For those of us in America, this is a week of celebration. I am personally celebrating the great comments I get on here and the friendships I am building with many of you. I can’t begin to express what it means to get such feedback- most of it positive- on what was once naught but a dream. Thanks for sticking with me these long years and let’s see what tomorrow brings. As always, read on my friends. Read on.
A New World
The boy and his friends were running through the woods on the way home when they stumbled upon the body. At first, they were afraid to go near it. This was something new to them and would spark sad dreams for many months to come. The boy was the first to overcome his fears. He moved closer, noticing the shallow grave partially dug off to the side. A pall hung over the tiny clearing. The boy suddenly felt his innocence fade, his obsession with the corpse slowly growing.
There was no doubt that the corpse was freshly slain. Steam was still coming off it. The other boys turned and ran away, back to their families in the village not far away, leaving him alone in the darkening forest. The forest, he noticed, was increasingly getting quieter. He was reaching down to close one of the open eyes when the stranger stepped from behind the tree. Shock bit at him. The stranger was dressed in worn black leathers with a heavy cloak concealing most of his features. His eyes blazed a brilliant yellow, piercing into the boy’s very soul. A bloody dagger was in his right hand.
A wicked smile creased the stranger’s thin lips. “Go home, boy. This is nothing for you to see.”
He turned and fled, clutching his fears in his breast. He ran and ran until his breath was gone and the tree line loomed before him. And then something made him stop. He never knew what it was that made him do what he did, only that it was powerful enough to make him turn back towards the forest and watch.
A scratching noise brought the Viper back to the small chamber in which he’d fallen asleep. It took him a moment to remember that he was buried in the depths of Rook Mountain and a moment longer to realize what was making that sound. Berserkers.
The Viper started to get up when Kane grabbed his shoulder, forcing him to stay put. The Slayer held a finger to his lips. The chambers were still bathed in the sickly green light, creating a surreal scene. It allowed Kane to see trouble in the assassin’s eyes. Had the man been dreaming? For a moment, Kane wondered what nightmares the Viper had endured to turn out the way he was. Then, the world exploded into action. Both men raised their rifles and prayed for the best.
The portal came alive in a wash of static electricity and a roar so thunderous it violated the Gods. Dust and debris tricked down from the cavernous ceiling. The ground shook, threatening to tear apart. The whole chamber began to hum, pulsing down the hundreds of tunnels and access ways.
Kane melted into the wall, hoping the mountain wasn’t going to come down on their heads. Both he and the Viper knew the Berserkers would use this to their advantage and stage a counter-attack. A look down the tunnel told him the Imperium soldiers were still moving. By the time the first soldier stepped into sight, the portal opened and spit out the Berserker. His eyes were ablaze with pain and relief. Kane’s stomach lurched as bitter realization washed over him. The green light was a portal to another place, perhaps another time. If the Berserkers managed to gain control….
Mnemlath and his warriors came through the wall they’d made for protection at the sound of his triumphant roar. The first soldier dropped to a knee and unleashed half of his charge into the wounded Berserker’s chest. The force of the sudden attack threw the monster back in a splash of blood and gore.
Dark blood painted the Viper, causing him to lose the grip on his rifle. It discharged upon striking the ground, sending a stream of fire into the crouching soldier. The man died in a guttural scream. “Damned fool,” the assassin cursed under his breath. The boy should have more careful than to open fire without assessing the situation in the first place.
The Berserkers burst as one into action. Mnemlath led the way by heaving his deadly spikes at the soldiers. Kane ducked and returned fire, the feel of sharpened steel grazing his neck. Stray rounds scored the rock walls, forming clouds of dust and showering them with newly formed pebbles.
Snake Eyes took a deep breath before entering the tunnel under Rook Mountain. He wasn’t fond of being underground, especially when that was the enemy’s primary means of travel. The chopper dropped them off about a kilometer from the target, much closer than either pilot liked. Snake Eyes wanted them closer, and eventually they settled on flying standby in the event of an emergency underground. None of that mattered now. He forced himself to focus.
One by one, his squad filed into the mountain. Despite doing their best to conceal their movements, the Imperium soldiers moved like a herd of blundering garabeasts. They were heavily armored and unused to traveling underground. Their movements were carried out with a lack of precision that came from normal patrol tactics. Snake Eyes knew it was going to betray them before they managed to creep up on the enemy. He only hoped it wasn’t going to get them all killed in the process. They did their best to ignore the unnatural light haunting the tunnels, though it gradually wormed into their psyches.
Eventually, they picked up signature traces of the two friendlies not far from their position. The only bad part was that it was on the other side of the small cavern where the green light emanated from. Snake Eyes pushed his men forward. Meter after meter went by at an agonizingly slow pace until, finally, they were within twenty meters of the target area. That’s when all hell broke loose.
The cavern erupted in supernatural light, robbing the soldiers of their night vision. Snake screwed his eyes shut until the glare faded. When he was finally able to look upon the engagement area, his stomach lurched. Berserkers were coming from the shadows and attacking someone with murderous ferocity. The frenzied pace of the battle caught up to his squad as well.
Snake Eyes cursed as Private Hammers fell. It was the kid’s first mission, and he’d made a rookie mistake. For that, he’d paid with his life. A round of bone darts sliced open his neck and face as the Berserker turned on him. Snake Eyes bit back a curse. If they were going to make it out of here, he was going to have to come up with something good.
“Scoops! Get your fat ass over here and help me out. Klausky, Xill, lay down a hard cover fire so we can get his body.”
