Chapter Twenty-Eight

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Part two of Onet’s Tale now begins

~~~

Chapter Twenty-Eight – Janus Omega and Mutiny

In the four years since the escape to Kallorn, the war between the Drana Empire and the Alliance of Planets had raged back and forth across the galaxies. My kin made sure that neither side in the conflict was victorious; nothing short of total annihilation would satisfy my cousins’ evil plans. As the Alliance finally cleared one planetary system the Drana conquered yet another. In the endless bloody conflicts, borders were blurred beyond recognition. Nagesh had finally begun to follow the path of all previous Drana emperors, turning into a crazed effeminate fanatic, determined to expand the empire no matter the cost. The members of his court, on more than one occasion since his declaration of war, had attempted to assassinate him. Each time he stayed a step ahead, publicly accusing the would-be assassins of treason. Nearly every week the citizens of the empire witnessed bloody executions. His war placed an enormous strain on the Drana population. Thousands of families lost their precious sons in Nagesh’s maniacal determination to bring the Alliance led galaxies, and the millions of planetary systems they contained, to their knees.

Diverse factions each with their own agenda within the thousands of diplomatic, political and military sectors, stretched the resources of the Alliance of Planets to near breaking point. The peace-loving member nations of the Alliance were anxious to find a diplomatic solution to Nagesh’s ruthless expansion. While the diplomats argued endlessly over how to achieve their goal, the politicians and military leaders of all the remaining nations fought for control over the vast fleets of ships in the many campaigns against the Drana.

Deliberate political intervention would spell the end of the senior military leaders’ control of the armed forces, and probably the Alliance itself! Officers with political ambitions, selected for key roles by the various governments, placed the military in grave danger of self-destruction by their gross ineptitude. Something had to be done to rid the military leadership of the cancer within. The answer to the problem came from the Varga sector of the Drana Empire, but not from where both sides in the war expected! Admiral Memnet’s armada had suffered heavy losses since the first encounter above Jalnuur. Ships previously decommissioned into mothballed fleets or about to be scrapped by the penny-pinching financial ‘bean counters’ of the Alliance, were now reluctantly released by the civil governments and cheaply recommissioned, transforming the old ships into barely serviceable death traps, sent out as ‘new’ replacements for the fleets.

The army’s losses against the fanatical Drana commandos dramatically weakened Lord Seth’s invasion plans. The number of seasoned veterans capable of turning raw recruits into trained troops was rapidly declining. The main obstacle for both men to achieve their goal of ending the war was quite simply the staggering cost of the entire training phase, both in time and resources. Far from being a ‘short sharp shock’, the war had escalated into a seemingly endless bloodbath. The cost of waging the relentless war spiralled out of control. From every sector of the Alliance, planets were stripped of their populations by the insatiable needs of the military to prosecute the war against the Drana. Millions of men and women were drafted into service resulting in many planets becoming defenceless targets for the Drana, stripped of their own precious defence forces.

Memnet’s latest additions to his armada had arrived from Mars three weeks ago under the command of General Eugene L. Maas, Seventh Mars Marine Corps. Eugene was a cigar smoking good old boy, in the finest human tradition from the Kelno colony of the southern Mars military sector. Eugene was an army brat who followed his father into military service as soon as he graduated from high school. He loved the Marine Corps. Its tough way of life changed the sullen rebellious youth into a seasoned, intolerant killing machine that rapidly rose through the ranks by sheer ruthlessness and his natural ability as a leader. Eugene despised all other races. More than once during his career he had been busted for blatant racism within the Alliance. If you weren’t ‘his kind of folks’ you were dead meat! He enjoyed killing anyone different to himself. ‘Just having fun!’ he called it.

In no time at all he fell out with Memnet, and Seth whose command he now assumed. When Memnet called a meeting of senior officers to welcome Eugene on the first evening after the replacements joined the fleet, the general sent an aid with a clear message saying that ‘I am here to kill goddamn aliens! Not to play pass the parcel with them! And another thing; I refuse to breathe the same stinking air as those scaly lizard-bred sons of bitches!’

Memnet flew into a rage and angrily dismissed the assembled officers and the unfortunate aid after he had delivered the general’s message. The next day Memnet still seethed with anger over Eugene’s disgusting refusal and sent an officer to deliver an ultimatum, ‘apologize or surrender pending courts-martial proceedings.’ A few hours later Memnet got his reply when the shuttle returned bearing the skinned carcass of the admiral’s young Andrasian aid, hideously staked out on the shuttle’s deck, with a commando knife through each limb.

Word spread like wildfire throughout the armada. Memnet was rapidly losing control of the situation as the struggle for power between the two men accelerated. Ship’s compliments divided into racial factions, sending a shock wave of age-old hatred throughout the entire armada. In less than twenty-four hours, Eugene was in control and Memnet found himself and his few remaining loyal officers and men, delivered into the murderous hands of the mutineers. After a kangaroo court delivered its verdict, they were cast adrift in a shuttle. Memnet watched the armada head towards Janus Omega. The war was about to escalate beyond anyone’s control, much to the delight of my kind. Now two madmen, each with their own destructive agenda, fed by their fanatical hatred for all other races, occupied the same bloody arena. When they eventually met, all life across the cosmos would end unless someone or something put a stop to their insanity!

~~~

After the ethnic cleansing within the ships that made up the armada was complete, Eugene led his human dominated mutineers into his second treasonous act. Several small flotillas of Alliance vessels operated independently, surviving on their wits under a communication blackout, cut off from the armada, engaging in hit and run exercises deep within the empire disguised as Drana freighters. Cargo ships supplying Nagesh’s troops with arms, ammunition, food and medical supplies, in addition to the ‘new recruits’ chained up in their cargo bays, became targets. One such flotilla now lay directly in the path of the armada.

The intercom above his head between his two favourite flags, the corps colours and the framed bullet ridden, ancient Confederate flag his ancestor had proudly carried at Shiloh, sounded. “General to the bridge.” Eugene swung his legs over the side of the bunk and thrust his feet into his combat boots. He snapped the lever-action retaining clips into place, securing his feet inside them, holstered his side-arm, lit his cigar, and then grabbed his forage cap as he left the confines of his cabin below the carrier’s bridge. His large frame filled the narrow main flat leading to the ladder access upto the bridge. As he strode along the flat, the men going about their duties dived out of his way, stood to attention, and saluted. Bursting into the bridge lit by red emergency lights, he strode across to where his second in command stood in front of the tactical screen. “What is it boy!” Eugene snarled, spitting a wad of tobacco in a high arc across the space.

“Sir, we have an Alliance flotilla directly ahead,” the colonel reported.

“How far boy; are they in range yet?” Eugene rolled the cigar across his mouth as he spoke.

“At our present speed, sir, they’ll be in range in forty-five minutes,” the colonel answered.

Eugene looked at the icons on the screen merge with others in the heat of the battle. “Huh,” he grunted, rolling the cigar back and forth in his mouth, as he watched the gallant Alliance vessels chase down and eliminate their targets. “Get us within thirty-thousand kilometres,” he said, his eyes narrowing.

“Sir, yes sir!” The colonel saluted and passed on the order to close the distance.

“They see us yet, Michael?” Eugene quietly asked the operator handling the screen’s information.

“Sir, no sir,” the young marine answered, proud that his general always used his name in place of his lowly rank.

“Well, keep an eye on them, son, and let me know the moment they do,” Eugene said, squeezing the young marines shoulder.

“Sir, yes sir!”

“Two thousand kilometres,” the navigator reported as the vast armada closed the gap. “One thousand, seven-fifty… Four hundred kilometres. All stop! We’re parked at thirty thousand kilometres sir,” he reported, not looking up from his navigation console.

“Do they see us yet, son?”

“Sir, no sir, they’re taking casualties, sir. Three of ours are down,” Michael said.

“Huh!” Eugene rolled the cigar to one side of his mouth. “Ok boy, launch all fighter squadrons and clean up Michael’s screen,” A cruel smile replaced the customary scowl on his face.

The colonel gave the order. “Launch!” The space around the armada filled with fighters like a cloud of midges swirling in the sunlight on a hot summer’s day, and headed for the battle.

On board the senior Alliance officer’s ship the tactical operator watched his screen fill with over five thousand Mordred fighters. “Sir the cavalry has arrived!”

