Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 4

Cold Alliances

Kane stepped into the Inferno two days later with a degree of hesitation. He knew without a doubt that the Viper would be there. His kind always was. What he didn’t know was how the assassin was going to play the angles. A man like that smelled profit and was willing to do anything for the good of his pocketbook. Assassins were an unrespectable breed who purposefully walked in the shadows, but the Viper’s offer was tempting. Kane saw a chance to end the war for good. Thousands could know a peace previously unobtainable. His life was certainly worth the doubt.

Smoke and the putrid odors of old alcohol assaulted the Slayer as soon as he stepped inside. Braxton Skrapp was a good man, but cleanliness had never been his strong suit. A grizzled veteran of many years hunting Berserkers, Braxton was the sort a soldier wanted next to him when times got bad. Time and age had finally caught up to him, so he chose to make a meager existence with this bar. The majority of the Slayers didn’t live long enough to see any sort of dream fulfilled. Their bones littered the desert in forgotten graves.

Kane took a table in the corner of the room. From there, he could watch the floor and anyone coming through the door. If the Viper did show his face, Kane wanted to have the advantage. A serving girl came by and brought him a tall glass of Telgeise coffee. It was definitely an acquired taste, bitter and stronger than any in this part of the universe. The heavy scent clung to his nostrils, forcing him to smile. The coffee tasted better than the acid Prentiss had offered him back at the oasis and was one of the few pleasures Kane allowed himself. Anything else proved a distraction from his chosen task. Kane took the first sip and felt his mouth water at the overpowering flavors. At once sweet and bitter, the coffee was mildly addictive.

He’d barely finished the first glass when the Inferno’s double doors swung inward, the black-dressed assassin striding through. Kane suppressed his loathing. Dark glasses hid the Viper’s vile red eyes, but Kane knew the man was looking for him as well as for potential threats and targets. Ever the efficient killer, Aradias wondered how a man like that managed to sleep at night. Satisfied the place was clean, the assassin walked directly to Kane and sat down.

The Viper smiled, toothy and wicked. “We’re a lot alike, you and me.”

“We are nothing alike. Don’t presume to make that mistake again,” Kane replied quickly. A doubt lingered in the back of his mind. Perhaps this wasn’t the best idea.

Rage flared behind the glasses. “Your kind think you’re so special. I’ve seen the truth of you, Aradias Kane. You’re a killer, the same as me. This is a cruel world, and we are forced to make difficult decisions. I made mine and can live with it. I do the same thing you do, but I have the nerve to name a price. There are no morals or rules here. It’s kill or die. Nothing more.” He leaned close and whispered, “Do I frighten you? Is that it? Am I the monster in small children’s dreams? The birth of decadent nightmares? Bah! I think not. You and me, there’s not much difference. You kill for the future. I do it to make my purse fatter.”

Kane stepped back, unwilling to confront the man on his spoiled ideals.

“Either way you look at it, we’re both in the business of taking lives, the precious gift of the gods. Have you ever wondered why we are made to suffer so? Who takes pleasure in our turmoil? Our pains and trials? Do you really believe in the afterlife, Aradias Kane?”

“No god made the Berserkers,” Kane replied in a calm voice. “Man made them, and man will destroy them.”

“Well said,” the Viper laughed. “But it’s a small matter. Neither you nor I have the power to change the world. I assume you’re done with those mind-wracking deliberations about my offer? The Imperium is coming. Do you want them to have the glory of ending this war?”

Kane cocked his head ever so slightly. His dislike for the Viper was almost covered by his distrust of the armor-shelled soldiers. They cared nothing for the people of Helscape and were coming only to serve their own needs. Of that, he had no doubt. It was the way life often went, from his experience. Still, the thought of letting foreigners succeed where he’d spent his life in useless victories and defeats chafed him. Victory should belong to the Slayers and the people of Helscape.

The Viper smiled again. It was an evil sight. An assassin knew no happiness or joy. Pain and death were his way of life. His predatory gaze sent a shiver down Kane’s back.

Aradias exhaled a long breath. “I’m in, but I want to make myself clear. I’m not doing this for your reasons. This could be my chance to end the threat in the Wastelands. With the knowledge you have, I can finally do something about the enemy. Have you ever wondered what freedom feels like? It is a dream I’ve never known, assassin. I do this for myself and the peoples of the Wastes.”

The Viper yawned. Speeches didn’t impress him. How many men had begged and wept for their lives just before he finished the job? None of that mattered. What was important was the fact the Slayer had chosen to join him. Kane’s quest for personal redemption meant nothing to him.

“Naturally,” replied the Viper. “I already have enough supplies and other such things for both of us. We need to leave as soon as possible. I don’t particularly enjoy the thought of those damned demons playing with a wizard’s lost toy. They give me enough trouble without it. But they are, after all, spawned from the hand of a wizard, eh?”

Swallowing the last of his coffee, Kane asked, “I trust you have maps and additional weapon stock? What we have now won’t be enough to fend off a large war party.”

“I have obtained a large-caliber cannon for personal use. From undisclosed sources, of course. It’s two-man operated, and there’s enough ammo to hold a regiment of Imperium troops at bay. You’ll need to teach me some of your tricks for killing these things along the way. My business is killing men, not monsters.”

“Naturally,” mocked Kane.

The Viper’s cackling laugh announced the end of their meeting. “By the Gods, but won’t this be a tale to tell someday! Pack your bags, Slayer. We leave at dawn.”

XXXXX

Halfway across the bar, neither man noticed the pale green-skinned man patiently sipping a cup of coffee. His face twisted at the bitter taste, reminding him of unpleasant things. The tan leather jacket he wore made him seem almost sickly in the desert heat. His hair was tied back in a long, black topknot. His eyes shifted back and forth, watching Kane and the Viper with predatory alertness. He took another horrid sip and gestured with his chin.

“Those two,” he told his companion.

Kreegin Faul drained his mug of local ale, struggling to focus his eyes. “You sure?”

Kreegin was a beast of a man. His skin was coal black, his hair stark white. He was largely unimpressed with the choices.

“Yes, I am sure.”

Kreegin snorted. “We’d be better off doing it by ourselves, Leggis.”

Leggis Fint narrowed his eyes disdainfully. “We’ve been on this damned rock for two weeks now. I am tired of wasting time inside every bar and dive in the desert. It’s these two, or we go back to that general and tell him the deal is off. Of course, we’ll probably both be shot as traitors.”

“What a minute! We’re not even a part of the Imperium. How could they shoot us?”

Leggis offered one of his charming smiles. “There’s a war on, my friend. They can do whatever they want. Besides, I have a funny feeling that our mission has not been sanctioned by the high command, or whoever is in charge out there.”

Kreegin Faul scowled and caught the attention of the nearest bar maid. He suddenly felt the need for a lot of alcohol. “Damned generals. How do I ever let you talk me into these situations? You’re supposed to be my friend.”

“We’re mercenaries, Kreegin. It comes with the job title. And I am your friend. Why else would I want to drag you into the middle of this?”

The pair fell silent. Kreegin attempted to drown his miseries while Leggis Fint sat back and remembered how they’d wound up on Helscape.

The pressure lock compartment door hissed open followed by jets of cold air and a cloud of ore dust. A lone man stepped from the nighttime shadows into the bunker. He frowned at the lack of lighting. Clearly, the darkness was meant to hide something or, better, someone. Suspicions aroused, he proceeded. Leggis Fint was a long-time mercenary and quite the successful one. He’d done operations in every part of the known universe and was generally considered one of the best which was why a senior ranking Imperium officer had contacted him two weeks ago requesting this meeting.

Dressed in a tan leather jacket and dark pants, Fint wore a blaster on each hip. He had one lock of dark black hair in a topknot dropping halfway down his back. His yellow eyes were in stark contrast to his dull green skin. Fint was an Idorian, and everything about him whispered trouble. He searched through the shadows, confident in what awaited him. Scanners from his ship showed five bodies. Fint planned for a trap, which was why he’d left his partner in the gun turret aboard their ship.

“You can stop hiding and show yourselves,” he growled to them. Fint was a hard man unaccustomed to playing games.

“Not just yet, I think,” came a rumbling reply from the far corner.

