“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the feeling of sand everywhere,” Snake Eyes groaned as he emptied one of his boots.
Xill snorted amusement, going through the same motions from his place across the fire. Sand was one of the more interesting substances the Crendaphidian had encountered during his time in the Imperium. Soft yet course, it managed to worm into places he didn’t think he had and was irritating beyond belief. It seemed nothing the Imperium had designed was successful in preventing the personal invasion. Xill empathized with his sergeant, even if he’d never admit it aloud.
Nathan grinned, having plenty of his own experiences in deserts before this. “What makes you think you’re supposed to?”
“Just because we’re marching into gods only know what doesn’t mean we can’t be comfortable along the way,” Snake Eyes quipped while waggling an accusatory finger. “Dying in comfort is the least we deserve.”
“Comfort?” Xill questioned. “We would not be here if comfort was priority.”
“Says you. I’m not a hero and I don’t want to be either. Heroes wind up doing stupid squaffa that get them killed out of hand.”
Nathan shook his head. “You mean like marching into the depths of the enemy stronghold with only a handful?”
“Not the best handful either,” Emerald chimed in from near her horse. “Most of us are beat up, broken physically or mentally.”
“It makes it all the more fun,” Snake Eyes sniped.
“If you say so,” Xill shrugged.
Wind swept over the dunes, transforming the landscape endlessly as day after day drudged by. A barren plain, at least in appearance, without sound save for the rustle of wind. Those who had grown up in the desert seldom noticed the tranquility. Those who hadn’t, like Nathan, found it almost enchanting despite the inherent dangers.
The tiny band marched another full night before resting. Much of the going was relatively easy. The road was hard-packed, almost permanent, giving the wagon enough purchase to roll easily. Not that ease of passage meant much for Nathan’s backside. The hardwood plank, naturally un-cushioned, ground against him with each minor bump and jolt. One day into the journey and almost regretted not being on a horse. Still, the wagon was the lesser of two evils as far as he was concerned.
Argots soared overhead, seemingly playing on the winds. Their leathery wings snapped and stretched without effort. Not unlike vultures on Earth, the birds didn’t seem interested in eating. Nathan watched them soar and was content with knowing there was nothing dead in the immediate radius. A minor condolence considering how hot his skin was after only a few minutes of baking.
“I think Snake Eyes has the right of it,” he half whispered to Xill.
The Crendaphidian kept driving. “How so?”
“The desert sucks.”
Xill cocked his head at the odd reference. He’d been stationed on half a dozen worlds and ran across hundreds of languages and dialects. Few were as simple yet confusing as Earth’s.
After a few moments of thought Xill asked, “What is your planet like? Is everyone as straightforward as you seem?”
“There’s a word I’ve never been called. My ex-wife never saw it that way. She claimed I was beyond confounding.” He shrugged. “Her words. I just tried to live like any normal man. It wasn’t my fault what I saw and did in the war never really left.”
Xill nodded. “It never does. Leave. We are each to be haunted for the rest of our days for the deeds of the past. War is not meant for the faint of heart, Nathan Bourne. Only the fools engage in violence on such grand scale.”
“Fools and madmen.”
“You never answered my question,” Xill said.
Nathan interlocked his fingers and then flexed them. “About being straightforward? I wouldn’t know. Each man is different but the end result always seems the same. Wars plague our world. Most are without meaning. Petty warlords attempting to gain control over a neighbor. Greed and jealousy often spawn conflict. We pretend that peace is important even though violence is so deeply rooted in our culture it is only a lie. People like to talk out of both corners of their mouths in the hopes of seducing you to like them while attempting to rob you blind. Straightforward? Only if you know what to expect.”
Xill said, “That is…a sad world.”
“If you only knew.”
Emerald brushed a lock of flaming red hair from her face. “How much longer are we going to let this stand between us, Kane?”
For his part, Kane wasn’t in the mood for a conversation he knew must be had. Their quest was underway and there was no way Emerald was going to change her mind. As much as he respected her stalwart attitude he hadn’t come to terms with being responsible for her safety- regardless of her insistence he wasn’t. He exhaled softly, hoping she wouldn’t notice.
She did. “We need to clear the air, Kane. You know it.”
“It is not an easy thing to discuss,” he said much too slow for her liking.
“I know. You’ve looked after me from the moment I first met you. It has been an honor and privilege to rise under your tutelage, Kane. That doesn’t give you the right or authority to treat me like a child any longer.”
He clenched his jaws, unsure where to take the conversation. Kane never realized that option wasn’t his.
Emerald cut him off. “I may not have as storied a legend as the great Aradias Kane but my name is well known. You know this. We go through life trying to piece together whatever we can in the hopes that tomorrow will be brighter than today. That’s why I’m here. Not for you. Not for any other ideal aside from helping the people of the Wastelands.”
“They will never know your deeds,” Kane countered. “Ours is meant to be a solitary life. People appreciate what we do without bothering to acknowledge it. Don’t go looking for words of thanks where none will be found.”
“Does that include with you?” she asked.
“It has to.”