“Thank god for that, and not a moment too soon,” the captain replied. The battle was soon over. As the armada sped away from the area, the jumbled remains of all the ships engaged in the fight minutes earlier, floated lifelessly together like wrecked vehicles piled up in a scrap yard. Michael’s screen was empty except for the icons of the armada.

Eight days later a Drana commander watched his battle fleet silently pass through the remains of yet another Alliance invasion fleet. He was totally bewildered. No reports had come from this sector regarding any kind of conflict. His orders were to engage the enemy at this spot, but someone had beaten him to it. He went to his cabin to compose a report describing the situation. Calling for a messenger to take the report to the communications officer for immediate coded transmission, he returned to the bridge of his Battle class destroyer.

~~~

Dranaa Nagesh studied the reports coming in from his fleet commanders. His beautiful face was transformed into a caricature of its normally self. Was there a new force to be reckoned with? If so who, and more importantly – why? Issuing orders for his spies to double their efforts, he turned from his paper strewn marble desk and went out into the walled garden of his harem, to relax in the perfumed air pampered by his most trusted and youngest concubine, Ahmed.

“Dranaa, forgive me for disturbing you, but Hesket awaits your pleasure in the anteroom,” Hasan whispered quietly into Nagesh’s ear, after quietly entering the harem where Nagesh had just finished making love to his second favourite youth.

“Bring him to me in my private chambers,” Nagesh commanded his intelligence chief. Then changing his mind, said, “No, bring him to the outer courtyard beyond the garden.” There was no need to foul the air of the palace with the stench of a Khaz.

“As you command, Dranaa.” Hasan bowed and quickly withdrew. Nagesh arrived at the courtyard via a tunnel in the palace walls. Before he opened the door to the courtyard, he peered past the ornate grill in the door. Hasan stood a little way from the diminutive Khaz spy. No one liked standing too close to one of us.

Opening the door Nagesh walked over to the steps of the courtyard and sat on the gilded chair his eunuchs had placed for him, ten meters in front of the Khaz. Arranging his female atire carefully about him, Nagesh sat for a long time saying nothing, closely studying the brightly painted talon like nails of his delicate hands.

For several minutes he looked directly at Hesket, transfixing him with his cold eyes, which unnerved my cousin, before asking, “why have you come here?”

Like thousands of my kin, Hesket chose to serve Nagesh. Not to aid the Drana domination of the cosmos, but to further our own dark ambitions. Since our home world had been destroyed millennia ago by a massive explosion caused by a giant meteorite plunging through to its core, we had spread across the cosmos by attaching ourselves like parasites to the most powerful species in control at the time. Then like all parasites when their host dies, my kind quickly look for another. As I said earlier, we Khaz are a self-replicating species capable of survival in nearly all environments, but we prefer to live beneath the surface of a planet rather than on it. My cousin’s metallic grey skin suffers from exposure to direct sunlight and their enlarged black eyes, which are equipped for subterranean life, are practically blinded in direct sunlight. We all absorb what nutrients our bodies need through specially adapted pores in the palms of our hands rather than eating in the normal manner that you are accustomed to dear reader. We excrete the discarded remains of our ‘meal’ through our skin, which unfortunately creates a foul stench in the air surrounding us. When we become frightened, our bodies purge the entire contents of our system in a gut wrenching, pungent concentrated cloud of gas, which was precisely why Hasan stood well away from Hesket in the fresh air of the courtyard, and Nagesh held a perfumed handkerchief over his painted mouth. My cousin was absolutely terrified! Hesket cleared his throat and tried shielding his eyes from the bright sunlight of the courtyard with his scrawny arms, hopping from one foot to the other, as the delicate soles of his feet burnt from the reflected heat of the marble paved courtyard. “Great Dranaa, lord of all, I bring disturbing news!” he hissed.

“You mean the destruction of the Alliance fleets,” Nagesh replied.

“Yes my lord. The Alliance now has troubles of its own. They have a renegade in their midst, great Lord, who has seized control of their largest armada and wreaks destruction wherever he goes!” Hesket’s feet were in agony and the rest of his body was beginning to burn under the intense baking rays of the sun.

“Who is this renegade?” Nagesh demanded.

“Great Lord, he is called Maas, a human general in the Alliance military. He has surrounded himself with his own kind, waging his personal war throughout the Alliance, cleansing it of all other races. Daily he grows stronger! Soon he will turn his attention towards Dranaa and the empire, Sire. His armada grows with each conquest. The Alliance is in total disarray. If he is allowed to continue he will become more powerful than you!” Hesket screamed in agony.

Nagesh sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. Hasan circled the Khaz and came over to where Nagesh sat. “Dranaa, we may be able to turn this to your advantage.”

Nagesh sat motionless. “What do you propose?” he enquired, not opening his eyes.

“A meeting between yourself and this General Maas,” Hasan replied.

“To what end?” Nagesh replied, his eyes now open and staring directly into Hasan’s.

“A new Alliance of your own,” Hasan whispered. Nagesh closed his eyes once again and smiled. Forgotten, Hesket hobbled away in agony, disappearing into the shadows of the palace. How he hated all Drana. He swore that when the time came, Nagesh would suffer more than he just had in the burning inferno of the courtyard.

~~~

Next time – Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Twenty-Seven

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Chapter Twenty-Seven – Kalki

When they woke in the chilly early hours of dawn the next day, Shu was gone. “She must be in the cave in the cliffs,” Khan said, shouldering his sword and shield.

“Then we join her!” Apis insisted. They stopped at the edge of the cliffs looking down to see where the cave entrance was. The ground where they stood overhung the three thousand meter sheer drop to the pounding waves below. Seti and Akkad walked along the edge, looking for a way past the overhang to the entrance. Besal, Max, and Manesh tore up plants from the area behind the cliff and began making a crude rope from the material. Nusaan and Akhen surveyed the ground about them looking for any clue to Shu’s whereabouts.

“Look!” They all turned to where Shansur stood horrified, pointing at the ground in front of him. Smashed to pieces on a wide flat rock at his feet, were the remains of the pyramid. Tuluk had accidentally released her when he tried to steal the pyramid while they slept!

“Shu’s gone forever,” Apis whispered, carefully picking up the shattered pyramid, trying to put it back together. They all sank to their knees around the receptacle that had housed her, and protected and revitalized them. Despite their new-found strength and courage, the berserkers uttered anguished cries like children mourning the loss of their mother. They went back to the camp and sat in silence remembering the beautiful woman they all loved and followed. While she was not flesh and blood, merely an image, they each shared the sensation of feeling her gentle touch on their brow, and the intoxicating smell of her perfume whenever she was near was more real to them now in their sorrow than ever before.

“We have to get down to the cave entrance and find whatever it was Shu was looking for,” Max said sadly.

“What’s the point,” Apis wailed. “She’s gone. Let’s head back home.”

“Where’s home now?” Seti asked, knowing the answer to the question before he opened his mouth. “We can’t leave the planet – we have no ship remember?”

“This is our home!” Besal snarled.

“Time for that later; now we find the cave and whatever it contains!” Khan snapped, hefting the crude rope over his shoulder. Using a narrow ledge barely wide enough to grip with their toes which Seti had found, they picked their way carefully along it back to where the overhang was. The cave entrance was protected by a series of protruding rocks. Each one would have to be negotiated separately. Roping themselves together, they took it in turns to swing around the rocks while the rest of the party anchored the one suspended on the end of the makeshift rope, which frayed as each berserker swung from it. Nusaan was the last to attempt the perilous undertaking. He took a deep breath before swinging out and down to clear the last rock.

The weakened strands stretched and began parting under the strain of him swinging back and forth in an ever widening arc across the cliff face. As he drew near to the cave entrance and his brothers, the rope snapped. Suddenly released from the safety of the rope he flew through the air and began tumbling down the cliff. Frantically grabbing at anything in the rapid descent to his death, his fingers latched on to a narrow jagged ledge halting his progress. The effect of the sudden stop smashed him into the cliff with such force that the air in his lungs was driven out in one painful burst. But he managed to hang on. Khan and Akhen lowered the frayed rope down to where their injured brother clung by his fingertips. Finding a tiny foothold Nusaan reached out with his right hand and wrapped the rope around his arm. Max, Akkad, and Seti pulled him slowly back to the cave mouth. Akhen and Besal leaned out, held back by Apis and Shansur’s strong grips, and seized him by the shield strap around his shoulders, hauling him into the safety of the cave.

