Forget Winter- Invasion is Coming!

I just got my 4th manuscript from an upcoming series back from my editor. She claims the story was ‘every bit as good as Game of Thrones’. Not the first person to say that, but I have a different opinion. This is the beauty of writing. What I think may not be represented by others. In fact, in this case, their opinions are higher than mine! Regardless of what I may think, Tomorrow’s Demise is clearly a hit. So much so that I figure I will go ahead and put book 2 up there once I am finished here.

Thanks for sticking around for the ride.

THIRTY-ONE

Departures

It had been years since Colonel Russell remembered feeling this exhausted. This was going to be one of those days when he felt every bit of his forty-nine years. His face was drawn and shallow from lack of sleep, and heavy bags formed under bloodshot eyes. The suns weren’t up yet, and he’d already gone through most of a pitcher of coffee. His bowels were going to pay for that later in the day. A sudden knock threw him out of his misery. In walked General Pierce without being invited.

“Good morning, Colonel,” he said with a mock smile. “I trust I haven’t disturbed anything vitally important?”

Russell sighed quietly and faced his superior. “Not at all. I was just getting ready to see my men before you leave.”

Pierce appeared genuinely shocked. “What do you mean? These are your troops who will be following me into combat. I should think the commanding officer would find it a privilege to stand beside them.”

“As it happens, I’ve been reassigned. Major Gregorson will assume full command of the garrison forces deployed. I’ll be staying behind to oversee the evacuation of casualties and incoming personnel.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Russell,” Pierce solemnly announced. He was disgusted with the old man’s actions and could find no reason for them. They were cowardly and unfit for a senior ranking officer. If he had his way….

Artur Russell straightened to attention and saluted, sharp and crisp. Pierce held him there while he stared deep into the man’s heart to find where his loyalties lay.

“If there is nothing else, sir, I wish you luck. I need to see my troops.”

Pierce finally returned the salute and said in controlled anger, “Luck is the one thing we won’t need, Colonel. I’ve found that it’s a sentiment fools often let get in the way when they have nothing else to cling to. Destiny guides my hands.”

Outside, the drums of war began to beat a swift and steady tune.

It was one of the mightiest war machines ever assembled, formed and dressed on the parade field in full combat gear. Guide ons and battalion colors with dozens of battle streamers waved in the crisp morning wind. Buglers up and down the ranks sounded the division battle call so all could hear for miles around.

The citizens of Minion came out by the hundreds to watch this significant event, one the likes of which would never be seen again. They waved and shouted cries of luck to the thousands of Imperium troopers come to end their worries. For many, this was the first shred of hope they’d known. It was a return to the beginning for the few surviving veterans of the first Berserker war.

Pierce watched his unit through the proud eyes of a father and nodded to Gladak. The Colonel spun and barked orders to the brigade commanders who, in turn, passed them down to the lowest level companies. Units began marching off towards their places in the long columns of armored vehicles.

There was power in the air, charging the soldiers with raw emotion. Veterans and raw recruits felt it the same. It was the feeling only a soldier could know. Joneth Pierce watched his force with joy. A lesser commander would have given a long speech designed to stimulate the troops, but Pierce knew better. They fed off of him as much as he did them. He offered them all one small comment, dispatched down to every squad in the division the night before: “The books of history are open, their pages ready to record your legacy. What will you make of them? My friends, I give you the world!”

 

Locked within his office, Russell watched the procession from a shrouded window. His heart went out to the men and women who had no clue what they were up against. It pained him to know that Gregorson was in there somewhere. He was a good man, and the Imperium would be sore to lose him. A terrible feeling had been nagging at him since the division’s arrival, and it had only gotten worse since. There was a time when Russell would have been aching to get into the fight. Two years on Helscape had been enough to change that point of view. He sighed. Let Pierce think what he wanted.

He turned his attention to the armored snake winding out into the desert. The lead units were no more than small dust clouds on the far horizons now, giving Russell the courage to look away and finish what he needed to do. Much needed to be done. Coordination with Trusgar Spaceport and the civilian medical staff needed to be taken care of before the dust settled. Russell feared that, no matter how well they prepared, it wasn’t going to be enough.

 

Snake Eyes passed his pack up to a trooper already atop the APC and was helped up. Even he had to admit that he was the slightest bit afraid. The Helscape garrison knew the dangers of what they were facing, and that was the one advantage they had over the fiercely trained Imperium assault units. He was amazed at how subservient the mad General’s troops were. Pierce was a controlling man who didn’t like his commanders acting without orders. Out here, that was the only way to survive.

The crew chief clambered up through the closest hatch and asked, “Everybody on?”

Snake looked around, counting as he did. Nathan and Kane were sitting in the back discussing events to come, he imagined. Most of the others were down in the hull arranging the baggage and equipment to be the most comfortable so they could rack out. Not a bad idea.

