So, I’m a day late

Just not a dollar short. I hope. Now that our dear general is dead and his successor has uttered the one word no military commander ever wishes to say (retreat, of course), let’s dig back in and see how the survivors are going to manage.

FORTY-ONE

Survivors

A ragged assortment of tanks and battle-scored APCs idled in a tight wedge. Gladak was rather impressed that so much was still recoverable. Darkness was setting in, already covering half of the Gorge. Memories of a similar situation wormed to his thoughts, though then it was strictly offensive and not an endeavor to live. The hole was clogged with the enemy and more dangerous now than when they had come in, but Gladak knew it was their only chance.

“All vehicles, listen up. This is Colonel Gladak. I am hereby assuming command of the division.” He paused to let the words sink in to those who refused to believe. “It’s time we punched out of this hellhole. Form up in a tight wedge behind the tanks, and be prepared to engage as necessary. Troop carriers form a blocking shield around the jeeps and ambulances. Questions?”

Silence was the reply.

“Battle positions. Form up behind me.”

The tanks were the first to organize and deploy. It was a splendid sight on a normal day and an even greater one in the throes of desperation. Progress was unduly slow from the beginning. Wounded were shuffled into an available space, and Berserker lines needed to be ground through. The Imperium lost more and more of its numbers with each engagement.

Gladak watched with muted sorrow as pockets of resistance too far away for his wedge to reach were crushed under the Berserkers’ weight. Hundreds more were going to die, and there seemed little he could do about it. The struggle to break free went on. A young bald woman impaled on a spike made the tank commander vomit. Steam was still escaping her stomach cavity, and her empty eyes stared back at him. The simple pain in her eyes reflected the last brittle moments of Helscape’s unique brand of suffering. A mutilated Berserker corpse lay at her feet in testament to her glory.

A pair of racing shadows made Gladak look up just in time to avoid being decapitated. His reflexes weren’t enough to keep the monster from crashing into him, nearly driving him from the tank. He heard the crunch of teeth sinking into his armor and the scales below. Gladak roared his pain. Sensing victory, the Berserker bit deeper. The dragon reached down for his boot knife before the Berserker bit a vital artery. Neither of them were expecting the sizzle of a single ion round fired from the tank commander’s blaster. The Berserker stared down his murderer and fell from the tank, his throat blown out.

“Nice shooting,” Gladak told him between varying degrees of pain and trying to fix himself with a first aid kit. “You know,” he went on, “I don’t even know your name.”

“It’s Hernron, sir.”

Hernron. That was a name he would remember until his dying day. “There’s a medal in this when we make it out of here.”

Hernron gave an exhausted smile. “Colonel, you can thank me best by giving me a month’s free leave if we get that far. I just want to see my family again.”

Gladak nodded. He was of a warrior race more adapt at fighting than saving lives. The simplicity of family life was a mystery to him, though he often found himself wondering about a future with a mate and hatchlings. He may just have to give it a try when his next leave came up.

“You going to be all right, sir?”

Gladak watched the scenario play out. It was caught in a circle. Each time he made an effort to reply, he was interrupted by ruthless outbreaks of violence. The redundancy of it all was taking a heaving toll. The engagement was entering its sixth hour with no sign of letting up.

“Colonel!” the driver called out. “We’ve got friendly forces dead ahead!”

It took him a minute to pick out exactly what was in front of them, but there was no concealing his excitement when he did. Another large mechanized force was battling its way through the Berserker ranks. There was hope after all.

 

Nearly a kilometer away from the command structure, Klausky and his men leapt from the APC’s ramp before the vehicle had a chance to come to a complete halt and began loading a group of wounded soldiers. This was the last group of wounded they’d be able to pick up, and he wasn’t about to let them die alone. Snake Eyes continued to crank out steady streams of fire to push the monsters back. Judging the way things were starting to look, he seriously doubted there’d be any more survivors to pick up. More than half of his squad was gone and it was going to take all he had left to ensure the others escaped.

“Let’s move it people!” Snake barked.

The Berserker struck with alarming quickness out of the endless sea of dead. It dove underground and came up under Lal-owk before Klausky finished snatching the last wounded trooper. Bones breaking and organs rupturing echoed through the immediate area. Blood came out Lal-owk’s eyes and mouth. He was dead long before the Berserker doubled his corpse backwards and pulled him underground. Klausky threw his rifle down and leapt to save his friend. Dazed and in pain, Seli reached out, managing to grab hold of his arm. Blood pumped out from the hole in the ground.

“Forget him!” Seli cried, less Klausky share the same fate.

“Let go of me. I’ve got to save him!”

She slapped him across the cheek. “I said forget him. He’s gone. Now snap out of it, or we’re going to join him!”

He knew she was right. There was only one thing left to do. Klausky pulled the pin of his last grenade and tossed it down the hole his best friend was murdered in. Tears ran down his face as the explosion reverberated underground. Humming hydraulics raised the back ramp, and the APC sped off.

Seli’s one good arm slipped around him and cried with him. “It’s all right,” she soothed. “We all lost a lot of good friends today.”

The massacre was complete, the devastation beyond incredible. Most of the major commands were ghostly remnants. Splinter groups were breaking free of the enemy and retreating back out Lucifer’s Gap. Trailing elements who’d never been directly engaged made it out with relative ease. The living were well beyond the extent of physical limitations, but stopping now meant instant suicide.

Snake Eyes was dead tired. He led the last fifteen survivors of the Fort Evans contingent along with a few hundred others back through the nightmare. Targets continued popping up on his screen, and he mercilessly gunned them down. The machine gun’s recoil shook his weary frame. His muscles were taunt and failing, his nerves on edge, but he fought on.

“Sarge! Check it out!” Xill cried with sudden elation.

Sounds of metal thunder rumbled from the depths of the smoke-hidden Gorge. The first tank broke through the smoke wall at half speed and stopped alongside Snake’s APC. More and more vehicles poured through until his force was nearly tripled. Combined, they were almost a regiment’s strength. Snake was impressed with the size of this new force.

“We sure are glad to see you guys,” Snake Eyes announced to the young looking officer in the tank.

“How many troopers do you have with you?” Hernron asked him. There would be time enough for pleasantries when they were in the rear.