After Nusaan had recovered from his ordeal, they moved further in, led by Shansur. Their path was lit by the flames of the torches they held, made from the remnant of the rope. As the cave took them deeper into the long dormant volcanic peninsula, a faint sound slowly became apparent. “What is that?” Besal said, straining to make it out.

“Sounds like machinery of some kind,” Manesh replied. For countless hours, they moved further into the cave system following the sound. By now, a gentle vibration in the rock accompanied the humming, underfoot and in the cave walls. Reaching the edge of a deep shaft that descended into blackness beneath their feet, the brothers halted. Their way ahead beyond the shaft was blocked by an ancient rock fall.

“What now?” Khan asked, dropping a tiny rock into the shafts depths. “Down or back?”

In answer Akhen carefully climbed over the edge of the shaft and slowly began descending, using his hands and feet in a spread-eagle fashion across the shaft’s width. “There’s another smaller tunnel entrance down here,” he shouted from the darkness below. The others soon joined him and once again they followed its path.

Shansur stopped. “What is it?” Nusaan asked.

“Shhh – quiet,” Shansur whispered, raising his hand. Besides the steady hum and vibration of machinery, there was now the unmistakable low sound of chanting coming from the depths of the tunnel. Carefully moving forward, the group turned a corner. Before them, a vast cavern extended for thousands of meters, lit by an eerie phosphorescent glow. The cavern was not what took their breath away but what it contained. A giant ship, surrounded by the glowing lights of control panels belonging to machinery of some kind, which were connected to it by umbilical cables, stood on the cavern floor. In front of the ship, lying prone was the source of  the chanting – hundreds of Neolithic men, women, and children. Best of all, holding her arms out wide was Shu! Honey blond hair covered her head and delicate shoulders, reflecting the lights from the panels. She was dressed in a translucent robe that clung to the curves of her stunning figure. The brothers watched from their vantage point high on the cavern wall as the leader of the Stone Age people shuffled forward on his knees, head bowed, holding a gift of a stone axe in his outstretched hands. Placing it at Shu’s naked feet he retreated to his position at the head of the assembled crowd. She picked up the axe. Holding it above her head, the crowd began chanting in the same low tone.

Then she threw it into the air in front of the ship. Twin beams of light from the ship atomized it. The chanting turned into wailing and tearing of the animal skins that covered their bodies. Shu held up her hands to silence them. Speaking in a strange guttural tongue, she commanded them to rise. As the crowd stood up, their gaze followed Shu’s pointing finger. The males beat their chests with their weapons and began running across the cavern toward where the berserkers stood. Shu stopped their headlong rush with one command. Then she called out, her voice echoing around the vast cavern. “Akhen, bring your brothers down here to me.”

The berserkers climbed down, brandishing their swords, and forced their way through the angry crowd of Stone Age warriors toward where Shu stood. Beckoning them to stand beside her, she greeted each one of her beloved berserker sons with a tender kiss and embrace. Shu was no longer an avatar – she was alive. The Stone Age people looked puzzled by their high priestess’ warm greeting to the powerful berserker warriors standing in a circle about her. Plucking up courage, the leader stepped forward once again, this time stabbing the air with his stone tipped spear. Seti ran to meet him, sliced the spear in two with one stroke of his sword, and felled the simple creature with his shield. “Seti – enough!” Shu ordered. “They’re just curious, no more than that.” Unconvinced, he pinned the prone man beneath his foot. The rest of the crowd retreated from where their leader lay, in sullen silence. Shu spoke to them quietly, explaining that, ‘the warriors were her kin and protectors’. Tapping Seti’s thigh with her hand, she commanded him to release the man before she returned to where the rest stood ready to fight. Seti grasped the man by the scruff of his neck and bodily lifted him to his feet before propelling him in the general direction of his people, aided by a powerful kick administered to the man’s backside.

~~~

Shu sat silently as the brothers bombarded her with endless questions about the ship and the Neolithic people in the cavern. The one burning question on their minds was, “Why are you alive after being thousands of years inside the small pyramid – why?”

The answer was even more baffling than the question. “Because of the Kaliyuga,” she said softly. Her transformation was no mere accident; it seemed Tuluk was destined to release her!

The Kaliyuga is a series of cycles of creation and destruction, which her people had lived through during their long existence. It could be controlled somewhat, but during the final break up of her people into warring tribes, it moved on towards the destructive upheaval of the planet, which spelt the end of the few remaining peaceful members of her people, including herself. In their case, they reverted to primitive cave dwellers, and in hers, she was trapped inside the pyramid. The giant stellar ship she named Kalki was their ‘Ark’ to escape Kallorn, but was encased inside the rock peninsula by violent geological upheaval. The machinery surrounding Kalki had maintained it over the millennia. When Shu entered it, closely shadowed by Tuluk, the ship, recognizing there was imminent danger, and regenerated her by a process similar to the one the brothers had undergone. This time, just like them, she was mortal flesh and blood but with thousands of years of knowledge at her fingertips. Over countless centuries, the Neolithic people had worshipped and protected the ship in a ‘cargo-cult’ fashion, believing it to be a gift from their god – which in a way, it was. When Shu descended from it a few short hours ago, they now believed their god had sent her to them. “We have one small problem however; Kalki is counting down to something. It began the moment I stepped out of the regeneration unit,” Shu said, looking worried. “I think the Kaliyuga is entering its final cycle, but this time it will destroy Kallorn forever!”

While Shu desperately tried to lure the frightened people on board the interstellar ship, warning them that the only home they had ever known would soon be destroyed, Akhen and the berserkers explored the ship from stem to stern. For the primitive cave dwellers, entering the domain of their god meant they would surely perish. When the first earthquake hit a few hours later, the brothers took matters into their own hands and herded the terrified people into the ship’s cavernous interior at sword point, where they forced them into stasis units. Disconnecting the ship from the machinery surrounding it from within the protection of the ship’s shielded hull, they prepared themselves for the inevitable breakup of Kallorn. The cavern and peninsula began to slowly collapse as the violent quakes increased in destructive intensity. Holes appeared in the roof of the cavern, marked by dust filled shafts of light from the outside. The ship rocked violently, skidding on the floor from side to side, crashing into the cavern walls. All aboard thought the shield surrounding the hull would give out. Eventually the roof collapsed in a tangled mess around the ship, burying the unprotected maintenance equipment under thousands of tonnes of rock.

Shu took control of Kalki and it slowly ascended out of its former prison into the clear air above the peninsula. Then, as the giant ship gained altitude, heading toward one of the eight moons surrounding the planet, Kallorn entered its final phase. Putting as much distance as she could between the ship and the dying planet, she called her berserkers to witness the end of the beautiful blue-green jewel in space. After the last violent explosion that ripped the planet apart had ended, an expanding ring of tiny particles and asteroids marked the point Kallorn had previously occupied in the vast emptiness of space an hour earlier.

~~~

Tuluk remained hidden on board Kalki until he considered it was safe for him to escape, eventually arriving here on earth, where he joined two  more of my cousins, Brak and Lek; but more of them later. You wonder how it is I know all the details dear reader. You may recall that I mentioned that we are able to communicate across great distances simply by our thoughts. How else do you think my cousins were able to create so much destruction throughout the cosmos! Hesket was about to begin his evil quest. Pashtek would bide his time, waiting for Hesket to fail –  and he would fail spectacularly, but not before unleashing a weapon far more powerful than the new species of berserkers!

~~~

Next time – Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Six

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Chapter Twenty-six – Death of a Tyrant

With Max, Shansur, Manesh, and Akkad successfully transformed by the Krattu, Shu’s army of berserker warriors now numbered nine. On their return journey, Akkad told of Hoetep’s violent takeover of New Cydon. Both Akhen and Seti swore vengeance for their murdered loved ones, but Shu put all thoughts of retribution out of their minds as they steadily drew near to the community. To defeat Hoetep they had to stay focused, cool, and sharp witted. Despite their new-found strength, they were not equipped to deal with his magic. By now he would surely have turned the rest of the community into blindly obedient servants, willing to die for him if need be. No! Akhen and the rest must follow her commands to the letter. A mighty battle was about to begin and there could be only one winner.

~~~

Hoetep sat on a rock in the winter sunlight being fed by his semi-naked concubine Nefer, while the rest of his servants built a fortified stockade wall around the lodge and surrounding buildings. Outside the wooden stockade, they had dug a deep ditch filled with sharpened stakes. Between the ditch and the stockade wall, concealed pits full of Punji sticks lay in wait. On the board walk around the top of the stockade wall, rocks lay in piles ready to be thrown.