General Paedian Gulluette emerged from the shadows. He was a great bear of a man literally. Dark brown fur covered his muscled body. The consummate soldier, he was considered by many as being the frontrunner for Supreme Military Commander of the Imperium. He’d spent the last thirty-five years in the service. He’d bled for his beliefs and fully expected those under him to do the same. His one goal in life was the defeat of the Xempsarillian armies. Paedian was willing to go to great extremes to accomplish that, letting nothing stand in his way.

The Geat System was only three standard light years from the DMZ and the enemy beyond. It had once been a thriving system. Then the Xemps had come. Every sentient hurried to flee as the enormous reptilian armada swept into the galaxy, giving both armies a free place to wage war. That had been a hundred years ago, long before Paedian’s time. Now, he had the chance to swing the balance in the Imperium’s favor for good.

“My time is valuable,” Fint warned. “Don’t waste it.”

Gulluette smirked. He liked this man. “Very well. As you know, the Imperium has been suffering heavy losses along the Xempsarillian front. Latest reports indicate that they are amassing their forces for a massive assault into the core sectors. We have been reinforcing these worlds as fast and as best we can, but the enemy could strike at any time. If they attack now, the Imperium will crumble. I, for one, will not stand by and be party to the slide that caused the downfall of the greatest force for order in the known universe.”

“How is this my problem?” Fint asked casually with a flare of arrogance.

“It’s going to be all of our problem unless we can find a way to defeat the enemy. Can you imagine a universe ruled by those damned lizards? My soldiers are all that stands between victory and certain doom. But we need help, and that’s where you and your team come in to play.”

Fint took a seat in the empty chair to his right. “I’m listening.”

Gulluette smiled to himself. He heard a murmur from behind. The others were uncomfortable with this entire affair. Their careers were forfeit if things did not go according to plan. Should Gulluette’s plan backfire, they were committing high treason. Death would be a kind mercy.

“There is Telgeise III, an obscure planet in the Furlun Sector. It is small and has been relatively unimportant to the Imperium until now. Planetary conditions and the sheer distance from the battle lines make it a worthless world. Nonetheless, High Command has kept a garrison there for the past five years. ”

Fint yawned. “You’re beginning to bore me, General.”

Gulluette remained calm despite the quiet rage slowly building. The Idorian mercenary was far too impetuous for his own good.

“On planet Telgeise or Helscape, as the locals call it there are reports of a vast indigenous force of enormous strength. These creatures, known only as Berserkers, have ravaged the local populations for generations. One of our recon units assigned to the Crimson Spiders managed to capture a wounded one last year. Three men were killed in the process. Our scientists studied this thing for weeks and found no biological matches with any other creature in the galaxy.”

“Cute,” Fint scoffed.

“‘Lethal’ would be a more appropriate accolade,” Paedian corrected. “This one escaped after it was done letting us examine it. The wake of bodies was quite high. It took a full platoon of guards to bring it down in the end.”

Fint’s eyes narrowed. “The perfect killing machine, and you want to try and tame them?”

“Think what this species could mean to our bio-weapons division. They could be our key to success against the Xemps. If we could find a way to harness their power, they could be made to serve as frontline troops. The Berserkers could very well turn the tide of the war in our favor!”

“And what happens when they turn on their masters?” Fint asked.

The others nodded their agreement from the shadows. Paedian may have been senior among them, but there was nothing that made him qualified to deal with matters like this.

Paedian reached into his jacket pocket and tossed a small disk to the mercenary.

“This will do sufficiently.”

Fint examined the disk and asked, “What is this?”

“Our researchers have been working around the clock for new ways to deter prisoners of war from escaping. This is the newest result of their labors. It is a small explosive device and tracking beacon. It is inserted under the skin just below the jaw, near the jugular vein. Each is individually numbered to make tracking them easier. A team of guards is stationed in a large monitoring room, very similar to the one we are in now. In the event of riot or even escape, the chips emit a radio signal back to the motherboard, allowing the guards to take appropriate action. This tiny chip has enough explosive power to successfully remove someone’s head. I think it should do nicely.”

“I’m impressed,” Fint admitted, “but that still leaves one question.”

“That being?”

“How do you plan on capturing enough of these monsters to make a difference?”

Paedian smiled again, his massive canines hanging down to his lower jaw a frightful thing to behold in the dark places of Neen. “That is a matter for the Imperium and none of your concern. All you need to know is that we are paying you to track them down and feed us the data, mercenary.”

Leggis Fint jerked to his feet. He ignored the barb. “Then we are done here. How long before my team is inserted?”

“Let’s say one month,” Paedian replied.

“Fair enough. I’ll be in touch.”

Two months later, he found himself sitting in a tavern in the town of Black Tide with Kreegin Faul wondering what the future held. Finishing his coffee, he let his thoughts turn to the third member of his team. If Kreegin hated it here, he could only imagine what Ardn Kelg thought about impersonating an Imperium soldier at the southern army base. Damned generals.

Tomorrow’s Demise: The Extinction Campaign CH 3

THREE

Black Tide

The crimson red of Helscape’s twin suns were just beginning to turn the morning sky by the time Aradias Kane crested the last dune and looked down upon the town of Black Tide. He’d been riding through the Wastes four straight days and nights. Kane took a moment to admire the breaking dawn. Shafts of golden orange and red burrowed through the last vestiges of night.

Dark clouds were being shoved aside by the morning breeze, allowing him to make out the lowermost crags of the gorge off in the distance. Kane frowned as he compared the changing light to blood running down the mountainsides.

Even after four days in the Wastes, he couldn’t bring himself to smile on civilization. Black Tide was far from hospitable. A grimace souring his face, the Slayer stopped at the edge of town and collected his thoughts. Already covered with sweat, he could tell it was going to be hotter than usual today. That wasn’t a problem, though. The real problem lay in the town itself. Mercenaries and bounty men aching for a payday had taken this one-road town in the northern part of the Wastes through the years and turned it into a seedy place. Some used it to hide from the law, and others turned it to their advantage. Either way, Aradias detested the place.

Species from a hundred different worlds roamed the decayed streets. Most were the descendants of mercenaries and professional soldiers who’d come to fight the Berserker threat all those years ago when the wizards first meddled. For one reason or another, the survivors stayed here and continued the fight. The wizards were long gone, victims of their own arrogance. Kane seldom paid attention to the different species anymore. He’d seen more in his lifetime than he ever wanted. Out here, it didn’t matter if your skin was green or covered with fur, if one was reptilian or human. Death cared not. In the end, it was the Berserkers who decided who lived or died.

Dilapidated buildings and mock shelters comprised the outer ring of settlements. A foul odor perpetually choked the air. A miasma of depression kept Black Tide from ever achieving the first settlers’ dreams or aspirations. Most of the current population was comprised of refugees from ruined villages who struggled to survive while offering their services to the lowest bidder. Jobs were hard to come by, and unless one had a valuable trade, there was little room in the scheme of life. The sole purpose for most of the people was to collect enough money to make it back east, across the Angril River where the threat of Berserkers was an unpleasant dream.

Kane looked down into the vacant stares of passersby and, for a moment only, felt the sorrow in their lives. Two saurian mercenaries dressed in flight suits leaned against the side of a building and watched him through slit eyes, their forked tongues gently flickering. A yellow-skinned Itholian in rags crouched on his four legs near them, clearly wallowing in self-pity. Kane brushed off the flicker of memory reminding him that he had been this low at one point in his life with no family and no hope, only his hatred to keep him warm through the cold, dark nights of his personal lament. Another had rescued him from this bitterness and bestowed a purpose upon him. Aradias Kane wouldn’t rest until every last Berserker was dead.

The Slayer wove through the crowds to the ramshackle hospital servicing the town. Most folks gave him a wide berth. There was no mistaking a Slayer. He was the type of man that the majority of them secretly wanted to be but were too smart to try. Kane forced a smile. He sometimes wished that he had been given a different life. Such trivial distractions were pleasant, but a waste of time. Aradias Kane was a Slayer and no more. He ignored them and dismounted.

