Midnight found them three leagues from Black Tide. Progress was relatively swift in comparison to the dangers. Then again the roads east were far less perilous than any path leading deeper into the Wastes. The wagon creaked along the windswept road with two of them driving, guarded closely by the other four on horseback. Kane rode point and was but a ghost lost in the far off shadows. Their faces were grim and determined, every one of them questioning the decision to come along.
There was no calmer place for Kane. He enjoyed the silence the desert lent him. It gave him time to think and find new inspirations. The way was dark and cunning, for the moons had yet to rise. Kane found no problems with the lack of light. He knew the way to Furnace Island both by the open desert and the main roads. If trouble came, they’d be able to slip away into the sands and make their way roundabout. Part of him wished the Viper had decided to join them. It would have made things smoother in the least.
He stopped to look back at the wagon from time to time. Two lanterns hung from the sides of the drivers, giving just enough light to show the riders. No doubt the lights were a comfort against the night, but to Kane, they were beacons for disaster. Raiders could see the pale light from a goodly distance. The Slayer rode on.
They’d only been underway for a few hours, and Nathan was already fidgety. The wagon’s hard wooden benches were much worse than the continuous undulating movements of a horse walking. His displeasure soon turned to amusement as he imagined the old style westerns where armed men rode shotgun on the barrel-shaped coaches rumbling across the plains. The similarities were many. Nathan’s job was to protect the driver, Xill, if and when they were attacked.
They were out there, just out of sight, waiting for the right moment to strike; of that, he was sure. He cursed his insecurities and tried to find a way of encouragement for the duration of the trip. It seemed each new day presented imaginative ways to twist his concepts of what was real or not. Still, he couldn’t deny the latent majesty lurking just under the surface.
Nathan didn’t know much about empires or what the Wastelands were like a thousand years ago, but he recognized potential- whether it be past or future. There was quality in the people. Quality he found lacking in many of those he met on his own planet. None of that mattered when it came to danger. Everything about the Wastes screamed danger. From the poisonous snakes lurking just under the top layer of sand to the intense heat from dual suns.
“There is no need to fear the night,” Xill said with a faint smile. He noticed how the human had been looking at him. “The desert will either accept us or reject us. It is not for us to decide. Enjoy your time; there will be so little of it in coming days.”
“We have deserts back home, but nothing like this,” Nathan said.
“There are no deserts on my world. The sky is a constant shade of vermilion. Mountains dot the landscapes, forcing us to live on high plateaus above the clouds. We go down into the forests below to hunt; grave are the dangers faced therein. My people are not the dominant predator. The Jen’hasan stalk the forests, terrible cannibals who thrive on the kill.” His voice trailed off to a whisper.
“The universe is a dangerous place.” Xill smiled, and fell silent. He would talk no more of this.
The silence was welcomed; Nathan quickly learned when not to push things. He could tell Xill had something painful he didn’t want to talk about. Which made them even. The pains of the past often haunted the present and were much to powerful to speak of unless in the most dire circumstance.
Trailing just behind the driver’s bench, Emerald was in a position to hear all of it. She sympathized with Xill’s pain, for she had lost her father to terrible monsters in the frozen Northlands long ago. The very same monsters responsible for bringing ruin to the old empire. She knew the tales by heart. Every child of the Wastes did. Only for Emerald there was a sense of longing that came with the telling. As if she belonged in those final moments.
Shaking the feeling crawling down her spine, she clicked her tongue to urge her horse forward. It was past time she confronted the one thing on this journey that left a sour taste in her mouth. Emerald needed to clean the slate between her and Aradias. It may not come to any good, but she was sure to feel better in the long run. Kane wasn’t getting any younger and was already deep-set in his ways, so there might be nothing to gain from another conversation of the same. The decision proved difficult, but she chose to sit back and wait for the right time.
“There has to be something,” she muttered to herself in defense of her decision.
Her heart jumped at the sound of another voice. Emerald let out a long sigh when Snake Eyes rode out of the night.
“I hadn’t realized I had company,” she said in a smoothed voice.