Kapinski and a few hand-picked members of the community stood guard, manning all the weapons brought out of the ships at Hoetep’s command. Tosar sat ready with the plasma-meridium torch, sweeping across the forest edge to the north with its blue targeting laser. Llokk and Orz stood behind mobile disrupter cannon with a commanding view of the fields behind the stockade to the east. Jamal and Nemaar checked and rechecked the laser minefields between the stakes in the ditch before returning to the relative safety of the stockade. Mdjat, Benton, and Misakk spread themselves along the board walk, armed with disrupter rifles, watching the western approach to the stockade past the ships. In a hastily dug deep pit at the centre of the stockade, sealed by a door from one of the crawlers and weighed down with rocks, Khan was imprisoned in total darkness in the tight confines of his damp cold cell, unable to stand. The stump of his right arm throbbed agonizingly with pain. He vowed to escape somehow and join Akhen the way the others had.

~~~

Nine shadows merged with the trees on the ridge line to the south. Their keen eyesight surveyed the preparations far below in the valley. Shu and Akhen both agreed that Hoetep would only look north for their return. After he had consigned Akhen and his crew to the depths below the tundra in a fit of anger and sheer insanity, Shu finally lost all patience and cast him out from her protection forever. Hoetep was beyond her help now. She could not reverse the Pimaar and he was fast mutating into pure evil. She could no longer influence him. Each time he grew angry the strain of controlling the monstrous berserker’s violent outbursts drained her very being. Cursing her for deserting him he headed south bent on destruction. The last vestiges of the gentle man who she had first encountered that day in the enclosure months earlier, were gone forever.

To help her combat him and to protect the innocent lives he would encounter, Shu had to create an army of warriors physically his equal. The inevitable conflict troubled her greatly. She slipped into the unconscious thoughts of Hoetep’s followers in the stockade below, searching for anything that would work to her advantage. She found Khan. “Khan is the only one who is not under Hoetep’s control,” she told her warriors. “He is beneath the ground in a dark hole and badly injured. Stay here until I return.” The nine berserkers watched her transform into a mist, which rolled down the steep forested side of the valley, drifting across the valley floor to envelope New Cydon blocking it from view.

Under cover of the thick mist, the rocks holding down the door to Khan’s cell quietly floated away and gently lowered themselves to the ground. The door opened temporarily, blinding Khan as light flooded the cell. He felt himself being lifted and drift across the ground towards the stockade wall. He rose soundlessly, floating over the wall. Then gently dropped to the ground away from danger. ‘Follow!’ the voice in his head commanded. The door to the empty cell silently closed while the rocks repositioned themselves. He began running across the valley floor towards the edge of the forest. ‘Follow!’ the voice urged him, as his lungs reached bursting point from the exertion. Climbing steadily up through the thick forest, Khan slipped from time to time, jarring his mutilated arm. Unseen hands picked him up each time until he drew close to the ridge. With his muscles on fire and gasping for breath, Khan struggled to his feet in the course grass of the ridge. The sight that met his eyes made his already overstretched heart nearly give up. Before him stood nine berserkers, each as powerful as Hoetep, grim faced, brandishing swords like the one that had cleaved his right hand from his arm.

“Welcome brother.”

“Akhen? Is that you? Khan asked, unconvinced. The big berserker hugged Khan to his massive chest as the others reintroduced themselves to their old friend. When Shu reappeared from the mist, that now completely covered the valley, Hoetep’s spine chilling insane war cry filled the air. In answer, the nine berserkers uttered their equally terrifying song of death, drowning out Hoetep and sending shivers through his followers and Khan, who sat safe behind the formidable warriors inside Shu’s protective green cloak.

My cousin Tuluk cowered in the shadows. He watched them disappear over the ridge line into the forest beyond. The battle had begun for New Cydon.

~~~

The nine berserkers rapidly descended the wooded slope of the valley like shadowy wraiths in the thick mist. Kapinski cradled the plasma grenade launcher nervously in his arms as he tried to see through the haze. Hoetep knew it was Shu’s doing. She had conjured up the mist to hide the approaching men he had previously buried. What he had not realized till now, was that she had created an army of warriors, each equal to himself. For the first time since he had transformed he felt uncomfortable. He was as blind as his followers in the impenetrable blanket that covered the valley. Despite his powers, like them, he was unable to sense the direction of the berserker army’s war cry. The defenders anxiously looked to where Hoetep now stood on top of the rocks in the centre of the stockade, each one of them shaking with fear. The valley stood silent for over an hour and the defenders began to relax. Then from all around them the air began to pulse with the steady rhythmic beat of swords on shields.

Armed with the knowledge Shu gave them about the laser mined ditch and mantraps, Akhen and his brothers steadily approached the outer limit of the defences. Stopping a little way from them, Akhen picked up and threw a boulder in a high arc. The boulder descended towards the ditch and entered the mine filled interior, breaking some of the laser beams. A chain reaction quickly spread around the ditch encircling the stockade, sending a deadly mix of splintered stakes and hundreds of tonnes of rock and dirt high into the air that reigned down indiscriminately, crushing, and maiming all beneath it. Burning pieces of splintered stake set alight by the huge explosion impaled themselves in the wooden wall and the roofs of the buildings inside, turning the stockade into a raging inferno.

From outside Akhen and his brothers could hear the screams of the defenders. His heightened sense of smell detected the sickly sweet odour of burning flesh. Many of his friends were seriously injured or dying. “Hoetep, your army is defeated. Come out and face your end!” Akhen boomed. The heat of the inferno slowly cleared the mist from the scene. New Cydon would soon be nothing more than a blackened patch of dirt on the valley floor.

A lone figure emerged from the smoke, eyes burning with pure hatred. Seti, Akkad, Max, and Shansur stood ready an arm’s width apart from each other on Akhen’s left, while Nusaan, Manesh, Besal, and Apis took up their position at his right in a similar fashion, forming the two horns of a crescent with Akhen at its centre. Hoetep stopped twenty meters in front of them, his eyes sweeping across the assembled warriors. His gaze slowed while his fevered brain registered the identities of each warrior. Buried deep in dark recesses of his mind the last remaining molecule of the old Hoetep recognized his former friends. The warriors watched as he drove the bird headed staff into the ground beside him. He sat cross-legged in front of them, silently entering his customary trance. His sword lay across his powerful legs while his shield stood propped up against the staff.

High on the ridge, Khan looked down from Shu’s protective cloak at the terrible scene about to unfold in the valley below. The triple suns’ rays reflected back to him from the swords and shields of the nine warriors below. Shu watched the firstborn berserker rise to his feet. Hoetep lifted his shield and shifted the grip of his right hand around the sword hilt. The warriors who faced him raised their swords in salute as Hoetep charged. Shu, Khan, and Tuluk witnessed sword strike shield as Hoetep entered the crescent which quickly closed about him, completing the circle of death. The combined war cry of the warriors rose up towards where the witnesses stood in silence. Almost as soon as it started, the fight ended. Hoetep’s bloody body lay writhing on the ground, his severed head held high by Akhen, signalling their triumph with a spine chilling howl. The nightmare was finally over…

~~~

In the days following the bloody defeat of Hoetep, while Shu transformed Khan using the Krattu, Akhen and his brothers buried their dead friends and loved ones who had survived the rigors of Jalnuur and the many hardships of life on this dangerous yet beautiful planet. Of the small band of survivors, mercenaries, and assorted others who had come to Kallorn, only the ten berserkers were now left alive.

Shu and her army had work to do far from Kallorn but first there was one last task for Akhen and his brothers to perform before they departed. They needed transport off the planet. The small fleet of ships lay in smouldering ruins beyond repair. Hoetep had seen to that!

Tuluk’s description of the battle and the berserker’s potential as a future weapon intrigued our high council. There was one among my cousins who would use this new weapon for his own ends – Hesket.

~~~

Without a backward glance, the berserker brothers followed Shu to the south, spending weeks crossing high mountain ranges, fast flowing rivers, and wide grass and scrub covered plains. The seasons were changing once more and soon they felt the warmth from the triple suns’ rays on their skin as winter turned to spring, then into the early days of summer as they drew closer to their objective at the most southerly tip of the continent. Khan, Akkad, Manesh, and Shansur sniffed the air. They could smell salt. “Fear salt and its effects no longer,” Shu told them in answer to their unspoken concerns. “You are no longer Drana.” The berserker brothers stopped on a hill overlooking a long isthmus that stretched south into the distance like a giant finger in the vast ocean that bordered it. “Our journey ends on the cliffs at the end of the land you see before you,” Shu said, from inside the pyramid. Seti and Max ran forward ahead of the rest, their eyes searching the ground around them for hidden traps. Shu said that their objective was guarded but by what she did not know.