“Maybe four hundred, but I wouldn’t count on half of them being able to fight.”

Recognition of the dragon behind the machine gunner confirmed Pierce’s death. That didn’t surprise Snake Eyes much. Most everyone appeared to have died this day.

Snake Eyes continued, “Way I see it, we’ve got a good-sized force and about four more clicks to the Gap. Let’s put our heads together and get the Hells out of here.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more, Sergeant,” Gladak interrupted. “Would you do the honor of leading this division back to the Gap?”

Snake grinned. Now that honestly did come as a surprise. He gave the dragon a half-salute, and his APC moved forward. Forced into full retreat and crushing the enemy at every opportunity, the 76th Assault Division marched homeward. Snake Eyes never once thought about slowing down. The dead be damned.

 

Helscape’s twin suns were almost below the horizon, just enough to bathe the lands in ghoulish shades of red. Tens of thousands of bodies lay heaped for as far as the eye could see. Hosking rode through the carnage in awe. Ghosts of the dead lined his path, forcing him down roads of their choosing. He tried swatting them away. The nearest ones dissolved back into the mist and reformed meters away.

“Leave me alone!” Hosking screamed when the torture became too much to bear.

He squeezed his eyes shut, begging for mercy. The ghosts laughed harder. Distress plucked the strings of his soul. His jeep struck one of the misery teeth at the entrance of Lucifer’s Gap. Metal and rock ground together in horrific noise. The impact threw Hosking through the wind guard and off into the cooling sands. Both hover fans snapped under the pressure, twisting together and causing the jeep to flip. Hosking’s head came to rest against a rock, and there he lay. He might have noticed the thousand or so soldiers racing around him and whisking him away if he’d been conscious.

 

Automatic weapons fire added to the ever-growing symphony of Imperium determination. Main battle tanks were joining at random, firing rounds as fast as they could be loaded. Vibrations jarred great slabs of rock from the canyon walls loose. They came crashing down as if offering a makeshift grave for the fallen.

Nathan was trying his best to put all of that out of his mind. The woman’s weight was more than enough to occupy his thoughts for the time being. His muscles were being pushed to their limits. His only relief came from the fact that the battle was beyond them now. There was no way of knowing how many were still alive to fight. Numb from the shock and severity of the battle, Nathan tried suppressing his emotions. There’d be time enough to grieve when they were safe back in Black Tide. His worries were enough to drown a normal man, but this was not a normal situation.

The high canyon walls suddenly gave way to the open desert. Nathan never would have thought that a place so utterly devoid of life could be so heartening. Courage and fresh praise washed his senses clean. His mind wanted to run the last leg home, but his body screamed otherwise. Black Tide was still six kilometers away.

The Berserker came from behind one of the huge rock teeth and stopped. All of the hope that had been building in Nathan died. There was no way he was going to be able to set her down and bring his rifle up before the monster struck. Saffron fires burned in the monster’s eyes. The sword it held was bloody and warped from overuse but still sharp enough for one more. Without any indication, the Berserker stepped to the side with lazy gesture. “Go,” whispered the monster.

Nathan weighed his options. The Berserker had him dead to rights, so they were dead either way. He also knew there wasn’t going to be a second chance. Nathan adjusted his load and walked on, not believing what was happening. The Berserker was gone by the time Nathan turned his head around.

The woman finally stirred a few hundred meters later. “Where are we?” she asked in a voice laden with pain.

“Almost at the gates of paradise.”

“Who are you?”

The combination of her inquiry and the mysterious Berserker forced him to laugh.

“Nathan. And you are?”

“Emerald.” She paused at the sound of his continued laughing. “What’s going on? What happened to me? I don’t remember anything after my vehicle blew.’

“You broke your leg, and I’m trying to save you. Both of us, actually. I’m not a medic, so try not to complain about the pain. We’ll have to wait until we get into town to get it looked at.”

“Unless we get killed in the process,” she offered.

Those weren’t the words Nathan wanted to hear from her.

 

Any good-natured feelings Snake Eyes had quickly fled. The tiny Imperium force of roughly three thousand men and women stood only a short hundred meters from a Berserker line of nearly ten thousand. It stretched across the Gap and presented an almost insurmountable challenge. Bravery wasn’t going to save them here.

Snake Eyes had joined the army for a couple of reasons. One was to get off of his own world and go places. The second and more prominent was to escape the law. They weren’t overly fond of hustlers and card sharks in his home town. Nothing in his past could have prepared him for what he did next. His cannon started firing into the enemy lines with a hail of blue streaks. Xill didn’t wait for the order to move out. He hit the acceleration and plunged into the Berserkers.

The smell of acrid smoke and burnt bodies concealed them from the remaining force in the Gorge. A wide path of death opened up to allow them just enough room to break into the open desert.

Snake Eyes looked behind him in time to witness dozens of other vehicles winning free. He finally allowed his smile to win over.

“Ha ha! We did it!” he bellowed to anyone willing to listen. His joy was short lived. The division was a tattered ruin, but at least the enemy hadn’t advanced on any of the major cities.

Helscape remained free, but the future was anything but certain. Now that the immediate threat was passed he was able to calm down slightly. It would take hours yet before the adrenalin rush faded and the bitter realization of what they’d just endured hit him. He couldn’t say why, but a stray thought entered his mind. Snake Eyes thought about the portal under Rook Mountain, and a shiver ran through him. What was to say it led to just one other world? If the Berserkers got off world, the universe might be in jeopardy. High-pitched screams announced air support called in by Hernron. Imperium bombs kept the Berserker hordes from advancing into the open desert, not that it mattered. This day belonged to the enemy.

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Reviews of Tony Mandolin books by Robert Lee Beers

Working Title Blogspot

Hole Lotta Shakin’: The Tony Mandolin Mysteries: Short Story # 2

E.M. Swift-Hook‘s review

Hole Lotta Fun!

“You all know our esteemed Commander in Chief,” Roosevelt bowed his head as he fingered his chips. “Next to him is Ducky Smith, one of the few women in the new Secret Service, and next to her is Mister Eric Craig, the only scientist to beat Russia’s Tesla in chess. Watch out for him, he cheats.”

I feel guilty doing a review of this book. Guilty, because I star in it – well my namesake does. So I shall keep this short and sweet.

