Chapter Fifty

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Chapter Fifty – Ghost from the past

Max’s tribe welcomed the young newcomers with open arms after he had introduced them. Work was underway to make the already well defended village into a near impregnable, heavily fortified redoubt. Tihke coordinated foraging teams to retrieve anything that could be turned into a defensive weapon. Shaila and Torinn organized the women into medical teams and runners, to tend wounds and supply arms to the defenders on the ramparts of the fortified earthwork. Manouf and Goran helped construct spike filled pits covered with reed mats, manufactured from the plentiful supply that grew in the marshy lands beyond the defended perimeter. Max and Tihke, together with Max’s two sons, made more bows and arrows using Goran’s fine weapon as an example.

The news of the raiders working their way steadily towards them, unnerved the village. The bloodshed caused by fighting other tribes over territorial boundaries was bad enough, but the chaos after a raid by the female berserker cannibals was quite another thing altogether. The violent females struck fear in the hearts of the strongest berserkers, whenever they raided. No mercy was shown even by berserker standards. It was said that their queen ruled by strength and fear within the tribe. To challenge her meant agonizing torture, before she finally delivered you into the arms of their god, in the mountain of fire. Death was a welcome release for all her victims. Some of her finest warriors had dared to question her and paid for it with their lives. She favoured none among her kind. While she was strong enough to fight off any challengers to her position, she would continue to rule in her cruel way. Her warriors were glad to be away from their home on the hunt for males. At least she was not with them. The women almost felt sorry for their captives, knowing what was in store for them on their return.

Max and Goran sat together outside Max’s humble home, taking a well earned rest after the day’s heavy workload. “Tell me more about yourself, Goran; you’re not of berserker blood are you?” Max asked.

“What do you mean, Max? Of course I’m berserker; my father was Khan’s son!” Goran replied, hurt by the berserker’s friendly observation.

Max looked at Goran for a long time before shaking his head. “You’re not. You’re from some other tribe, probably taken in battle when you were young. You bear no resemblance to my brother Khan. Although,” he added, “you’re strong and angry enough to be his grandson, I grant you that.” Max laughed as Goran’s eyes narrowed to slits thanks to his friendly taunts.

Max’s wife called them in for the evening meal. Sitting around the room afterwards, the friends relaxed. Goran had calmed down and was sitting by the fire listening to the chatter of the household. Max’s two sons were doing their best to attract the attention of Torinn and Shaila, but neither of the young women even glanced their way. Tihke and Manouf joined Goran and Max by the fire, arguing with Shaila over what to expect when the female berserkers finally arrived. Torinn sat quietly with her head resting on Shaila’s thigh, talking to Max’s wife.

Inevitably ,Max’s two sons went outside, frustrated and angry at the refusal of their awkward teenage advances by the two young women. Max’s wife opened the door to call her sons in when it was time for bed, but they had vanished. Max and Goran searched the village, asking the whereabouts of the two headstrong young teenagers. No one had seen them since they slipped over the wall earlier in the evening. Max cursed them for their stupidity. “Leave them. Let them spend the night in the cold; it’ll do them no harm.” With that, he and Goran returned to the warmth of the house and retired for the night. In the hour before dawn, the mystery of Max’s missing sons was revealed. The female berserkers had arrived, hundreds of them.

One of the villagers hammered on Max’s door and told him the news. Goran and his friends joined him on the earth wall of the redoubt. Across the marshy ground, three hundred meters away, they could see the two unfortunate youths spread eagled by crossed saplings, tied with rope to stakes, driven into the ground. A powerful female warrior stood in front of them with sword in hand. “Surrender now,” she called out. “Turn over all your males and we’ll leave you in peace.”

The village responded with a rain of arrows. The berserker leader glanced up at the two boys then cut the rope holding the saplings. Max uttered his war cry as his two precious sons’ lives tragically ended when they were torn apart by the force of the saplings’ release. Their hideous deaths were the signal for the hundreds of female berserkers to attack. The defenders made every remaining arrow count as the frenzied female warriors charged across the marsh and through the pits, which trapped many. By sunrise, the battle was at its height. Goran, Tihke, Shaila, and Manouf fought back to back like demons in the bloody battle for survival. The pits filled with their sharp stakes had taken their toll of the frenzied women, but the female berserkers’ numbers were greater than their own, and soon the battle was over. Torinn and Manouf both died from their wounds along with the great majority of the villagers, and as the captives were being led away, the friends said their silent farewells to the dead.

Max and his men, together with Goran and Tihke, were manacled together for the long journey south-east. Shaila was bound hand and foot to a pole suspended between two of the strongest female berserkers horses. Later that day when the leader of the berserkers signalled the column to stop, they camped beside a river. The leader made her way along the line of captives, stopping from time to time, checking the captive standing in front of her by slapping his legs and arms with the flat of her sword. Eventually she found what she was looking for. The unfortunate man was unchained and beheaded. The women fed from his spit-roasted body that night, sending waves of fear and revulsion through their captives.

Shaila was not so lucky. There was no quick death for her. For the remainder of the journey, she would be a plaything for the grisly cannibalistic female warriors. By the end of the week, she was begging to be killed. The captives dreaded the end of each day, not knowing which one of them would be on the menu that night.

As the weeks dragged on and the column grew closer to the women’s homeland, only the weak were culled from the captives. Shaila was almost at deaths door after enduring weeks of depraved torture at the hands of her tormentors. Goran and Tihke swore they would end her life if they could, if only they could find some way of getting free. By the end of March, steam and ash clouds could be seen rising above the home of their captors on the slopes of Mount Etna. No more captives were killed for food. The female berserkers needed to have enough left to please their queen. Shaila was allowed to recover, spending all her time tied up on the pole between the female warriors’ horses.

The triumphant return of the hunting party was signalled with blasts from hunting horns. The queen emerged from her hut to see what her warriors had brought back. Her face was hideously scarred and partially hidden from view by her long black hair. She was not like her berserker sisters. Her figure was that of a woman in her early forties, yet it retained the firm muscular tone of someone much, much younger.

“Great queen, we return bringing gifts for your pleasure. If it pleases you, will you inspect your new batch of slaves?” The leader of the party bowed as she spoke; no one ever looked directly at their queen unless she commanded it; to do so would bring death. As the ranks of female berserkers parted, she stepped down onto the ground. The leader of the hunting party proudly announced, “Make way for our queen, Meral.”

~~~

Next time – Chapter Fifty-One

Chapter Forty-Nine

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Chapter Forty-Nine – A Pleasant Reunion

Goran’s head was pounding from a splitting headache, caused when he smashed it against the gunwale during the violent storm the night before. His eyes slowly began to focus in the dimly lit confines of a small hut. As he looked about him, he saw his friends lying on driftwood-framed straw beds, moaning from their injuries. They were alone inside the thatched roof hut. He could hear the sound of the pounding surf in the distance. Tentatively, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and went to the door.

“You’re awake then! I need a hand to retrieve everything from the wreck of your boat. Be quick now, no time to waste. The tide is on the turn!” Goran stared at a wizened old hag, who was speaking to him in a strange accent. “Well, are you going to help, or are you just going to stand there feeling sorry for yourself?”

Goran and Manouf helped the old woman for the rest of the day. That night, the five friends spent most of their time back at the hut, arguing with the hag, over who owned the retrieved weapons and supplies from the pile of salvaged items in the centre of the hut. “I own anything salvaged from the wrecks on the beach; you own nothing!” the hag cried angrily, as she snatched Goran’s bow out of his hands.

Tihke seized her by her hair. She screamed in agony as he lifted her up until her feet were suspended in mid air. “Listen, old woman,” he said quietly, with a look in his eye that told her he was in no mood to argue. “We’re all very grateful that you found us and brought us here to your home, but we’re not dead. We still own our possessions; not you!”

The old hag spat at Tihke. “Curse you all; may you die alone and forgotten! And may your bones be picked over by the vultures!” Manouf tied her by her unkempt grey hair to a hook suspended from the roof, while Goran and Tihke bound her hands and feet behind her, stuffing a rag in her mouth to silence her.

The next morning after they had eaten, they departed the hut to the sounds of the old hag, still crying and cursing them after Torinn had removed her gag, and Manouf had lifted her down from her precarious perch on the hook. They were in a strange land now, with dangers at every bend of the path that they now took through high mountains. “Where are we going; does anyone know?” Shaila asked, as she stood looking down to the valley below them. In the distance, another range of mountains lay before them, shrouded in a blue haze, across the valley.

“I vote we stay here until dark, and then cross to the mountains beyond,” Manouf said, snacking on one of the retrieved pomegranates.

“Let’s get further down the path while we still have daylight. I don’t fancy feeling my way across unknown territory in the dark,” Tihke added.

“Well Shaila, does that answer your question?” Goran asked.

“It’ll have to for now. But we must decide exactly where it is we want to live, Goran. Torinn and I need somewhere we can call our own, somewhere we can make a home together,” Shaila said, as she gently stroked her lover’s flaxen haired head. As the group grew up together, Torinn and Shaila’s attitude towards each other began to take a strange twist, taking them beyond simple sisterly friendship to the close physical, relationship that now consumed them. During their teenage years, both of the beautiful young women had rebuffed the countless advances of the young males within the tribe. Shaila became a warrior in her own right, standing shoulder to shoulder with Goran, Manouf, and Tihke in the many battles they had fought. Physically, she was as strong as any of her male berserker counterparts, able to fight like a demon in defence of her family, friends, and her home. But emotionally, she was fearful of having any kind of physical relationship with her male counterparts, preferring instead the safety and tenderness she found with petite, gentle Torinn. Manouf, Goran, and Tihke looked on the pair as nothing more than loving sisters, during those early innocent years. Inevitably, trouble and gossip arose within the tribe over the relationship between the two young women as it steadily grew. The three men defended their friends’ right to happiness together, bringing the group closer and forming a tight bond of friendship between all of them for the rest of their lives.

With the encroaching darkness, they made camp at the edge of the valley floor, beside a small stream. The scent of wood smoke in the air drifted towards them from somewhere to the west. Torinn’s keen eyesight found the source when she pointed to a tiny glow about five kilometres away. After they had eaten a hasty meal, they decided to investigate. Manouf led the way as the friends silently crept across unknown territory in the inky blackness of the cloud-covered night sky.

When they were less than three hundred meters from the source of the fire, Tihke’s nose began to twitch from the smell of spit-roasted meat filling the air. Goran signalled the group to stop while he scouted ahead. In the glow of the fire, he could see a lone figure seated with his back to him, turning the spit. “Come and join me, friend,” the stranger said. “Bring your companions with you; you must be hungry.” Goran slowly advanced with the arrow of his drawn bow aimed at the broad back of what was now discerned to be a warrior. “No need for that,” laughed the stranger. “I mean you no harm. Sit, eat. What’re your names? I’m Max.”