They camped on the last night of their epic journey south, in sight of the cliffs that stood guard against the ocean below. The ten brothers sat around the fire at their centre within the protection of Shu’s green cloak. “What is it we’ll find on the cliffs lady?” Nusaan asked.

“Not on? Inside, deep inside,” she softly replied. “It has remained hidden since the warring tribes left Kallorn to conquer the far reaches of the universe beyond. It waits to be reawakened from its long slumber…”

“Shu, what is it that we seek?” Seti asked. She no longer answered any more of their questions. Instead, she turned her whole being over to the task of locating that which she had brought them here to find, so far from their dead companions and the place they had named New Cydon. They must find the Kaliyuga.

~~~

Next time – Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Five

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Chapter Twenty-Five – Terror at New Cydon

A faint aroma drifted up toward where he stood in the shadows of the trees at the edge of the forest. The smell of hot food briefly recalled a long forgotten memory from the dark recesses of his malignant mind. He surveyed the small group of buildings and the people going about their tasks within the community. His left hand tightened its grip on the bird-headed staff. Its crystal glowed in anticipation as he twisted his head from side to side, searching for Khan’s mind in the midst of all the other thoughts that floated up to where he stood. His strong fingers flexed around the leather-covered hilt of the razor sharp double-edged sword in his right hand.

Iset froze in her tracks when the spine chilling animal cry echoed across the valley floor to where she stood. The whole community heard the petrifying sound and ran to the lodge. Kapinski was the first to see the rapid advance of the powerful berserker descending the sloping ground towards the village. Hoetep’s brutal sword reflected the sunlight as it cleaved the air above his head. Khan and the rest of the men armed themselves while Nefer and Iset barricaded the door. Shansur and Akkad climbed to the loft, watching from the windows at either end with disrupters at the ready. Mdjat, Khan, Kapinski, and the rest built a redoubt in the centre of the main room in the lodge to protect everyone.

Using the protection of the buildings, he drew closer in ever decreasing circles around the lodge. Stopping from time to time, his eyes flicked from side to side. His nostrils flared as his keen sense of smell located his quarry. With one mighty blow of the terrible sword, he smashed his way inside the nearest building and emerged, uttering his terrible war cry moments later, holding the lifeless body of a child high above his head in his left hand, while its tiny severed head was now a gruesome trophy suspended from the cord of his loincloth. Iset screamed as she witnessed the horrible spectacle. Her baby Ached, son of Seti, was no more. “Khan, come out and kneel before me, for I am your god,” Hoetep boomed, tossing the headless body of Ached to the ground.

Khan peered out of the window as he studied the imposing figure, and then the awful truth dawned on him. Telling the rest to stay inside he slowly opened the door. “Welcome back old friend…”

“Silence—kneel!” Hoetep commanded.

Khan walked towards Hoetep with his hand outstretched in a gesture of friendship. In a flash, Hoetep’s sword severed the proffered  hand at the wrist with such precision the stump barely bled. Khan dropped to his knees in total agony holding his useless arm close to his chest.

“Screw this!” Kapinski cursed, smashing the window with the quad-barrelled plasma grenade launcher, before firing a pattern of grenades at Hoetep. They spun end over end in slow motion, moments before landing in semi-circular arc at Hoetep’s feet. In the nanosecond before they exploded, Hoetep flipped backwards encasing himself in the yellow coloured protection of his staff. The community opened up with all the weapons they had, giving Nemaar covering fire while he retrieved Khan, dragging him back inside the lodge. The concentrated fire from their weapons had no effect on the protective shield.

Hoetep charged forward uttering his terrifying war cry and smashed the door to the lodge with his sword, sending it flying across the room. The terrified members of the community fired at him until their weapon’s charge units were spent. Hoetep’s eyes blazed in anger as he spun on his heels and decapitated Iset, before disembowelling Temo, whose intestines flew across the room in a sickening shower of bloody pieces. “Enough!” roared Hoetep. “Kneel before your god! Swear allegiance and I shall let you live. Serve me and your pitiful lives shall have meaning.”

Shansur and Akkad remained hidden in the loft while the survivors of the carnage inside the room below did Hoetep’s bidding by kneeling before him. Later, when darkness fell and Hoetep sat once again in his trance like state, the two men quietly slipped away into the night, heading north. By the following night, they were footsore and tired from their flight from the berserker’s attack. They lay on a carpet of leaves beneath the trees surrounding the snow-covered meadow of the high alpine pass. Not daring to light a fire, they huddled together for warmth. “What are we going to do? How are we going to find anything to eat, let alone find Akhen and the rest?” Akkad asked.

“We can do nothing back there,” Shansur said, pointing to where they had come from, “and I for one don’t intend bowing down to that madman! We’ll have to live off the land as best we can. There are those small furry creatures we’ve seen scurrying about; perhaps we can trap one to eat. No matter how we do it, no matter how long it takes, we have to find Akhen or die in the attempt!” Shivering in the cold hours of early morning before the faint glow of light signalled dawn, they continued their trek towards the summit of the mountain range. By noon they could see the pass roughly eight kilometres ahead, and a couple of thousand meters above them. Taking a break from the arduous climb beside a fallen dead tree the pair were unaware they were being followed. By the time they stood on the pass at the summit of the range, their pursuers were only half a kilometre behind them.

Having successfully snared, skinned, and skewered the body of one of the shrew-like creatures, Shansur and Akkad watched their small fire cook the flesh of the harmless little animal, licking their lips as the smell of flame-cooked meat invaded their nostrils. Tearing off a limb each the two men drank the succulent juices of the meat as they ate, savouring every morsel.

“I hope there’s some left for me,” said a voice from the shadows. Manesh flopped down beside them glad of the warmth from the fire.

“I’ve brought some food with me to add to the feast,” Levene said, as he joined the little band a moment later.

~~~

Max and Manesh told them about Hoetep’s insane rage when he realized Shansur and Akkad had run off. He subjected Delal to a mind destroying probe in search of clues to their whereabouts. Dissatisfied with the results he destroyed poor Delal, leaving him a gibbering husk of his former self. Then he turned on the rest. Snatching Anuket from Nefer’s arms, he slowly, oh so slowly, began tearing the baby apart in front of the entire community. With each shriek of horrifying agony from little Anuket, Hoetep’s evil eyes glittered while his mouth twisted in a savage grin. While Nefer screamed uncontrollably, Hoetep laughed, enjoying the pain he was inflicting on them all. Mercifully little Anuket died quickly and Hoetep threw the pitiful corpse of the baby back at Nefer’s feet. “I hate to think what he did when Manesh and I left,” Max said, shaking his head sadly. “By the time we find Akhen and the rest there may not be a community to go back to.”