This is a wonderful and rip-roaring tale of derring-do by Tony and Frankie who find themselves plunged back in time to April 1906 – and they are still in San Fransisco.

It includes the finest game of poker in all fiction!

You will not regret reading it and…

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A Command No One Wants to Give

Wasn’t last week exhilarating? Imagine the sheer terror those poor soldiers must have faced. Trapped, cut off, alone. Makes me glad I wasn’t there! But enough about me. You want to know what happens with our survivors.

FORTY

Escape

Klausky and Lal-owk finished dumping the last of the bodies and baggage from their newly acquired APC when the green star bursts went off. As disheartening as it seemed, they were already one step ahead of the division. Snake Eyes had no intentions of staying in the death trap any longer than they had to. They had already loaded the last of the wounded when Snake and Xill left the other vehicle. Explosions continued to rock the surrounding area to the point where the distortion almost sounded like music.

The metallic sounds of Klausky locking and loading the quad machine gun atop the track went unheard by the trio of Berserkers advancing. Ion fire shredded their bodies into fine powder as he opened the lane for Snake. The suns were beginning to set, and they still had eight clicks left before the artillery would be able to save them.

Xill slid into the driver’s seat and gunned the engine to life. The back ramp stayed open to make it easier to pick survivors up along the way, and the weapons were fully charged and ready for action.

“Ready down there?” Snake Eyes asked over the intercom.

“I don’t really have much of a choice.”

“Spin this thing around, and try to raise the rest of the division. Instruct all units to rally on the far end of the battlefield and get ready to break out. We need to be in the open before those suns go down or its goodnight for all of us.”

He unplugged his helmet and turned to Klausky. “I’ll take over the machine gun. Get down below with four men, and stand by to pick up stragglers. Two men provide cover fire while the other two run out and grab them. Forget the dead, and save the wounded. Make it happen.”

It took less than a minute for him to accomplish the task. Four soldiers stood by the exit and waited while the APC rumbled across the bloodstained ground. Lal-owk was there as well with a rifle in his hands. Medics weren’t traditionally supposed to carry weapons, but he had no intention of dying without a fight, Imperium rules be damned.

Klausky hit the intercom and announced, “Everything’s ready down here, Sergeant. We’ve got enough room for about thirty troops, maybe more.”

“Copy. Stay frosty, we’re about to pick up our first customers.”

Broken but not yet defeated, the battered APC trudged on.

 

A platoon of tanks passing by stopped long enough to pick up Gladak and his group. The bleeding commander offered a hushed greeting and let Gladak assume his dead machine gunner’s position to his right. Crisp ion rounds sped into passing clusters of Berserkers.

“Commander, swing these turrets around and hit those bastards right there,” Gladak snarled and pointed to where Pierce had fallen.

Berserkers screamed, and some died silently when the anti-personnel rounds slammed into them. It was a small price for redemption, but it was as close to revenge as he was going to get this day. Surely, it was the greatest honor a warrior like Pierce deserved. He lay there with the ruined bodies of his foes. Joneth Pierce deserved no less. Satisfied to a degree, Gladak gave his leader a final nod before resuming the war.

“We need to gather as many vehicles as we can and scrape our way back to the Gap, Commander. Are you up to the challenge?”

“Hells, sir. I’m ready to run on through to the morning if it means living. Don’t know if my baby here will make it, though,” he said patting the tank’s hull. “But we’ll give it our best. One way or the other.”

“That’s all I can ask. Let’s move.”

The tanks lurched forward, picking off random targets and blowing a hole down the center of the Gorge. Other vehicles — hover jeeps and APCs — speared towards them until they started resembling a fighting force again. Gladak found himself tripping the foot triggers in rage.

“How could we have been so blind?” he asked himself.

Bodies and burned-out vehicles made the going slow and laborious, not to mention the Berserkers along the way.

“There was no way we could have been ready for this,” the commander answered.

Gladak looked to him in surprise. He hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud. “Keep your head in the game, young man. There’s still a long road before we reach home.”

“Yes, sir.”

The tank rocked under the main gun’s recoil. Gladak watched the round hit the side of a captured tank. There was a momentary peace before the round exploded. Gouts of fire poured from the wounds, burning everything within. The rounds were designed to penetrate up to twelve inches of armor. Once inside, they detonated. Chemicals sucked the oxygen from the vehicles before the gases in the round ignited. It was a terrific weapon but not one he’d expected to see used on their own equipment.

“Nice shooting, Commander.”

“Thank my gunner, sir. He does the hard part. I just tell him what to shoot.”

An incoming message burned their ears until it became audible. Both the Gladak and the tank supervisor looked at each other with surprise.

“Hey, did you hear that squaffa?” the gunner called out. “Some sergeant’s ordering everything operable to get the Hells out of here. He’s picking up the wounded as they fight free.”

It was the first time since the battle began that Gladak had reason to hope. Now if they could only link up with the other element…

“Indeed, we did hear it,” Gladak smiled. “And it’s the best news I’ve heard today. Commander, shall we try and salvage some of our dignity?”

“Yes, sir!” he said with enthusiasm as sharp as when the division had left Minion. The tank fired again.

 

Nathan was amazed that he’d made it to the fallen woman without so much as another scratch. He didn’t know who she was, only that she was an ally and clearly in need of medical attention. He was even more surprised to find her unmolested for the most part. She was isolated from open view, and that may have been what saved her from the same fate as the troopers on her APC. Nothing ever went Nathan’s way, and now that there was a chance that it may, he knew the devil was lurking over his shoulder. He paused, entertained by the thought of a violent death, which led him to question his motives for attempting to save this woman.

Was it fair to save her now just so she could die a few minutes from now? It was an interesting question, but his honor wasn’t going to back down. Search and rescue was not one of Nathan’s strong points, and he was realizing why. First aid, although necessary in his line of work, was a virtually forgotten task. The last time he had honestly applied himself was back in the military.

“Pulse, breathing, bleeding,” he whispered over and over.

Her chest still rose and fell at regular intervals, and there was no sign of blood. That was a good thing, but it also left too many possibilities. She groaned when his hands moved over her right leg.

“That’s better than nothing.”