~~~

Goran and his friends ate the meal of freshly cooked goat meat while they told Max all they knew about his two brothers, Seti and Besal, and the passing of Khan. Max had struck out by himself, after the brothers departed the Ur battlefield, following the same dangerous path they had just endured across the ocean. After a few years on his own, he found some of the survivors of Shu had migrated here to Kirenia, and he settled down with them to a peaceful existence, taking a wife and fathering two sons. “I still like to get away on my own and hunt,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “It keeps me sharp.”

Max told them about the unrest among the tribes of Kirenia. Many of the tribal leaders were planning an all-out raid on Gilgama, to take the continent for themselves. “Why would they want to do that, Max? Kirenia is a fertile land; surely there’s room enough for all to live here?” Manouf asked.

Max sighed and poked the fire as he threw more wood into the embers. “They want to leave because of the cannibal raids!” To the south west, in the area that had originally been Sicily, a tribe of cannibalistic female berserkers ruled over the land. They constantly raided the surrounding lands, terrorising the tribes as they searched for male slaves to sire female babies to perpetuate their numbers, killing all male infants and any weak females. Only the strongest were good enough to take their place in the ranks of the female berserker warriors. Over the years, their raids expanded further and further across Kirenia. In the last few months they had been sighted raiding Max’s nearest neighbours, eighty kilometres to the south west. “The next time they raid looking for males, they’ll come here,” Max said, with a look of resignation on his face. “Will you and your friends help us defend our village, Goran?”

Goran looked at his friends already nodding faces in the glow of the fire, “of course, Max, of course we will.”

~~~

Next time – Chapter Fifty

Chapter Forty-Eight

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Chapter Forty-Eight – A New Beginning

Kalma sat watching the baby in his wife’s arms feeding from the bottle filled with goat’s milk that she had prepared for the tiny infant. “It’s a shame my father was not still alive,” he said to himself. “Khan would have been proud to have a grandson.” Kalma was as handsome as his father had been. When Khan died, he had assumed the role of leader of their tribe, taking Khan’s youngest wife for his own. Now, as Liss cooed softly to the baby boy in her arms, Kalma smiled, knowing that his wife’s standing within the female community of the tribe would finally improve, since the awful time when they discovered that she was barren. She had a son now, an heir for Kalma.

“What is his name, husband?” Liss asked, as the babe fell asleep in the warmth of her gentle embrace.

“Merak,” Kalma smiled, “but we’ll name him Goran.”

~~~

Goran’s best friend as he grew up was a boy named Tihke, the youngest son of the tribal elder Seti, one of two surviving members of Akhen’s band of brothers still living in Gilgama. Tihke, like his father, was an expert thief and provider, able to find treasures for little boys to play with. Goran’s chief tormentor was Shaila an olive skinned, red haired, determined little girl, two years his senior, who loved to annoy him at every opportunity. Shaila’s constant companion was Torinn, a flaxen haired child who said little; but was always happy to do whatever Shaila demanded of her. Tihke’s handsome older brother Manouf, named after Khan’s best friend, was the strong silent member of the gang of young troublemakers.

As Goran grew up, he firmly believed that Kalma and Liss were his parents. With each passing year, he developed into a powerful and skilled hunter, thanks to the lessons learned at the feet of Khan’s other berserker brother, Besal. He and Seti told Goran about their own adventures over the years, since the days of the Negan mine on Jalnuur. How his grandfather Khan and Akhen had formed a bond, and how they were all transformed into berserkers by Shu. At night, young Goran’s dreams were about the troubled history of his adopted ancestors. Liss taught him all she knew about Akhen and his people, the Nephile, and about their struggle through the centuries to survive the Drana raids. On one of the many hunting expeditions as Goran was growing up, Besal took him to where the apocalyptic battle between Shu’s army, and their own, had taken place around Ur. Goran’s heritage was demonstrated to be a bloody one indeed.

On his eighteenth birthday, Kalma gave him a magnificent double-edged sword, which had been handed down to him by his father Khan. Seti offered his own shield, still bearing the scars of battle from when the five berserker brothers and Akhen, finally defeated Shu. Besal handed him a magnificent acacia bow, tipped with Ibex horn, and a quiver of acacia shafted arrows, fledged with eagle feathers, and armed with precious Nazpa shards.

Kalma’s premature death came as a terrible shock to Goran, as a result of a feud with a neighbouring tribe. Grief-stricken, he led his tribe on numerous raids, each time growing angrier, fed by his constant need for bloody revenge. Nothing his mother Liss, or his friends Tihke, Manouf, Shaila and Torinn said, dissuaded him from his murderous path, or eased the pain of losing his father.

His turning point came when Besal and Seti called a tribal council meeting to put an end to the needless bloodshed, and to decide his future. The reluctant verdict was banishment from the tribe for life. Goran was cast out, destined to wander Gilgama and beyond, for the rest of his days. (But he would not do it alone, dear reader.)

Goran reached the top of the low hill above his home, and turned to look one last time. “That’s over; let’s move on,” a familiar voice declared.

“Tihke, you don’t have to come with me. Your home’s down there with your father and the tribe,” Goran said.

“Where you go, I go, friend,” Tihke grinned.

“The same goes for us as well,” Shaila said, as she appeared arm in arm with Torinn from behind an old olive tree.

”Don’t forget me,” Manouf said.

Goran’s handsome face broke out in a grin. His friends had not seen him smile since the death of his father. “Come on then, it’ll be dark soon. We’d better find somewhere to camp for the night.”

~~~

By the change of seasons, they were far to the west of their home, heading towards the rocky ramparts of Gilgama, close to where it separated the continent from the new Mediterranean Ocean, and Kirenia beyond. The nights grew longer and colder, as the temperature dropped below freezing in the desert wastelands of the western edge of Gilgama. On midwinter’s day, they stood on the high cliffs overlooking a vast ocean, thousands of feet below. The descent down the cliff face was dangerous. Several times the friends lost their grip, and had to be saved from falling to their death by the quick reactions of their companions. They found a small cave a few hundred meters above sea level where they camped for the night. Bats, unsettled by the smoke from their fire, dive-bombed them as they flew out of the cave on their nocturnal search for food. Goran watched his friends while they slept close to the fire. Tihke and Manouf slept fitfully on the uncomfortable cave floor, occasionally waking for a brief moment, startled by the noise of their own snoring. Torinn lay in Shaila’s arms with her head resting on her chest.

When dawn broke, Goran watched the sea change colour as the sun rose and the wind whipped up the waves, sending foam capped mountains of water crashing onto the rocks below. They explored the rocky shore, searching for driftwood to build a boat capable of transporting them safely across the vast expanse of ocean to Kirenia. After weeks of searching and collecting, they began to build their craft from the retrieved driftwood, bound with ropes fashioned from the tough plants that clung to the cliffs, covering the ships skeleton with the hides of goats, sewn together by Torinn, using strong goat sinew.

The double ended boat was five meters in length and two meters wide, completely covered by goathide, except for a small cockpit area at the centre, where a pair of sweep oars were individually secured by plaited goat hide rope to thole pins on either driftwood gunwale. Shaila and Torinn spent days tanning the hides, waterproofing them using rendered fat, and ash from the fire, mixed with bat droppings. To complete the boat’s motive power, they had made a small lateen sail that could be hoisted up using the sweeps as masts. Manouf fashioned a small steering oar, which he lashed to the side of the hull when they were under sail.

The day came for their departure from the relative safety of the cliff cave. Sun dried goat meat, a few pomegranates, and a plentiful supply of dried dates were stowed in hollowed out gourds in the bow and stern of the boat along with as much fresh water, stored in goatskin bags, as they could carry. All their weapons were wrapped for the journey in some of the tanned hides, left over from the boat’s construction, to protect them from salt corrosion. Rolling it over round granite boulders, worn smooth by wave action, the friends launched their tiny boat, with Manouf and Goran each taking a sweep to get them clear of the pounding surf and the rocks. By nightfall, they were roughly fifteen kilometres from shore and under sail. Tihke stood watch while the others ate a simple meal of dried goat meat and dates, washed down with fresh water from their precious supply.

Each day as they headed west, the winds pushed them further from the only home they had ever known. Shaila and Torinn were homesick and hardly ever left the comfort of each other’s arms below the hide covered deck of the tiny boat during the journey.

Manouf’s eyes were tired as he yawned in the early hours of predawn. He shivered when the temperature dipped just before the sun rose behind him to the east. “Goran, it’s your turn on watch,” he said quietly, giving his friend a nudge with his foot. The light was slowly improving now as the sun rose above the horizon. “Everyone, get up here!” Manouf shouted excitedly. Ahead of them, among the low cloud of the western horizon, he could make out the snow-capped peaks of mountains. By nightfall, the unmistakable sight of land banished any thoughts of home as their excitement grew. Towards midnight, a storm rapidly grew. In the darkness all around them they could hear the sound of surf as mountainous waves crashed ashore. The boat was snatched out of their control when the waves, whipped up by the storm’s strong grip, drove it in a headlong dash to its destruction on the unseen shore.

With the cold light of morning once more revealing the shoreline, the wreckage of the boat was spread along a narrow rocky beach. Goran and his friends, lay face down above the receding tide, among the flotsam and jetsam of the previous night’s violence.

~~~

Next time Chapter Forty-Nine

Chapter Forty-Seven

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Chapter Forty-Seven – Murderous Apprenticeship

Now that the men had gone, the women and children spent the next fourteen years in the relative safety of the ship. As the children grew, Pashtek began their evil education, teaching them while they slept. During the day, they learned from their mothers about their own races, and the tragic circumstances which had brought them on board.

Meral was growing into a beautiful young woman, bossy and determined, with a sex drive, which would cause problems in the future. Naron spent most of his time learning about his ancestors’ warrior past, as he grew into a fine physical specimen. Banab withdrew more and more over the years, studying the library in the ship’s computer, absorbing all its knowledge, and growing more evil and malicious every day.