For many days the band of men trudged through bitter bone chilling winds and deep snowdrifts, steadily moving north towards the tundra. At times avalanches forced them to detour around their impenetrable destructive paths, adding precious hours to their quest to find Akhen. The day the four men first caught sight of the vast tundra belt they were making slow but steady progress down the steep valleys of the mountain foothills. Levene was some way ahead of the rest when he suddenly stopped and dropped to his knees. Coming towards him at a steady loping gate were five more berserkers. Signalling the rest to scatter, he dived into a shallow depression behind the gnarled roots of a windswept old tree. All eyes watched the berserker’s steady progress as they drew closer. The triple suns’ rays flashed on the jewelled hilts of swords, secure in scabbards under circular shields across their backs. The leader stopped and sniffed the air. His dark eyes searched the sparsely wooded slopes of the foothills. His long black hair shook as he twisted his head from side to side, listening for the most minuscule sounds. At a signal from their leader, the four other berserkers drew their swords from their scabbards and linked shields across their chests, forming a protective circle of death around him. He drove his sword into the ground and reached into a small leather bag slung from his shoulder. Opening his large hands, he held out a small pyramid. Released, it floated above the five berserkers spinning slowly, protecting them in a green cloak of light. Two of the berserkers stepped aside to allow the figure of a woman to emerge from the protective cloak. Shu came over to where Max lay. “Rise up, Max, and you Shansur, Manesh, and Akkad. We have much work to do – terrible work!” Shu turned, smiled, and pointing to the berserkers behind her she called each of them by name. “Akhen, Nusaan, Apis, Seti, Besal, come forth and greet your friends.”

~~~

Next time – Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Four

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Chapter Twenty-Four – The Brotherhood is Born

In the awful silence after the crash, my cousin Tuluk, who had hidden in the crawler’s engine compartment, heard faint moaning come from the wreckage, as he scurried off into the darkness. The crawler lay on its side. Its lights flickered as they stared into the darkness of its tomb. Inside the cab, the bodies of the men lay piled on top of each other in a tangled heap. Slowly and painfully, they began to stir. Seti was trapped under the weight of both Besal and Apis. His left arm was broken above and below the elbow. With his right arm, he managed to feel around in the semi-darkness of the cab until his fingers found the handle to the door, which was now above him. Turning the handle Seti used all the strength he had left to push the door up. It smashed back against the side of the cab. The effort of opening the door sent a vicious spasm of pain through Seti’s left arm. He screamed in agony then passed out. When he came to a short while later, Besal was putting the final touches to a tightly bound splint on his arm.

Apis was badly bruised but otherwise unharmed. Besal had a broken nose and a badly sprained right ankle. Nusaan was slowly bleeding to death from internal injuries. Akhen’s six broken ribs made even shallow breathing, agonizingly painful. They were a sorry bunch of invalids, trapped deep beneath the permafrost. None of them with the strength to try and find a way out, if indeed there was one.

Apis searched through the wreckage and found some phosphor lights. Striking one against the crawler tracks, he investigated the area. The crawler had bounced off a large stalagmite, toppling it from its place on the cave floor to where it now lay across the cave’s only exit. Peering past it into the small crawlspace beyond, he tried to see where it led. Two hundred meters above his head he could just make out the hole through which they had fallen. Walking round the cave Apis saw crude painted animals looking back at him from the rough walls. “If we want to get out of here we’ll have to move the stalagmite. It’s blocking the only exit,” he said to the others.

Besal hobbled over to look for himself. “See if the recovery cable winch on the crawler still works Apis, we might be able to move it with that,” he suggested.

“What are we going to do about Nusaan? He’s really in a bad way.” Akhen asked.

“We’re not leaving him, he’s coming with us,” Seti declared. “At the moment we’re all we’ve got. We stick together, no matter what!”

Apis climbed back onto the crawler to stand with his head out of the cab door. He reached down and tried to start the crawler’s engine. Clouds of smoke signalled its final death throw. Shaking his head, he pressed the control to operate the cable winch. “The winch works, but it’s only on battery backup. Better pull the cable over to the stalagmite and I’ll try moving it, Besal.”

Putting the winch into neutral, he watched as Besal limped across with the cable hook slung over his shoulder to the large roughly cylindrical rock lying across the crawl space. Between them, Besal and Seti eventually managed to pass the cable around the stalagmite and hook it back onto itself. Seti gave Apis the thumbs up signal and the pair retreated behind the crawler with the rest of the men. Apis climbed out onto the cab’s side once again, and reached back inside to the winch control. Putting the gear lever into reverse, he pushed the power button and leapt off the side of the cab. The winch drum slowly turned as it began reeling in the cable. The crawler slid forward on its side as the cable tightened, then stopped when it jammed itself against the broken base of the stalagmite on the cave floor. The cable began to sing under the strain. “Hit the deck!” Apis shouted, flattening himself. The strands of the cable began parting in rapid succession, producing a terrifying musical scale that echoed around the cave. The last few strands gave up their tenuous hold and the cable flew across the cave like a whip.

Apis, Seti, Akhen, and Besal made their way over to see if the idea had worked. In the glow of a phosphor light, they saw a narrow gap had opened up between the stalagmite and the crawlspace entrance, large enough for one man to squeeze through in its tight confines. The decision on who would go through was delayed while they ate a makeshift meal from the unspoiled meagre rations they had left. Besal drew the short straw, mainly because he was the least injured apart from Apis, who if the space narrowed, might just get stuck. With a rope tied around his good ankle and several phosphor lights jammed inside his clothing, he started crawling into the darkness of the small opening. Inching his way along the narrow tunnel, he stopped from time to time to rest his sprained ankle. In here, his warm breath produced clouds of vapour, which hung around his head like fog. For what seemed like hours, he painfully crawled on his hands and knees over the smooth hard floor of the tunnel. Gradually he was able to crouch as the tunnel opened up, until eventually he could stand properly. The rope in Seti’s hands jerked twice. “He’s through!” he exclaimed. Tying the rope around Nusaan’s shoulders, Apis gave the rope a single tug and watched as the nearly unconscious man was slowly pulled into the tunnel. The rest of the team followed behind.

Over the next day or so, the salvageable items from the crash were dragged through. The tunnel had opened out into a wide avenue of stalagmites like trees in a forest. At their centre ran a shallow slow moving stream. With Apis and Besal carrying Nusaan on a makeshift stretcher made from a cab panel the team waded along the stream’s path for days, with Tuluk following in the shadows. Eventually the stream disappeared over a ledge into the darkness below. They were all exhausted from their efforts and weakened by the inadequate food supply they carried. If they did not find a way out of the tunnel back to the surface, they would all starve to death. Apis and Seti sat back to back nibbling on one of the few remaining food bars. Akhen watched Nusaan’s chest rise and fall, as the young man fought the unseen enemy deep inside his body draining his life away. Besal wandered about searching for a way out. He found more of the rock paintings. This time instead of animals, these depicted stick figure men armed with weapons fighting each other in a battle long forgotten. Slowly making his way along the painted story, he came upon a curious shape carved into the rock, surrounded by the stick figure representations of men who were lying prone in front of it as if paying homage. Besal was sure that it was a floating pyramid. Absent-mindedly he brushed his hand across the painting as if to subconsciously become part of the depicted scene. As his hand encountered the carved shape, a large section of the wall silently slid away revealing a corridor made from stone slabs. The wall slid silently back into position behind him after he entered the corridor. Using a phosphor light he followed the corridor’s path until it came to an intersection. The path to the left ended twenty meters further on in a wall of stone. The path to the right opened out into another library.

~~~

Apis and Besal gently lay Nusaan on a table in the library while Seti lit torches on the walls. Akhen looked at the shelves of scrolls lining the library. At one end of the room was a door with an inscription in Shu’s tongue carved into its surface. The door had no visible opening mechanism that he could see. “Nusaan’s breathing is getting worse – he’s dying,” Seti reported. “Soon we’ll all join him unless we can get out of here.” Completely overcome, the weary men sank into a merciful slumber unaware that they were not alone.

When Akhen woke Nusaan was sitting up, almost back to his old self once more. Besal’s ankle was healed and Apis’ bruises were gone. Akhen turned around and looked at the door that had been closed before he fell asleep. From where he sat, he could see Seti bathed in a green glow in the chamber beyond the door. Shu was repairing his broken arm. She turned and beckoned Akhen to enter. As the healing power of the green protective shield repaired his broken ribs, Akhen felt revitalized by the process. His hunger and all the pain disappeared by the time the protective shield retreated into the pyramid. They had many questions for Shu but she silenced the barrage with a gentle wave of her hand. “You have to stop Hoetep,” she said. “He is heading towards your settlement. I fear he will either kill everyone there or turn them into slaves, or worse, into berserkers like himself!”

“How can we? We’re trapped in here with no way out,” Besal said.

“There is one path from here but it has many dangers. I will guide you to its end. First, you need to arm yourselves with the knowledge necessary to defeat Hoetep. You need to become as powerful as he is,” she said grimly.

“We can’t,” Nusaan said. “We’ll end up like him, just as evil if we go through the Pimaar!”

“There is another like the Pimaar which does not have the same affect,” Shu replied. Looking at Seti she quietly continued. “You must translate the scrolls necessary to gain this knowledge, sweet Seti. Then all of you must follow the scrolls’ instructions to the letter, leaving out none of the steps in the Krattu – the ceremony of rebirth.” With Shu’s help, Seti began work translating only the scrolls necessary to complete the Krattu. It was more than a rebirth. It was a complete reconstruction of their genetic makeup. During the five days it took to complete the process, each of them in turn were torn apart, molecule by molecule, and reassembled within the comforting cocoon of Shu’s protective shield, like a newly formed embryo in its mother’s womb. Compared to the simple cerebral changes made to Akhen’s human ancestor Tom, over eight hundred years earlier in the hidden valley on Earth, when his DNA had been altered forever to create a new species of Human-Nephile, the Krattu achieved much, much more.

~~~

As they stood ready for the challenges ahead, the warriors prepared to leave the confines of the library. My brother Tuluk watched from a safe distance. He could not believe the transformation that had occurred!