The doctor was just as pleasant as Prentiss had been, but more thorough and hopefully more effective. Kane passed on the pain medicine, thanked the man and went about his business. He decided to walk, unfettering his horse and leading the way to the largest hotel in Black Tide. Kane gave the horse a hearty, reassuring slap on the flank. They’d been here a hundred times. The horse responded with a snort. Never a smile crossed Kane’s face as he tethered his jet black mount. He enjoyed the stays here even less than the horse. His footsteps echoed heavily as he went up the handful of steps and crossed the ancient wooden porch of the hotel.

Kane pushed the door open, and the rusted hinges groaned. A heavy scent of perfume hit him, and he turned his head to the stairs where a half-naked girl of no more than twenty stood patiently waiting for her next customer. She leaned over the rail enough to give him a clear view of her small cleavage and, with a wicked grin of innocence, blew him a kiss. Kane tried to smile back as she curled the ends of her long, strawberry blonde hair. The temptation was certainly there. She smelled of freshness he’d long forgotten. Unfortunately, that was not the reason for his visit.

There had been a time, back in the days of his youth, when there would have been no hesitation in running up to her youthful embrace. But those days were behind him and surprisingly no longer important to him. She would have to wait for another. The owner of the hotel stepped out from the back room at the sound of the bell with a trusting smile on his face. His relief was evident upon seeing the Slayer. There weren’t too many around who didn’t know of the legendary Aradias Kane in one way or another.

“Don’t mind that one, my friend. She’s new,” he said with a smile.

Kane watched the squat man. He was overweight and middle aged and had thin strands of hair badly combed over his balding head. Kane knew the man wasn’t the most upstanding citizen in Black Tide, but that fact meant nothing in a town with no official law.

“A room,” was all Kane said. He didn’t have patience for the fat man.

The innkeeper pulled out a key and nodded. “Room number two, sir. Right above the lobby overlooking the main street.”

The innkeeper tried not to stare at the dried blood on Kane’s jacket. Berserker blood. A tremor of fear rippled through him. Slayers were known to exact their vengeance on more than just Berserkers.

“Perhaps you’d care for one of the lovely ladies you see here?” he asked. “That one there is very good. On the house.”

Kane felt his anger rising. “I’m sure you sample them before they come to work for you? Keep your toys; I have no need of them.”

He collected the ion rifle he’d laid down on the counter and snatched up the room key. The Slayer had no tolerance for these things and even less use for men like the fat innkeeper who was lacking in courage and conviction.

“As you wish, sir,” the innkeeper mumbled to his back.

Kane quickly passed the young girl on the stairs without as much as a smile. The raw sounds of lovemaking whispered through the second floor hallway, savage and almost feral. A door to his right was open enough for him to see a pair of raven-haired women, one covered in dark purple and blue hair, licking and caressing each other. Men and women both hid in the shadows, watching in their own half-naked attire, while even more stood in the hall. Kane walked past without a second glance.

Once inside his room, he dropped his saddlebags and surveyed the room. It wasn’t much, not even for this town, but the linen was fresh, and it had the view he was looking for. There was a small latrine in the far corner, complete with running water and a new bar of soap. Kane smiled at that.

As much as he wanted to hit the tub and soak, his horse had to be taken care of first. Storing his weapons, Kane tucked a long knife into his belt and holstered his sidearm, just in case. He snatched his key and went down to the innkeeper to deliver instructions for the stable boys. Once satisfied, he went back up and began drawing a cold bath, stripping off his dusty clothes.

His body was lean and muscled, the product of many years of rugged life, and he was covered with scars. His lips were thin, constantly pursed. His hair was long and thick, darker than midnight. His hands were calloused in the way only a working man could defend. It was a hard life, but one he’d grown accustomed to with ease. The hardest part was always trying to adapt back to civilization. Kane put his foot into the water and quickly sank in to his neck. His mouth contorted from the shock of it, and he felt his muscles tightening.

His mind went over his last battle with the Berserkers. Brutal images flashed. The smell of death. The bodies, the whispers of broken dreams. He saw the mocking grin of Mnemlath taunting him through the haze and smoke of destruction. Kane slapped a hand on the water, splashing it over the side. Anger swelled, and he felt the rising desire to go back out and hunt his enemies. Kane grimaced. There was no point in doing so. Too much time had elapsed already, and the Berserkers would be long gone. Still, the innocent men, women and children of that village deserved better than to be buried by a lone man in a nameless grave.

Finally, he relaxed and let out a long sigh. This was the most treasured time in his days. The grime and dust was dissolving, and he was actually feeling like a person again. An hour later, he emptied what few possessions he had in his pockets and tossed his clothes in. Hanging them on the cord stretching across the balcony, Kane sat down and began cleaning his weapons.

The suns were already going down by the time he was fully dressed and refreshed, and his stomach was rumbling. He hid all but one of his weapons and went out in search of a good meal.

Kane did his best to ignore the rotted smells of society as he stood on the hotel stoop taking in all the town had to offer. The streets were already emptying at a terrific rate, and the suns weren’t even half-set yet. Whether from the overbearing threat of a Berserker attack — though they’d never been known to strike at something so large — or from petty thugs and thieves, Kane wasn’t sure. Even in a guarded settlement like this, men knew better than to travel the streets at night.

He watched a pair of Kordites strolling through the crowds. They were the most peaceful species on planet and seemingly innocent of the wars going on. Squat and green, no more than three feet tall, they had large round bellies and squared faces. Kane admired how they managed to find goodness in all of this and prosper where so many had failed.

Kane stepped off the porch, intent on his destination. People passed him secretive stares as he walked down the street and did his best not to respond. Most hustled by in distrust or quickly turned away to avoid his gaze, but there were a few here and there that smiled and offered greetings. Kane couldn’t blame them for either reaction. These people lived in fear every day of their lives, so how could they even think about being trustful in an environment such as this? The Kordites passed him, each with an enthusiastic smile.

The cold night chill began to set in behind the retreating daylight. Somewhere down the road, a horn sounded the beginning of the night patrol. Kane soon found himself at the door of the Inferno, one of the more reputable establishments in Black Tide — or even the Wastes, for that matter. Citizens were already beginning their nightly trek to the bar. Some were thieves, some were drunk, but most were everyday scared people trying to forget the pains of the day at the bottom of an empty mug of ale. Kane managed to pick up on bits and pieces of conversation as he worked his way through the crowd. Most concerned the recent increase in attacks along the Frontier, the western borders of humanity and Berserker territory. Ill tidings seemed to befall this land with uncanny frequency.

Through the compiling clouds of smoke drifting to the ceiling, off in a secluded corner of the bar, a lone man sat with eyes intent on the Slayer. He stroked his black beard leisurely while puffing on his long-stem pipe. There was no urgency in this man. Beneath his loose-fitting clothes rested an incredibly muscled animal of a man and a wide assortment of weapons. The leather glove on his right hand and forearm protected him from the claws of the mighty falcon now perched upon his shoulder. His cloak was heavy and frayed at the hem, and it dragged on the dusty wooden floors, the hood cast back. His beady, red eyes pierced the clouds of smoke and bored twin holes in Kane’s back. His legs, propped up and crossed, allowed him the luxury of sitting back and enjoying his drink. From there, he sat, he smoked, and he watched.

“Well, I’ll be damned by everything holy!” a booming voice exclaimed. “Aradias Kane. You’re still alive, eh?’

Braxton Skrapp, owner of the Inferno, choked down his drink when he noticed the gaunt, familiar face of an old friend sitting at the end of his bar. Fighting a smile, the old man gave his silver beard a tug and walked to his friend.

Kane returned the smile and handshake. “For now; that is always subject to change quickly, though.”

Skrapp fixed a round of drinks from his finest stock and all but forced his friend to drink with him. It had been years since they’d last had the opportunity to do so, and he had no intention of letting this moment go to waste. Each was amazed the other was still alive. Skrapp had managed to build himself a respectable place and a finely tuned potbelly to match. And even though he wasn’t a Slayer anymore, he still kept his old familiar under the bar top. Old habits were hard to shake, and he wasn’t about to start trusting anyone in Black Tide.

“Finally got an eye patch, I see,” Kane said after biting back the sting of his first sip.

“This stuff keeps getting worse.”