With each passing year, Pashtek’s influence over them grew. Each night as they lay asleep, he entered their fertile young minds, filling them with the combined knowledge and history of the Khaz race, its desires, and ambitions. They were the successful product of millions of years of research into hybrid development, and as such, were more precious to him than life itself. The day finally came when they would graduate from his school. The occasion was the combined twenty-first birthday party for the three young hybrids, organized by their loving mothers.

~~~

Meral sat in front of the mirror admiring herself as her mother brushed her jet black hair which mirrored the colour of her eyes. “Mother, please, ask aunts Aisha and Heqet to come with you to the school room this afternoon. Banab, Naron, and I have a small surprise for all of you. Will two o’clock be alright?”

“Of course, darling.” Dena smiled as she gave her daughter’s forehead a tender kiss, before leaving to find her two ‘sisters’. Because of their shared terrifying ordeal, the three women were now closer than natural siblings. Heqet, Dena, and Aisha walked hand in hand, giggling in anticipation over the surprise their children had organized for them, as they made their way along the corridor towards the hold. They stopped outside the door to the compartment in the ship’s hold that had served as classroom and nursery throughout their children’s lives.

“Come in, mother, come in aunts Heqet and Dena; you’re surprise awaits you inside,” Naron’s voice informed them from the speaker outside the door. Aisha opened the door and the three women entered. The schoolroom was in darkness.

“Please sit,” Banab’s soft voice invited from the darkness. Dena, Aisha, and Heqet sat smiling to themselves, squeezing each other’s hands in the darkness. The large view screen used for the children’s education, that covered one wall of the compartment, sprang to life. Meral and her two ‘brothers’ stood looking at them from the leafy confines of the hydroponics facility, surrounded by the fruits and vegetables that their mothers had lovingly tended over the years.

“Mothers dearest,” Meral began. “Banab, Naron, and I wanted to give each of you a token of some kind, in thanks for your love and devotion to us as we have grown up. But we finally decided that one present for you all to share was more appropriate.”

Dena smiled. “Thank you Meral. Thank you Naron and dear Banab. We’re all proud of you, and we love you all.”

“Close your eyes now, we want to show you your present,” Naron commanded, with a gentle smile. The three women happily obliged, still giggling and holding hands.

“Surprise, you can open your eyes!” Meral shouted. The three women’s eyes opened wide in horror. From behind one of the hydroponics units, Pashtek stepped forward between Naron’s legs, and stood in front of the three young adults. Meral bent down and tenderly kissed his grey head then looked at the three women. “Mother, this is a proud moment for us all. Say hello to our father Pashtek.” Meral knelt beside the diminutive Khaz, holding him in a tender embrace and smiling coldly.

“We have one last surprise for you,” Banab said, with a cruel smile as he nodded to Naron. The women heard the schoolroom being sealed, and its clamps released from their grip on the floor of the hold. Aisha, Heqet, and Dena screamed in terror as they rapidly became weightless, when the sealed schoolroom compartment was jettisoned into space. Pashtek was proud of his children; they had graduated with flying colours. His next phase was about to begin.

~~~

With just over a year and a half to go before the ship arrived in the solar system, Pashtek continued his children’s intensive evil education. Now that the women were no longer on board, all their time was spent by his side, learning more and more about their true heritage. At night, Meral began preying on her two brothers, seducing them to satisfy her insatiable sexual needs. Naron was the main target of her desires. She would silently enter his compartment most nights while he slept, quickly undress, and slip beneath the covers. He awoke when her amorous desires lit the fires of passion in his body. For the remainder of the night the pair would make love continually, until Meral finally fell into an exhausted satisfied sleep in Naron’s arms.

She took a different approach with Banab, content to caress and kiss him from head to toe, fulfilling her sexual needs by watching him completely lose control, as intense levels of pleasure washed over his androgynous albino form. The one thing Banab loved most, was when Meral gently massaged his delicate skin with her long hair, flooding his soul with pleasure, from the over stimulated nerve endings in the outer layers of his skin. Inevitably, Banab grew jealous of Naron, as Meral’s preference for a real man over a ‘freak’ increased.

One day Naron was outside the ship clearing the micrometeorite debris from the intake grill. It was taking longer than he had anticipated so he returned to the ship to replenish his suit’s environmental pack. When he entered the airlock, Banab was at the controls. The outer hatch closed, and Naron could hear the sound of the pressure changing in the compartment between the airlock doors. Banab signalled that it was safe to change his environment packs over. Naron disconnected the old pack and began reaching for the new one. Banab seized his chance and deliberately opened the outer hatch door, sucking Naron into the emptiness of space. Banab was inconsolable over the accidental death of his ‘beloved brother’. Nothing Meral or Pashtek did or said seemed to ease his pain. That night in the darkness of his compartment, his face contorted into a cruel smile, content that his evil plan to get rid of his rival had gone so well.

Less than six months remained before the ship would enter the outer perimeter of the solar system on route for Mars. Pashtek looked at his two remaining children with some misgivings, but also with pride. They had learned everything he had to teach them. Now Meral and Banab needed to experience one last discipline to complete their evil education, the thrill of hunting their prey and the satisfaction it would bring them. In the immediate vicinity of the ship were a few small planets capable of supporting life. Under Pashtek’s patient guidance, Banab and Meral began searching the planets with the ship’s sensors. Eventually they found what they were looking for. A small M class planet teemed with life, a mere eight hundred and sixty thousand kilometres from their present position, within the small star system they were travelling through.

The planet was populated by refugees who had escaped Shu’s rampage across the cosmos years earlier. They settled there because the ships they used to escape from their home worlds were incapable of travelling the vast intergalactic distances to join the others. In the last few years they had slowly spread across the planet, settling in fertile areas, and becoming farmers. The adults blocked the terrors of their former existence from their children by creating a safe and loving environment, adopting the peaceful way of life they all now led. Shu had never landed on the planet when she passed this way, because at the time, it had no sentient life forms.

It was late summer in the planet’s southern hemisphere, and everyone was occupied with harvesting the crops. Pashtek chose a particular farming community for its isolation from the rest of the planet’s population, deep inside a forested mountain range. He watched the community for several days, from the safety of the ship in orbit above the planet. Banab and Meral chose their targets, spending hours learning their movements and patterns of behaviour. The time to strike arrived. Banab piloted the small shuttle down to the valley, anding a kilometre away from the village in a forest glade.

Together, the pair walked the short distance to the edge of the forest, and sat down to watch their unsuspecting victims. Banab’s white face twisted into a hideous mask as his pale pink eyes concentrated on two young children, happily playing hide and seek among the hayricks in the mid-morning sun. Meral watched his face contort even further then, leaning over towards him, she whispered something in his ear. Banab smiled and nodded as Meral slipped away heading towards the children. The little boy and girl stopped their game, and began gathering flowers growing among the hayricks to make garlands. They heard someone singing a beautiful strange song, on the other side of the wooden fence surrounding the field; they looked at each other and smiled. Quickly scrambling between the rough sawn rails of the fence, they ran towards the voice somewhere ahead near the forest edge.

Meral sat cross-legged in the tall green grass, smiling sweetly at the two young children who knelt before her, giggling happily, mesmerized by her voice as she sang. She continued smiling at them as she sang, neither of the children realized that Banab was stealthily creeping towards them from behind. Banab’s hands clamped over the children’s mouths, silencing their screams of terror with a strength Meral had never seen before. His powerful mind invaded theirs, destroying them completely, before he killed them with a quick snap of their tender young necks. Meral was unnerved by Banab’s smile as he fell back into the long grass, contented by his murderous work. Now it was her turn.

Her composure quickly returned as she began her own hunt. Her unfortunate target lay fast asleep on top of a pile of hay in the loft of the community barn. Meral circled the village several times waiting for her opportunity to strike. Her eyes hardened as she concentrated on her mission, banishing everything from her mind except her quarry. The unfortunate youth lay in the warmth of the sun, away from the double doors of the barn loft. Meral began kissing him, while gently removing his clothing. Then straddling him, she allowed him to undress her. The youth was dumbfounded by his sudden reward, overcome by Meral’s nubile beauty, as she took him to heights of passion and desire he had never experienced before in his entire life. When the members of the teenager’s community eventually found him later that evening, his heart had been cut out with his own knife and placed on his stomach, partially consumed, inside a bizarre heart shaped design she had drawn with his blood. Overall, Pashtek was pleased. But he grew increasingly worried by the results of his children’s final lesson. He rewarded them by allowing them to select more targets at random, and over the next five weeks, the cruel pair wreaked havoc among the peaceful population across the length and breadth of the planet. Eventually they tired of their murderous excesses and the trio finally left.

By the time the ship entered the outer solar system, Meral realized she was pregnant. Pashtek suspected nothing, but Banab’s androgynous intuition told him otherwise. “So, my dear sister, when are you going to tell father about the bastard you carry inside you?”

Meral glared at Banab. “I’m not, and neither are you, dear brother,” she said, coldly.

“When he finds out you’re pregnant, he will be furious. Perhaps an accident of some kind, a fall maybe, or something more drastic, will relieve you of your problem,” Banab snarled. “It can be so easily arranged. Then we can be together once more, my sweet!”

Meral was unnerved by Banab. She suspected that Naron’s death was no mere accident but could never prove it. Smiling, she gently put her arms around Banab’s neck, drew him close, and kissed him tenderly. The evil look on his white face vanished as he was overcome by the passion of the moment. She had silenced him for now. Her lover Naron would be avenged.

The autopilot brought the ship to a standstill in stationary orbit above the red surface of Mars. Pashtek sent both of them down to the planet one at a time on numerous missions during the weeks that followed. They each took a shopping list of items he needed, with instructions to scour the abandoned facilities scattered across the planet. Each time they returned with equipment from Pashtek’s list, he spent days designing new improved techniques, for building his hybrid nation from the frozen human DNA in the liquid nitrogen Dewars, donated by Eugene’s men. It was Banab’s turn to forage among the deserted laboratories and workshops of an abandoned settlement, directly below the ship. He landed inside the dispersal hanger of the complex, and left the shuttle to begin his search for the materials Pashtek had specifically asked him to find. Fourteen hours after he started his search, he returned to where the shuttle sat, surrounded by the boxes of instruments that Pashtek so desperately needed. He spent over two hours loading the boxes on board. Then, remembering he had left the most important item of all behind in one of the labs, he went back to the building to retrieve it.

When he returned the shuttle had gone. He was cut off from the ship with no way to communicate with it. He seethed with anger as he stood and watched the bright star in the sky leave orbit, and vanish into space. Pashtek and Meral were alone now, not because Meral wanted revenge, but because Pashtek’s fear of Banab had steadily grown over the last few months, sensing a deadly rival, more evil and more powerful than he was.

It soon became obvious, even to Pashtek, that Meral was pregnant; she had sown the final seeds in his mind, convincing him that he was indeed the father of her baby. At every opportunity, she brushed against him, stroked him, kissed him, and at night massaged his tiny grey body the way she had with Banab. Pashtek now experienced new and strange sensations for the first time in his pathetic evil existence – ecstasy and love.

Three months after departing from Mars, the ship drew near to Earth’s moon. Pashtek shut down the autopilot and placed the ship in low stationary orbit, above the cratered grey surface of Earth’s natural satellite. Somehow, he had to locate his remaining Khaz brothers, hidden somewhere down on the surface of the Earth. He needed their help to create his new hybrid Khaz species. Between them, he and Meral conducted a fruitless listening watch for signals coming from the planet, also searching the surface using the ship’s sensors for signs of life. Eventually, after a few weeks, Pashtek managed to locate the whereabouts of his Khaz brothers. They were hiding out in a system of caves in the Kabir Kuh Mountains, far to the west of old Baghdad on the outer edge of the new continent of Gilgama. (Why didn’t he manage to locate me, dear reader? Be patient, I will reveal all at the end of this tale.) Pashtek placed the ship in high orbit above the planet and tried unsuccessfully to communicate with his brothers on the surface below. Next, he sent a communications drone down to the area of the caves to try to lure them into coming to the surface. All that did was alert the savage berserker-human population into exploring the area when they saw it hovering overhead, placing Pashtek’s kin in grave danger.

