Authors: James Axler
CHILD OF DARKNESS
An orphaned teen with the ability to transform into a vicious whirlwind latches on to Ryan and the companions as they travel through former North Dakota. Her deadly power seems like a boon at first, until it starts to control her. When threatened, she destroys everything in her path...including those she loves. Then a group of outcast fighters kidnaps the young woman and manipulates her—and her terrifying mutation—for their own destructive agenda. With the vortex unleashed, the companions face a tough decision: chill the orphan or perish in her violent wake.
Since the nukecaust, the American dream has been reduced to a daily fight for survival. In the hellish landscape of Deathlands, few dare to dream of a better tomorrow. But Ryan Cawdor and his companions press on, driven by the need for a future less treacherous than the present.
Krysty saw blackness gather above the fallen girl
She couldn’t say where it came from. But it seemed almost as if it were being drawn out of Mariah. Like all the blackness in her tortured young soul.
Krysty wondered if her adrenaline-pumped mind was playing tricks on her, but the orange-haired coldheart standing nearby was clearly seeing it, too. She gave a strangled cry of fear, stumbling back a step. She raised her longblaster as if to ward it off.
The blackness was unquestionably spinning, though Krysty would be hard-pressed to say how she knew that. It began to drift away from Mariah toward the woman who had clubbed her down.
“Get away!” the coldheart yelled. “Back off.”
The cloud seemed to whirl faster. The woman jabbed at it with her rifle butt.
The stock sank into the cloud. And was suddenly yanked into it. The butt shattered, pieces whirling briefly in the cloud before seeming to dissolve.
The coldheart let go of the weapon. But not before her right hand was drawn into the whirlwind of shadow. She screamed.
Krysty saw blood spray, caught in the cloud like water swirling down a drain, and pink shreds of skin. The blackness sucked the coldheart woman in, tore her to pieces and consumed the fragments.
It is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.
—Frederick Douglass, 1818–1895
THE DEATHLANDS SAGA
This world is their legacy, a world born in the violent nuclear spasm of 2001 that was the bitter outcome of a struggle for global dominance.
There is no real escape from this shockscape where life always hangs in the balance, vulnerable to newly demonic nature, barbarism, lawlessness.
But they are the warrior survivalists, and they endure—in the way of the lion, the hawk and the tiger, true to nature’s heart despite its ruination.
Ryan Cawdor: The privileged son of an East Coast baron. Acquainted with betrayal from a tender age, he is a master of the hard realities.
Krysty Wroth: Harmony ville’s own Titian-haired beauty, a woman with the strength of tempered steel. Her premonitions and Gaia powers have been fostered by her Mother Sonja.
J. B. Dix, the Armorer: Weapons master and Ryan’s close ally, he, too, honed his skills traversing the Deathlands with the legendary Trader.
Doctor Theophilus Tanner: Torn from his family and a gentler life in 1896, Doc has been thrown into a future he couldn’t have imagined.
Dr. Mildred Wyeth: Her father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, but her fate is not much lighter. Restored from pre-dark cryogenic suspension, she brings twentieth-century healing skills to a nightmare.
Jak Lauren: A true child of the wastelands, reared on adversity, loss and danger, the albino teenager is a fierce fighter and loyal friend.
Dean Cawdor: Ryan’s young son by Sharona accepts the only world he knows, and yet he is the seedling bearing the promise of tomorrow.
In a world where all was lost, they are humanity’s last hope...
“Wait—there has been a slaughter here!”
A scarf muffled Doc Tanner’s words. Each of his companions had one wrapped around his or her face to give what protection the garment could from the powder snow and dust whipped at them by the unforgiving North Plains late-winter wind.
The seven friends staggered across a bright desert of white. Ryan Cawdor had to lean hard into the bone-cutting wind to keep it from pushing him upright. The snow wasn’t falling, so far as he could tell. The mat-trans jump had delivered them to the rolling prairie of the eastern Badlands of what had been South Dakota, near the border with the former Nebraska, as near as they had been able to tell from J. B. Dix’s minisextant and Doc’s calculations.