Braxton laughed, the echoes turning heads. “Ladies like the patch — adds a bit of mystery to me. But tell me, boy-o, what brings you back to Black Tide after all these years? I’d have figured you to be dead by now.”

“I should be so lucky.” Kane shook his head. “But no, there’ve been a lot of attacks up north. I’ve already ridden through three dead villages. Killed two, maybe three Berserkers, but most were gone before I got there. Bad things are coming, Braxton.”

“I figured as much. There’s been strange things going on of late,” agreed Skrapp. “The whole Wasteland seems to be edgy. A call’s gone out for scouts to serve in the comin’ army.”

Kane snorted. “And they think this will solve the problem? It’ll only make matters worse for all of us.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” The old man shrugged as he passed another drink. “But it’s the best chance these people have. We were never a match for those monsters in the way of numbers. Them soldiers need more than what the few Slayers can offer. Every day those damned Berserkers kill another town, and we suffer the more for it. This has to end somewhere, Kane. This invasion may not be a bad thing.”

“So it comes down to all-out war with the Imperium? They’ve done nothing for us in the three or four years they’ve been here.”

“Seems that way, but they need us to walk ‘em through the Wastes. Maybe then we can at least go one up on the Berserkers. This war can’t last forever.”

“Face it, Braxton,” Kane groaned, “the Wastes will never change. The only decent place anywhere on this planet is east of the river. When’s the last time you’ve seen anything green? Even if it was no more than a scrub brush? We’re doomed to live with the mistakes of the past.”

“Aw, Hells, Kane,” Braxton roared. “This is our chance to rise above the past. It may be the only chance we get to finally be free of the Berserkers.”

“‘Hope’ is a foreign word to me anymore.” Kane rose and dropped a silver coin on the bar.

“Give it time, boy-o. You might just change your mind.”

Skrapp passed the coin back to him and wished him a good night before he was lost in the crowd. He’d given Kane much to think on during the night and the trip back to the hotel. The Slayer stalked his way through the empty town. Mixed emotions warred in his head. He wanted the Berserkers dead to the last, but the thought was often revealed as an unobtainable reality. The Wastelands had suffered under this specific form of Hell for so long, no one living knew anything else. He just couldn’t see how the Imperium was going to make that much of a difference. Their actions thus far had been anything but stellar.

Kane arrived at the hotel, closed the main lobby door behind him and went upstairs. He wasn’t surprised to find the tempting blonde from the stairs in the arms of some ruffian right where she’d first seen him. She had a wicked smile for him in attempts to bring emotion of any sort out of him but only frowned when Kane brushed by. He had better things to do than worry about the pride of a prostitute and left her about her business without as much as a thought. He unlocked his door and slipped into the inviting darkness inside.

“Aradias Kane.”

His heart skipped a beat as he instinctively reached for the blaster at his side.

“You won’t have need of that with me,” said a calm voice lost in the darkness of the room. “Besides, if I were here to kill you, you’d already be dead.”

A red tracer pointed a line through his heart. Kane saw no choice but to give up the fight and see how this panned out. His silver eyes peered through the dark and were rewarded with the bulky shape expertly hidden in the far corner with a drawn blaster.

“Who are you? How did you get in here?”

The stranger chuckled and said, “That’s not important. They call me the Viper. You may have heard of me, though I don’t really care one way or the other. That’s not why I am here.”

The Viper reached over to click on the nearest lamp, allowing Kane to see him for the first time. The tracer disappeared, though Kane knew it was still aimed at him. The men studied each other, each wondering what the next move was going to be. Kane vaguely remembered seeing this man in the common room. The falcon perched on his right shoulder gave him away.

“Don’t bother trying to remember me. We’ve never met.” The Viper’s falcon shifted from his shoulder to the chair back, glaring at the Slayer. The Viper motioned him to sit. “Please sit. There’s no reason why we can’t be civil about this.”

An uneasy silence settled in. “You didn’t seem too interested in the deal Braxton Skrapp offered. Why not?”

“When did my business become yours?” Kane replied tersely.

The Viper applauded him. “All right, then, it’s like this. I do,” a pause, “special contracts for people. Lately, I’ve been focused up around Furnace Island and the Northern Wastes. Seems more people want the Berserkers dead now that the Imperium is coming in force.”

“You’re an assassin,” Kane accused.

The Viper offered a cold, thin smile and continued, “Kane, I don’t have to tell you that this war has gone on far too long. We belong to a special breed, you and I. It runs through our blood like a high.” The Viper stood up and clenched his fist in a mix of adrenaline and anger. “It doesn’t matter to me. There’ll always be room for my kind. But for you, the days of obscurity are almost over. In comes the mighty Imperium with the chance for you and your kind to prove your worth. Think of how they would laud you as a hero for providing a map to the secret Berserker hive?”

Kane folded his arms across his chest and settled back. He didn’t believe a word the assassin said. Kane chose his words carefully before speaking. “What is it you really want? Men like you have no interest in anyone’s life but your own. So what’s the game?”

“Again with the wit,” the Viper replied. “Simple. I need a partner.” “For what?”

The assassin unrolled an old wrinkled map of the Wastelands on the small table and pointed his finger on a distant mount. “This is Rook Mountain. Familiar with it?”

Kane nodded.

“Good. It has been brought to my attention that the Berserkers have discovered something of immense power within the catacombs here. It could be a super weapon left over from the war of wizards, and if they get their claws on it, we have no chance. You lose, I lose.”

“How do you come by such information?”

The Viper stared back. “Not cheaply. I was hired to hunt down a Berserker by the name of Mnemlath by the village of Deret. He’d been accused of killing their children and livestock one night, and they wanted revenge.”

Kane’s eyes forced themselves shut. “Deret was destroyed a week ago by the very same demons.”

The obscenity escaping the Viper’s lips came from the realization of how much money he’d just lost. “This is…a brief setback at the most. It changes nothing. Along the way back from Deret, I ran into several wanderers who whispered of an odd green light glowing around the base of the mount. This tells me the Berserkers may have already activated whatever it is and are preparing to use it. I may be cruel and heartless when it comes to life, but even I can’t sit on this information.

“What I propose is this. We ride to Rook Mountain and find and destroy this super weapon before they have the chance to take it back to their hive. I can’t do it alone, Aradias.”

“You’re asking me to risk everything on the whim of a few vagabonds?”

“I am giving you the opportunity to save these people from a terrible menace before it’s too late.”

Kane rubbed his temples, deep in thought. The Berserker threat had long plagued the people of Helscape. The discovery of some super weapon would finally shift the tide. Life would end. Honor and pride demanded action, but his mind warned that something was not right. The Viper was a cold blooded murderer, not to be trusted. Still….

“What you propose requires much thought. Meet me at the Inferno in two days’ time, and I will have my answer.”

The Viper collected his equipment and opened the door. “Fair enough. Until then, Slayer.”

The door swung close, leaving the Slayer alone in the dark. Five hours later, sleep still had not come. Too much troubled his weary mind. Not even the animalistic sounds of lovemaking from next door could break the torment of his thoughts. Kane threw back the sheet in frustration and went to wash his face. It dawned on him that he now had a chance to change the world. So many had dreamed it but never seen their goals achieved. Could he actually destroy the Berserker Hive? Maybe the Viper was right. Maybe this would put his demons to rest.

Tomorrow’s Demise: CH 2

Read on, my friends. Read on. And please, feel free to drop some feedback!! All comments are appreciated.

TWO

Safety

Kane rode down into the Puream Oasis with a weary sigh. Even for an experienced Slayer, the desert was no easy matter. He had ridden east for a few days since the battle and bordered on sheer exhaustion. His eyes never stopped roaming the endless sand dunes. His nerves were a mess, and his body had yet to recover from his fight with the Berserker leader. It was the first time he had ever let the war get so personal. He saw the monster’s eyes leering back at him. The angles of his face. The hatred in his body stance. Kane prayed he would meet the Berserker again.

A cool breeze shuffled the fronds on the ancient palm trees. They offered some small measure of solstice that he found only rarely. He knew the oasis had a deep well and various fruit trees. It was a favorite resting point for Slayers on the hunt. There was a small lean-to, just large enough for two or three men. Kane often enjoyed spending quiet nights here. The silence helped him exorcise his demons. Tonight, there would be great need of it. More dead villagers crowded his conscience. He knew he was barreling towards a breaking point, only he wasn’t sure how to avoid it.