By now, Meral’s pregnancy was in its final days, and she was still driving him crazy with her desire for strange items of food, and the one request that obsessed her – to be able to give birth to their son down on the planet’s surface. She pleaded with him, flying into a tearful rage, driven by her over-active hormones, sulking and cursing him. In short, she used every weapon in her female arsenal to persuade him. In the end he relented, and the shuttle descended towards the mountain range, close to where his brothers hid from the marauding berserker-humans.

~~~

Brak, Tuluk, and Lek sat in fear of their lives inside the entrance to the cave, watching the berserker-humans hunting for them in the foothills of the mountain range below. They had heard Pashtek, but were afraid to answer his call. The three Khaz were the last of our breed across the planet since the fall of Shu, or so they thought. Even they didn’t know of my presence. They had managed to survive the marauding bands of berserkers, by hiding deep inside the tunnel systems of Gilgama’s mountains. They had witnessed the battle between Hor’s army of humans, backed by Akhen and his brothers, against Shu’s army of six million savage berserkers. They were hiding in the ruins of Hor’s besieged camp when Akhen and Shu met in mortal combat, putting an end to her mindless savagery.

When Akhen’s brothers left the area, the three Khaz searched for a safe haven, finding it in the Kabir Kuh Mountains in what had once been western Iran.

~~~

The air in the cave stank from their combined bodily excretions. Brak signalled his kin to follow him deeper into the tunnel system, away from the cave mouth, fearful that the berserkers’ powerful sense of smell would detect them. “Curse Pashtek,” Brak said angrily. “Doesn’t he know how much danger we’re in down here on this accursed planet?”

Tuluk looked at Brak. “We’ll all be killed brother. Tell him to find somewhere else!” Lek curled up in a ball, shaking with fear.

“We’re safe enough for the moment,” Brak tried to reassure them. But deep down he knew that if Pashtek should be foolish enough to land, they would be forced to find another hiding place, far from the danger outside. When night finally fell, he sent Tuluk to keep watch at the cave entrance in case Pashtek appeared. Six hours later, Tuluk returned with Pashtek and a heavily pregnant Meral. Pashtek introduced his beloved to his kin. Reluctantly Brak and his companions helped Pashtek make her as comfortable as they could.

For the next several days and nights Meral lay in agony as her time rapidly drew near. Six hours after her labour began; she gave birth to a son who she named Merak, to please Pashtek. Baby Merak steadily grew, fed by his mother’s rich milk, watched over by his proud father Pashtek in the safety of the caves. The whole experience of witnessing Merak’s birth filled Brak and his brothers with revulsion. By the time Merak was six months old, he was happily crawling around the cave to the amusement of Meral and Pashtek, and to the annoyance of Tuluk, Lek, and Brak. “Brother, you and you’re female will have to find somewhere else to bring up that abomination you call your son!” Brak declared.

Pashtek’s black eyes flashed as he angrily replied, “You know that Merak is the first of a new breed of Khaz, dear brother. Do you feel threatened by him for some reason? My mate and my son stay here in the safety of the cave system, and you will protect them with your lives, do you understand!” Taken aback by Pashtek’s angry outburst, Brak turned and quickly left the cave, followed by Tuluk and Lek.

Merak began to take his first shaky steps. The infant’s curiosity knew no bounds when it came to the cave and the creatures it contained. He spent many innocent happy hours playing in the dirt with bats, spiders and other creatures who found sanctuary in the cave, putting them in his mouth, experiencing them through taste like all other babies, learning something new each time. Whenever he cried, Brak and his brothers felt sure their hiding place would be detected from the outside. Eventually they had had enough of the constant wanderings and wailing demands of the abhorrent creature and decided to act. When Merak finally went to sleep, and Meral and Pashtek were relaxing on their own, the three Khaz carefully removed the sleeping infant, taking him outside the cave down to the foothills, where they left him covered in a bed of leaves in the gnarled roots of an ancient tree.

Meral was grief stricken when she awoke to find her baby missing. Pashtek searched the cave system in vain. Brak and his two brothers were nowhere to be found as the search continued. By nightfall, Meral was still crying uncontrollably. Pashtek tried as best he could to comfort her. Eventually he sensed Brak spying on him, cornered him, and angrily attacked with Meral’s help. Between them, they found out the awful truth about Brak’s decision to remove the ‘abomination’ from their presence.

Meral’s anger knew no bounds. She tore the tiny Khaz apart with her bare hands. When Tuluk and Lek were eventually located, Pashtek’s anger was directed at them, destroying their minds before handing them over to Meral. (Now Pashtek and I were the only Khaz left on Earth.)

Desperate to find their son, the pair abandoned the safety of the cave, and began searching as the first light of dawn broke across the hills. They searched the vast expanse of rolling parched grasslands. Pashtek’s skin was being hideously burnt by the heat of the sun, but despite the intense pain, he and Meral continued their determined frantic search. By mid-afternoon, they were both tired and grief stricken, and were slowly making their way across the hills, back to the cave. As they approached the brow of the low hill, neither of them heard or sensed the stealthy approach of their pursuers. From all sides their escape was blocked by dozens of berserkers. Terrified, they huddled together as the berserkers closed ranks around them, prodding them with their razor sharp swords. The ranks of berserkers parted, when a powerful warrior rode towards them on a magnificent black stallion. The warrior jumped down from the horse, holding a tiny bundle in his massive arms.

“Kalma, we’ve found the brat’s parents,” Seti said, from behind the warrior. Merak gurgled happily from the warmth of the woollen blanket wrapped around him. Meral stretched out her arms, pleading for his return, as Pashtek’s pain filled black eyes watched from where he lay on the sun-baked earth, pinned under Seti’s foot.

The berserker chief held little Merak high out of Meral’s reach, laughing at the pain he was causing her. “Kill the small one, Seti; do what you will with the woman,” he said, mounting his horse, with little Merak safely tucked in his arms. As he rode away, he could hear Meral’s screams and curses. No sound came from Pashtek when his head was cleaved from his tiny sun blistered grey body by Seti’s sword. (This act made me the last of my kind in the cosmos, or so I thought…)

~~~

Next time – Chapter Forty-Eight

Chapter Forty-Six

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Chapter Forty-Six – Pashtek’s Devilish Plan

Pashtek had spent years in hiding on Janus Omega, in its capital city Pranash. When Eugene and his marines landed and began their bloody takeover of the planet, Pashtek was the last Khaz left alive on the planet, indeed in the Drana Empire, and had come close to being caught on several occasions. With his unique knowledge of the sewers and hidden passages within the walls of the city, somehow he always managed to find an escape route whenever they got too close.

Our natural bodily reaction whenever we are in fear of our lives caused him problems on more than one occasion. The stench from his body exuding its waste products through his grey skin was unfortunately unmistakable. Pashtek was no fool, and realized from the first day on Janus Omega, that Eugene would kill him on sight without a second thought. It did not take him long to find a good hiding place in the caves above the city, well away from Eugene and his marines, where he could watch the general’s progress and bide his time, waiting for an opportunity to escape the planet.

When Eugene began selecting his three women for the journey, Pashtek was close by, waiting to hatch his own devilish plan to create a race to conquer the cosmos. When the three women were finally chosen and segregated from the rest of the female slaves prior to launch, Pashtek put his own first phase into action.

~~~

After dark, when the majority of the marines were either drunk or asleep, the tiny grey Khaz descended into the city and made his way via the sewer system, to where the three unfortunate women were held. Not wishing to alarm or harm them in any way, Pashtek stole silently into their cells via the ventilation system and took a single strand of hair and a skin sample from each of the three women while they slept.

Next, he went to the medical facility where he began synthesising a mix of his own DNA with that of the three women. Each night, he returned to the laboratory working feverishly, until after seven long nights of experimentation, he had successfully produced a compatible new Khaz hybrid DNA string for each of the three women, based on their own racial genetics. He now needed to store the three precious strings in the right environment. But he had a problem. The only correct storage was the cryogenics lab where Eugene kept his own human DNA bank, and it was heavily guarded.

Because the laboratory compound was made up from a group of isolated buildings, each with its own independent environmental system, Pashtek had to run the very real risk of getting caught in the open. He watched the guards’ patrol pattern for a long time. The whole area was floodlit at night, which did not make things any easier for the little Khaz. He cursed the fact that there was no underground sewer system there, only waste containment vessels on stands outside the buildings, connected by small pipes through the walls. He lay in the dirt beneath one of the buildings for hours, waiting for the right moment. His opportunity finally arrived when the guard changed. Scurrying across the open ground, he tripped and fell, dropping the container housing his precious DNA strings. Quickly getting to his feet, he picked up the container and ran for the cryogenics lab. Soon he had the door to the laboratory open, and began searching for Eugene’s DNA bank. In his haste to get inside, he forgot to lock the laboratory door behind him. The alarm was sounded by one of the patrolling guards, and soon the entire laboratory complex was swarming with guards searching for the intruder.

Pashtek panicked as his familiar stench began to fill the air of the laboratory. When the guards entered the lab, Pashtek shut himself in a cool cabinet shaking with fear. The guards carefully checked around the benches and cupboards, even checking the toilets and sonic decontamination showers, but found nothing. Eventually all went quiet in the laboratory and Pashtek cautiously pushed open the cool cabinet’s door and peered out. The lights were off and no one was in sight, so he silently climbed out of the cool cabinet and began searching for the cryogenic containers housing Eugene’s DNA bank.

At the far end of the laboratory in a separate room, hermetically sealed from the main lab’s environment, were five large Dewars containing the human DNA frozen in liquid nitrogen, all marked ‘New Generation’. A coded security touch pad, and a retina scan, controlled the door to the room. Pashtek’s frustration was palpable. He needed someone to open the door for him. The only way that would happen, was when the laboratory staff began work the next morning. In the meantime, the delicate strings would soon begin to degrade if he did not get them into one of the Dewars inside the room. Calming down a little, he searched for more liquid nitrogen to replenish his container’s own rapidly warming supply. Eventually finding some, he hid in the cleaning closet for the rest of the night.

The sound of breaking glass woke Pashtek from his slumber. One of the lab technicians had dropped the results of a month’s painstaking research on the floor. As Pashtek peered through the crack in the door of the cupboard, he saw the unfortunate technician picking up the pieces of a shattered Erlenmeyer flask, while the scientist in charge blasted him for his carelessness. The technician came over to the cleaner’s cupboard to fetch a mop and bucket, causing Pashtek to dive for cover behind a pile of boxes containing industrial bleach and liquid soap.

For the rest of the morning he patiently hid in the confines of the cupboard, peering out, and waiting for someone to open the sealed room. Before the laboratory team went to lunch, they were instructed by the scientist to take their work across to the room and place it inside for safety reasons. No more accidents would be tolerated. When the lab was empty, Pashtek took his chance and scuttled across the lab, positioning himself behind a large acetylene gas cylinder beside the door.