Ryan drew his SIG Sauer P226. Doc’s warning cry had indicated no present danger. Had the old man detected an immediate threat, he would have called it out. Doc had been trawled from his time in the 1880s to the 1990s by the whitecoats of Operation Chronos. Doc had proved to be an uncooperative test subject, so he had been thrust one hundred years into the future to what was now known as the Deathlands. The multiple time jumps had addled his brain, and sometimes he wandered in a fog that filled his brain.
But when it came to danger to himself and his friends, he snapped back to the here and now. He had spoken very clearly in the past tense—but Ryan was not put at ease.
If people had been slaughtered, that meant coldhearts, and they might still be in the area.
“Weapons out, people,” the one-eyed man called. He knew that his companions would most likely have their blasters in hand, but he had to be sure. They were all seasoned Deathlands travelers and fighters, but everybody made mistakes. And they were all worn down by hunger, fatigue and the biting cold.
He had his six companions winged out in a vee formation: his lover, Krysty Wroth, to his right; then Ricky Morales; then J. B. Dix, the Armorer. To the left walked Doc, Mildred Wyeth and Jak Lauren. They were spread out far enough they could just keep each other in sight in the storm.
Jak, a slight, skinny albino youth, normally walked, not point, but ranging in advance of the others to scout out danger. Not today. In this nasty storm, which was worse than a thick fog because the wind-blown dust and ice particles stung the eyes and constantly threatened to clog them, Ryan wanted J.B.’s judgment and skill with a blaster, and Jak’s hunting-tiger senses guarding the rear.
That accounted for why the least likely of them all, Dr. Theophilus Algernon Tanner, had spotted something first. Although Doc looked to be pushing seventy hard—if not powering right by—in fact he was roughly the same age as Ryan in terms of years actually lived. It was his time jumps and the abuse he had suffered at the hands of twentieth-century whitecoats that had prematurely aged him and addled his mind.
“Swing left, everybody,” Ryan called. “We need to see what we might be up against—”
A man suddenly appeared, stumbling toward them blindly in the hard driving snow.
“Black cloud,” Ryan heard him mumbling. “The black cloud!”
The one-eyed man raised his handblaster. The man showed no sign of even seeing the companions, even though he was about to blunder right between him and Doc. Ryan had not kept himself alive—to say nothing of his companions—across the length and breadth of the Deathlands by taking anything for granted.
And then the shambling man clearly did see them. Ryan could actually make out his eyes going wide in the gore and filthy mask of his face.
“You mutie bastards!” he screamed. Suddenly he was raising an ax above his head with both hands. “You won’t take me alive!”
* * *
, with slits of polarized glass, protected Hammerhand’s eyes from the wind-lashed snow, dust and grit as he scaled the peak the Plains folk called Gray Top.
Nothing protected the rest of his massive frame. His muscle-packed six-foot-six-inch body was nude from the black topknot surmounting his side-shaved head to the soles of his feet. Susan Crain, the Crow Nation healer and medicine woman he had sought for counsel, had told him that he had to be naked to complete the vision quest.
The rugged granite rock cut into his palms and feet, but he ignored the discomfort. He was inured to hardship, from the abuse and poverty his tribe and own family had inflicted on him, growing up among the Káína people of the great Blackfoot Confederacy of the short grass plains to the north.
Of course, the nuking mushrooms I ate might be helping with that, he thought. The magic mushrooms made him hyperaware, his senses unnaturally keen. Yet they made him somehow less vulnerable to those sensations.
They also deadened fear. But he was used to fighting down the terrors that beset him. He’d done that all his life, as well.
The mountain, which took its name from the gray granite cap rock that rose above its pine-clad slopes and the surrounding Black Hills, stood near the Dead White Man Faces Mountain. It was the tallest in the Hills. It was held to possess great power.
It seemed as good a place as any to find the key to his destiny.