“Yeah, let’s get this boat on the roads,” Snake Eyes answered.

The eighty-ton piece of steel and armor was going to be their home for the next few days on their trek up the desert to Black Tide, so they might as well make the most of it. Seeing the wisdom in the rest of the platoon’s actions, Snake adjusted his own pack and laid his head down, making sure to tilt his visor down to block out the suns.

“How long do you think this is going to take us, Sarge?” Klausky asked him.

Snake sighed. Didn’t this guy know when to take advantage of the moment? “Does it really matter? I wouldn’t be in such a hurry to go off and get yourself killed. Remember when we rescued that little girl? How many of us came back then?”

The younger trooper fell silent and resumed his turn at air guard. A flight of assault choppers flanked the column as the first vehicle gunned down the road. Most of the artillery and air support were already north and in position to cover the advance into the deep desert. The rest of the division would be with them in three short days. Snake Eyes’ track started to pull forward.

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Veteran’s Day

Veteran’s Day is a special day for me. It is a time of reflection. Of deeds long over by men and women I have had the privilege of serving beside. I am amazed at the amount of courage on display- daily- and of the willingness to endure hardships without question. Maybe a little grumbling, but never turning aside from the task.

I had just left Afghanistan and joined my actual unit in Mosul, Iraq. Summer was ending and bad weather was setting in. I never thought Iraq could get cold, but man! The first thing I noticed was how depressed everyone was. There was a feeling of gloom over the compound that didn’t make sense. No one was dead, or even badly injured.

There was no motivation. I couldn’t have that. Once I got past the nonsense of being the ‘new guy’ by people who had no idea I had already been to one war and had been in my unit for the better part of the last 10 years, I did what I do best. I yelled, cursed, laughed, joked, and did my part to improve morale. I was outside the wire from day one and remained that way until it was time to head home. Hell, I even volunteered to be part of a three vehicle recon element from Mosul all the way back to Kuwait City.

War sucks. There is no two-ways about it, but every scrap of morale is precious. It takes so much to be in charge of 50-100 people, in the most stressful conditions in the world, but I’ll be damned if I won’t do it all over again. Here’s to you, you men and women from the ages who have answered your country’s call and gone to foreign shores.

It took some convincing but I got around to putting my memoirs down from my 3 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would appreciate you checking them out, and maybe sharing with a friend. And pleas- if you have read it- leave an honest review.

Veteran’s Day Thoughts

A Long Way From Home

One pet peeve of mine is when people say ‘thank you for your service’ on Memorial Day. Not just no, but NO. Memorial Day belongs to those who have passed. Not the living. Veteran’s Day however, is for all who have donned the uniform- whichever it may be- and done their duty to their country.

I spent 20 years in that uniform, five of them overseas in bad places. Ok, Korea wasn’t too bad, but it was a lot different in the early 90s than it is today. The rest of my time was spent with the Airborne Corps. I narrowly missed going to Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, and the threat of fighting Russia at one point. When the war on terror began I couldn’t wait. For my sins, I was sent to Afghanistan in October 2002.

I remember the pilot switching the C-17s interior lights to red and telling everyone to don their body armor and helmets as we entered the combat zone. Most of the passengers were office weenies: JAG lawyers, clerks, supply and admin people. Only a handful of combat guys and a LRS team represented the other half- the fighting half- of the Army.  To say the least, it began an interesting experience.

Of course, hearing the rockets exploding in the mountains as we deboarded added to the anticipation. This was it. I was finally at war.

It too a few years after I retired to crank out my thoughts on my three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some memories don’t sit well. The VA says I have PTSD, but aside from getting angry fairly quick, I don’t feel it.

A Long Way From Home is the culmination of my time in the desert, along with important stories from a few friends I met along the way. One is (now) Command Sergeant Major Reginald Butler. He was with the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad in 04. You might have heard the story- since it was the subject of a book and now a National Geographic mini-series.

I’d like to ask each of you to share this post, or pick up a copy of A Long Way From Home as Veteran’s Day approaches. It helps those of us who did serve as we try to return to normal lives.

War is Hell. Anyone who has ever put on a uniform and purposefully went to where the enemy was intent on killing him can attest to that. But instead of a singular definition of Hell that religion preaches, war is so much more. It is Hell on the families left behind. Hell on the mind and spirit. Hell on the nerves. Hell on coming home and trying to remember where you fit in. Yes, war is Hell. A Long Way From Home is the compilation of my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002-2006. It gives first hand accounts of some of the most gruesome fighting and a behind the scenes look at what really went on from various levels of the men and women who fought the war.

Now That Halloween is Over

I went grocery shopping yesterday and couldn’t believe people were buying candy. I could only look at the shelves and think “I remember when I used to like that”. Not that I don’t enjoy it, but damn, my kids came home like they’d robbed a candy store on Halloween.

