty with the term, a doctor of sorts. It falls to people like me to excise that sickness.”
Kane’s eyes widened in shock. “By committing murder?”
“Murder? I haven’t murdered anyone in years,” the Viper smoothly replied. “I only work on contract and then it needs to be worth my time. Killing a man is easier than going after those damned Berserkers, and more rewarding too.”
Impossible scenarios played out in Kane’s mind. He couldn’t fathom the justification to wantonly kill other humans, or even aliens for that matter. The Berserkers were the threat on Helscape. Nothing else mattered.
“I can see what you’re thinking and you’re wrong. The Berserkers are a danger, there’s no mistaking that, but in the absence of law society devolves. When that happens…”
He let the thought stew in Kane’s mind before continuing. Morality was at its highest in the Slayer. So high he was nearly blinded by his internal sense of justice. That men could be evil was a distant belief for men like Kane. The Viper knew that. It had the propensity to distort reality when truth was needed most. The only way he was going to be successful in convincing Kane was by letting him work through it.
Even then it proved a risky process.
For his part, the Slayer frowned in thought. So much of his life had been dedicated to the eradication of the Berserkers he now realized that a small part of his humanity was dead…gone. Never to return. Perhaps even more than a small part. He suddenly feared what he might become should he continue blindly down the road he’d set out upon following the death of his parents.
When he spoke it was slow, deliberate. “Even among the worst of us there is that spark of righteousness. I refuse to believe, I can’t believe, that we have sunk so low as to prey upon each other in the midst of this crisis.”
“Think what you will. The truth is plain for any who seek it. The world isn’t perfect, Kane. It’s up to men like us to keep the natural order.” He rose, stretched, and groaned. Endless hours in the saddle often left him sorer than a good fight. “I’m going to be down. Wake me in a few hours for my guard shift.”
Kane watched him stalk towards his bedroll. How anyone could sleep after having such a conversation was beyond him. Warring thoughts prevented Kane from relaxing, much less grow tired. It was one of the few nights the Viper was allowed to sleep until the dawn.
Midway through the following day Kane slid from the saddle to give his mount a rest. He pat the horse gently on the neck with a gloved hand, taking the time to rub the side of the neck. Horses he understood. People, well, the previous conversation with the Viper left him with much doubt. He reached for the nearest saddlebag. The water from his canteen felt cool as it flowed down his throat, despite being exposed to extreme heat. Kane made sure to wet his lips before sealing the military grade canteen and turning to the Viper.
“How can I trust you?” he asked flatly.
“I haven’t given you any reason not to. You see me as I am. Just a man looking for a paycheck.”
Kane wasn’t satisfied. “That’s not good enough. If we are going to succeed, survive even, I need to know that I can absolutely trust you to have my back.”
“Prove it,” Kane said.
The Viper held up his hands in frustration. “How?”
“Tell me your name.”
“That, boy-o is not something I give. Ever.”
The Viper fell silent and continued to ride. He only went a few meters before stopping to look back over his shoulder. “Unless you earn it. If we make it through this you can have my name. No squaffa. Help me earn this commission and I’ll even consider making you tea for breakfast.”
He barked a rasping laugh and rode on. Rook Mountain called and he was tired of being in the desert. Sand and wind played murder on his skin.