~~~

Equipped with ancient weapons provided by Shu, they followed her as she navigated the dangerous path through the myriad of underground tunnels and passageways, over chasms bridged by fallen stone pillars and past rivers of lava, toward the surface of the tundra. The light in the tunnel gradually improved as the warriors approached the end of their underground journey. They emerged into an ice cave beneath the retreating ice sheet. Akhen looked about the cave. High above their heads he saw the sky through the narrow crack of a crevasse. Following Shu they climbed up the side of the crevasse until eventually, they stood on the slippery surface of a glacier. In the distance, the dun coloured tundra spread before them reaching toward the mountains to the south and home. They contemplated the horrors that awaited them when they returned to New Cydon.

~~~

Tuluk’s latest report deeply troubled our High Council. Pashtek, on the other hand, saw a way to make use of the knowledge in the future.

~~~

Next time – Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Three

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Chapter Twenty-Three – An Unexpected Enemy

The last days of autumn arrived. Leaves were losing their green colour, turning various shades of brown, red and gold. The clouds above the valley took on a gunmetal appearance as ice crystals formed deep inside them. Soon the first snow of winter would cover the land. Akhen and the rescue team spent days preparing for the arduous overland journey that lay before them, north to the frozen tundra. Taking the Bentu up there was ruled out for two reasons. The first was the danger involved in flying over the mountains with winter almost here. Misakk stated the obvious, “Just fly above the clouds. A simple hop would cut weeks of the trip.” However, the second reason put paid to that idea. The tundra, despite being permafrost, was also marshy, which meant there was no safe landing place for anything as heavy as the Bentu.

The day for their departure arrived. As the crawler stood ready on the snow-covered ground outside the community lodge, Akhen and the team said their goodbyes. Apis slammed the crawler into gear and drove past the ships towards the foothills of the mountains. Nusaan accurately guided them through the valleys and high alpine pastures to a high mountain pass at the summit of the range. Below them, on either side of the range, the land was covered by a cotton wool blanket of cloud pierced by mountain peaks, like islands in a vast ocean.

Two weeks after they set out, the crawler had entered the no man’s land between solid ground and the tundra. After establishing a base camp on the insect infested marshy edge of the tundra, the team relaxed before going on. Akhen and Besal sat watching Seti prepare the evening meal. Nusaan and Apis spoke quietly together, illuminated by Seti’s cooking fire.

“Just how insane is Hoetep?” Apis asked.

Nusaan sat for a long time pushing glowing embers back into the fire with a twig before answering. “His madness is worse than when the Drana commandos act like wild animals so intent on killing, so juiced up with adrenalin they’re almost invincible in battle,” Nusaan explained. “And another thing, he’s developed powers I’ve never seen before!”

“You mean the powers all Nephile have like levitation, extrasensory perception and the like?” Apis asked.

“No, your powers are benign. His are malevolent. Yes, he still has the powers most Nephile possess, but now they have been transformed into deadly weapons. Shu is the one thing that keeps him relatively calm. So long as she’s with him, his insane anger burns slowly like flameless fire through damp wood. He’s obsessed with serving her and she uses that to try to control his outbursts. I suppose she feels guilty for letting him translate the scrolls unchecked – who knows?” he said, with a shrug of his powerful shoulders.

~~~

A thick fog covered the camp in the early dawn of the next day, chilling any exposed flesh through to the bone. Despite the warmth from the rekindled fire, Seti shivered as he prepared breakfast. Later, huddled together for warmth inside the crawler’s cab, the friends decided how best to deal with the now formidable Hoetep when they eventually came upon him.

“If we have to, we must kill him,” Akhen said, resigned to the fact that Hoetep was changed forever.

Besal and Seti looked at each other in astonishment. “Akhen, we can’t! We promised the others that no matter how dangerous the situation, we would bring him home!” Seti said forcefully. The others nodded in agreement. Killing Hoetep was out of the question.

“Alright then, explain to me how you overpower a possessed wild animal?” Akhen said, in a hushed voice, borrowing the word from Nusaan’s explanation the night before.

“Perhaps we can trap him,” Besal offered. “I could build a simple spring trap. All you have to do is lead him to it!”

“Who says he will even let us get close to him?” Apis thought out loud. The cab went quiet.

“Well – has anyone got any bright ideas?” Akhen asked, hastily clearing the condensation from the cab windows to ease his frustration.

“What about this!” Seti said, producing the latest inventive adaptation from the brilliant mind of Tosar. It was a small rectangular metal box, about the size of a man’s fist.

“What is it?” Besal asked, taking the strange looking device from Seti.

“It’s a containment forcefield,” Seti explained. “Tosar played around with the forcefield technology used by us and the Drana and came up with this. He reckoned that if we ever met up with anything dangerous in the future it might come in handy.”

“How good is it?” Apis asked.

“Come outside, everyone, and I’ll show you,” Seti replied, with a grin. He walked over to a dead tree trunk and placed the device at its base, then rejoined the group back at the crawler. Reaching inside his thick coat, he produced a small control device with a red light and two buttons. He pressed the first button and the light came on. “Now watch,” he said, as he pressed the second. An impenetrable dome, twenty meters in diameter, shimmered like a soap bubble in the weak sunlight, encasing the tree and the surrounding shrubs and marsh plants. “All right Akhen, take your best shot. Fire at it!” Seti said, grinning. Akhen brought his disrupter to his shoulder and aimed. The dome’s skin absorbed the lethal charge. “Everybody try. Only this time, do it together,” Seti said, from where he perched on the crawlers engine cover, enjoying the moment. For twenty minutes the dome’s skin absorbed fusillades of shots from all their weapons. In frustration, Apis drove the crawler at the dome in an attempt to ram his way through it with no success. “Well, what do you think?” Seti had that smug look of his on his face.

“Alright, we’ll give it a try, if only to shut you up!” Akhen said.

~~~

Nusaan led the way across the treacherous marsh, following narrow pathways that twisted and turned their way between bottomless black pools for the next three hours. They finally set foot on the relatively hard ground of an island in the middle of the tundra, underpinned by the impenetrable permafrost. Akhen’s senses told him Hoetep was nearby. He motioned to the team to stop and sat with his back to a tree stump in the middle of a glade. Concentrating on the mental picture of Hoetep, he attempted to pinpoint his whereabouts. In response, Hoetep’s mind penetrated his.

For the first time in his life, Akhen was scared. He sensed that Hoetep was more powerful than even Nusaan had imagined, and he was on his way to annihilate them. The containment device was quickly set up and the team hid as best they could and lay in wait. A ghostly silence descended on the glade, broken only by the sound of mosquito-like insects as they flew back and forth in the sunlight in search of prey.

For over an hour no one moved. The glade looked deserted. Then a spine chilling cry announced Hoetep’s arrival. He burst into the glade, naked except for a small loincloth suspended by a thin cord round his waist and a helmet on his head, brandishing an ancient sword in his bearlike right hand. Gone was the old Hoetep. In his place stood a formidable warrior. His eyes darted from side to side as he sniffed the air. The magnificent toned muscles of his body were taut, and despite the freezing temperature, he was bathed in sweat. The pyramid spun slowly above him. Saliva ran down his beard, and hung for a moment before dropping to his muscular chest. His eyes were like glowing jewels shining out from his helmet. Around his thick muscular neck he wore a gleaming torque inscribed with the ancient language of Shu’s people. Across his back hung an embossed circular shield made from an unknown metal, suspended by a strap across his shoulders. In his huge left hand, he held a staff. Its head was shaped like one of the birdlike creatures Mdjat had described. In the creature’s beak a crystal glowed with the same light that emanated from his eyes. “Come out, Akhen, it’s so good to see you again.” His cruel voice almost spat out the words. “Don’t be afraid. I know you are, but don’t be,” Hoetep hissed. An evil smile crept across his face as he slowly turned toward where Akhen lay hidden behind the tree stump where the device sat.