When the technicians and the scientist entered the room to collect their work, no one noticed the tiny grey figure silently enter behind them. Pashtek hid behind the Dewars waiting for his chance to store his precious strings. For the rest of the day the technicians came and went from the room, never giving him the opportunity. So he had no choice but to wait until the lab was silent once more. Finally, when the team had left, Pashtek carefully removed the cap from one of the Dewars and pulled out three of Eugene’s DNA samples, replacing them with his own. After he had placed them in the frozen confines of the Dewar, and marked the cap, Pashtek settled down for the night, locked inside the hermetically sealed room. By the following night, he was back safe and sound in his cave above the city, satisfied that phase one of his plan was complete.

When the DNA was taken aboard the ship, Pashtek managed to hide himself in the ventilation system of the hold, where he remained undetected. Once the three women were locked into their cell, he began his second phase. Looking for a way into the cell was difficult given its construction. Essentially, it was a small metal box welded to the floor of the ships hold, barely large enough for its occupants to lay down, with only one door that was securely locked, and a small ventilation grill on its flat roof. The grill was large enough for Pashtek’s purpose. After the launch and the ion-ram engine proved workable, Pashtek spent many hours silently working on the grill until he loosened it.

He watched and waited to carry out his next phase. The crew’s sexual depravity supplied Pashtek with the opportunity. On each occasion after one of the unfortunate women was returned to the sweaty, stinking confines of the cell, Pashtek went to work after they had finally gone to sleep, introducing the strings into the unsuspecting women. Now, as he watched the product of all his work happily playing under the watchful, loving eyes of their mothers, Pashtek could take a well-earned rest until it was time for phase three.

~~~

For the next six years, the three children continued to grow happily in a loving environment. By now, Meral had proved herself as the chief mischief-maker of the trio. Naron was growing into a strong and silent young boy. Banab, because of his obvious delicate and effeminate differences that prevented him from playing their rough and tumble games, evolved differently, rapidly becoming the scholar of the group. When their seventh birthdays were drawing near, Pashtek began his third phase.

~~~

“General, we’re having problems with the ion intake, sir,” Odesh reported, after he had revived Eugene and opened his stasis unit.

“Well fix it, goddamn it!” Eugene growled.

Odesh shut down the ion-ram engine. He and Miorr suited up for the dangerous job outside the ship’s hull. After they had left the relative safety of the airlock, they began working their way along the length of the hull, to where the intake was situated, beneath the hydroponics compartment. It took them several hours to clear the intake, removing thousands of small meteorites that clogged the micron-sized holes of the fine grill over the opening, thanks to the destruction of Shu’s planet. By early evening, the ion-ram engine was once more in operation.

For the next three days, the ship assumed its normal routine while Pashtek began his campaign of sabotage. “Christ, what’s the matter now,” Eugene snapped, when McCall woke him.

“General, we have several leaks in the outer hull, sir. We need to repair them urgently; otherwise we’ll lose our air supply, not to mention the pressurisation of the ship,” McCall reported, rapidly backing away from Eugene, sensing how the general would react.

“Jesus Christ, what else is going to go wrong?” Eugene roared, jumping out of bed and donning his shirt and pants. The ship once more slowly drifted in space. McCall, Miorr, and Odesh began immediate repairs sealing the leaks.

“General, we’re fighting a losing battle out here, sir. Each time we plug a leak, another takes its place. The damned ship is falling apart at the seams!” Odesh reported.

“Get back inside now and be quick about it,” Eugene angrily ordered.

After the men were back on board, Eugene made a fatal mistake by ordering his crew to prepare the escape pod for immediate evacuation; Pashtek had sabotaged the shuttle, leaving the pod as the only means of escape. Gathering up supplies necessary for their survival aboard the pod, none of the men, Eugene included, saw Pashtek silently at work committing his final act of sabotage. Eugene gave the order to abandon ship. McCall launched the tiny pod into space without the women and children. As they moved further away from the ship under thruster power, Eugene watched the ship grow smaller as the distance increased.

“General!”

“What now,” Eugene snapped at Miorr’s terrified cry.

“Sir, the pod is leaking, look!” Eugene, McCall, and Odesh followed Miorr’s shaking finger. A crack in the hull was getting larger; loose items inside the pod began gravitating towards it, causing the men to jump out of the way. Large boxes containing their survival equipment drifted across the confines of the pod towards the ever increasing tear in the hull.

In a panic, Eugene ordered McCall to return to the ship. McCall pressed the control panel in front of him to restart the thrusters, but nothing happened.

“Get it fixed you stupid lizard bred bastard!” Eugene screamed.

McCall and Odesh tried everything they knew to regain control of the pod, but thanks to Pashtek, the pod’s only propulsion, the thruster system, had totally shut down. “Jesus, sir – look!” McCall cried out. They all watched the screen in front of McCall in horror. The booster rockets burned as the ship continued its journey, soon vanishing from sight. Pashtek repaired his sabotage and reset the automatic pilot system; phase three of his plan was complete. Now his children’s education would begin in deadly earnest.

~~~

Next time – Chapter Forty-Seven

Chapter Forty-Five

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Chapter Forty-Five – Launch!

The weak light of predawn revealed the launch area, creating a ghostly scene in the chilly morning air, as the heavy girder construction of the launch ramp was partially exposed in the rising mist. Low cloud shrouded the end of the ramp, ten kilometres distant and six kilometres above the ground. Eugene was adamant that they go today no matter what the weather. The warmth from the rising sun quickly burned off the mist, and blue sky could be seen as the cloud cover broke, revealing the enormous ramp in its entirety.

Nearly all of Eugene’s former marines were there to see him leave, thankful that the ‘old bastard’ was finally leaving. He stood beside the open hatch of the ship and took one last look at the place that had been his prison, lit a cigar, and surveyed the crowd below.

“Ready when you are general,” McCall said, as he stood ready to seal the hatch.

Eugene snarled, “Let’s go, boy,” and entered the ship.

McCall went to the ship’s flight deck and took his place in the pilot’s seat. Odesh was seated behind him, watching the banks of gauges and dials controlling the rocket sled assembly and the ion-ram engine. Eugene and Miorr sat nervously in the small cabin behind the flight deck strapped to their launch seats—in Miorr’s case, silently praying for a miracle.

Down in the ship’s hold, the small sticky cell holding the women was uncomfortably warm, as the pre-flight systems initiated the equipment all around it. Terrified, the women gathered together, crouching in the centre of the bare cell in total darkness. Thanks to Eugene’s misogynistic attitude and complete disregard for their safety, there were no comfortable chairs or bunks in their prison, no safety harnesses to stop them being thrown about by the enormous forces about to be unleashed.

McCall spoke to Launch Control. “All system checks complete, ready to launch.”

Launch control replied, “Roger, standby for countdown and ignition in ten, nine, eight, seven—pre-ignition on—five, four— ignition—two, one—launch.” Flames and thick clouds of water vapour belched out from the giant rocket motors’ exhaust cones, temporarily boiling the reinforced concrete surface of the massive blast wall, as the launch ramp and its volatile payload began shuddering under the strain of the rapid power build-up. The whole rocket sled assembly vibrated violently as one by one, the explosive bolts of the release mechanism fired in rapid succession. With the power of the rockets speedily increasing, the sled assembly began its journey, shedding thick chunks of ice from the outer skin of the rockets along the entire length of the launch ramp. By the time the sled reached the end of it, they were exceeding Mach five and climbing at an eighty-eight degree angle.

Odesh tried to concentrate on the instrument panels in front of him, but the terrific vibration, together with the G-force, made it practically impossible, so he just closed his eyes. Eugene and Miorr’s knuckles were white inside the protection of their suits gloves as both men now prayed. The three women down in the tiny cell, screamed with terror as the vibration, G-force, and noise, steadily built to a crescendo. “Clear of the ramp,” McCall shouted into his microphone over the noise, “On course for entry into space, all systems nominal.” At the extreme outer edge of the planet’s atmosphere the rockets finally stopped and the sled assembly was jettisoned from the ship. At last, Eugene was back in space. Now all they had to do was get the damned ion-ram engine going.

Odesh removed the helmet of his suit and unbuckled himself from his restraints. “If anybody wants me I’ll be down in the engine room,” he said, climbing down the ladder to the deck below. McCall used the ships thrusters to achieve orbit around Janus Omega, while Miorr went to check on the terrified women down in the hold. Eugene took off his helmet and pulled a cigar from his shoulder pocket, lit it, and breathed a sigh of relief. Stage one of his journey home was complete.

Over the next few hours, all systems were carefully checked. Communications were established with the men below in Pranash, not that they could have done anything to help, or indeed wanted to. Miorr reported that the women had miraculously survived their ordeal in the tiny cell. All three were severely bruised and battered but otherwise alright. Then he went to the engine-room to give Odesh a hand with the complicated and unpredictable ion-ram engine system.

Eugene decided that he would not enter his stasis unit for at least two years after they were finally under way and on course for Mars, “Just in case something goes wrong.” Odesh and Miorr prepared the ion-ram engine for its initial test, carefully checking every linkage and seal around the fragile containment vessel. If it ruptured, they would be stranded and the whole ship would be flooded with charged ions.

“When you’re ready, McCall,” Odesh said over the intercom, where he stood beside the controls of the untried engine.

“A two minute burst from the boosters should give us enough speed to engage the ion drives.”

“OK, standby, here we go.”

McCall fired the booster rockets. The ship increased speed with McCall maintaining manual control during the tricky manoeuvre. “Half sub-light,” he announced over the intercom.

Odesh engaged the control to open the intake for the engine, and watched as the pressure built up. “Here goes nothing,” he said quietly to himself, releasing the ion build up into the containment vessel. The vessel rapidly consumed its unseen energy supply, converting the raw material into a source of power. Looking nervously at Miorr, he cautiously opened the release valve from the containment. The engine began humming quietly as it took over from the boosters. “Cut the boosters; it works, the damned thing works!” Odesh shouted.

McCall completed two more orbits of Janus Omega as Odesh checked and rechecked the engine’s performance, before finally placing the ship on course for Mars. Eugene smiled to himself with relief and lit another cigar. Stage two of his plan was completed.

During the first month of the voyage, life aboard quickly settled into its inevitable monotonous routine. Odesh was the busiest of them all, constantly making adjustments and alterations to the ion flow unit, as the unpredictable jerry-built engine pushed them slowly away from Janus Omega. At first, the men were too tired to take much notice of the women on board. But now as they began to relax, their thoughts turned to perverse carnal pleasure.

Miorr unlocked the door to the cell, and dragged Aisha screaming and kicking by her hair, back to where the rest of Eugene’s crew was waiting. Eventually hours later, she was thrown back inside the cell, bruised, battered, and crying uncontrollably from the brutal ordeal she had endured, being gang raped by the men.

With their sexual appetites satisfied, the men left the women alone for a few days. But before too long, the door to the cell flew open once more, and this time it was Heqet’s turn. When she was finally returned, she was inconsolable. She would never be the same again. Compared to the brutality of being continuously raped at the hands of Eugene’s crew, life as a slave in the Drana Empire was almost pleasant.

Several more days past before Dena was dragged away by Miorr. When she was returned, broken physically and mentally by the ordeal, the women made a pact to end their miserable existence.

But fate changed their plans, When Miorr was carrying out crew health checks, the three women found to their horror that they were pregnant. Eugene, of course, was delighted about the situation; three new crew members were about to be born. He had the women removed from the cell and installed in better accommodations. Life for them became somewhat easier over the long months of their pregnancies. Eventually they gained the freedom of the ship, and spent their time tending the plants, locking themselves in the hydroponics unit in the nose of the ship, safely away from the crew. Aisha was the first to go into labour, giving birth to a boy she named after her father’s brother, Naron. Heqet’s time soon followed after a difficult labour, when she gave birth to a pale white skinned, pink eyed, albino child who she named Banab. Little Banab was born androgynous, a fact the women hid from everyone aboard. Finally, Dena was blessed with a baby girl named Meral. Eugene came to inspect the new members of his crew and went away satisfied.