Her leg was broken, that much was obvious by the way the bone was threatening to break through the skin. It was a fixable wound provided there were things around to make a splint. His biggest concerns were in how he was going to get her out of here. Nathan rolled her onto her back so he had a better angle to work with and was perplexed and amazed by the beauty hiding under the grime and blood. He pulled back in mild shock. This was the same woman he’d seen talking to Kane back in Minion.

“Small world,” he said, more to himself since she was still unconscious.

The battle had done little to conceal her natural beauty, and it reminded him how bad he must look. God knew how bad he felt. She groaned again and dragged a hand up to her temple. Getting better, he mused, but not enough to get us out of here.

A captured tank sped past at a comfortable enough distance that Nathan wasn’t overly concerned. Three others came out of nowhere and pummeled it into slag metal. The explosions shattered his fantasy and let him know that this was still Hell. Soldiers streamed past by the dozens, leaving Nathan to conclude that the order to retreat had finally been given. Thank God someone had a little sense.

“Come on, lady,” he urged, struggling to get them both on their feet. Semi-conscious and seething in pain, she hollered from the pressure and passed out again. “Damn it,” he cursed. “Okay,” he said with a flavor of misery. “We do this the hard way.”

Nathan laid her back down and cracked his back a good time before hefting her over his shoulders. She wasn’t as light as her smallish frame suggested, but he had no real complaints. The volume of screams and burning bounced across the canyon walls as if they were trying to help him forget his burden. He could barely breathe through the haze and smoke, but he was determined to make it back to safety.

“This may not be fast, and it damned sure ain’t going to be easy, but we don’t have much of a choice, do we?” he asked.

Nathan took his first burdened step towards freedom.

 

The APC exploded in brilliant clouds of orange, yellow and red before being consumed under a roiling cloud of black smoke. Hosking watched it and found depression. The maniacal rage was seeping from him even faster than it had absorbed him. Perhaps it was the sight of his first command melting before him. It was the first time he’d ever been placed in charge of something in his life, and now he was all that remained. Countless souls he had once called his own were buried in the slag. It was all he could do to keep the flood of tears from devouring him while he watched the fingers of flame reach into the growing shadows.

Yonash squirmed from the last of his armor and began rummaging for ammo in the dead’s pockets. His arsenal quickly grew. There was no shortage of extra weapons and ammunition. All the while, his mind soothed him, telling him how things were going to be okay very soon. The only way to beat the Berserkers was to become like them, his mind warned. Yes, I must become like death. Here, among the sea of fires and the stench of decay, Yonash was shown existence’s true path. He was no longer a pawn of man, no longer a tool to amuse his superiors. Yonash was shown the light and whispered the secrets of life. He was the plaything of extermination.

His arsenal completed, the madman stalked off in search of redemption. The first body he came across was impaled with a crude spear. The sight of this led his mind to inklings of inspiration. Hosking snatched a bloody Imperium standard from nearby and jerked the spear free. The flesh was already hardening and only reluctantly released the spear with a sucking noise. Hosking grinned to himself and tied the standard to the spear. The madman walked to the center of the canyon and planted it as a reminder of human frailties. Winds blew the standard proud. Smoke seemed to avoid it, and Hosking stood and saluted it a final time.

Satisfied with himself, Hosking went on. An abandoned hover jeep was still running not far away. Hosking casually dumped the dead driver over the side and put the vehicle in gear. His fingers danced over the control panel, each time bringing a new weapon on line. Hosking was unstoppable. Every so often, a Berserker mistakenly took him for an easy kill, and it was his delight to prove them wrong. The madness drove him on. Desperation warped a whistle into a gruesome song.

New Release: Law of the Heretic

Law of the heretic CoverWell friends, I promised this was going to be a busy year. I have 11 titles slated to be published/rereleased with new covers. First in line is a 4 book series I began writing back in high school. I made it 120 pages before I realized I like none of what I wrote. It got put on the backburner for a long time- at least until 1997 when I was on the Korean DMZ for my second tour over there. I managed to finish it that time but never made any headway on the following books. At least until last year. I split book one in half and finished the story. My editor said it was every bit as good as Game of Thrones- but I’m not qualified to answer that. You all are though.

Here’s a little taste:

The Staff of Life has been lost for a thousand years. Imbued with the powers to dominate all life, the Staff can save or ruin the Free Lands. Many have sought out the Staff. All failed. Until now.
Aron Kryte has served the Hierarchy for years. Honorable. Duty-driven, the young man has risen through the ranks of the venerable Golden Warriors. Born into this life, Aron patrols the Free Lands, maintaining the long peace. Little could he know that the world he knows is built upon lies. His quiet summer days are shattered when he is led into an ambush by the man whose brother he once killed.
Imelin is the last of his order. A powerful wizard and member of the High Council, he has ever harbored the secret desire for power. Darkness dwells in his heart. He defects from the Council and begins a war of attrition that will bring the Free Lands to their knees.
Events are set in motion that will change the Free Lands forever. War brews. The ancient elven fortress of Dol’ir is overrun by a timeless enemy, the survivors forced to flee. Traitors rise. Armies gather. Only a handful of men and women stand against the coming storm. It begins in Galdea, where an aging king is slowly losing control.

Preorders are available now through Monday. Please share with friends or go ahead and be the first in line. I can’t wait to see what you all think. Law of the Heretic Preorder

 

Through Darkest Night

Whew. All those weeks of building and here we are. Can you imagine being trapped in such fury? I can’t- and I went to war 3 times! Speaking of which, if any of you saw National Geographic’s The Long Road Home- I am proud to say that SFC Butler (the real one) is a good friend of mine and about to retire after 26 yrs. One of his stories is also in my memoirs: A Long Way From Home if anyone is interested.

But enough chit-chat. Let’s get back to the fight. And please keep in mind, this was written before I went to Afghanistan back in 02, so I had only my training to rely on.

THIRTY-NINE

Routed

The explosion threw Kane and Nathan backwards. They helped each other up and checked for injuries. Nathan cursed as his hand came away with blood. Metal and rock fragments peppered his face and hands, but there was no serious damage other than to the track they were riding in. The eighty-ton vehicle was completely destroyed.

“I’m all right,” he announced. “You worry about those bastards.”