He smiled. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were so deep in thought, though it is a bad habit to talk to yourself. Insanity and all. Care to share?”
“It’s nothing important,” she answered. Her trust was limited, and there were too many layers to this soldier. “But if you must know, I was thinking about this damnable cast. I should have had it off in Black Tide.”
Snake Eyes smiled with remembrance of those times his own bones had been locked inside a cast. “Itches, huh?”
“Try and think of something else, and you won’t even notice it. Trust me,” he said before she could protest. “I’ve had my share of broken bones.”
“Sure, I just want it off. Now.”
“Come on, now. There has to be something out there that can capture your interest.”
Snake Eyes fell silent and quietly guided his mount back around the wagon. The night was almost serene if not for the creaking wagon. The noise distracted him, leading him to think they were making more noise than a tank. Or maybe it was the fact that they were supposed to be moving in secrecy that made things loud. In truth, the only thing he was able to make out was the man behind the wagon.
The Mad Hosking was riding somewhere behind them. None of the others were overly fond of his presence and more than content with letting him range in the unseen distance behind. They viewed him as naught but a liability. Not even he managed to fit in with this ragged assortment of characters. Kane’s decision to accept his offer was very odd, for the man was quite mad and had the opportunity to send them all to disorder given the chance. Snake looked behind him once and continued his pace.
Kane suddenly steered around to the wagon, slightly slumping forward in his saddle. “We have gone far enough for tonight. Set up camp, and look after the horses. We start again in a few hours.”
The grateful wagon creaked to a halt, and both horses snorted their approval. Nathan wasted no time in jumping down to stretch his aching body. The wagon ride was by far the worst trip he’d ever taken. They judged they were still close enough to Black Tide to be safe from raiders, so Xill started a small fire to cook their meager breakfast. Soon, the smells of cured meat and coffee wafted together. Stomachs filled and bodies sore, the travelers slumped down on their sleeping mats for a quick rest before the trek was begun anew.
Content with where he was, Hosking was enjoying himself. He purposely kept himself beyond the pale fingers of light. There was a comfort in the night. Helscape’s night predators were of little concern, for he was one of them now. Tonight had become the dawning of a new era for him. He stopped for a quick drink of water and let out a stifled yawn. The night was getting old, and it was time for a break.
The delicacies carried to him by the smoke were more than enough to rouse his suspicions. He’d been following them for some time, making sure to stay just on the edge of the horizon. Close enough to watch them and far enough away not to be seen. His intent was known only to him, and he was fully prepared to play the game of cat and mouse as long as he needed to — so long as his nose smelled the danger surrounding them. He always wormed closer when the wagon stopped. There was evil all around, and the noose was constricting.
Oh to be sure he was a welcomed, if estranged, member of their merry band of misfits. He didn’t care. They served his purpose, not the other way around. Each could die without causing much trouble to his anointed purpose. Even in death there was the raw potential for accomplishment. Hosking knew what was coming. And only he was given the foresight for success. Unfortunately, he needed the others. The fate of the Wastes depended on the men and women riding across her harsh sands. Yonash Hosking sat and stared into the empty sands.
A golden halo of fractured colors stretched across the skyline, announcing dusk’s arrival. Kane halted them again, if for an hour only. It was still hot, if momentarily so. Once the twin suns broke the horizon the desert would cool down impossibly fast, making it dangerous to continue traveling without proper precautions.
“Have you ever seen a sight so beautiful?” Emerald asked Nathan as he handed her a canteen.
“I can think of a thing or two.” He smiled through a mouthful of cheese.
She gave him a sidelong glance, careful not to miss any of the transformation. “Oh, really? It’s odd, I think.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“I’ve lived out here my entire life, and I’ve never sat down to watch the sunset. I never thought beauty existed out here.”
“I’ve spent my life ignoring the sunset,” he replied. “Maybe now I finally have something to watch for.”
She squeezed his hand. “It’s good to have something to live for, Nathan.” For good or bad, who was to say?
Kane’s whistle announced it was time to go. She smiled at Nathan and climbed atop her horse. They were still days away from the ford on the Angril River and even further from the main city of Redemption on Furnace Island.