Private Klausky gained the mouth of the cavern and dropped down to open fire. He knew the gray alien was kneeling over him about to do the same. Dropping his light pack, Scoops raced forward and grabbed the dead boy’s right arm at the same time Snake Eyes took his left. Neither of them saw the arrival of another body from the portal. Cover fire poured into the cavern, hoping not to hit any friendlies in the process. Haze was forming from the excessive amounts of ion fire, covering the wounded and the sorrowful cries of men dying. Cursing, Snake didn’t know how they were going to get out of this.
Kane didn’t see the torrent of flechettes striking the rock face around him. A few ripped into his calf, and the pain served as a reminder to the desperation of the situation. He hadn’t expected the armored soldiers of the Imperium to join in the fight, and their help was both bane and boon. They were clumsy and ungraceful in their assault, making it much more difficult for him to fight.
“Kane!” he heard above the heavy sounds of battle.
The Slayer looked to where the Viper was pointing between volleys. Brushing the debris clogging his vision, he saw a strangely dressed man fall from the portal. The body hit with a fleshly thump and didn’t move. The Slayer’s first impulse was to think the man dead. He was ready to ignore the matter until this engagement was concluded, but then he caught the subtle rise and fall of the man’s chest. He was still alive. Satisfied, at least for the moment, that the stranger lived, Kane had to focus on himself lest the Berserkers overwhelm their position.
Mnemlath watched this new threat enter his world and discovered dismay. Another world had been discovered, but it was one populated by the same pathetic species inhabiting this one. He snarled his commands, and their attack doubled with renewed vigor. The shock grenade rolling down the ground came to a stop at his feet, giving him enough time to recognize the threat. His eyes flew open with the sudden knowing that he was dead. The force of the blast wave was so powerful it threw everyone within a five-meter radius off their feet and into the cavern walls.
Kane used the opportunity to run forward and snatch the man from the center of the cavern. He had almost made it back to cover when a scaled arm reached out from the dust and clutched his ankle. He tripped, the dead weight of his load crashing down on top of him and rolling off. The Berserker pulled himself close for the finishing blow, but Kane was already prepared. He’d snatched one of the silver spears from the case on his thigh and stabbed down hard. Fresh blood rushed up, and the Berserker screamed as it withdrew back into the haze. Kane could barely make out the shapes of two soldiers doing the same for one of their fallen.
There was no better time to retreat than now. He hoped the soldiers were thinking along the same lines.
Snake Eyes turned his head just before the grenade he’d thrown exploded. Scoops was struggling with the weight of the body, leaving the grizzled infantryman cursing himself for agreeing to bring the supply sergeant along. Scoops slipped, dropping his end of the body and taking all three of them down. Snake Eyes cursed again. The civilians ran by him, one carrying a body over his shoulders. None of them were his.
Seriously doubting his decision to coming, Scoops panted, his body already slick with perspiration. The armor was constricting him, making it hard for him to catch his breath. If this was what it meant to be a combat soldier on the front line, he wanted no part of it. He bent down to regain his grip on the body and was suddenly jerked backwards.
No one noticed the dulled spear whistle through the air to strike him square in his back. Scoops crumbled, feeling in his spine and legs lost. Snake Eyes watched him drop and spun to bring his rifle to bear on the attacker.
“Snake, help me Snake! I can’t feel my legs. Can’t feel nothing at all,” he choked out through a torrent of sobs. “I don’t wanna die like this. Please help me.”
The Berserkers were upon them before Snake Eyes could form a thought. The first monster bowled into him, sending his rifle down the tunnel. Scoops looked up in horror as the terrible fist punched down and through the top of his skull and deep into the pulp of brain matter. He died with the grim satisfaction of what it meant to be a warrior.
Meters away, Xill tossed a body at the nearest Berserker and drew his knife. Before the dodging monster had a chance to recover, the corporal was on him. It was strength against surprise, leaving Xill the victor as he slashed through the Berserker’s throat. Klausky emerged to block the opening and began picking his targets. They were mere whispers of their true selves, hidden behind the haze and dust, but more than enough for the sniper. His efforts were enough to keep the Berserkers at a distance, and it allowed Xill and his sergeant to get to safety. No one needed to give the command for retreat. It was just the smartest thing to do if any of them wanted to live.
Kane took the first trembling step into the light of day and collapsed. His body was sore and abused, as much from carrying the weight on his back as from the firefight. The Viper dropped down beside him, carefully rolling over to cover the entrance. Both were out of breath and pushed to their limits. It had long since Kane felt this bad.
A distant explosion deep in the belly of the mountain brought him out of his daze and left him wondering why the soldiers were there. He then looked down at the body next to him.
If it weren’t for the unexpected arrival of this stranger, they all might have died. They could make out shouting now, mingled with cries and the symphonic sound of gunfire. Another battle was heading their way, and both were too tired to move. Kane locked and loaded another full charge and made ready to begin anew.
Xill was the first to break free of the dominating presence Rook Mountain held. He noticed the three prone men and leapt over them. Exhausted, he knelt down behind them and silently joined the line. He barked orders to each of the soldiers who came next, and the line grew stronger. Snake Eyes was the last to escape, with Klausky huffing and puffing right in front of him. They had barely stumbled through the mass of soldiers and warriors when the first Berserker came into view.
“Open fire!” Xill shouted, and the ion rifles sang in one clear voice. The first line of attackers dropped in death. Not even they were strong enough to survive such a fury. Mnemlath, now fully recovered, watched with dismay as his brethren fell dead without so much as a fight. This was unlike the fleshlings to be so resilient. It disturbed him to great ends until, finally, he was forced to order the retreat. Enough of his warriors had gone on to meet the Death God this day. Any more would serve no purpose. The Berserkers slunk back into the darkness to go and tell Kargosh of these new developments.
Snake Eyes and Kane, lying next to each other, turned over and stared into each other’s eyes for the first time. Shock registered in both as Slayer and soldier struggled to figure out what the other was doing here.