Small black flies swirled around him. Dozens covered his horse’s lathered neck. Scorpions and the occasional sand viper scampered by, off in search of their next meal. Stiff reeds bristled and clacked in the breeze. Scrub grasses waved temptingly to him. Kane finally admitted how tired he truly was. His mind focused on what needed to be done. The horse came first, as always. After that, he would bathe in the pool and try to wash some of the blood out of his clothes. He really needed someone to look at the wounds on his back, but that would have to wait until he reached Black Tide. Tonight was for him alone. He would do what he always did: lie on his back and question the stars.

The smell of cooking meat drifted to him. He frowned.

“Looks like we won’t be alone tonight after all,” he murmured to his horse.

The horse tilted its head back as if in response. Horse and rider continued down into the oasis. Kane noticed the small fire. A brown horse was tethered behind it. A pile of dirty clothes lay atop well-worn saddlebags. Kane dismounted and took up the opposite side of the oasis. He couldn’t tell who it was from the equipment and, truthfully, wasn’t that concerned. He saw to his horse. The first pangs of hunger crawled through his stomach when the wind blew the smoke his way again.

Presently, a large man with a barrel chest and massive arms came strolling up from the water. Naked, he had a towel thrown over one shoulder. Water dripped from heavy curls of black chest hair. His beard hung down past his collarbone, challenging the thick black hair on his head. Scars crisscrossed his chest, and there was a large chunk of flesh missing from his left triceps. That, Kane recognized. Old friends and familiar faces were a rarity in the Wastelands.

“Hello, Prentiss,” he said. “Well, well.”

Prentiss Kolm, forgoing modesty, took the towel and started to dry his hair. Kane began to strip down. The lure of clean water was too strong to resist. Prentiss was fully dressed and sitting before the fire by the time Kane returned. The bigger man was finishing his meal, and Kane was pleased and surprised to find that Prentiss had left some for him. Smiling in gratitude, Kane reached out and took what remained of the desert lizard and a handful of dates. It was a meager meal but more than enough to sustain him until he made it back to town. Besides, they’d shared worse during previous hunts.

“Aradias Kane, I’ve been hearing your name a lot these days.”

Kane shrugged and took a bite. “People talk too much.”

Prentiss smiled. Half of his upper teeth were missing. “That they do. Seen any action?” “Back west a few days. I ran into a war party in Deret.”

Prentiss nodded. “How many did you get?”

“Two, but not until after they slaughtered the village.” Sorrow clung to his words.

The other Slayer shook his head genuinely and stirred the fire. “That is always the case. Do you know what the problem is?”

“What?”

“There’s too damned many of those things and not enough of us who want to step up and hunt them down. We’ll never beat the Berserkers that way.” He shook his head, suddenly angry with…what he still wasn’t sure.

“People want peace and security. Ours is not an easy life, Prentiss.”

He snorted. “Neither is theirs. How many more villagers have to die because they refuse to stand up and fight? Bah, cowards!”

Cowards? The notion was confusing at best. Could any man who willingly stood up to an ancient enemy determined to kill him actually be considered such? He didn’t think so, the very idea proved mildly disheartening.

“Perhaps we are the true cowards,” Kane offered. The idea that anyone could go on under the constant threat of Berserker attacks almost left him inspired.

“Huh, what?”

Kane rubbed his calloused palms together. “Think about it. We have nothing to tie us down. No responsibilities other than to ourselves. Slayers. We are running from that which we fear. Normal life is nothing but a chain for us, men like you and me.”

“I don’t think I like the sound of that. You make it sound like we are wasting our lives out here,” Prentiss scowled.

Kane’s eyebrow peaked. “Aren’t we? How many of us die without anyone so much as remembering our names?”

“We do what we do for good purpose.”

“I agree, but there has to be more. Don’t you ever dream what it will be like once the Berserkers are finally defeated?”

Prentiss barked a deep laugh that echoed across the oasis. One of the horses jerked at the sound. “You are an idealist, Aradias. These Berserkers have been here for how many hundred years now? Hells, we don’t even know where they come from. They kill a hundred of us for every one of them, and you think there is hope of defeating them?”

“We are nothing without that hope.”

He finished eating in silence, letting the fire steal some of the chill seeping in. Desert nights were notorious for getting cold, and no one ever got used to them. Prentiss picked a mangled piece of meat from between his teeth and flicked it into the fire. The sizzle reminded Kane of the burning bodies in Deret.

Prentiss gave Kane an appraising look. “Suppose this victory happens. What then? Where do we go from here?”

Kane didn’t know. He hadn’t let his dreams extend so far. The unrealistic possibility might easily condemn him should he let it grow too strong. “We start over,” he offered.

“Not good enough,” Prentiss countered. “The Wastes have been like this so long no one knows what it was like before.”

“Legends say there was a mighty empire out here before them. You and I have both seen the ruins here and there.”

“That was a long time ago, Aradias. Any empire that might have been is lost to the sand and the Berserkers.” He snatched a handful of sand and let it trickle between his fingers. “Damned desert. Why did anyone come out here in the first place?”

“Who can say? Freedom is a powerful lure.”

“If you call this freedom. How many Berserkers have you killed?” Kane didn’t bother to think. “I stopped counting.”

Prentiss nodded curtly, silently agreeing. “There are rumors coming from down south.” Kane looked up. “What kind of rumors?”

“Folks are saying that the Imperium might be sending in more troops to help us fight the Berserkers. Could be a big turn, maybe the one you’ve been dreaming about.”

The Imperium. Contested rulers of the universe. The armored soldiers had been on Helscape for years now and had had little if any impact on the Berserker problem. Kane doubted the Imperium took the problem seriously. He doubted he would either if their positions were reversed; Helscape was a nowhere world. The only true value lay in its proximity to the outer hyperspace lanes.

“I don’t know,” Kane answered. “It all seems too convenient. Why now?”

Prentiss snorted a laugh and produced a worn flask. “You ask too many questions.”

He pulled deeply from the flask, his face twisting disgustedly. Prentiss held the flask out for Kane.

“I don’t think so.”

“What’s the matter? Big tough Slayer like you afraid of a little homemade whiskey?” Kane knew he couldn’t avoid the challenge and reached for the flask. He winced as he felt his shoulder wounds split open.

“Stuff burns from the mouth down to your ass, but it keeps you warm in the middle of the night. I got it from a farmer down around Minion,” Prentiss explained, silently taking note of Kane’s pain.

Kane drank deep, though not as deeply as Prentiss, and instantly regretted it. He coughed and sputtered. The liquor burned on the fire. Prentiss laughed again.

“This is the worst stuff I have ever tasted,” Kane managed through watery eyes.

“Ha! Makes you a man,” Prentiss said as he took the flask back and pounded another drink. “Although what kind of man remains to be seen.”

“You should get your money back.”

The larger Slayer placed the lid back on the flask and motioned at Kane. “That’s a nasty wound you have on your back. Berserker?”

“Yes. He got me after I stabbed him in the chest.” “Damn,” Prentiss exclaimed quietly. “Kill him?”

Kane shook his head. “No, I only made him mad. But the bastard will remember me for a while, I think.”

A nod. “Let me take a look at it. I have a med kit in my bags.”

Reluctantly Kane complied. He wasn’t the sort to trust others easily. Still, it was a few days ride to Black Tide, and the risk of infection was too great to chance. He stripped off his shirt and let Prentiss examine the wounds.

“You got lucky. These are mostly superficial. Let me get my needles.”

Kane jerked sharply as Prentiss doused the wound with his foul whiskey. He cursed at the sound of Prentiss chuckling. A little cutting made him wince again. Warm blood trickled down his back. Kane clenched his body as the needle pierced and cut time after time. It definitely hurt worse than when it had actually happened. Sweat dripped off his brow. He fought the urge to black out. Finally it was done. Prentiss washed his equipment off and repacked the kit, leaving Kane to dress. They tossed the bloody bandages into the fire and covered the blood spots with fresh sand lest the aroma attract unwanted attention in the middle of the night.