Akhen stood up. “Hoetep, old friend, I’ve come to take you home,” he said, as calmly as he could.

“Huh – you’re lying, you have something else in mind!” Hoetep’s altered voice replied. Twisting his head slightly to one side then back, he concentrated his powers on Akhen. In the grip of Hoetep’s powerfully cruel mind, Akhen’s very being was put through hell. Finished with torture for the moment, he discarded Akhen, sending him flying through the air like a rag doll. When Hoetep took a step forward, Seti triggered the device.

Apis helped Akhen to his feet as the men stood a short distance away from the dome, looking at Hoetep inside it. He sat with his back to the tree stump beside the device, studying it closely, taking no notice of his former friends. “What now,” Seti asked, in a trembling voice. “We can’t move him and the dome together. How do we overpower him?”

“We can’t,” Akhen said, nursing his aching head in his hands. “He’s too powerful. It won’t take him long to figure a way out of the dome. Our best move is to get out of here as quickly as we can!” Akhen replied as he started running back the way they had come. The others spun on their heels and followed.

~~~

Akhen’s prophecy proved true. Hoetep freed himself from the containment and began stalking them like a Selian shadow cat. As they approached the crawler, his trap was set. Apis leapt behind the controls of the crawler while the rest scrambled aboard. “Hang on to something,” he said, as he drove the crawler as fast as it would go.

“Not again!” Seti yelled, bouncing across the cab.

Fifty meters in front of them stood Hoetep with his staff aimed directly at them. “What now; where do we go?” screamed Apis, stamping his foot on the brake and bringing the crawler to a skidding stop a few meters in front of the warrior.

“Turn around quickly – take that track to the east,” Besal shouted.

The crawler lurched across the uneven ground in a desperate effort to get away. Once again, Hoetep stood in its path with his staff at the ready. The crawler reversed back the way it had come, throwing anyone not holding onto something to the floor. Again, Hoetep stood in its path. I’m running out of places to go, Akhen!” Apis yelled, trying to control the violent bouncing movement of the crawler. Then the decision was taken away from them. Growing tired of the amusement, Hoetep pointed the staff at the crawler, and lifted the vehicle bodily high into the air. From their lofty perch, they looked out the cab windows as the crawler drifted above Hoetep’s head. He walked back to the island, and beyond, to a low outcrop of rock surrounded by his drawings of the bird creatures. Lowering the crawler onto the outcrop, he released the staff’s hold. The crawler was powerless to move. Its tracks hung down on either side of the rock. Hoetep sat cross-legged, looking at the trapped vehicle and the men inside it for a long time. Then folding his arms he began chanting while his eyes glazed over as he entered a trance-like state.

“What’s he doing?” Seti whispered, while they watched his every move. The pyramid spun slowly, embracing Hoetep in its green glow. Dusk descended on the tundra. He was still deep in his trance. Pointing to the door on the other side of the vehicle Akhen motioned to Besal to open it. As quietly as he could, Besal began to turn the handle.

Hoetep’s eyes opened. “It’s time to take your place in hell!” he hissed softly. Lifting the staff from his lap, he pointed it at the base of the rock outcrop. The permafrost melted instantly, allowing the rock and its passengers to fall beneath the tundra surface. The rapid descent ended with a violent crash signalling journey’s end in total darkness below the permafrost.

~~~

Next time – Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty -Two

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Chapter Twenty-Two -Pimaar and Transformation

That winter Sekhmet died in childbirth. The baby girl was named Hathor. She survived her mother until the spring, before succumbing to an unknown illness. She was buried beside her mother under a tree overlooking the village. Grieving for his family, Nusaan went to live on his own in the valley to the west. From time to time, he was seen by one of Besal’s hunting parties but he never acknowledged their calls.

The decision to go back and find Hoetep no matter how long it took was debated endlessly over the winter months. The vast majority agreed that by now he would have starved to death, but Nefer was adamant that a thorough search had to be carried out. All thoughts of finding the remaining libraries and their knowledge vanished as preparations were made for the difficult task ahead. The community had lost too many of its members. Hoetep had to be found and brought back. Nefer knew he was alive. Iset felt his presence also.

~~~

Misakk swung the Bentu towards the setting suns, laying in a course for the high arid plateau in the fork of the mountains on the far off continent to the west. Mdjat sat in the co-pilot’s seat talking to Temo back at New Cydon. In the hold, Akhen and Manesh went over the way in which the search would be carried out while Apis occupied his time by sleeping in the comfort of one of the two crawler’s cabins.

As the dust whipped up by the thrusters cleared, and the Bentu settled down on her landing gear, Mdjat noticed a change in the surface of the plateau. It was covered in giant representations of birdlike creatures scratched out of the arid rocky soil. They were so large that one man could not have created them in a thousand years. Why had they suddenly appeared? Why were they there? Why had they not been noticed before? The answer to these questions would have to wait until Hoetep was found.

~~~

Apis drove a crawler along the dried up river bed to the rock formation that they knew contained a library. Manesh lead the way through the maze of corridors and chambers into the library. The scene of utter destruction that greeted them, greatly unnerved them. Clearly Hoetep had gone mad destroying the library, but for what reason? The charred remains of countless scrolls lay underfoot as the rescuers searched in vain for some clue to Hoetep’s whereabouts. Stopping their fruitless search, Manesh and the team returned to the Bentu to report to Akhen. The next day the team divided into two groups, each equipped with a crawler and communications unit, led by Akhen and Manesh, while Misakk remained behind in the Bentu, ready to lift off and come to the rescue if needed. As each crawler departed, the plateau once again grew silent. While Akhen’s crawler crept south, Manesh and his team headed further to the west. The mountain range and retreating ice sheet blocked the way north. By nightfall, the separate teams were far from the relative safety of the Bentu. Both camps that night shared one disturbing thought that either the planet or Shu had transformed gentle Hoetep into a monstrous new form capable of anything.

~~~

With the first rays of daylight Manesh awoke. The snoring coming from the sleeping Apis had kept him awake most of the night. He determined that  if there were any more nights like that, he would cheerfully suffocate him! The two men ate their breakfast as the triple suns slowly climbed above the mountains. “Where do you look for a madman?” Apis asked, spilling food down his chest in the process. Manesh remained silent. He agreed with the question but had no answer. The two men continued on, taking turns driving the crawler and sitting on its roof with their imagers, scanning the inhospitable landscape of the foothills they now found themselves in.

Akhen and Mdjat were carefully picking their way through deep ravines far to the east in their search. Misakk relayed messages between both search parties from his lonely post thousands of meters above them. The days merged into weeks as the search area increased in size. Eventually Akhen had to admit defeat. It was hopeless. Six weeks after they set out the rescue team returned to New Cydon empty handed. The search may have been in vain but Nefer had a surprise for them – Hoetep had been found alive!

Nusaan suddenly appeared in the village one morning a few weeks ago claiming he had seen Hoetep. Thinking his mind had been affected by his enforced solitude, Nefer gave him a thorough check over. He was fine both mentally and physically so she asked him about what he had witnessed. He had been out wandering far from the valley to the north, and beyond to the tundra region close to the retreating ice sheet, eight weeks away by foot. Sitting one night by the small fire he had made, he thought he saw a cloud of marsh gas drift toward him. It was not gas. It was the green glow of the small pyramid. As it drew closer, Shu appeared. She was troubled and told him about Hoetep and the madness that overcame him.

In his thirst for knowledge, Hoetep had unlocked a terrible secret best left well alone. The scroll in question referred to the ancient rite of Pimaar, or transition to an altered state, forever changing whoever underwent the process. In Shu’s time before the cataclysmic event, it was used to reach a higher state of mind in furtherance of inner peace and harmony, but was abandoned as superstitious nonsense with the tribal divide of the population. Shu knew that Hoetep was sent mad by the effects of Pimaar. She attempted to guide him by trying to use reason. In his anger towards her, he destroyed the library and left. Because of the change in him she no longer had any control over his actions or mind. So she followed his every move as he wandered in his deranged state across the continent towards the ice sheet. She nourished him when he slept, using the protective green shield, always careful to release him before he woke. In the tortured state of mind he was now in, he had somehow managed to find his way to the tundra where Nusaan was camped. Shu took him to where Hoetep sat babbling and cursing in a circle of bird-like creatures scratched in a patch of frozen soil. While Shu kept an eye on Hoetep, Nusaan headed south to New Cydon for help.

~~~

Next time – Chapter Twenty-Three