Hammerhand wasn’t sure he believed in all this mystic shit. Then again, he wasn’t sure he didn’t. For nuking sure he’d had to put up with the taunts and barbs of those smug bastard Absarokas in order to consult their well-known shaman.
After a generation or two of peace, the two nations, his Blackfoot Confederacy and the Crow, were back to an on-again, off-again war of mutual raiding and occasional battles. The only reason they hadn’t shot him on sight was that he was a known exile from his native Blood band, a wild child whose wickedness and ambition alike were too great to be constrained by tradition and stick-up-their-butts elders. But his judgment wasn’t trusted widely enough, even by other adolescent warriors, for him to raise his own war band and probe his inner self in any kind of way anyone on the Plains would pay attention to.
Painfully and painstakingly he made his way to the top. That had always been his strength, he reckoned: that he could act with precision or passion, as the need of the moment required. Mebbe both.
It was why he knew himself fit to rule.
The question was how.
. Those questions were what had brought him here: blasted out of his mind, freezing to his marrow and a hundred feet in the air up a cliff of granite made slick by blowing snow, cold enough to dangerously numb the fingers and toes that scrabbled and fought for holds every inch of the tortuous way up.
But Hammerhand persevered. He was good at that, too. That was another way he reckoned he was superior to the people who’d given him life: although they could endure almost anything, and had wizard survival skills, they had a tendency to fly off the handle at random moments. Not at something that required persistence in a physical craft—like skinning a chilled elk or even curing its hide for use in making clothing and lodges—but at anything abstract.
They didn’t have what it took to envision Empire and make it happen. They didn’t have the
Hammerhand did. That part of the vision he had. But he knew he was missing key pieces.
He could see barely past his fingertips when his arms were fully stretched out. For a moment, when through the whirling whiteness he glimpsed rugged gray with only more white beyond—just above his reach—his brain, altered as it was, couldn’t process what its eyes were showing it.
His body came to the rescue. Locked in “climb” mode, it commenced to haul his mass up the cliff again, fingers and toes seeking cracks and jutting icy gray stone. The image of the lip of the cliff resolved itself into his brain: the top!
Seeing a bright line of red and yellow halation following the outline of the rock-sky interface, Hammerhand let his mind ride shotgun as his body pulled itself onto the angled and uneven upper surface. Exercising the power of suggestion as much as his powerful will, he stood upright, bracing slightly against a wind, fierce now that it was unrestrained, that sought to bash him right back over the cliff to oblivion.
“I’m here,” he called into the storm. It seemed he could hear the individual impact of each tiny particle of snow, ice and grit as it banged against the lenses of his glasses.
He looked around and could scarcely see more than ten feet from the tip of his nose. The hilly, wooded country surrounding the peak was invisible.
And then, suddenly, it was before him: a masculine figure, as nude as he was and at least twice as tall, floating six feet above the wind-swept granite. Its every muscle was seemingly molded with great precision out of white light. The brightness of the faceless figure didn’t hurt his eyes. But the golden radiance that surrounded it dazzled him through his shades, making him blink and try to turn away.
He found that he could not.
a voice said like thunder.
“Kneel before me.”
“Who are you?” he demanded. He was determined not to let the...thing...see his fear. Even though he had the drug to deaden it, his knees were so loose he was only keeping himself upright by the force of his will.
“I am your destiny. Kneel before me.”
“I’d rather die standing!”
“It is not permitted,”
the voice boomed.
“Nor is disobedience. I am Fate.”
The willpower that held his knees locked shattered like glass struck with a hammer. His legs folded abruptly beneath him. It was all he could do to keep from going over backward on his buttocks.
Then, irresistibly, he felt his torso being winched upward, until he sat up straight. He could feel his muscles doing it, but not by his will, nor under his control.
“You see that resistance is futile, Hammerhand.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Only to give you that which you most desire, what you have come here to obtain, naked, freezing and electric.
“Now, hear me...”