The calm before the storm is passing. Anyone who has ever been on the verge of battle knows there is a certain restlessness that plagues us. You can’t sleep. Don’t want to eat. Drinking water seems a chore as your mind races over the thousands of possibilities of what might happen.

Imagine what these poor men and women (and aliens) of the 76th are feeling right about now?

THIRTY

The Last Moments

“Mail call!”

Snake Eyes dropped the heavy sack of letters and holocards as his soldiers began filing towards him. This was the one time of day when they actually felt needed. Mail was an important item to any soldier, especially ones seemingly forgotten on a world far away and without importance. He was amazed at how quickly they were able to adapt. Just last night, the Military Police had burst in and arrested Ardn Kelg on murder charges, and here they were on the brink of one of the largest invasions of the modern era. Half of the garrison was assigned to deploy with the 76th, and Snake’s men were damned near on point for the operation. He held his hands up for silence when the bag was empty.

“Quiet, now, I’ve got some info to put out,” he said. “Formation is at zero two hundred. Bring all of your equipment; we won’t be coming back to Fort Evans until the war is over. Ammo draw is at zero three. We still don’t have a rollout time yet, so stay loose. You guys know I don’t go for those last minute squaffa speeches to try and motivate you. All I can say is do what you have to come home again. Lights out in ten, people. Good night.”

Snake Eyes closed the door behind him and exhaled a long, slow breath. A grim-faced Xill met him on the steps. Snake seriously doubted any of them would be able to sleep. There were ones and twos who never seemed effected by things like this, but the rest were scared solid. The taste of the Helscape cigarette was almost enough to make him gag, but the smoke calmed him. It was about the only thing that did these days.

“Ready?” Xill asked, pushing away some of the smoke that blew towards him. “Can’t really see that we have a choice,” Snake Eyes answered.

The suns were slowly dropping over the horizon, already letting in the chill of the desert night.

“You got what they need?”

Xill tapped his jacket pocket and nodded.

“Then let’s get this over with so we can get a little sleep.”

 

Every time he shuffled his feet over the floor, Nathan stirred the multi-colored dust into new patterns. They reminded him of the dual-colored sand toys his grandmother had brought back from Hawaii for him when he was a child. This wasn’t quite like home, but it helped steady his nerves. A thousand thoughts raced through his mind. He wondered if he was going to make it back to see his family again. Or even if they’d want him. Nathan was no stranger to combat, but that had been with an army of normal people fighting a normal war. He still wasn’t sure what to make of this. Most of his feelings were directly attributed to prewar jitters. Everyone dealt with the situation differently, as was apparent with his current roommate. He looked across the room to where Kane lay calmly dozing on and off.

“How can you sleep like that? It feels like my stomach is going to twist itself right out of my body and you find the time to get some rest?” Nathan finally asked him.

Kane, keeping his eyes closed, answered, “This is nothing new, just on a much grander scale. Besides, you forget how long I’ve been looking forward to this day.”

He was about to respond when a hollow knock drowned his thoughts. Kane’s hand slid down to his blaster, but he stayed where he was. The knock repeated, more insistent this time. Nathan’s hand glided across the handle, his other hand filled with the cool feel of his pistol.

“Who is it?”

“Snake and Xill. You plan on opening the door or are we going to do this through a damned piece of wood?” Snake Eyes snapped.

Kane smiled to himself as Nathan closed the door behind them.

“Who’d you think it was?” Snake Eyes asked him sarcastically and sat down.

He motioned towards the half-empty whiskey bottle and smiled. Nathan barely agreed before the top was opened and Snake was pouring a drink.

“Do you have any idea how hard it is sneaking through a town where there is almost no military presence? Just terrible,” Snake announced and drowned the first drink.

Kane sat up and asked, “What news is there?”

“Same squaffa,” he responded with a refilled glass in his hand. “We’re getting up way before dawn to sit on our backsides until someone decides to say go. You two need to be there before dawn to keep suspicions down and link up with us.”

“What about getting on post?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem. Most units are sending men down to the gates to link up with their scouts. You two should be able to blend in. Lal-owk will be there waiting for you,” Snake said.

Xill dug two cards out of his pocket and passed them out. “These are your identification passes. They have your names and platoon designators on the back. Present them to the guards on duty, and they’ll let you by.”

Raising his glass, Snake announced, “It’s going to be one hell of a day.”

 

The darkness swirled, taking on unexpected colors ill defined by the mortal eye. Out of that darkness bloomed a new world born on the death throes of the old. Foreign dreams swept in to crush those already deep-rooted in the psyche. It was only through strength of mind that a man, any man, might find solace in the span of decay quickly devouring the world.