~~~

Someone else on board was also thrilled by the births. The results of his genetic manipulation lay feeding from their mothers’ breasts. My kin Pashtek’s large black eyes shone with satisfaction as he looked at his first three Khaz hybrids gurgling happily, from the safety of his hiding place in the ventilation shaft.

~~~

Next time – Chapter Forty-Six

Chapter Forty-Four

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Part Three – Orion’s Belt

~~~

Chapter Forty-Four – Preparations for Escape

Welcome back dear reader. Forty-five years have passed since I told you how Akhen and his brothers set out to defeat Shu, the evil monster created by my cousin Hesket. And how Akhen finally exiled himself to a lonely planet, far from his brothers and the other survivors, after killing Shu, and absorbing her evil essence. In the intervening years, the saga has now taken another strange twist. I sense another evil in the cosmos now, more powerful than both myself and the one I thought I was seeking!

My mind as well as my eyes grows cloudy with my great age dear reader. I can no longer clearly sense who or what it is as I begin writing this final chapter. The only thing I am certain of is that we shall meet soon and I will take the evil with me on my own journey. Until it arrives here in the Atlas Mountains, I have only a few weeks to finish writing this saga, knowing that my time here grows short, so we shall continue…

~~~

General of the Marines Eugene L Maas sat smoking his cigar, watching his construction crew at work. Twenty years had passed since he and his marines found themselves stranded on Janus Omega in the former Drana Empire, when Akhen and his brothers destroyed his fleet. Eugene had celebrated his sixty-sixth birthday and was impatient to get back to Kelno at the southernmost tip of Mars before he was too old to carry out his plan. His stasis chamber was fully functional; all it needed was a ship to transport it. Janus Omega was the one place Eugene did not want to be. Since their enforced exile, his remaining marines had sired a completely new species with the unwilling cooperation of the captured female slaves from the former Drana Empire. The new species arose from a mixture of Humans, Drana, Andrasian, Baktarr, Nephile, and Suraa, plus less well-known races from the farthest reaches of the cosmos also trapped on Janus Omega. When the time came to select a crew, Eugene knew he would have problems finding any true humans left to accompany him on the journey.

The general was one of the last of his racist human breed on Janus Omega. His men were as old or older than he was, and because of the life they led, were now unfit for the rigors of space travel, too old to serve as functioning marines. Eugene’s dream to return to Mars, and eventually to Earth, to re-colonise the planet with what Eugene described as ‘guaranteed one hundred percent true humans’, rapidly disintegrated before his ageing bigoted eyes. When the time eventually came, he would reluctantly select his crew from the new species. The DNA bank to create a fresh supply of humans on Earth was stored in a cryogenic unit retrieved from the ruins of Pranash. He had seen to it that his men donated to the cause, usually under the threat of immediate execution if they disobeyed, before they grew too old and debauched.

The ship slowly taking shape in front of him was constructed using thousands of salvaged parts from the wrecked Drana home fleet across Janus Omega. There were plenty of materials to build the hull of the ship and enough spare parts for the majority of functions necessary to support life on board. A hydroponics system was being installed in the nose section of the ship to supply fresh food for the crew. A hydro generating unit also found its way on board as a primary source of fresh water. Eugene’s stasis unit was finally installed. The collision avoidance system was doubtful, but appeared to be operational. Their communications unit tested successfully, but its transmission range was limited to only a thousand kilometres. The ship’s sensors were finally working properly after months of experimentation and adjustment. In addition, the ship was armed with twin ion cannon and plasma torpedoes, which should take care of anything they may encounter on the voyage.

The biggest obstacle for Eugene’s workforce was finding an engine capable of getting the ship back to the Milky Way, reliable enough for the long journey. All the old Drana fleet engines were now beyond repair. After months of searching, one of the salvage crews found schematic drawings for an ancient ion-ram engine in the ruins of the research and development building inside the former ship construction yard, south of Pranash. Most of the parts could be manufactured from existing supplies around the yard. But the containment vessel for the charged ions was another matter entirely.

Even if they managed to construct a working engine, it would still not get them off the planet. So a rocket sled assembly capable of lifting the ship into space was designed and built. The launch area swarmed with workers putting the final touches to the sled assembly and the launch ramp, as Eugene made his tour of inspection. Tomorrow the ship would be lifted in sections and attached to the massive sled.

He had hoped the problem of the containment vessel would soon be solved. No amount of abuse or cajoling by Eugene helped the situation. After he had deliberately executed two of the leading designers in a fit of uncontrolled rage, things sped up for a time, but there were very few engineers left in his workforce with the necessary knowledge to complete the task. Even he realized he could not afford to lose any more people, so reluctantly he left them alone to get on with the job. Eventually, a prototype containment vessel emerged from the workshops, and was carefully fitted into the ion engine’s ram system on board the ship. Testing it would have to wait until they were in orbit above Janus Omega.

The motive power for the rockets was a primitive explosive mix of hydrogen peroxide and liquid oxygen, with each volatile fuel ingredient stored separately in large double skinned Thermos-like tanks inside the two rockets. Just getting it to ignite safely without blowing up was fraught with danger. Once the burn began, it could not be turned off. Whether or not it would propel the sledge’s payload was another issue entirely. According to the engineers’ calculations it had sufficient power to perform the task. If it did not work, the engineers need not fear for their lives because Eugene would be dead anyway. The launch ramp was over ten kilometres in length and towered six kilometres above the ground. The whole damned thing would probably blow up in a gigantic fireball. But Eugene did not care. One way or another, he was getting off this goddam alien rock even if it meant dying in the attempt!

He finally selected his crew from the least alien looking members of his community. He chose a young Human-Nephile named McCall as the pilot. He would only be needed for the initial takeoff and in case they ran into trouble. Once they were under way, the ship would be on autopilot for the long journey. For his engineer he chose Odesh, a Drana-Human who proved himself repeatedly during the engine’s construction by his lateral thinking, when all the conventional ways of problem solving failed. Miorr the Bhakturian born ex Drana commando and weapons specialist, was taken on by Eugene for his expertise with anything explosive, and his uncanny knack for making something out of nothing for every eventuality. Between them, they would maintain the ship while Eugene remained in his stasis unit for the lengthy journey. McCall spent months plotting the dangerous path back to Mars, through all the new debris fields created by Shu, when she completely destroyed whole planetary systems. The best estimate he could come up with for the entire journey, using the ion-ram engine, was twenty-two years, seven months, and three days.

To keep his crew amused, and more importantly, to provide the necessary initial breeding units to create his new army of humans on Mars, Eugene finally selected just three women out of the thousands available from among the multiracial population of female slaves. Aisha, formerly a concubine of Dranaa Nagesh, came from noble Drana stock. She was striking, arrogant, scheming, and extremely intelligent, all the right qualities needed to breed Eugene’s successor when the time came. Dena, Aisha’s Andrasian house servant, was plain, quiet, kind, and a natural when it came to looking after young children. And finally, Heqet, the beautiful young Nephile from a prominent ‘House’ on Cydon, sold into slavery after she was captured at the age of five, who had spent the rest of her life working in the royal kitchens across the Drana Empire. She was strong-minded, intelligent, and because of her genetic make-up, the closest to the new human race Eugene so desperately desired. He rejected the rest simply because in his eyes, “all they’ll breed are more lizard-breath goddam aliens!”

The final preparations for the journey were under way. All the equipment and supplies had been loaded on board, and the three women were securely locked into the small cell they would occupy for the journey, close to the engine room. Eugene, McCall, Miorr, and Odesh spent the night going over all the procedures one last time before the launch in the morning. Security had been stepped up. Eugene posted guards at ten meter intervals around the entire launch area with strict instructions to shoot anyone not directly connected with the trip. Nothing was going to get in the way of his final escape from Janus Omega.

~~~

Next time – Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter Forty-Three

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Chapter Forty-Three – The End Of The Beginning

The brothers searched through the ruins and the surrounding area, looking for Akhen. Not so much as a footprint was found. Believing that he had gone back to Adab wanting to be alone, they reluctantly made camp for the night. The brothers sat in the warmth of the fire, each lost in his own thoughts.

Max looked at Seti sitting next to him and asked, “I don’t understand why Akhen called her Sud or why he claimed to be Enlil. Why did he do that Seti?” The four others looked at Seti needing to hear the answer if there was one, as much as Max. (My kin were also curious; their plan to destroy Shu had taken an unexpected, but welcome turn.)

Seti sat for a moment in silence. “Well,” he began, “The ancient Sumer people believed they were descended from a race that came from another world. Sud was the wife of Enlil who was the firstborn son of Anu, the god of the skies. Enlil fell in love with the young teenage mortal named Sud when he saw her bathing naked in the river near here, from his hiding place in the reeds.”

“Yes, yes, but that still doesn’t tell us why Akhen used the names or why he pretended to be Enlil!” Khan said. The brothers nodded in agreement.