“That should keep you until you get into town, but I’d see a doc if I were you. I did my best, but I’m no professional.”

“Thank you.”

Prentiss waved him off. “Don’t mention it. Besides, this is the only thing that keeps us human. I’m going to get some sleep now.”

The big man unrolled his sleeping mat and lay down. His rifle, newer and double-barreled, rested in front of him, and a long curved blade was within reaching distance. He yawned once and closed his eyes. Kane envied him. Sleep was almost as much of an enemy as the Berserkers. He shrugged the thought off and stirred the fire. The pain in his shoulder was now a dull ache and would keep him up for a while yet. The night grew deeper around them.

Kane finally fell asleep but got little rest. He twisted and turned, dark visions haunting him. A door splintered open. A young child cried out. The flash of a blade. Blood. Kane jerked awake. He groaned and wiped his eyes. Every night was the same thing. Nothing he tried came close to forcing the memories out. It was a torment he had come to live with. Looking around, he saw that the fire had burned low, and Prentiss was gone. The big Slayer must have gotten up in the middle of the night and headed out. Kane dismissed it. Men like them seldom consulted others and went about their business with grim resolve.

Kane added the last bit of wood to the fire and rose. After a partial stretch, mindful not to tear the stitches, and a quick piss, he returned and tried to get warm. Dawn was still a few hours off, and he knew sleep would remain elusive. The Slayer welcomed another day in the Wastelands.

Tomorrow’s Demise: The Extinction Campaign Chapter One

Well gang. Here we are again. Hopefully you enjoyed Beginnings enough to keep reading.

ONE

Now

It had become death. The night sky, once so innocent and pure, cowered behind walls of black smoke. Fires pock-marked the landscape, raging to a tempered song both unholy and enchanting. The ground bubbled and blistered from the searing heat, and the land lay broken. Great tears in the mantle of the world widened with the fury, ripping across the desert into a series of lesions boiling fire and dust. The world had gone mad.

Aradias Kane sat atop his horse watching a scene he’d witnessed far too many times. His black hair danced on the wind. His fists, encased in worn leather gloves, clenched the reins furiously. Pain and hatred collided in his silver eyes. Another village. Another mindless raid by the inhuman Berserkers. Kane was convinced his enemy would not stop until every last human in the Wastelands was dead. His horse bucked impatiently as the ground continued to tremble. Kane pat it gently on the neck as if to say, “Soon.”

He gazed down at the flames and wondered how sand managed to burn so easily. An aged ion rifle slung over his shoulder, overused and faded silver, felt every bit its nine pounds. It was an older weapon, but he could easily fire off a few hundred shots with a full charge. The scene was always the same. People were dying. But no matter how many times this game unfolded, it always brought a tear to his eye. Kane felt helpless. A drop trickled down his weathered cheek as the flames continued to devour.

The clay brick homes of the village helped intensify the heat, baking those who were still alive. Kane smelled the burnt flesh on the winds and struggled to fight back the urge to vomit. He knew this town and many of the inhabitants. Indeed, there were few out here in the Wastes that the Slayers didn’t get to know. Most of the settlements west of the Angril River had either been destroyed or abandoned, leaving the sparse handful that remained easy targets for the Berserkers.

Kane hid in the shadows off the sparse rock clusters and dying cactus. If he made his presence known now, the Berserkers would tear him to pieces. The carnage was recent enough that he knew his hated foe still lurked. Kane’s silver eyes managed to catch fleeting glimpses of the monsters as they moved in and about the fires. His hands were sweating in his gloves, and he got that old feeling he got in the pit of his stomach right before he went into battle. He tied his long, dark hair in a tail behind him to keep it from getting in the way. His body was lean and lightly muscled, his skin a dark copper from years of exposure to Helscape’s twin suns.

Constant exposure to the harsh desert elements had made him appear much older than his years, and his constant battle against the Berserker horde took him beyond the limits of obsession. The Slayer checked his weapons as he prepared for the impending confrontation. His double barrel spear gun was loaded and resting comfortably across the saddle. Knives and daggers filled his saddlebags. He was a tool of war, created to defend and destroy. Setting his binoculars to thermal imaging, Kane took a final look into the dying village.

He counted seven of the monsters — a typical raiding party. Berserkers liked to travel in small packs and strike out of nowhere. The attack here today was the same as they always were. The village, which had stood nearly two hundred years, had been enjoying a quiet dawn with no cause for alarm when the tremors began. They had been taken by complete surprise. The Berserker war party had torn through their defenses with reckless fury. Determined to build a life of hope and prosperity, the people of the village had long ago given up their warring ways, trading their weapons for farm tools in the hopes that the Berserkers would recognize them for what they were and leave them be. The quiet wealth brought by peace was a temporary situation at best; it had done nothing to stop the monsters stalking the sands.

The Berserkers struck in an incredible whirlwind, demonstrating centuries of finely tuned experience and efficiency as well as a terrible thirst for death. A feeble resistance had been raised, though it did no good. Every man, woman, and child had been slaughtered in a bloody mess. Disemboweled. Dismembered. Unseen by the dead, their murderers remained to celebrate their dark victory. It was an unholy thing, the devouring of half-roasted flesh and washing it down with challises filled with blood, but that was the way of the Berserkers. Demons, some called them. Monsters and terrors. Masters of the deep desert, there was no other terror quite like them.

They ran through the flames with wild abandon, howling insanity. Each wore tattered remains of clothing, for they were built much like their human prey. No two were the same. Some had horns and tails while others were made in a broken image of man. They were the perfect killing machines bred for one purpose: destroying human kind. Dark blood stained their bodies and ran from their frothing mouths. Bipedal, the Berserkers were the result of decades of genetic manipulations. No one remembered where they had come from, but the devastation they wrought had changed life in the Wastes forever.

Resting atop a slowly burning home, Mnemlath, the Berserker leader, sat watching his warriors celebrate. They had been the undisputed rulers of the Wastelands for three hundred years, genetically created with the very worst attributes, yet still he could not find it in him to let his guard down. He knew, as did most of the others, that the Slayers were never far off. Be it one or more, they seemed to sense when an attack was made.

Mnemlath was heavily muscled, lean from constant struggle. His face was an amalgam of human and beast. Heavy brows protruded over his smallish eyes. Fangs, some broken, some twisted, crept from the edges of his lips. Finger bones hung from a necklace, trophies from past kills. His chin sat heavily on a gnarled fist, long hair billowing in the wind. Coal black eyes scanned the open dunes, searching for signs of his foe.

A feather drifted down in front of him, landing at his feet. Leisurely reaching down and snatching it away from the flames, the Berserker snarled and looked up. Dozens of carrion eaters had already flocked to the scene in search of a satisfying meal. Argots, huge dragon-like birds that were the scavengers of the desert, roared as they waited for the Berserkers to leave. He scoffed at their boldness and growled a warning. This bloodbath was still his.

One of the larger males dropped from the sky to land just far enough away from the brooding monster. Arching its back, the argot hissed a call with forked tongue, challenging the creature to either fight or flee. The Berserker laughed at its audacity and asked, “Have you ever wondered when you’re about to die?”

The argot burst back into flight before the Berserker could draw his blood-smeared cudgel. Something else had spooked it. The Berserker lifted his nose to the winds, hoping to pick up a scent. He smiled in anticipation. A Slayer was coming. He stood abruptly and shifted his gaze to the lookout placed atop the blackened church spire. A winged Berserker with a long snout and the muscles of a great wolf sniffed the air but found nothing. His wings spread in anxiety. Frustrated, the beast reared back and bellowed a challenge to the empty sands.

Aradias Kane watched the howling demon as its cry bleated out. Challenge had been issued. It was time. This desecration had gone on long enough. Kane turned from the slaughter and calmly made his way down the back slope of the dune. With all the smoke and fire, he still had the element of surprise. Even from here, he could see the fingers of flames going up into the heavens. Kane loosened the front of his sand-colored duster and crept to the edge of the village.