Kane was surrounded by a sea of human bones. Broken and decayed, they lay strewn across the world. A chill mist dropped the temperature below freezing, though Kane felt nothing. He caught the faint glow of fires and decided to make for them. Perhaps they held the answers to all of this. The thunder of hooves raced across the emptiness, making Kane instinctively seek cover. Horse and rider sped by, concealed by the mist. Kane saw enough to know he was sorely outmatched. Another and another went past. All of the riders were shrouded in mottled gray robes and atop jet black steeds. There must have been a score of the ghouls. Weaponless, Kane made ready for a battle he knew he couldn’t win. The ghouls never passed him a second glance as they rode on.

A chorus of wails and screams followed in their wake. The roiling clouds churned and frothed, forming a million empty faces. They stared down on the Slayer in silent judgment. Kane moved slowly, carefully picking his steps through the thickening fog. He’d heard others tell of this place but never put much stock in the rumors. It wasn’t until the Children of Sorrow began to appear that Kane began to believe.

They arrived by the dozens, silently appearing from nothing and taking up perch on the piles of bones. Their hollow eye sockets watched his every move with great interest. Each looked the same, practically indistinguishable from the next. They were barely half the height of a man with shallow faces rounded to a perfect circle. Excess flesh hung low past their cheekbones, giving them the appearance of a constant pucker. Each held a harp made of rusted copper in malformed hands.

The Children whispered to each other as the last one took his place. Their voices blended into a prolonged hiss, intensifying until the first one struck a note. Hundreds of harps began playing a strange dirge intent upon making the traveler forget his way and lose his will to go. The Children started wailing as one in a sorrowful pitch.

Kane knew that, if he stopped walking now, he was dead. He did his best to avoid their deadening stares, for they warned of a violent demise. He’d just passed the last of them when the skies filled with pale yellow lights with no defined shape. They acted as a line for him to follow, leading Kane closer to the fires. Behind, the Children wailed louder. It was an old tale passed down through the generations, and Kane knew the better of it. They weren’t children at all but the damned souls of those slain over the course of history. They were the helpless victims every Slayer failed to rescue.

Kane ran on until he found himself at the foot of a great mountain with one broken path leading up. The spire was lost deep into the judging clouds, but it was here the lights lined for him and here where he would find the reason behind this madness. Kane searched for a reason why, already knowing the answer, when a bolt of sharp blue lightning scored the ground beside him. The Gods were goading him up the hill. No choice in the matter, Kane began the ascent.

The upward path was lined with overgrown thorns with poison barbs. He could hear things moving among them, slithering and crawling. Whether they moved towards him or away wasn’t clear. Whatever they were better remained hidden. Kane walked for days, seemingly making no progress. Just when he was about to give up and turn around, the way before him opened up. The fog was lifting, allowing him to see his goal for the first time. A full moon rose from the mist, bathing the mountaintop in a foul light.

Kane looked over his surroundings, searching for anything he could use as a weapon when the need arose. There was little in the way of anything up here — no place to hide and nothing sufficient to defend himself with. Trusting his fate to the Gods, Kane slowly walked towards the lone tree in the center of the mountaintop. The tree had but one single branch jutting out halfway up. It was barren of leaves and bark, and made strange creaking sounds as the wind rocked it.

An empty laugh echoed across the mountain. Kane looked up to see the moon change into a skeletal face glaring down upon him. The Slayer searched about for an escape route but found the clearing was now surrounded with the same dangerous thorns. He was trapped here.

Welcome, Aradias Kane.

The hollow voice vibrated through his flesh and into the core of his soul.

“Who are you? Why have you summoned me here?” Kane asked.

You don’t know?

There was a blinding flash, and out of it strode a towering man cloaked in darkness. Fires breathed from beneath his hood but offered no glimpse of his face. He walked with a long staff capped with the skull of some extinct creature. The man came to a halt a few paces from Kane.

“It’s not my time to die,” Kane answered.

The robed man laughed again. What is time to me? I am all things before they began, just as surely as I shall be after they end.

Slamming the staff into the ground, he changed the world around them. The moon disappeared, replaced by an endless array of stars no more than pinpricks in the night. They began spinning, twirling around the mountaintop until eventually blurring into constant streaks of light.

But time has nothing to do with the deeds of tonight, Aradias. I have come to offer you a chance to see the one thing men hold true in their hearts. Destiny. For is destiny not the King of the World?

“Who are you?” Kane asked again.

The robed man lowered his hood, revealing a ball of gentle flames. I have many names, but I am always just me. I hold the fate of creation in the palm of my hands and the dreams of all men spring from my desires. He extended a skeletal hand, and a tiny blue flame sprung to life. With my very thought, I can kill. The flame vanished.

“What is it you want with me, plague of eternity?” Kane asked with a sharpened tongue. A sword appeared embedded in the ground between them.

You must prove your worth to the Fates. The Gods have spoken, and I have come to carry out their demands. You will be put to task much greater than any has ever had to endure.

It will bring your soul to the balance of light and darkness. But you are not yet ready to bear the mantle of humanity. You must face me first, Aradias Kane. Only by besting me will you prove yourself worthy of the future you seek.