Recharging his rifle and strengthening his resolve, Kane reentered the battle. It was the most desperate scene he’d ever been forced to witness. Thousands of bodies were already littering the ground on top of blood-enriched sand. Black smoke and charred flesh crawled into his nostrils with their putrid odors. Smoldering vehicles and pieces of twisted metal roasted where they lay. The Berserkers were paying a heavy price for their aggressions, but the battle was beyond redeemable.

Kane noticed small pockets of resistance forming through the haze. Soldiers with one thing on their minds formed tight circles and laid down murderous fire on advancing Berserkers. Once headed on an “Extinction Campaign,” it was now the Imperium who fought for survival. The numbers of Berserkers was so great Kane had little doubt the entire horde was here.

Rifle rounds sawed through a Berserker’s chest, but he kept coming. Kane threw the weapon down and drew his spear gun. The silver shaft whistled through the air on its way into the monster’s heart. The Berserker was dead before it hit the ground. Kane felt the rage beginning to consume him. The powers bestowed upon him by the meditation ritual in Black Tide took control, and he was thrust into a private war he couldn’t win.

 

Captain Xaen stood in a growing pool of demon blood. The enemy had attacked shortly after his last vehicle exited the Gorge and prepared a defensive position. One by one, the troopers of his command were massacred by the genetic nightmares. They never stood a chance. He was one of the last ones left to put up a fight. His rifle fired until the charge ran out, forcing him to throw the weapon away. It wasn’t until then that Xaen noticed the levels of carnage around him. Bodies lay in twisted shapes, some Berserker, but most had once belonged to him. Options were running out.

The Crendaphidian had always prided himself on being professional, and this was no different. He climbed into the front of his jeep and snatched the hand mic. “Gamma Gamma, this is Whiskey Four. Request immediate suppression on my position. Give me all you’ve got, and keep it coming, boys. Gods save me.”

Xaen closed his middle eye to pray.

“Roger that, Whiskey Four. Rounds inbound. Keep your heads down, and good luck.”

It was far too late for any type of luck to be of use to him. Xaen reached down and drew his boot knife. It was the last weapon he had, but there wasn’t going to be much time left to use it. The average flight time of a high explosive round was less than thirty seconds. Plenty of time, he thought with a grimace. The Berserkers finished killing his last man and slowly moved in to encircle him. This was fear, but Xaen refused to buckle.

“If this is how it’s going to be, come and get it!”

The Berserkers leapt in perfect unison with the incoming rounds. Shell after shell exploded around them, but Xaen wasn’t able to see his small measure of triumph. A triumphant Berserker lifted Xaen’s severed head and howled just before a round exploded next to him. Everything within fifty meters was instantly incinerated.

 

Gladak managed to make out the whistling artillery over the roar of his own battles and growled. Artillery fire so far forward meant one thing: Captain Xaen and his company had been wiped out. He passed Pierce a glance, but the General was already too far gone to be salvaged. The once proud warrior stood amidst a sea of blood and rage. He seemed larger than life, cleaving down foe after foe. Gladak rushed forward and snatched the man by his shoulder.

“General! We need to sound the retreat! The division is being torn to pieces. This is the last chance we’re going to get!”

“Remove your damned hands from me, Colonel! We fight as long as I still command. Do I make myself clear?” Pierce let out a terrible laugh and returned to the killing.

A thousand things were running through Gladak’s mind at that moment. Saving Pierce wasn’t one of them. He’d just made his mind up to sound the retreat when a leaping Berserker tackled Pierce to the ground. He moved to help his old friend but was stopped by two more. All five combatants were dragged to the ground in a cloud of dust and grunts.

 

Bliss now controlled Yonash Hosking. Wave after wave of the growing storm washed through him, and the madness loved him. Secret desires burned him far worse than any fire had yet. A leaping Berserker was cut down by a well-placed burst of ion fire. The monster doubled over to prevent his innards from spilling out, but it was too late. Hosking slammed his rifle butt in the monster’s mouth and kept running.

Watching from the distance of his own battles, Mnemlath was remotely impressed with the man. Few of the ones he’d killed thus far had bothered with the drive to survive. His impressions faded when he saw what Hosking was running towards. The Berserker barked orders to intercept him before it was too late. The first to reach the abandoned track was also the first to be ripped apart by Hosking’s ion fire.

The Berserkers had inhuman strength and speed, but Hosking proved faster. He was already on top of the abandoned APC and charging the machine gun by the time the Berserkers broke through to him. The mad man howled with glee and opened fire. Sizzling ice blue rounds caught the monster square in the chest, lifting him from the ground. Following rounds ripped strings of flesh from his bones while the body floated down. The power coursing through Hosking was unlike any he’d ever known, and he was confident that he alone was going to save the day.

Diving to avoid being shredded as well, Mnemlath rolled and came up on one knee. Winds blew his wild hair from his face, and he snarled as more of his brothers fell dead around him. He was about to charge forward when more rifle fire came at them from another direction. Beast was the first to turn and identify this new threat.

“Behind you!” he growled.

Mnemlath crawled around and saw the one thing he had wished for. The Slayer was standing over another Berserker ensuring it was dead. A smile crossed the wicked monster’s face as he burrowed underground to end things once and for all.

 

Any concept he once had of combat was quickly devolved. This was sheer madness bordering on wholesale slaughter. Even being armed and well armored the Imperium soldiers didn’t seem to stand a chance with so many Berserkers swarming through the column. Nathan forced the graphic images from his mind and focused on his immediate front.

With no lack of targets, he was able to continue firing until his weapon ran dry. Snake Eyes and Xill flanked him. Each threw curses and taunts at the enemy in the hopes of raising morale. Berserkers and soldiers fell all around. Nathan spied a glimpse of Kane, gaunt and clad in black like a terrible reaper, wading through the enemy mass. Everywhere he strode death followed. It was enough to turn Nathan’s stomach.

Nathan watched as the APC exploded and knocked the redhead unconscious. There was no way she nor any of the other survivors were going to make it as a host of Berserkers converged on them. He could have sworn he heard their screams over the droning roar of the battle. She appeared to be far enough away from the vehicle not to be in immediate danger, but she wasn’t going to make it very far on her own. Nathan knew there was only one way.

