Father’s Day weekend is in the books and boy was it a good one. Hope you all had the same, whether you are a father or were celebrating one. Now, enough of the nice stuff. Let’s get back to the fight.
The Crazy and the Damned
This was the first night Emerald went to sleep with a smile in many long years. She’d never found anyone she could talk to so deeply before, and there he was without her even looking. They’d spent hours just talking as two old friends who hadn’t seen each other for years might. She didn’t think they’d even gotten around to having a drink.
The arrival of the man from Furnace Island threw everyone off but was quickly set aside once the message was delivered to Kane. Nathan ignored all of his internal warnings and found a way to enjoy what remained of his night. Never in his wildest imagination did he think to stumble across Emerald. Especially not in the middle of a war-torn desert gone mad.
Emerald, for her part, enjoyed every word of conversation. So much of her life had been bent with violence she almost forgot a large portion of her humanity. It was no easy thing to ride the deserts in search of an enemy that only offered two options. More than once she caught herself staring into his foreign eyes, forgetting all of the trials that had forged their bonds, making them what they were. It was only towards dawn that they parted company with the promise of seeing each other again later.
Nathan Bourne. His name kissed her lips as she drifted off to sleep.
Shadows had become Yonash Hosking’s best friends. They covered his movements and stood watch over him while he slept. They offered him a thing more precious than any of his previous life experiences. They gave him comfort. The enemy lurked at every turn, and the shadows kept him safe with anonymity. He was now become the hunter, always stalking the great beast of myth and lore.
Tonight offered him something different, something special for his self-imposed sufferings. He was off in the shadows of an alley humming an old childhood song taught to him by his mother when the bar doors swung open and two men stepped out. They were men who carried faint recognition to him. Sergeant, his mind struggled to remember. The word sparked him back to the military. What was his name? Kimel! That’s it. Sergeant Kimel, he proudly told himself. They had, at one point in his brief career, been assigned to the same company. It must have been years ago now, he mused. He watched the pair stalk off and smiled. This was going to prove interesting. Hosking snatched up his rifle and picked up the trail, cautious to stay far enough back not to be seen. The night still had many hours left in it and even more secrets yearning to be discovered.
“We are going to Redemption,” Kane announced to the gathered crowd the following sundown.
Snake Eyes grinned and said, “I imagine we all are before we die. Where’s this coming from?”
“Redemption is a city on Furnace Island,” Emerald chimed in. “Not the place you’d care to vacation in.”
“Indeed,” Kane agreed. “A pirate haven filled with hundreds of volcanoes and dangers unimagined. We are headed there first.”
“For any particular reason? Or are we on a sight-seeing trip?” Snake wasn’t too sure about this one. “My understanding is that the Berserker Hive is to the west, not east.”
“The man Nathan brought to me last night came with information that may prove useful if we are going to succeed. Apparently, there is a wizard there awaiting us. He seems to have taken special interest in our endeavors and is offering assistance.”
“And the only way to get his help is to go to him first,” Xill finished. “How much longer does this add to the schedule?” Nathan asked.
“Fifteen days,” the Viper answered. He knew the wizard well enough but decided to keep his opinions private. “Takes three to reach the ferry and another two to get to the town.”
His red eyes carried a distant look from behind the veil of his darkened glasses. They were focused on a king’s ransom. One man had a better chance at sneaking down into the Hive than ten. Perhaps Kane wasn’t that far off the mark when he suggested the former treasury of the old empire still remained in the Berserker caverns. A cunning man might just find a way to fill his purses without getting caught. A clever man indeed.
“Watch your backs there,” Emerald warned. “They’ll cut you down in the blink of an eye if you’re not careful.”
Snake Eyes turned to the assassin and said, “Sounds like your kind of place. Real friendly.”
“This lengthens matter considerably, at least another hundred leagues,” the Viper continued, ignoring Snake’s sarcasm. “Seems you have quite the adventure unfolding.”
“It is not a choice I was given. This wizard may prove the difference between victory and defeat. How far along are we with getting supplies?”
“I’ve scraped enough water skins together to last each of ya five days,” Braxton said.
“There’s no transports available, so yer going ta have ta use a wagon. Got my man Rolf working on that.”
“We’ve got enough medical supplies, provided nothing extraordinary happens along the way,” Snake Eyes added.
Emerald said, “Nathan and I are in the process of buying travel rations, and I think I’m coming with you.”
There wasn’t much surprise in her announcement. Kane had known Emerald for a long time, and she always stepped up when the fires got too hot. He’d tried to keep her from joining the Imperium war, and they’d both come home crippled.
“You won’t be of much use with your leg like that,” he said in weak defense.