At last, Kane realized to whom he was talking. This was the fabled executioner of the Gods. The killer pointed his long, bony arm towards the tree branch and nodded. Kane turned to see a noose made from the darkest material swaying in the breeze.

Should you fail.

“What must I do?” he asked, already bracing himself to grab the sword.

“Fight me!”

The reaper’s robes evaporated into black and crimson leather-plated battle armor. His staff became a mighty broadsword capable of ripping Kane apart in a single swipe. Kane dove for his life as the great blade came crashing down. The Slayer turned and rolled to his own sword, drawing it from the ground in a clean stroke. The two blades met each other in a deafening clash.

Kane threw back the reaper’s offensive, much to the amusement of the eternal. Few had lasted so long with him that it was a grim pleasure to carry on with his personal attentions. The Slayer fought like a trapped animal, knowing that he was dead if he lost. Ghostly images of his broken life spun around them, his friends and family lying dead at the feet of a faceless Berserker. A face slowly blended together, and it was the face of Mnemlath. The Berserker danced over the still warm corpses, oblivious to the small boy hidden in the corner.

The rage welling up within him finally burst, and Kane erupted into a whirl of action. The reaper gradually began to fall away from the force of the counter attack until he was forced down on one knee. Kane bellowed his wrath and cut through his opponent, severing the body at the waist. The force of the blow took him to the ground, where he knelt and cried. The reaper disappeared, leaving him alone once again on the empty mountaintop. Again, the moon became the skulls of death. Bitter laughter sang across the roof of the world.

The test has been passed. You have proved your worth to the Old Gods. Take what you have learned, for you will have need of such heart in the coming days.

The skull faded, leaving him to a compilation of his dreams and private nightmares. Kane had won, but the price was unclear. His tears dried, and the lustful revenge abated to a far corner of his mind.

Aradias awoke in a pool of sweat. His sheets were saturated, and his fists were sore from being clenched so tightly. Helscape’s three moons bled their light down on him, and he wondered if it really was all a dream.

The Spirit of Halloween part 3

Like the Doors once sang: This is the End. Let’s see what happens to poor Emerson. I hope he makes it!

VII.

Miles away the demon heard the summons. Its massive head whipped about. Menacing eyes searched through the night until he found his target. The demon laughed. Never before had his host showed any sort of resistance to him. Nor would he ever again after this night. Tonight the demon decided it was time to take young Emerson Sedgewick to Hell. Massive wings lifted him from the ground and sped him across the sleeping town. The demon quickly found his prey. Emerson was sitting down. Sitting down on the steps of the town church. Anger swelled in the demon. How dare he? A church? Did he truly believe that a simple building with a cross carved in it would be power enough to stop a prince of Hell?

The demon landed to confront his host.

“What is this, boy? Have you suddenly found your nerve, here at the end?”

Emerson raised his pistol and fired three times. The rounds struck the demon in the chest. Blood so dark it looked black flew from the wounds, spattering the cobblestones. Steam escaped his body, but the demon did not fall. Emerson fired twice more and met the same results. The demon raged, but came no closer.

“You cannot kill me, boy.”

“I can, and I will,” he replied. His voice was shaky, unsure.

The demon shook his mighty horned head. ‘No. Poor, simple fool. You do not yet understand do you? You do not understand the power unleashed from your own fears. Fears that have fed the evil of this world. What will you do once you fire the last bullet? You cannot run, you cannot hide. Your soul has been marked. Your heart burns bright with evil.”

“Shut up!” Emerson screamed.

The demon took a step closer. “Listen to me, boy. You and I, we are the same. You created me from the black stain in your soul and the madness lurking in the corners of your mind. I did not kill those people, you did. I am nothing but a manifestation of your hidden malevolence.”

Emerson began to cry. He shook his head in denial. “No, no, no. It can’t be.”

“Oh but it is. Look at your hands, the wounds on your body. How did you get all of those? It wasn’t me. I only carried out your will. Listen to the whispers on the wind. Murderer. Remember the knife, the blood. The screams and pleas of grown men and women begging for their lives before you stole them for your own sickened sense of righteousness.”

“I didn’t kill anyone!” he shouted, but the words lacked conviction. Doubt crept in. he wasn’t sure what to believe anymore. Could he have? Was it possible he had truly killed eleven people? Eleven people who might have been his friends or coworkers? Eleven innocent souls?

The demon saw that doubt and moved closer.

“It is time, Emerson.”

He blinked the tears away. “Time for what?”

“To come home.”

Emerson raised his pistol, the sole remaining shot chambered and ready. He pointed the snubbed barrel at the demon. His hand trembled. His arm lacked strength. Voices assailed him from the night. Murderer. Killer. His heart hurt. The way out seemed less bright than it had in his apartment. Doubt gnawed at him.