Baleful screams from the dead and dying took him back to the night he’d left home and how these monsters managed to generate such indescribable amounts of chaos. Now he was locked in a place where every life was precious and necessary. He snatched the rifle from the wounded Seli’s hands and jumped down. Nathan had never been exceptionally fast; in fact, he hated running altogether, but adrenaline pushed him on. If there was even the slightest chance of rescuing her, he was going to find a way.

“Bourne!” Snake Eyes cried after him. He received the same response Hosking had given him. I don’t get it, he told himself, is everyone here crazy?

Xill and Klausky swung around to give him cover, plowing the road open for Nathan to reach his objective. A round from a captured tank ripped into their hull, igniting the vehicle in a dozen areas. Dark smoke wafted up, and they caught the growing smell of fuel spilling out.

Xill picked out Kane’s blurred image stalking off into the fight but was given little opportunity to stop him. There was no time to worry about anything but the troopers in his APC. Xill made his way to the back hatch and crawled inside the burning wreckage where an odd silence met him. The manic sounds of battle faded, dulled from inches of armor. Xill found it disturbing.

Internal power was knocked out, and only one backup light still worked. Xill shifted through the mess in search of life. Lifeless eyes stared back at him, keeping their secrets. These had once been people whom he called friends. He had eaten and drank with them, laughed and fought. Now they were all dead. His skin was a ghastly pale by the time he crawled back up to the roof of the track. Lal-owk was finishing bandaging Seli and getting ready to move her when Snake Eyes stood up so all could hear him.

“Listen up! We don’t have time to worry about them anymore. They’re already in a better place. I need everyone’s cooperation if we’re going to have a chance. Pair off, and make for that empty track over there. Corporal Xill and I will provide covering fire until you’re all there. Collect up your gear and hit it. This thing’s gonna blow.”

The medic and Klausky helped Seli down and practically carried her to the next vehicle. Ten others followed in staggered groups until Xill and Snake Eyes were the last ones atop their burning carriage. Snake looked at his friend’s three eyes and smiled. They both knew this was a no-win situation, and all of them were going to die.

“Jump in the driver’s seat and gun that thing up. We’ll pick up the pockets of troops still holding out as we go. Radio any vehicles still operational to form up on us. I don’t want to stay here any longer. You ready?”

Xill nodded.

“Then let’s get the Hells out of this damned gorge.”

They made it ten meters before the APC exploded. Xill was the first to regain his feet and shake off the slight concussion. He helped his fumbling sergeant, and they dashed their way through the gauntlet with a little help from thirteen other soldiers pouring fire into the swarming Berserkers.

 

The ground trembled around and beneath Kane’s feet. He stepped away from his gutted victim and swept his jacket back. The cool steel of his spear gun fit comfortably in his hands as he waited for the Berserker to emerge. Two clawed hands broke through, and Kane took aim.

The Berserker never knew who killed him. The spear slammed into his head and dropped the body back down into the hole before he knew he was dead. An explosion concealed the second Berserker’s arrival from Kane as he paused to reload. The collision knocked them both sideways, and it was all Kane could do to twist his body and bend with the blow. A third monster charged from his blindside, but Kane’s reflexes proved faster. His sword was out and flashing in time to deflect Beast’s advance before ripping into his stomach. A war hammer exploded against the rock wall past Kane’s head, and he fell to the ground. He wasn’t sure which one did it, but a swift kick to his kidneys kept him getting up. Vicious hands clawed at him and finally rolled him onto his back.

Mnemlath crouched over his prey with a hungry look. He was preening at the chance to finish his quest. This was the first out of all their chance encounters and private battles in which he’d been given the opportunity to stare into his enemy’s soul. The Berserker was genuinely surprised with what he saw. He’d been expecting a young man full of life and vigor but saw only a man grown old before his time with weathered skin and sad eyes. Mnemlath stared into the crossed and squinting silver eyes looking through the pain up at him.

“Ah, Slayer, did I not promise you another time?” He laughed. “I’ve been waiting for this for far longer than you can imagine. You were the only one who ever escaped me, and that as a mere child, no less! When you die, I’ll have your head as a trophy and your body for my feast.”

He kicked the fallen man again.

Kane coughed blood, spitting it in his tormentor’s face. “Why don’t you come a little closer and try, monster?”

“No.” He knew enough of the human’s tricks not to risk his life needlessly. Instead, he snatched the Slayer to his feet and showed him the battle. “Look and see what has become to your pathetic attempts of insurrection. Your dreams and desires shattered under my foot. This is our time now, Slayer, and I aim to tear the very soul out of your humanity. Good bye, Aradias Kane.”

Kane’s hand was moving so slowly that none of them noticed it slide into his belt and draw a small snub blaster. Mnemlath’s fist drew back, poised to strike. A brilliant flash left the Berserker clutching at his chest. Kane felt the sharp sting of his own sword slice through his wrist before he was able to squeeze off another round. He screamed as he watched his hand and blaster fall to the ground under a shower of blood.

A Berserker warrior kicked the wounded man away and dragged his leader off. The black-haired Berserker dipped his fingers into the wound and raged when they came away with his blood. Shock prevented him from believing a dead man had done this to him. Mnemlath snatched up Kane’s sword and roared to defy the Gods. He aimed to finish this game at last. Tank rounds began slamming into the area, kicking up gouts of bodies and sand. The pace of the barrage thickened to the point where it was suicide to stay. Mnemlath was not to have his day after all. The Berserker cried out and watched his dream fade. He’d been cheated again.

“Slayer! The Gods appear to favor you, but even they won’t be enough in the end.” He waited until the others were safely in their holes and said in a menacing tone, “Until the Seven Hells can hold no more tenants, I’ll see you in their fires.”

It was all Kane could do to tie off the stub of his arm and stop the majority of bleeding before he passed out.

 

Pierce slashed through his attacker’s throat with a roar and kicked the body away. His body was laced with cuts and fresh scars, but he felt wonderful. His vision was clouded and limited to the extent of personal glory. Pride didn’t allow him to see his division in ruins around him. Six Berserkers already lay dead at his feet, and there was no shortage of volunteers for the seventh.

Warnings going off in his head warned him that he was alone. Gladak was presumably lost, already a memory right along with his command staff. Joneth Pierce stood in the center of the inferno, bleeding and nauseated, tempting death to claim him. Wasn’t this what the Gods had created him for? He was out of ammunition, out of support, and down to a small combat knife. The Berserkers surged forward. They knew the importance of killing him and were reveling in the challenge of it. Once Pierce was dead, resistance would crumble.