Seti sat in silence for a few seconds, before replying. “When we first met Shu we all fell madly in love with her, even Nefer, remember? Well, apparently, of all of us Akhen fell for her the hardest despite the bond between him and Nefer. Somehow when he made himself as powerful as Shu he firmly believed he was Enlil Lord of Sumer and husband of Sud. What other explanation is there?” Seti slumped down, unconvinced by his unlikely hypothesis. From the accounts he had read in the clay tablets, about the Sumerian gods, it seemed to be the only logical reason for Akhen’s strange speech. Somehow, in his mind, he truly saw Sud, not Shu, or perhaps a combination of the two. In any case, why Enlil should want to kill his beloved Sud mystified him! The Sumerian poem he had recited when Shu’s head and heart were consumed on the pyre was one Enlil composed for his sweet, much-loved Sud, thousands of years ago. The tears in his eyes were the tears of a man mourning the death of his soul mate. Why he called her “Queen of death” was beyond Seti’s comprehension.

~~~

The next morning the brothers set off for Adab, shadowed by Lek, Brak, and Tuluk, retracing their steps along the road to An-Nasiriyah. By noon, they were getting close to Ash-Shatrah on the banks of the Shatt-al-Gharraf. Besal stopped and turned his head left and right, sniffing the air. Holding his hand up, he signalled the others to wait while he dived into the thick reeds. The blood curdling screams of a child reached the waiting berserkers ears. Moments later Besal returned grinning in triumph, holding a small pig by the back legs as it screamed in protest. “We dine like kings tonight, my brothers,” he said, happily tying a rope round the young swine’s neck. They decided to stop for the night at Qal-at-Sukkar, not wishing to arrive in Adab too soon, fearful of intruding on Akhen’s period of mourning. The mist rose from the river and spread across the low lying lands on both its banks. The light from the moon created a ghostly effect over the mist-covered ground surrounding their camp.

The brothers gradually became aware of a presence that unnerved them. Silently picking up their shields and swords they stood back to back, peering into the gloom beyond the warm red glow of the fire, desperately searching for the unknown danger which lurked somewhere in the darkness. “Khan, Besal, Seti, Akkad, Max; it’s so good to see you again, my dearest brothers.”

Khan’s eyes opened wide in sheer terror. Max trembled as his hand tightened its grip on his sword. Besal, Akkad, and Seti nervously looked at each other. “But you’re dead; we buried you!” Seti yelled into the darkness.

The mist took on a deep emerald green colour and moved towards the tensed warriors. Then the familiar form of Shu appeared in ghostly form in the firelight. This time she was once again the benign loving avatar they had first met on Kallorn. She spent the rest of the night answering their endless questions. She told why she had become the murdering red-eyed monster, thanks to Hesket’s meddling when he extracted her essence and tried to make her into his own personal weapon in a futile attempt to rule over the galaxies. She spoke about the constant battle between her and her other self during the bloody years of her rampage, saying that the only time she was able to think clearly was when the bad side of her split personality shut down during her trance like meditative periods.

She backed up Seti’s theory about Akhen’s distorted belief that he was Enlil and that she was his wife Sud, realizing that if she was to end the reign of bloody annihilation she would have to sacrifice herself. She went along with the blind hatred of her bad side, wishing neither to alert nor alarm it into thinking she was against the suicidal attack on Akhen. Althought why she did that she didn’t elaborate. She managed to slow the crystal’s recharge times with great difficulty, but it was enough for Akhen to deliver the crucial blow and end her torment.

The reason Akhen had vanished was because when he burned her head and heart, both parts of her essence were released simultaneously making Akhen’s fevered mind the unwilling vessel for her personality. He had deliberately isolated himself while the good in him still had some form of control, not wishing to harm any of his berserker brothers who he loved. When he had turned to wave to them before the final showdown with Shu, he knew he would never see them again.

As the weak light of dawn approached, Shu gently enveloped each of the warriors in turn, repairing their wounds. They swore later that day they had felt the gentle touch of her kiss on their foreheads while they were in her warm embrace. The mist began to clear as the sun rose, and gradually Shu’s ghostly image evaporated as she smiled at each of her beloved berserkers one last time. By mid-morning, the brothers arrived in Adab. Shu’s personal shuttle and Akhen were gone.

Khan, Max, Seti, Besal, and Akkad turned east in search of the three hundred thousand human survivors, and in time took mates and settled down to a peaceful life for a while, until war broke out between the many tribes that sprang up.

My three cousins found sanctuary in the Kabir Kuh Mountains on the eastern side of Gilgama, where they reside to this day. Humanity, now in the guise of berserkers, slowly spread once again across the new continents over the ensuing years. Children were taught tales of the war between the gods and the terrible berserker army that rampaged across the planet, killing all the wicked and non-believers, which were corruptions of the real events, as all religious myths undoubtedly are.

Akhen eventually found a planet far enough away from Earth and deliberately crash landed his shuttle, destroying it and preventing himself from ever returning. During his infrequent lucid moments throughout the brief remainder of his tortured existence, he wrote his version of this story using his double-edged sword to scratch the tale into the surface of rocks across the jungle covered planet of his self imposed exile. Maybe one day someone will venture there and puzzle at the crude hieroglyphics and their meaning. The creatures of his prison watched him from the shadows, fearing the evil in their midst. Every night, while the monstrous red eyed berserker slept, a gentle green mist enveloped him, bringing him warmth and succour. But in the end, even Shu could not stop him from leaping from a cliff top to his death several thousand meters below.

Eugene and his forgotten men on Janus Omega busily pieced together enough serviceable equipment to build a ship capable of getting them into space and to return here to Earth to rebuild humanity, or at least Eugene’s version of it. My kin Pashtek patiently watched and waited from his hiding place above the construction area. His time in this my tale will soon come!

Now I sit in the confines of my hiding place here in the Atlas Mountains, reading all that I have written so far of this sad tale put together from our Khaz collective consciousness dear reader. I must rest while I wait for my visitor and before I begin writing the final chapter in this savage tale of meddling by my Khaz cousins and the unnecessary pain it has caused across the cosmos.

~~~

Next time, part three of Onet’s Tale – Orion’s Belt, begins with Chapter Forty-Four – Preparations for Escape

Chapter Forty-Two

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Chapter Forty-Two – Deadly Encounter

Drawing closer to where they could see Shu surrounded by the nine guards, the five brothers stopped and listened to Akhen’s powerful voice booming out around them. “What’s he saying?” Max asked, as he prepared to fight.

“I can’t understand him either,” Akkad said, shifting his grip on his shield.

“Shhh listen.” Seti raised his sword for silence.

“Well, what language is it?” Besal demanded, looking towards the impregnable wall of shields three hundred meters ahead.

“Quiet!” Khan hissed.

Akhen was delivering some kind of ultimatum, but in a language unfamiliar to his brothers and my kin. Seti’s keen eyes caught the look of fear on Shu’s face. “Shu understands what he is saying,” he whispered, “And so do I; it’s ancient Sumerian!” Seti began translating for his brothers.

“Sud, queen of death,” Akhen boomed. “In the name of all the gods, I Enlil, your husband and lord of Sumer, son of Anu king of the skies, challenge you to fight to the death here on the plains of my kingdom. Hear me wife, for I am sent to deliver all my subjects from your wrath. The time of your cruelty is over. You have murdered my children in this fertile land. No more! Come forth and prepare to die by my sword, for I am Enlil, mightiest of all warriors!” The last strange words echoed around the ruined ancient city as Seti finished relating Akhen’s challenge. Silence descended across Ur, and for a moment the birds returned to the marshy banks of the river. Shu’s eyes once more took on their dark ruby red colour as she issued orders to her guards. Five of them ran forward searching for Akhen. As they made their way through the wreckage of the battlefield, high above them a frightened hawk made a desperate barrel roll in an effort to escape the path of two deadly arrows. The sound of the arrows cleaving their way through metal shields, flesh and bone, and finally embedding themselves in the wreck of an upturned crawler, pinning the berserker guards like pieces of raw meat on a kebab skewer, sent shivers through all who witnessed the event. “Come out Sud, come out alone!” Akhen’s deep voice pulverised the air, loosening ancient mortar from between the bricks which dropped to the ground like tiny dusty waterfalls.

The berserkers watched Shu and her guards, as she looked for a way out of the deadly killing field surrounding them. Another arrow descended. This time striking one guard barely half a meter from her, entering his body through the left side of his neck and out through his right thigh, pinning him to the sun baked ground. His terrified screams of agony from the shock of the mortal wound and Seti’s poison coating the Nazpa arrowhead rapidly killing him, soon turned to whimpers as his life ended.

Khan looked across towards the hideous scene as this time two arrows skewered two guards together, one arrow through their chests piercing their hearts, the other through their stomachs sending them flying across the ground and slamming them into the wall behind Shu, where the projectiles suspended them above the ground, lifeless. Deathly silence descended once more. Shu screamed in sheer terror. Her eyes changed to emerald green then back to deep ruby red as she fought to control the panic building inside her. The one remaining guard looked skyward, trying in vain to see where the next deadly missiles were. Then all eyes turned west towards the deadly irradiated sand dunes kilometres away where so many of Shu’s berserkers still lay, their bones now bleaching in the harsh heat of the sun.

~~~

Akhen stood legs apart with his left arm through the red crystal shield that glistened in the sun. His protected left hand protruded through the bite in the edge of the shield rim, holding the bow as the two fingers of his right hand drew back the bowstring with one more arrow notched with its deadly barbed Nazpa arrowhead aimed above the guard’s head. Before anyone realized it the deadly missile crossed the distance and ended the remaining guard’s life, skewering him to the wall with his backbone severed, alongside the others. Now Shu stood alone.

Khan, Akkad, Seti, Besal, and Max stepped forward and stood in the sunlight. Shu glared across at them while her hand gripped the red crystal. The brothers raised their swords and delivered their berserker salute, then tried to cut off her retreat back to the river, never closing with her but always remaining in visible contact. Shu’s powerful red crystal vaporised the low walls of the ancient ruins between her and the brothers, causing them to dive for cover.

“Sud!” Akhen’s voice boomed, stopping her angry attack. Ignoring the brothers, she quickly turned round. Akhen now stood less than a kilometre away at the outer edge of the old defensive ring, armed only with sword and shield. “Face me wife!” he roared, sending the birds at the river into the air in panic again. Even the scorpions dived for cover as his voice shook the very foundations of the crumbling ancient Sumerian city ruins. Snakes slithered away and hid deep inside the reed beds; spiders abandoned their patient watch over their webs and scuttled into cracks, away from the terrible shock waves of sound.

Shu picked up her sword and shield, and slowly advanced towards Akhen. When she was barely half a kilometre from him, she drove her double-edged sword into the ground up to the hilt guard. Akhen watched her every move as she unscrewed the end of the hilt, withdrawing a red crystal. Then opening the silver filigree cage between her breasts, she removed the other red crystal. Holding both crystals, one in each hand, she glanced across the half kilometre gap to where Akhen was waiting.

For a moment, she stood there with her hands at her sides calmly looking at Akhen. Despite the bloodthirsty she-devil she had become, her breathtaking beauty was still undeniable to all that witnessed the scene that day. The honey blond hair framing her face fell in soft cascades across her slender back and shoulders towards her breasts, shining with an almost translucent quality. Her slim waist and flat stomach, and the gentle curve of her hips and pear-shaped buttocks, only served to accentuate her femininity. Her long slender legs, despite being blood soaked from the carnage minutes earlier, shone in the reflected heat of the scorching sand.

Shu’s eyes closed briefly. She bent down and placed the crystals on the sand. She slowly released the silk cape from around her neck and the loincloth from her waist and watched them flutter to the ground at her feet. Removing the filigree cage and its gold chain from around her neck, she dropped it to the ground. Then picking up the crystals, her hands scribed an arc towards each other above her head as she stood now completely naked. She looked to where her two hands met. Violent red-lit lightning bolts of energy flashed around her as she absorbed the power of the crystals inside a red protective shield. The two small irregular crystals had merged into one large perfectly formed gem, which now spun above her as she lowered her arms. Her eyes flashed with a stronger intensity than before as the power of the crystal continued to build up inside her.

Akhen dropped to one knee behind the protection of the shield as two powerful red bolts of energy leapt from Shu’s eyes vaporising the air as they cut a path across the gap and struck his defence. The shield’s crystal outer skin absorbed some of the energy before the force sent him flying backwards for several hundred meters until his powerful frame was smashed into a dune in a cloud of dust and sand. Quickly picking himself up he brought the shield up to protect himself yet again as two more of Shu’s energy bolts struck home, sending him further into the irradiated wasteland. Within her protective shield Shu advanced steadily towards him, the glow in her eyes increasing as the crystal’s power continued to grow.

For several hours, the five brothers watched the terrible clash between the two most powerful beings the Earth had ever seen from the edge of the old battlefield, not daring to enter the poisoned irradiated wasteland. Akhen’s shield continued to absorb and fend off the savage power of Shu’s deadly bolts. Despite his enormous strength and stamina, Akhen was bruised and battered by the ordeal but otherwise unhurt. Shu was angrily toying with him now, playing with her victim. Eventually she would tire of the game and move in for the kill. By nightfall, the red lightning bolts of death lit up the surrounding desert as Shu repeatedly bombarded Akhen, each time weakening him by degrees.

Then the course of the battle changed in Akhen’s favour. He noticed the time between charges was lengthening slightly. The energy bolts were still as powerful, but the crystal above her head was draining with each recharge. Taking advantage of a brief lull while Shu’s eyes charged up, Akhen dropped his sword and seized the bow. Fitting the last three arrows from the quiver, he pulled back the bowstring and aimed above the crystal. For a moment, his powerful frame trembled and the triple curved bow creaked in protest under the terrific strain. Taking a deep breath, he briefly relaxed before releasing the deadly trio into the cold night air of the desert. As they spun their way through the darkness, Shu’s face twisted into a deadly mask as the energy in her eyes reached its maximum. Clenching her fists, she prepared to release the deadly bolts. The Nazpa arrowheads struck their target shattering the crystal into hundreds of jagged red shards, which fell to the ground around Shu’s now completely unprotected naked body. The destruction of the crystal caught her unawares. Angered, she directed the last two bolts towards where Akhen had fired from. They buried themselves explosively into the side of a sand dune fifteen kilometres away, turning the grains of sand to liquid that rapidly cooled to form a layer of glass in the freezing temperatures of the desert night.

Shu never heard Akhen’s razor sharp double-edged blade as it spun out of the darkness, until it was too late, moments before it cleaved her heart in two, pinning her to the desert floor.