It took every measure of his weakening resolve, but Emerson finally stared back at his demon and whispered, “no.”

Emerson Sedgewick turned the pistol away from the demon and gently pressed the barrel against his own chest. Like a lovers embrace, he warmed to the steel before closing his eyes a final time. The town clock chimed midnight off in the distance. A gunshot echoed from the church steps. The demon stared down at the corpse another moment before wrapping leathery wings about its body and dissolving into mist. And then there was only silence.

 

 

 

END

 

 

The Spirit of Halloween part 2

Hopefully you all enjoyed the first installment of Twelve Nightmares. No point in delaying, let’s dig in to part two…..

IV.

Darkness filled the room like the loving arms of a new mother. Silence dominated, drowning out the anger and bustle of the city. Emerson Sedgewick lay on his bed, immobile and unable to sleep. He felt the end drawing nearer, draining him of both youth and life. Devilish faces stared at him from the shadows. Hellfire burned just a bit brighter at the prospect of devouring his soul in an eternity of torment. Come to me, they beckoned.

He tried to close his eyes. Couldn’t. Clawed hands reached out for him, hungry with anticipation. An evil face leered at him. Acidic drool escaped the fanged mouth. Emerson looked for some place to run, to hide. There was none to be found. The shadows parted just long enough for him to see the true horror of the face. Emerson screamed. What he saw was himself. He passed out with another scream.

V.

Emerson awoke with a sharp burning sensation in his right hand. He managed to crawl from his bed and open the curtain. Pale, but bright light practically blinded him. When his eyes finally adjusted he looked down with dismay at his hand. The skin was ripped and swollen. Bone showed through in several places. His whole hand was a nasty combination of purple and black. Emerson repressed the urge to vomit. Tiny black flies swarmed around him, eager for the taste of fresh blood.

He finally made it to the bathroom and did his best to clean and dress the wounds. Emerson was forced to stop several times because the pain was simply too much. He wasn’t sure, but he swore he’d passed out once or twice during the process. The sun was already going down by the time he finished. It wasn’t until he looked under the sink that he noticed the blood stained kitchen knife wrapped in an old hand towel. He was confused. He didn’t even own a knife. So where had it come from? Questions unanswered, Emerson quietly closed the cupboard and returned to the living area of his apartment.

“Not another night,” he whispered to the empty house. “I can’t take another night of this.”

Hissing laughter echoed back at him, so faint it was barely perceptible. New determination strengthened his resolve. He was determined not to go back to sleep. Emerson went to the kitchen and brewed a fresh pot of coffee. He smiled for the first time in days as the first taste of hot caffeine hit the back of his throat. There was no way the demon was going to return this night. He downed the first cup and poured another.

Emerson was proud of what he was doing, but the walls of sleep cannot be held off forever. His eyes started to lose focus. Dark haze crept in the corners of his vision. He fought to keep his head from snapping forward. The grip on his coffee cup loosened enough so that the ceramic mug shattered on the dirty tile floor. Coffee splashed everywhere. His head snapped back, frightened and unsure. His stomach churned. He felt hands crawling up through his intestines, into his stomach and to his throat.

Emerson gagged. He tried to vomit but couldn’t. Thin whispers of smoke crept from his mouth until a massive cloud dominated the tiny apartment. Smoke? It couldn’t be. The smoke flushed from his mouth, gradually taking the shape of Emerson’s demon. Vile eyes stared back at him a moment before he lost consciousness.

VI.

Emerson’s condition quickly deteriorated. His eyes remained bloodshot, burning. Insanity played with him. Every shadow was a new nightmare. Every gust of wind a demon’s kiss inviting him to the torments of Hell. His nerves became frayed. He no longer went to work. A week’s worth of stubble littered his face. Locked in his room, Emerson spent his days trying to forget and his nights trying to stay awake. He went and bought a used pistol. The cold metal soothed his fears.

His body finally succumbed to sleep. Again he felt the demon burst free, eager to begin the night’s business. Long hours passed before Emerson awoke with a start. Panicked eyes scanned the squalor his apartment had become. Nothing. Emptiness reached out to soothe him. He hesitantly placed a hand upon his chest, searching for the demon, but felt nothing. His heart lacked the malice and disease that plagued him when the demon slept within. In a moment of blinding clarity Emerson knew what he had to do.

His heart raced. He knew there was scant precious time left before the demon returned to the corners of his soul. Emerson snatched up his jacket and hat and ran out the door. A thin smile cracked his chapped lips. It was the first smile he’d had in days, almost as if he had seen the first golden rays of sunlight for the very first time. Emerson ran faster, pushing and bumping his way through the meager pedestrians hurrying to get home lest they become the next victim. Unparalleled fear gripped the tiny town. No one wanted to die, yet no one had any inkling of the true terror besieging them. No one but Emerson. He alone was the balance between salvation and damnation. It was a responsibility much too great for the youth.