The Berserkers struck. An arm was loped off. A belly split open. Pain went around the circle as the blood flowed thicker. A fire burned Pierce’s brain, intensifying with every heartbeat. It was through this madness that Pierce finally discovered who he really was. He bared his teeth and let loose a primal growl to his distant brethren. Joneth Pierce was every bit a purebred killer, just like his enemy.

Berserkers continued to attack, forcing Pierce further away from the rest of his shattered division. His weapon ran dry. Berserkers swarmed closer. Using the rifle like a club, Pierce smashed the face of one and crushed the windpipe of a second. His muscles burned but he continued to fight. More of the enemy came near. More died. His uniform was shredded. Blood flowed from numerous wounds. Pierce grinned with blood smeared teeth.

The Berserkers respected the fleshling through all his faults, which made killing him all the more special and appropriate. His violence was uncontainable. His rage all consuming. His voracious appetites weren’t enough to stay the Gray Lady’s hands, though. Pierce’s blood continued to run away as if it had never belonged there. He screamed one last time before weakness sank him to his knees. A Berserker plunged his fist into Pierce’s chest and came away with his crushed heart. So it was that General Joneth Pierce made his last stand and fell. A great fire left the universe at that moment. The battle raged on.

Gladak finished cutting through his last opponent in time to watch Pierce fall. Broken and haggard from exhaustion, Gladak assumed the burden of command. The intensity of the fight was already subsiding, as if it knew the head had been cut off from the body. Groups of soldiers were forming here and there, and Gladak ran to the nearest one. They were no more than office workers and pencil pushers who had never expected to see actual combat, but they were practically all Gladak had to work with.

The comfort of being around more Imperium soldiers did little to ease his troubles. The Berserker horde was rampaging through his strongest units and would, no doubt, push on until they wiped out the rear-deployed units as well. It pained him greatly to do this, but survival was more important than pride. Gladak raised his pistol and squeezed the trigger. The missile sizzled into the sky and exploded over the middle of the battle. Twin green starbursts slowly floated back down.

Berserkers looked up in wonder. Soldiers looked up and felt their hearts torn from them. The Berserkers had won. Gladak patted a new private on the shoulder and nodded before bellowing a single word.

“RETREAT!”

The Hour Draws Nigh

Ever wonder exactly why people used to say nigh? Beats me, but it has a cool ring to it. I’ve been procrastinating lately friends. I know. I know. How, right? Well, I have. This book should have been finished in Oct, yet here we are- the beginning of a new year and I am finally, finally slapping The End on it.

Children of Never E book

So what took so long? Life is an excuse. This is what I do. I can honestly say that trying to learn the ropes for my Masters program with UNC Chapel Hill kicked my butt up one side and down the other for the past 4 months. That’s still no excuse.

Today is the day I decided to take control back- it’s so easy to let it slip away, isn’t it? Today is the day I finished my first War Priests of Andrak Saga. You know the one, the short story that won Honorable Mention in the L Ron Hubbard Writer’s of the Future Contest: The Purifying Flame. (Why does everyone ask if I am scientologist for that? No, I’m not a Satanist, thank you much.)

While it is too early to share many of the details, I’ll leave this teaser here. The manuscript is with the editor and being hacked apart no doubt. Don’t you worry about that. All you need to do is watch for the release. In the meantime, I invite you all to swing by and see if another of my titles catches your fancy. After all, we’re all friends here.

Christian Warren Freed Books

Cry Havoc

Ok, I figure you’ve been strung along this journey long enough. Strap on your body armor and helmet, charge your weapons, and let’s get in the fight. Remember what Custer said in the Civil War: Move to the sound of the guns. Read on, my friends. Read on.

THIRTY-EIGHT

Ambush

The scenery hadn’t changed since they crossed the river, no matter how far they drove into the desert. Nathan let out a heavy sigh as his eyes roamed the brilliance of the desolate gorge. They’d been locked between its walls long enough for the suns to reach their full height. It was barely mid-morning, and heat was already blazing down on them without remorse. He’d already drunk enough water to fill his stomach and had no desire to have anymore. The only thing Nathan wanted was to be free of this confinement. To take his mind off the boredom, he turned to Xill.

“How long have you been out here?” he asked.

“Just over three standard years.”

Nathan shuddered. His own experiences in the Iraqi desert came back to haunt him. He’d hated the blistering heat and dry winds back then. Helscape hadn’t done much to change his opinion.

“I don’t know how you do it,” Nathan admitted.

Xill smiled, “We try not to think about it.”

Content with that answer, Nathan sat with Xill and watched the menacing crags and outcroppings of the Gorge walls go by. He wondered what was going to happen when they reached this mysterious Hive. His own encounter with the Berserkers was more than enough to stimulate his will to fight. They’d killed his partner and threatened everything he ever knew. This was the only way he had of ensuring his world stayed unharmed. The crisp crackle of gunfire erupted from the head of the column. It was slow at first but soon grew into a terrible noise.

“Ambush! Ambush!” came the cry through everyone’s helmets.

Nathan’s heart leapt into his throat. This was it. There was no turning back now.

 

Yonash Hosking had never seen the face of death with such clarity before, and now that he had, he was scared beyond belief. His stomach wrenched itself tighter with fear. Their track lurched to a stop as it came under fire. Hosking slipped and hit his head on the side of an ammo can. The machine gunner kicked him away and tried to return fire before they were all killed. Shell casings and hot vapors fell on Hosking’s exposed flesh. Wiping away the trickle of blood rolling down his face, Hosking watched the path of the ion rounds as they penetrated the hull of the captured APC.

Bile flowed from him, spilling down his armor and onto the battle-darkened hull of the track. The smell of melted flesh and powder residue collided into an acrid perfume. This was Hosking’s first taste of combat, and the effects were maddening. The first hint of a killer crept into him, driven into fury by the sights and sounds of so many of his friends dying. Dark forces in his mind slowly took control.