His reply was naught but a whisper. Emerald scowled, but resisted the urge to lash out. Any further burst of anger would only sever their relationship further. What she needed was a cool head. Pulling a canteen, she drank deep before going back to the issue at hand.
“Kane, what exactly do you want from me, from us? We’ve worked together before. Name me two people in all the Wastes who can work better as a team?”
“That’s not it, Emerald,” Kane replied.
She reined in and wheeled on him. “Then what? What is burning inside you that you feel the need to shove me away?”
He held up the stump of his wrist, ensuring she got a good look. “This is why. The Berserkers have nothing standing between them and total domination of the world. I’ve already failed. More than once. I’ve failed all my life. You can’t be another failure on that list. I…I couldn’t bear it.”
Emerald softened. “Oh Kane, you can’t blame yourself for your parents. You were but a boy. That event focused your life, made you into the man you are today. It wasn’t your fault any more than losing your hand or me nearly getting killed in the Gap. It’s just war. We don’t have the power to control or change it.
“If I die, and I’ll be the first to admit I might, it will rest solely on my head. You didn’t force me to come. Didn’t make me want to go on this mad, fool quest. I am here because of some inherent need rumbling around in my mind. Nothing else. Nothing.”
Kane’s hand lowered. The hard tack of his face softened. He remembered now, here on what he hoped was the path to salvation, why he admired her. In truth, she was a far better person than he could ever hope to be. He was, he now understood, proud of her. Fresh strength flowed into his heart.
“Thank you, Emerald. My eyes have been veiled for so long. Cast asunder by the plague we go to confront. The battle in McGregor’s Gorge left me more jaded than I had believed.” He paused, choosing his next words carefully so as to not leave any doubt. “I am glad you have come. For should we meet our ends, I can think of no better person to have standing at my side.”
They embraced for the first time in a very long time. Kane suddenly felt waves of built up tension flow away, leaving him invigorated. If only every wound could heal so fast. Emerald would later claim that her cheeks had reddened because of the sun not his words.
“Anyone know what this Redemption place is like?” Snake Eyes asked between mouthfuls of a poor traveler’s stew made of old meat and out of season vegetables snatched from an abandoned Imperium warehouse. He grimaced at the taste despite being thankful it was filling.
“Worse than here,” Emerald replied.
Nathan looked up from where he poked his spoon through his bowl. “What could be worse than here?”
“You’d be surprised.”
“I don’t think I want to be,” he said. “I’m done for surprises.”
Nathan looked up to see Kane staring quizzically. Suddenly he felt guilty. Nathan lowered his head, refusing to look the Slayer in the eye. It felt almost as if he was being warned without actual words. He didn’t know what to expect.
Suddenly concerned, Kane abandoned the conversation to stalk off into the desert, beyond the fringe of the pale glow of firelight. His mind was in turmoil and there would be no ease among his friends despite their easy-going manners. Working with others had never been an issue but he didn’t feel as comfortable as he did when alone.
Hands clasped behind his back, the Slayer tilted his head back and closed his eyes. The night was still fresh, a newborn entering the world. He enjoyed this time. The crossing of two worlds. So much possibility rested in these fragile moments. The promise of a new day. A new life. He never stopped dreaming, for to do so would mean the end of all he’d striven for over the course of his long life.
The briefest hint of wetness touched his eyes when they reopened. Gazing skyward, Kane said, “You put me here for a reason, though I don’t presume to understand why. The Berserkers are the real danger yet I cannot but help to feel like we are working against ourselves. What more can I do? The others have made up their minds and willingly march at my side. Are their deaths to be my epitaph?”
Leaving would be so easy. Wait for his turn on guard and slip away without a trace. Slayers were good at that. He could be back in Black Tide before the others made up their minds which path to follow. But would they carry on without him? Keep going to Redemption to find the wizard and then plunge downward towards the Berserker Hive? They’d be throwing away their lives and the guilt would gnaw at him until insanity shredded his already fragmented mind.
He sighed in frustration. “I never wanted this. Any of it. If only I could slip away in the middle of the night. They deserve better than what I suspect awaits.”
“What difference would it make?”
Kane tensed, turned. The Mad Hosking emerged from the night, impossibly quiet and bearing a wild look. Kane hadn’t even noticed the man was missing from the fire discussion. He slid his hand closer to his side arm.
“If I wanted to harm you I would of,” Hosking said, immediately interpreting the movement. “I am not your enemy, Kane.”
“So you claim, but none of us truly understand your motives,” Kane said.
Hosking shrugged and raised both hands. “I don’t understand them either, but it doesn’t matter.”
“Why not?” Kane asked.
“Because none of this matters. We will either live or die. The choice isn’t ours. Death will come to rob us all in the end.”
Hosking ambled away, leaving Kane more confused than before.
Events on Helscape were transpiring faster than any imagined. The balance of all life threatened to tip, irrevocably barreling towards a final collision from which the future remained in grave doubt. Time, while not yet a foe, enabled the final act of a conflict that had raged for centuries. Two hundred years of torment and misery interlaced with moments of human brilliance and, on occasion, victory, were about to end. One way or the other. The only question was how.