The Slayer slid to the ground and laid his spear gun over the horse’s back. His breathing slowed. Reflex took over. Kane carefully took aim and fired. None of the Berserkers heard the shot or saw the silver flash of steel as it sped through the air. A dull thump followed, and a scream ripped into the morning. The scout fell from his perch, a welded spear of fine silver running him through. A rope of dark blood hung in the air as he fell. Mixed cries of alarm and revenge erupted throughout the shadow spawn. Battle had been renewed.

Mnemlath twirled his cudgel overhead and jumped to the ground. Acting as one, the Berserkers burst through the burning village towards the safety of their tunnels. It was a safe and highly efficient way to travel, especially when they were hunted at every chance. A Berserker attack was always foreshadowed by a quake; the bigger the quake, the larger the attacking body. Now they served as the monsters’ only means of escape. Kane knew this and made his assault.

The first grenade exploded just as Mnemlath recognized the threat. He squared his shoulders and barreled into his closest brother. Both monsters hit the ground and rolled out of the way as the shrapnel screamed overhead. The second grenade struck the side of a ruin, spitting rock and debris for meters around them. The concussion of the blast tore at their ears. Mnemlath groaned his way to a knee and looked for their hunter.

“Slayer!”

Sharp winds tossing his hair about, the Berserker leader stood against a background of red and black. He found the Slayer rather quickly, considering the amount of smoke and dust flying around. He could think of no better place than this apocalyptic village to do battle. FleXaeng his muscles, he bellowed in challenge. Mnemlath growled, and the others went into action once the Slayer worked his way into a corner. They struck with alarming fury.

Electricity dancing between his horns, a massive shell-covered Berserker rose from the dust and pitched both arms towards the Kane. Dark blood trickled down his flesh. The Berserker ignored the sting of the grenades as a hail of steel flechettes spit from his hands. Kane heard their shrill cry and ducked. The missiles struck the wall behind him a fraction of second later, forcing him to roll left. He came up firing. Kane’s ion rifle shot over five hundred rounds of sizzling, pure energy a second, so fast it looked like a golden stream ripping into their ranks. A huge Berserker twirled a battle hammer overhead, moving faster until it whistled, and then loosed it. The side of the hut Kane was using for cover exploded under the impact, sending both clay and man to the ground. He cried out and rolled, trying to extinguish the flames catching on his duster. Another Berserker drew his blood-stained scimitar and charged.

Rising as fast as he could, Kane knew he had little time for aiming. The Slayer squeezed his trigger. Ion rounds ripped the air. The first burst missed wide right. The second tore into the monster’s stomach after a quick adjustment. Organs and gore splattered outward. The Berserker howled and dropped in a tattered mess. An eerie silence gripped the battleground. The maddened Berserker leader stood a few hundred paces from the weary Slayer. Both stared hard at each other and were surprised to see they were looking into familiar eyes. Almost human eyes. Kane paused as unforeseen doubts emerged. Surviving Berserkers used the distraction to begin dropping into the tunnels.

Mnemlath charged, desperately trying to give his war party time to escape. Kane let his rifle drop and drew a long dagger. Man and monster met in a sickening clash of bone and meat. The Berserker was excessively strong, and Kane was hard pressed to keep his snapping jaws away. Hot saliva dripped onto Kane’s cheek, burning him. The Slayer winced and managed to push a forearm up into Mnemlath’s neck. The Berserker gagged violently and drew his head back. Kane ripped his dagger across the exposed stomach. The wound was superficial, no more than a bloody scratch.

Mnemlath roared and drove his forehead into Kane’s face. Stumbling backwards, he tripped over a dead Berserker. Kane twisted and struggled to get to his feet. Mnemlath was on top of him in an instant, kicking the Slayer in the ribs. The dagger spun uselessly away. Kane spit blood. His vision swam. His body ached. Jets of pain shot through his nervous system. He looked through blurred eyes at the Berserker circling him. Victory shone in his enemy’s eyes. Kane slowly reached into his belt and drew a smaller blade. Mnemlath attacked.

Kane jerked right and drove his blade deep into the Berserker’s chest. Mnemlath screamed in agony and twisted back. His claws raked Kane across the back, ripping clothes and skin. Fate smiled at him, for Kane looked down to see his ion rifle. The Slayer rolled right and felt his fingers clutch the trigger guard. He forced himself up, ignoring the rising agony.

Dazed, the Berserker yanked the blade from his muscles. Dark blood ran freely down his hand and sweat-covered chest. Fortunately, the weapon did not penetrate his lungs. He looked down at the Slayer and froze. The shiny barrel of the ion rifle was pointed at his chest. Kane squeezed the trigger. An empty click replied. He was out of charge.

The Berserker took portent in this and decided to leave. He had had enough. This Slayer was stronger than most, and he was unsure if he could survive single combat. Mnemlath folded his arm across his chest and made an elegant bow, disgustingly similar to human behavior. “Another time, Slayer.”

And then he, too, was gone. Aradias Kane stood over the body of his newest trophy, panting and covered in grime and sweat. He stared down at the tunnel holes. A sense of failure crept into his head despite having killed two of the monsters.

“Count on it,” he whispered.

Emotionally and physically drained, Kane collected his weapons and went to make sure the two Berserkers were dead. The winged one still had some life left in him — not much, but enough to taunt Kane. “War is coming, Slayer. All humans will die,” he said, choking on his own blood right before he passed his last breath.

Aradias pondered the words. He’d heard much the same from every other Berserker he’d killed in his sixty years of action, lending him no cause for concern now. But a nagging feeling lodged in his brain. Something wasn’t right. Unable to do much about it at the moment, he removed his duster and began the hardest task a Slayer had. It would take him almost two full days to dig enough graves for the two hundred plus residents of the village, and when he was done, he’d do the same thing he always did.

Kane pulled deeply from his canteen. His back ached from the exertion. He planted the last makeshift cross on the freshly filled grave and slumped to the ground. The sand was oddly comforting to his tired and sore body. Dawn was breaking across the endless desert sea. Most of the fires in the village had died out. The acrid smell of smoke clung to him, though, refusing to let go as if it were the ghosts of the villagers. A lesser man might have been spooked, but Kane had been a Slayer for a long time. His emotions were all but burned out now.

Satisfied that there was nothing left to do, Aradias Kane stowed his shovel back into his saddle bags and stretched. It was a long ride back to Black Tide.

The Dream Begins Anew

Many long nights and weekends were spent in my barracks room when I was a young private. No car, too young to hit the bars, I picked up the pen and began to write. A strange world opened up and has been my pride and joy (not my best written, mind you) for the past 20 years. Damn, has it been that long? Regardless, I have decided to put Tomorrow’s Demise up for a weekly serial, all for your enjoyment.

Sit back and strap in. This is going to be a long ride. Read on, my friends. Read on.

BEGINNINGS

Ganelin D’mala sat by himself enjoying the calm summer day. A cool breeze blew, rustling the trees while easing some of the extreme heat. The sky was laced with clouds of purest white. Song birds flit everywhere. For a moment he could almost forget this was his last day on Mandrak Prime. His last day home. He effortlessly conjured a ball of pale fire in his right hand, letting it dance between his fingertips as visions of the future entertained him. Not even the power of his magic was enough to remove the pall of leaving everything behind however. This was a moment of immense…change. How easily would he cast aside all that he once was in favor of the vast unknown of time and space? Even being accounted as one of the future’s brightest wizards, Ganelin found the concept as terrifying as it was exciting.

Still considered young by most standards, at one hundred and twenty-seven he was on the brink of assuming a teaching position at the Academy. A prestigious spot for any wizard. He’d graduated at the head of his class in both conjuring and illusion and already held a reputation as one of Mandrak Prime’s master illusionists. The future was indeed limitless. All that stood in his way was a brief mission abroad.

His thoughts drifted back when he was first informed of his selection to the Crusade. His best friend, Aragin Mephistile, a powerful wizard in his own regard, burst into his quarters with a grin so wide his face could barely contain it. Four had been chosen for the once a year expedition. More importantly, Crusade was the right of passage for becoming a fully ordained wizard.

It was the hardest task an apprentice undertook and Ganelin had the feeling theirs was going to be especially difficult. They were being sent to Telgeise III to assist the native peoples in constructing a better civilization out of the ruins in which they presently dwelled. Their hope was to bring the people of Telgeise into the stars within a few hundred years.