~~~

When the sun rose the next day, Besal peered into the haze of early morning. A lone shimmering black dot on the horizon slowly moved through a mirage lake steadily towards him. Waking the others, he drew his sword in readiness. Khan, Max, Akkad, and Seti joined him, watching the dot silhouetted by the rising sun, gradually begin to take on a familiar form. “Akhen,” Khan cried, as he ran forward, followed by the others. They eagerly met their bruised and battered brother carrying the lifeless body of Shu over his powerful shoulders. He did not acknowledge their welcome as he continued towards Ur. The brothers fell in step silently behind him as he strode towards the Ziggurat at the centre of the ancient ruins. After climbing its steps he gently laid Shu on the alter stone. Saying nothing, Akhen disappeared towards the river returning two hours later with two massive bails of dried reeds, sandalwood and palm fronds.

All watched as he built a funeral pyre. Using water from the river, he murmured the words of an ancient Sumerian ritual while he gently bathed Shu’s lifeless corpse and anointed her hair with palm oil, while muttering ritualistic incantations. Akhen then carefully plunged his hand through the vicious wound beneath her left breast withdrawing the two halves of her heart and put them on the pyre. Next, he beheaded her and placed it reverently beside the two pieces of her heart. Sprinkling the pyre with palm oil, Akhen struck the blade of his sword with a rock sending sparks into the tinder dry reeds. While the flames of the pyre burned fiercely, the air all around the berserker brothers was perfumed by the smell of the sandalwood and palm oil as Akhen tearfully stood at the head of the pyre reciting an ancient Sumerian poem of farewell. The flames consumed Shu’s head and heart as Akhen’s eyes deepened their ruby red colour.

He commanded his brothers to carry her headless corpse out into the desert and bury her deep below the surface, far away from scavengers. When they returned hours later towards sunset, Akhen had once more departed…

~~~

Next time – Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-One

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Chapter Forty-One – Calm Before the Storm

“Khan,” Seti began.

“What is it?”

“Something’s bothered me since we first came to Gilgama,” Seti continued, swinging the bag containing Ranek across his shoulder.

“Only one?” Max interrupted narrowly sidestepping Seti’s kick to his shins and laughing as the brothers began their journey east to the Shatt–al–Gharraf and south-east to Ur.

“Why didn’t Shu destroy us? She could have done so at any time; I don’t understand it,” Seti said, shaking his head and frowning.

Khan answered Seti’s question as he looked his troubled brother in the eyes. “Because she’s like a cat playing with a mouse. She likes to wound her prey, let it crawl away then strike again, wounding it a little more each time. Killing outright is too quick for her! Sporting with her helpless prey is more entertaining. That she-devil coldly stood by on the sand dune, content to let her berserkers slowly slaughter all our brothers and sisters!” he growled, still angered by the senseless carnage.

“But I still don’t understand why she didn’t finish us when Akhen challenged her,” Seti replied. “She’s far more powerful than we are. She could have simply used the red crystal at any time to destroy us. She could have blown the planet apart with Kalki instead of landing here. Why didn’t she?”

“Who knows how her evil, twisted mind works,” Akhen roared. “There’ll be time to argue about these things after she’s dead!” They drew near to Qal-at-Sukkar, and turned south to follow the river towards Ur. By nightfall, they camped in the ruins of Ash-Shatrah, still blackened from the devastating battle months earlier.

By the light of a small fire, they made their final preparations for the deadly encounter with Shu. Silence reigned over their camp. No more jokes, insults, or smart comments were passed between them as they solemnly applied ancient frightening designs to their bodies, using their fingers as brushes dipped in a mix of goat’s blood and soot, enhancing their fearsome berserker frames, turning themselves into gruesome black and grey apparitions.

Before dawn, Seti put his culinary skills to work one final time, completing the last steps laid down in the ancient weapon’s instructions. Picking up the quiver of arrows and the bag containing Ranek, he silently withdrew and went to a ruined house at the southern edge of the old town. Building a fire, he took a broken clay pot from the wreckage of the house and placed it beside the stones surrounding the fire. Turning to the eastern horizon Seti murmured an incantation in the ancient tongue of the Sumerian’s ancestors, while he opened the bag and pulled the terrified Khaz out by his neck. Drawing his sword, Seti ritually put Ranek to death according to the ancient rights he recited. Picking up the clay pot, he drained Ranek’s body of all its fluids and placed the pot to simmer near the edge of the glowing embers before throwing me dead cousin onto the fire. Adding crushed petals of certain desert plants to the mix in the pot, he continued reciting the incantation. From time to time, he stirred the foul liquid as it simmered gently. When the concoction was ready, he took each arrow and dipped its barbed razor sharp Nazpa arrowhead into the sticky residue. Careful not to touch it, he put the prepared arrow aside to dry close to the fire. When he had coated all the arrowheads he recited the final words of the ancient incantation and placed the arrows carefully back in the quiver.

When the dust settled from Seti’s retreating feet a black desert scorpion stopped for a brief moment on a broken clay tablet, partially covered by sand on the ground beside the fire. It flexed its poison barbed tail before scuttling off into the space between the stones surrounding the dying embers, ahead of the sun’s rays that slowly crept across the ground driving the last remaining shadows of night away. In the sunlight, the rough hieroglyphs on the discarded clay tablet were illuminated. At the centre of the tablet, surrounded by the words of the incantation, was a small area listing the ingredients for the recipe of the deadly cocktail that Seti had used to coat the arrows. At the top of the base-relief carved list, a hieroglyph crudely representing the principal ingredient stared out from the sun-baked clay. Even the Sumerian’s ancestors had encountered us, but at least they had found a good use for the loathsome creatures we had become…

~~~

The six berserker brothers ate a simple breakfast of dates and unleavened bread washed down with water from the river. Akhen used his mighty sword to draw a map in the sand showing Ur and the surrounding region. He gave his brothers their final orders then after embracing each in turn, he slung the quiver and bow over his shoulder hidden beneath his red crystal covered shield, and sheathed his sword. Turning one last time, he waved as he headed south-east towards As-Samawah. Arming themselves, the brothers watched him effortlessly crossing the desert until he disappeared over the horizon, and then they turned south following the river through vast reed covered marshes.

When they finally arrived in An-Nasiriyah, once again they looked towards the ancient ruins of Ur, patiently waiting for Akhen’s signal to attack. (Tuluk, Lek, and Brak hid in the wreckage of the battleground and watched.)

~~~

Shu and the berserkers who made up her personal guard sensed danger in the air. Despite their fearsome strength and frenzied state, they were uneasy. Shu shivered, despite the heat from the sun. Beads of sweat ran down her flawlessly beautiful body smudging the henna coloured designs on her skin and staining the white silk of her thin loincloth and cape in a muddy brown colour. She unconsciously fingered the red crystal in its filigree cage between her breasts. Her heart pounded so loudly that the sound in her ears of blood coursing through her veins deafened her. Her breathing increased as the tension felt by her and her guards mounted. She drew her sword and held her shield in readiness. The guards closed ranks around her, forming a wall with their swords at the ready.

Shu’s stallion reared up on its back legs, his front legs striking at an unseen enemy, his ears pricked and searching for sounds. His nostrils flared. The whites of his eyes showed his overwhelming fear. With one last tug of his strong neck the rope around it finally parted as he galloped like the wind towards the south, his tail and mane flying as he rapidly disappeared into the emptiness of the desert.

Flies and other tiny biting insects danced around the dust devils kicked up by the gentle desert winds of the morning. Marsh dwelling birds rose into the expanse of blue sky, twisting in lazy clouds above the scene before landing once more to feed on small freshwater fish and crustaceans along the marshy river shallows. Small herds of goats nibbled at fresh green shoots in the tough grass along the edge of the swampy reed beds. Camels wandered in search of figs that had fallen to the ground, dried and turned brown by the sun’s heat.

Then, all took fright and fled. A sound more terrible than the combined voices of the six million frenzied berserkers of Shu’s former army split asunder the tranquillity of the peaceful scene, filling the air with the violent reverberation of a thousand thunderclaps. Akhen’s spine tingling, terrifying voice echoed around ancient Ur, bouncing off the ruins in massive bone jarring, ear splitting shock waves. Shu’s eyes opened wide in sheer terror. Khan, Max, Seti, Akkad, and Besal slowly moved towards Ur. With their shields and swords glinting in the sun they once again answered Akhen’s call to arms with their own frenzied berserker war cries.

~~~

Next time – Chapter Forty-Two