Darkness covered the world. A darkness so pure the stars pierced the eternal veil in a demonstration of the eternal glory of the universe. Emerson took the time to watch the stars, enjoying their beauty one last time. The pain in his heart lessened, as if he could hear the angel choir beckoning him. His heart calmed. He knew peace. But it was a peace that could not last, not until he removed the demon from this world once and for all.

He finally reached his destination. His breath came in ragged gasps. He was out of shape, not that it mattered. Emerson knew the demon would soon be coming for him, coming to lay a feast of misery within him that he could not avoid. The cold stone steps invited him to sit, and he did. He discovered he was much more exhausted than he had thought. His will was all but gone; his life mere shambles of what it had the potential to become. None of that mattered.

Emerson cocked his pistol and whispered, “come and get me you bastard.”

The Beginning of the End

Tomorrow’s Demise has been rolling right along and we are reaching the end…of book 1. In case you’ve missed it, there is a big battle looming. No spoilers right?

TWENTY-NINE

Treachery

The sounds of heavy snoring drifted through the ship’s cabin. The lights were dimmed. A soft hum competed with the sounds of sleep. Aside from that, the ship was deathly quiet. Kreegin Faul was able to stand about five minutes of Fint’s snoring before strapping a blaster to his hip and walking out the ramp. The desert was cold at night, but at least it was relatively quiet compared to the racket going on inside.

Faul stared off into the desert night from his seat on a flat rock a few meters from the ship. His crimson eyes watched the skies for more of the flying reptiles. They were fun to shoot but not much sport. A corpse already lay on the edge of his eyesight, shot in the neck by a silenced ion round. He could sit here and shoot the damned things all night if it meant finding some peace of mind. A deep screech from the dark brought a tight smile to his lips. The scavengers smelled the blood and were on their way. Kreegin Faul double checked his ammo and waited.

Constant beeping gradually growing louder finally woke Leggis Fint from the best sleep he’d had since taking this job. The green-skinned Idorian stretched long and hard and wiped his eyes. “This had better be good,” he whispered as he swung his legs over the back of the couch. The smell of ion residue tickled his nose. He’d have to remind Faul just how dangerous their situation was out here. Carelessly firing off into the night was a surefire way to give their position away to more than one enemy.

The beeping continued to get louder.

“All right, all right,” Leggis announced. He almost wished the computer could talk; at least that way he’d have someone to bark at when he was displeased.

Leggis grimaced from the taste in his mouth. He regretted talking altogether. He punched a button, and the main screen whirled to life. He wasn’t surprised to see Menzel’s face looking back at him.

“I hope I didn’t wake you,” Menzel said.

Leggis snarled. “You know damned well you did. What’s so important that it has to be taken care of in the middle of the night?”

He caught the double ion blast in the background and shook his head. What else could go wrong?

“Things are changing. I need you to meet me in the town of Reeves. I’ve already transmitted its coordinates to your central computer. Meet me there in two hours. We have much to discuss.”

Menzel’s image blinked away, leaving the mercenary staring at a map of the eastern Wastes. Reeves was an old ion-mining town just north of the Illand Mountains and less than a half a day west of the Angril River. There was a large marsh on the outskirts with enough natural cover for them to land without being seen. Leggis couldn’t care less about the locals, but the less they knew about what was really happening, the better off they’d be. A dying argot wailed in the distance.

“Damn it, Kreegin, you keep that up and the whole Imperium will be on top of us in a flash. Pack up your gear. We have to leave.”

Kreegin looked up at the top of the ramp where Fint stood and nodded. He knew the look on Fint’s face and wasn’t about to test him further. Slinging his rifle, he paced his way back into the ship. The ramp wasn’t even closed all the way before a pack of kyals swarmed over the Argot corpses.

“What in the Hells were you doing out there anyway?” Fint asked him while they both buckled into their seats in the cockpit.

“A man can’t sleep very well with you snoring, you know. Sounded like you were about to suck the rivets out of the hull, chief.”

Leggis Fint shook his head with a confused look and punched the ignition. Maybe he’d be able to salvage a little more sleep out of this if they got it done quickly.

 

It was considerably cooler outside of Reeves than it had been in the desert. The river and surrounding marsh added enough moisture to the air to drop the temperature another ten degrees. Faul rubbed his forearm in an attempt to get rid of the goose flesh while cursing his decision to not wear a jacket.

“I don’t like this, chief,” he whispered to Fint, who was far enough away for them both not to be shot with the same round. The first homes were in sight now, dull black lumps against the even darker landscape. Nothing was moving. No one stirred. There were no dogs barking or scurrying about. The only sign of life was a handful of smoke spires coming from a few of the chimneys. Fint had seen cemeteries with more life.