Emerald scowled. “You will be with your hand like that? You know better than most that I can handle myself, Aradias. Godhelm says the cast can come off in a week. I’ll be as good as new by the time we reach Redemption, and you’re going to need all the help you can get. Just for once I’d like you to admit that. You’ll find things flow much smoother when you do.”
The Viper had been enjoying the debate when he noticed the passing shadow of movement outside the window.
“What was that?” he asked the instant his falcon launched.
“What was what?” Nathan asked, rising to his feet.
“Don’t move. Not yet,” the assassin warned as he drew his blaster. Snake Eyes and Xill did the same but slunk back to cover the door.
“Am I the only one who can’t see what’s going down around here?” Nathan asked to no one in particular. He watched Emerald and Skrapp move to covering positions on the assassin’s flanks.
“Lawman,” he whispered, “when I count to three, you pull those curtains down and duck. Real fast unless you care to get shot.”
Nathan held his tongue against his better judgment and mouthed, “Don’t shoot me.”
His heart was beating faster, reminding him of his vice days. The Viper had a cold smile on his face.
His thumping heart drowned out every other sound. It wasn’t fear. He’d been involved in this type of situation numerous times. This was adrenaline.
The heavy fabric ripped to the floor, following Nathan down in a careless heap. A shadow behind the window danced away, chased by a steady stream of blue-tinged ion rounds melting through the glass. The wall of the building opposite them burst into open flame in a cloud of dust. The assassin was in the window frame a second later and firing down after the fleeing shadow.
“He’s moving around the front!”
Xill and Snake Eyes were already halfway down the hall by the time the Viper helped Nathan up. Blaster fire rang in his ears, but he didn’t let that slow him. Whoever the man in the window was, the others felt he was dangerous enough to hunt down. He wondered if it was the gray pirate from the night before.
Temperatures were dropping fast, chilling their exposed flesh the instant they stepped outside. Xill rounded the corner and collided with a cloaked man stumbling from one of the bars. Both went down, the wind knocked from them. Another volley sliced the air above their heads. They missed the prone men and exploded against a wall, narrowly missing Snake Eyes. Rock and wood splinters pelted him to his knees.
“Watch where you’re shooting!” Snake cried.
The Viper was already across the street. “Stay out of the way, then.”
Nathan rushed forward and helped Xill up. The spy was moving faster than they had previously thought and was almost out of sight. Snake Eyes was on the assassin’s heels down the alley. The Viper’s cloak was as dark as eternity, thus making him all but impossible to find in the night.
“Where is he?”
They caught the fluttering beam of light coming halfway down the next alley.
Both men fired at the same time. Blue bolts blinded the night, but they both missed. Nathan was watching events play out and ran for the cutoff. He had once let a monster escape and was determined not to let the same mistake happen twice. He was at the corner in no time with his blaster leveled at the next thing to come his way. The spy came faster than anticipated. Nathan was still breathing heavily and trying to regain his composure when the spy came creeping out of the alley.
“Stop where you are and throw the weapons down, or I’ll kill you where you stand.”
The spy halted. Nathan could see the madness working behind his eyes. He laughed in his captor’s face but was wise enough not to move. Nathan got that old nervous feeling he got every time he was forced to fire his weapon on the job. He didn’t want to kill the guy, but he wasn’t giving Nathan much of a choice.
“I said drop the fucking rifle. Now!”
The madman smiled. Snake Eyes and the Viper’s sudden entrance gave him the opportunity he needed. He roared and raised the rifle high in the sky. Ion rounds launched into the heavens in rage, showering sparks down on both men. Nathan turned to protect his face while Snake and the assassin ducked back into cover. The madman bolted down the next alley.
Some of the more curious citizens awakened by the ruckus were poking their heads from windows and doors all along the alley, eager to catch a glimpse of the disturbance. They questioned where the City Watch was but would have nothing to do with the affair. This was a matter belonging to others. However, the thrill remained. Running gunfights were a seldom seen event in Black Tide, and this was definitely worth savoring.
The madman continued down the dark and dusty alley. He could smell his victory, breathing in the rush of his narrow escape. Only darkness stood before him and freedom, and it felt good. He never saw the mass of gray flesh come barreling out of the shadows to take him down. His breath was crushed from his lungs when the full weight of the man landed on his chest. He was caught!
“Hold him, Xill!”
Dust washed his face, sneaking into his eyes, mouth and nose. His lungs burned from lack of oxygen. Tears clogged his eyes. And through it all, he remembered a name. Xill? The other three were upon him before his deliberations had the chance to conclude.
“All right,” Nathan panted, “turn him over, and let’s see what we’ve got.”
The madman felt his cloak torn from him, exposing him to the world. He instantly felt naked and insecure. Where was the night to comfort him?
“By the Gods,” a voice exclaimed.
“I don’t believe it,” another whispered.
“Kill him and get it over with,” suggested another.
“It’s Lieutenant Hosking!”