“Ganelin, come on. There’s time for one last drink before the shuttle leaves.”

He looked up to see Aragin standing in the cantina doorway waving at him. Ganelin returned the gesture and let the flames in his hand to dissolve. There’d be enough time to fiddle with his craft during the long voyage. He collected his gear and hurried to join his friends, who were already well into their cups. Ganelin wasn’t much of a drinker but knew better than to try and escape now.

Aragin passed him a mug and raised his own in salute. “My friends, today we embark on a long journey. Though we will long to be back home among friends and family I have no doubt that our deeds will long be echoed across the stars. To us! And the glory of our deeds!”

“To us!” they cheered.

Ganelin smiled but again found a cruel shadow creeping over them. He suddenly doubted they were ever going to see Mandrak Prime again.

*****

Aradias Kane sat atop the lone boulder watching Helscape’s twin suns set. Most of the other village children were out playing now that the heat was finally subsiding. A barren desert stretched out before him. Barren but far from empty. The Wastelands of Helscape were unfriendly for young and old alike. Villagers struggled to etch a meager living farming or making random trinkets and goods for those rare, passing caravans still venturing this far into the sands.

His village was comprised of mostly mud huts and reinforced tents. The weather was brutal most days, conspiring against them with punishing heat during the day and near frigid temperatures at night. Both paled in comparison to the darkness lurking just beneath the surface. A menace unlike any other hunted the local population, killing without reason. Or mercy.

Everyone in the Wastes knew the stories. An ancient horror that lurked beneath the shifting sand dunes, patiently waiting for the moment when exquisite violence could be unleashed. Most people had lost friends and family to this horror. It was a fact of life. Men named them Berserkers. Strange and powerful beasts from the most vivid nightmares. They had been a plague on humanity for so long few, if any, remembered where they came from. Prayers were whispered for safety and deliverance though such contrivances seldom worked. There was no safe haven from the Berserkers.

Aradias’s father often told him stories of lone warriors named Slayers who roamed the deserts in search of the darkness. He filled the boy’s head with tales of grand heroes who willingly sacrificed all for the sake of others. Aradias wasted too many hours pretending to be a Slayer while the other children mocked him, treated him like an outsider. He didn’t care. Aradias knew what his life held in store and dreamt the nights away hoping for the day when he might prove his worth.

Eyes closed, he tilted his head back to enjoy the last rays of sunlight on his face. The sound of children playing drifted lazily past him and into the village. Leather winged argots, the great carrion birds of the desert, floated across the near horizon. Aradias opened his eyes and watched with envy as they disappeared in a collage of gold, red, and orange.

His silver eyes were cold, emotionless. At seven years old he was already feeling lost.

The dinner bell rang from the village square. Some children stopped playing to run home for a meal generally consisting of fried cactus and zorinth meat. Meager feedings, but nutritious. The rest of the children ended their games and hurried home before the sun dropped. Aradias tried his best to ignore them, finding their fear of the night boring, contrite. Life in the tiny village of Rivide was often without imagination. Or so he believed.

“Come on, Aradias. Stay out here any longer and the monsters will get you!” Barsh, one of the older boys taunted as he loped back to the village proper.

Sighing, Aradias reluctantly jumped down from the rock. He’d only taken a few steps when he thought he felt the ground move. He froze. The old one whispered of intense quakes in the moments before the monsters came. Aradias scanned his surroundings but there was only rock and sand. Kicking a small stone, he turned away from the sounds. He’d let his imagination get the better of him and felt the fool for it. The critical look in his father’s eyes when he returned home confirmed as much.

“Where have you been, son? I could have used your help in the field.”

Aradias slumped, feeling weight press down. He’s forgotten. Submissively, he lowered his eyes. “Nowhere, father.”

His father grunted. “Probably out on that damned rock again. I just don’t understand why you won’t play with the other children.”

“Leave him be. He’s just a child,” his mother scolded.

Aradias was about to speak up when a blood curdling scream tore across the edge of dusk. His heart leapt. His father was already on his feet and reaching for the rifle he always kept behind the front door. The floor timbers creaked menacingly with each footstep. Aradias knew he’d remember the look on his father’s face for the rest of his life. A mix of mind numbing fear and the sudden realization that they were about to die filled his heart. The crisp metallic sound of the rifle being cocked filled the small home.

“Berserkers,” his mother breathed.

“Get to your room now, both of you! Aradias, help your mother,” father whispered.

“I can help you,” Aradias whispered back. He ran to the cupboard and pulled out the old dagger they kept stashed there. It might as well been a sword in his tiny grasp.

Father snapped. “No. You cannot stand against this.”

The front door burst apart in a ragged storm of splinters moments after Aradias and his mother secured the metal door to his bedroom. They heard his father’s screams. Smelled the fetid combination of blood and urine. Aradias shook uncontrollably. He didn’t want to die. Heavy footsteps padded closer. His grip on the dagger tightened. A sob escaped his mother. Just one. Fists and feet began beating his door down. One blow at a time the monsters were getting closer.

Aradias Kane bolted up from his bedroll. Time weathered hands snatched his rifle up. He scowled. Sixty years worth of nightmares remained as vivid as that night his parents were murdered. Kane groaned and climbed to his feet. The predawn air of the Wastelands was chilled, pitch black. Kane didn’t mind. He found the solitude oddly comforting. A lifetime spent patrolling the deserts in search of the monsters responsible for killing his family were not lost. He felt alive out here. More alive than being trapped in any of the larger, better protected cities to the east and south.

This morning was but another on the hunt. A short distance away his horse snorted. It was the only form of good morning Kane ever heard. Alone as a man could get, Kane began the well rehearsed drill of packing, eating, and getting ready to ride. Somewhere out there, near yet still far enough to confound him, was a pack of Berserkers in need of justice. He was that sword. An unbreakable force unleashed upon his enemies until there were none left. Kane climbed into the saddle and headed out.

Book Review: Where Have All the Elves Gone?

What a great way to start my day off. Opened up the old laptop and found a review for my Where Have All the Elves Gone? This isn’t an in depth treatise on the human social condition. Oh no, this is light hearted romp that takes place in a single night. Proof that we should all be careful what we wish for- we just might get it.

on March 20, 2017
After grinding through some long and dense reads from Sanderson and Rothfuss, it was refreshing to get back to what books are all about. Entertainment. Fun. Freed hits those points and then some with Where Have All the Elves Gone?. The book itself is a fish out of water story of a writer thrown into the underground world where common archetypical fantasy creatures and elements dwell in modern day America behind the scenes and unseen to the common man. Freed draws on his own military experience to build a very believable protagonist; like him, a combat veteran fantasy author. Daniel portrays a realistic view of a veteran happy in the comfort of civilian life chasing his dream while still yearning and ready to dive headfirst back into the fight for a good cause. The common elements of fantasy such as magic, dragons, dwarves, and eleven culture are integrated into present day America in very interesting ways that leave you begging for a deeper dive into the world. Freed’s style shines the most in the action. The fast paced and engaging combat sequences are engrossing for combat veterans while still being understandable and engaging for those who haven’t served. Being able to bridge that gap has been a problem that has plagued many fantasy and science fiction writers. All in all, Where Have All the Elves Gone? delivers fast paced, entertaining, and action packed fantasy. A must read for fantasy fans who are looking for a change of pace from slow moving plots or lovers of some good old fantasy action.
where-have-all-the-elves-gone

Branding

A quality read. One we can all learn a little from.

Story Empire

Craig here again. It’s a challenge to write these tips and tricks every time, because so many of the items are debatable. I hate to take a hard line stance, but I do for the sake of the comments that trickle in during the week. The topic today is branding.

Not that kind of branding. The kind where authors promote products. As you appear across cyberspace, what kind of recognizable materials do you use so the masses will recognize you? Chances are, you’ll have a blog, the popular social media accounts, and possibly a newsletter. What kind of branding do you use to tell people this is some of your work?

You will also make guest appearances on blogs, maybe blog talk radio, the occasional video of some kind. While these post are all different, your branding is what sews them all together as you – the author.

My first…

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