The mercenaries stayed apart but never out of eyesight. They both knew enough to stay quiet as they advanced. Something wasn’t right here. Faul slid the rifle off his shoulder, taking some measure of comfort with the weapon’s feel in his hands. He dropped to his knees as soon as the green light started blinking from a second-story window at the end of the street. One eye shifted towards Leggis, who, after reacting the same, gave a curt nod. That was the signal.

They started forward again at a faster pace just short of a run. Both had weapons trained on the building awaiting them. It would be a shame for something bad to happen when they were so close to finishing this. When they were twenty meters from the house, the front door opened. A man bathed with the light behind him filled the doorway. It looked like he was waving them in.

“Come on,” he called to them. “We’ve been expecting you.”

A warning went off in Fint’s head, but he kept quiet. Tipping them off now would only give them plenty of time to start shooting. He was positive that snipers were on adjoining rooftops as well as the second floor of the building in front of them. If he or Faul stepped into plain sight, they were dead.

“We’re coming,” he barked back at them, hoping to keep them off guard.

A curtain stirred in the third window from the left on the second floor. Fint almost had to grin to himself. Menzel had double-crossed them but left the task of getting rid of them to amateurs. That was his mistake. The only way the Imperium was going to win tonight was by sheer numbers. He stopped at the edge of the last building and waited.

“Well, where’s your partner?” the soldier asked. “Captain Menzel is expecting both of you.”

“Fine by me. I want to get back to bed as soon as possible. I don’t like being woken up in the middle of the night like this.”

He thought he heard a laugh from the silhouette before gunfire broke out from the roof of the house across the street. Leggis dropped down behind cover before he realized none of the rounds were directed at him. Three crisps blasts followed by silence. A body was pushed off the roof, and it landed with a squishing noise. Leggis Fint smiled. There was the possibility that the corpse was Kreegin, but it was highly unlikely. Any doubt he had was laid to rest when the same rooftop erupted in a pattern of gunfire sent out across the roofs where the remaining snipers waited.

The man in the doorway brought up his own rifle and returned fire. He only managed to squeeze off two rounds before Leggis chopped him down. The mercenary shot three quick thermal grenades into the building and hid before it exploded. A part of him felt sorry for the people who lived there, but that couldn’t be helped. This was survival, after all. The house exploded in a horrific meltdown, surely killing everyone inside before they knew what hit them.

Picking himself up from a pile of debris, Leggis brushed some of the dirt off and waited for Faul. The man’s pasty white hair was a dead giveaway, just as it had been up on the roof before the shooting started. Leggis wondered when he’d managed to sneak up there without being seen by Fint or the soldier in the door.

“What the Hells was that all about, chief?” Kreegin roared. “Damned bastards just signed their own death warrants!”

“We got screwed over by Mister Menzel,” Leggis shrugged.

“Let’s go get him out of that nice bed of his and wring his scrawny neck.”

“If you really think we can get on base,” Leggis said. “Besides, he’s not our main issue. We have to get Kelg out of there before they get to him. If it’s not already too late.”

An explosion from the outskirts of town threw them to the ground and shattered windows as the blast blew through Reeves. Dark black smoke could be seen billowing up in columns from the site, leaving Fint no doubt of what had happened. Kreegin howled and clutched his arm. A piece of shrapnel was embedded under his bicep. Knowing better than to rip it out, the mercenary pulled a bandage from his trouser pocket and tied the wound off. He wasn’t going to bleed to death, but the risks of infection were high.

“What the squaffa!” he roared.

“Come on,” Leggis said in an emotionless tone. “It looks like we have a long walk back to Minion.”

Menzel was a smart man for thinking to blow up their ship but not smart enough to evade his wrath. With eyes as cold as the winter’s heart, Leggis Fint set off on the trek back to Minion and the revenge waiting.

 

Kicking a small piece of charred timber aside, Smythe Menzel scowled with disgust at what he saw. Half of Reeves was destroyed, which normally wasn’t an issue; however, the part that was ruined used to house his forces. There was no way of telling what went wrong.

Everyone associated with this was either dead or missing. He’d viewed the wreckage of Fint’s ship, leading him to believe that the mercenaries were dead as well. It was all speculation at this point.

None of the bodies had been identified yet, and he was in no hurry to give away this little secret. Only a handful of people throughout the entire Imperium knew what was going on, and no one else needed to find out. He had to assume that Fint and his partner were dead along with fifteen of Menzel’s own men. The loss was unacceptable, but who was he kidding? Every last one of them would have been dealt with in one way or another.

This was a critical time in his plans, and if even one man was around to spill the details, he was ruined. The 76th was deploying to its forward staging areas tomorrow and would soon be getting ready for the invasion. Time was not Menzel’s friend, and there were still many things he needed to work out.

Tapping the intercom on his bracelet, Menzel told the pilot, “Prepare for take-off. You know what the heading is.”

“Yes, sir.”

He caught the hum of engines heating up in the background. Menzel wondered if the deep desert was as cold as it was right here.