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