Oddly enough, he liked it. He heard the whispers in those seldom-used cavities of the mind comforting him and urging him to kill and kill again. They burned his soul to the point of agony. Yonash rose to a knee and fired wildly in all directions. He didn’t care what he was shooting at. It didn’t really matter anyway. One Berserker fell, then another. An APC along the far wall exploded, killing all inside before they could escape. The lieutenant jumped from the track. A deep groan from the machine gunner made him look up. A spear had pierced the machine gunner’s heart, and his body slumped over his weapon, bright red blood painting the steel. Madness consumed Yonash, and he ran off into the thickening haze of battle.

 

“Squaffa! Lieutenant, get back here!” Snake Eyes cried. Hosking couldn’t hear him. He didn’t want to hear.

Xill and Lal-owk were the first to climb up from the hull and add their fire to the defense. Ground forces were already deploying across the Gorge’s width. Snake Eyes knew the infantry lines weren’t strong enough to hold, especially when the Berserkers could pop up from anywhere. He kicked the dead gunner aside and charged the heavy machine gun. Strips of the man’s flesh clung to the barrel. Xill pointed to the sky as Snake Eyes let loose a long burst into a group of charging Berserkers.

Winged Berserkers launched from their hidden crevices and screamed down on the column like wraiths. Using captured weapons, they rained a heavy fire into friend and foe alike. Any advantage the Imperium soldiers had thought they had was fading fast. Seli T’lain was pulling herself up when a Berserker dove directly at her. She was mean as nails and determined not to die here. Using her reflexes, Seli ducked back down into the hole and fired off a half magazine of grenades. The 40 mm shells struck the beast in the chest and exploded.

A short spear splintered against the track’s hull, making Xill roll over and come up firing. He let out one sharp burst, and the Berserker toppled in halves. Lal-owk stood over him, firing into the growing enemy. This was out of character for him, as he was the platoon medic and a pacifist by nature. He watched as a ground trooper let out a stream from his flame-thrower. Even as those dozen monsters died, a hundred more appeared to take their place. The battle was quickly becoming one-sided. Snake Eyes hardly dared to think about surviving.

The ground gave way beneath the flamethrower man, and he disappeared as spider-like arms reached up for him. His fuel tank ruptured below the surface, and the ensuing explosion sent shockwaves across the battlefield while spitting gouts of fire from several different holes.

“We’re not going to make it!” Lal-owk howled.

Klausky clasped his hand over his friend’s shoulder and nodded. “Keep firing and everything’s going to be all right.”

The primate tried to swallow, to find some measure of control, but he drank only dry air. His body hair was matted down from sweat, and his heart was beating faster than ever before. Lal-owk kept up his fire until someone told him to reload. He was scared to death, but determined not to die.

 

For the first time in a brilliant military career, Joneth Pierce was caught by complete surprise. This wasn’t supposed to happen. His seniors in Imperium command insisted. The developing scene left him in awe. Never before had an enemy been able to anticipate him so well, and his troops were paying for it. A part of him stood in praise of the Berserkers, but the rest stood ready to commit brutal murder despite his orders. Old, honed instincts kicked in. There could be only one way through this scenario.

“How could you know?” he roared to the skies. The twin barrels of his ion rifle were glowing to the point of melting.

Bodies rose and fell in waves. Some were the genetic nightmares, but most belonged to his pride and joy. Pierce could feel his blood boiling and the intense pleasure it brought him. This was the one act he’d been bred for. Generations of warrior bloodline had culminated with this. His well-conceived plans may be finished, but they left him with room for one final act. Redemption. His driver was dead, and his hover jeep knocked out of the battle by a captured rocket fired in the opening stages of the attack. Pierce and Gladak made their final stand against the roiling hordes. Suddenly, the outcome of his glorious campaign was in question.

The engine burned uncontrolled, threatening to blow the fuel tanks and take the whole damned thing apart. Gladak was on the hood tossing incendiary grenades into the mass of Berserkers. Body parts flew apart, melting as they drifted. A troop of frightened soldiers tried to run out the back ramp of their track before it exploded, but a handful of the winged monsters soared down upon them. The explosion killed them all.

Pierce’s first barrel stopped glowing and melted to slag metal not long after the battle began. He ignored it and proceeded to burn down the second barrel as well. “Come on, you bastards. Come and get me!” he screamed at them.

Gladak reloaded during Pierce’s raves. With any other man, he would have been afraid, but Pierce always knew what he was doing. A rock upon which the waves of an ocean crashed and broke. Each and every time they had gone into combat Pierce was the guiding light that saw his division leave enemies shattered on the field. Never before had the 76th lost ground. Gladak ground his pointed teeth together. Pierce was not the stolid figure he’d always believed. Faith shaken, the division adjutant turned away from the enraged general and went back to the battle. There would be a moment of reckoning once this affair was ended.

A pair of tanks roared by. Rounds from a captured APC shredded one track which ground the tank. The track exploded before the monster could sight in on the second tank. Pierce was laughing now, deep and bordering on insane.

A Berserker leapt through the flames and tackled Gladak before he had a chance to see to his commanding officer. Neither expected the inhuman strength of the other as they grappled and rolled across the blackened vehicle. The Berserker managed to move his face in close and started snapping at Gladak’s neck. The dragon pulled his arm free and delivered a series of quick blows to the monster’s ribs. Gladak reached down and pulled his boot knife while the monster buckled just enough. They rolled once, and then again, and Gladak stabbed the tempered steel through the Berserker’s throat, ripping the vocal cords out and severing the jugular.

Spouts of dark blood jetted through the Berserker’s hands. Gladak snarled as he thrust into the Berserker’s heart and kicked the body away. Behind him, Pierce wrestled the rifle from his driver’s convulsed fingers and continued to reap vengeance on his name. One monster after another fell, and still hundreds more rose from the piles. It was then Gladak that first saw the hopelessness of the situation and began to act.

 

Mnemlath licked the first taste of human blood from his claws and felt its enraging power course through him. The soldier’s twisted body lay looking up at him in pure fear. He had thought to make a stand with no more than a steel blade. It was his last mistake. The Berserker tore the head off and threw it into the retreating fleshlings. Despite how well the battle was going in their favor, Mnemlath was here on a mission. There was one man out there that had to die today, and the Berserker wasn’t going to rest until he fed on the body. Until he found Aradias Kane and finished what he had begun so long ago, Mnemlath would continue to kill.