It’s Monday and you know what that means: Once more into the breach, dear friends. Let’s not waste anymore time. I have the perfect story for Halloween I want to get to and the season fast approaches.
The Angril River sat bubbling and spitting harsh gases from the bottom of the last gentle slope in the road. It was a far cry from the timid conditions the Imperium crossed south of here. The opposite shore was lost in the haze and ash. Nathan had never seen a river boil before, and it left an ill feeling in his heart.
“The boatman will expect payment for his services,” the assassin told them while they busied with a quick meal.
“Don’t you people make bridges around here?” Nathan asked. He couldn’t see the point in having to pay for a thing so simple.
Laughter rolled off the Viper’s tongue. “It is a league across! Can you swim so far, law man?”
A shudder passed through Emerald when vile memories of the boatman came back to her. It was as if an old horror resurfaced in the darkness of her mind. She hadn’t been here in a long time and clearly didn’t want to go back the closer she got. Furnace Island was not a place she chose to visit without dire need.
Heated waters lapped against the already despoiled shore, melting the sand away to make room for the expanding waters. Vapors managed to break through the seals of their respirators in small amounts. Sweat covered their bodies, and the gases made their stomachs sick. Undaunted, they came the last few meters to the riverbanks and the docks of the boatman. The barge was on the other side of the river finishing a run and wouldn’t be back for an hour.
All they could do was sit and wait.
“Stand guard,” the Viper warned. “This is still a harsh place. Thieves tend to visit while he is away.”
“Where are you going?” Snake Eyes asked when the assassin remounted and turned to ride off.
“To the hilltop to wait and see how long of a wait we have.”
They watched with mistrust as the assassin rode back to the hilltop, not knowing if he intended on staying long enough to find out. Kane bade them rest while they could, for there would little time for such in coming days. Though the rest did them good, it was an uneasy time. Even the slightest noise was a demon, and the shadows beheld a measure of evil. They sat and stared at each other, some drifting off to sleep for a short while. The Viper did return, and he roused them to their feet. The ferry was returning.
Made of mixed metals and aged wood, the ferry broke the waves and stormed ashore. The anchor dropped in an agonizing groan. Not to be outdone, the ramp trembled the ground. The ferry appeared unfit to sail, much less stay afloat, but it was the only crossing for leagues in either direction. A proud standard blew from the pole next to the helm. The background was crimson, and it had a brilliant golden shield in the center with the watching eye and a hammer encased. Emerald shuddered from terrible memories.
Twelve camel-mounted merchants appeared garbed in extravagant silks billowing in the tender breeze. Ornate jewels decorated them in various places, sparkling through the nauseating light. Not so much as a sidelong glance was given to the haggard band of warriors as they passed. The merchants’ guards flanked both sides, and they were watchful. Their dark eyes fell on the group until they had passed, and even then, the last ones turned to make sure Kane and his fellows were getting aboard.
“Great, more wooden benches,” Nathan remarked after stepping aboard.
A massive shadow fell across the leaders, causing them to take a defensive step back — all but the Viper. He stepped forward to meet the boatman without fear. The boatman was a giant of a man, standing eight feet tall with skin the color of chalk. His muscles were huge and bulging under the tunic he wore, and the winds blew through his sparse gray hair. His tail was twitching. He carried a heavy metal staff crowned by a dragon’s head in his right hand, and his empty black eyes stared down on them.
“I am Gaalk, ferryman of the river Angril. You have no need of weapons on my vessel nor reason for fear. No harm comes to those seeking passage. Now please, bring what you have. And we may get underway.”
Gaalk stalked back to the helm under the constant ringing of his staff striking the decks.
“Bring the wagon,” Kane said, and then he and the Viper followed Gaalk.
The pale man wheeled with an outstretched palm. “No one may board without payment, Slayer.”
Kane balked at his words. How did he know?
The blind giant smiled. “You ask yourself how I can see when my eyes have been dead for so long. The winds have whispered your name to me, Aradias Kane. They foretold your coming, and I am but a humble passenger on the journey of your life.”
“We are but five,” the Viper said.
Gaalk laughed, loud and thunderous. “Ah, Viper! I thought I smelled you. It is good to be among friends these days. Five of you there may be, but you shall pay for all seven. Keep hope, for your trickery may not fool me this day, but one day, perhaps.” Coins dropped in his palm. “Welcome aboard.”
The ramp groaned shut, and the boat launched back into the boiling waters. Emerald chose to stay with the horses while everyone else made their way to more comfortable accommodations on the upper deck. Leaving them all to visit with Gaalk went the Viper, for he had more in common with the blind man than he cared to with the rest.
Snake Eyes bumped Nathan with a sharp elbow and asked, “What’s wrong with her?” He hadn’t realized he was staring at her until Snake interrupted him. “Beats me. She has been getting quieter the closer we got to the ferry.”
“Have you tried talking to her?”
A thousand times, he silently said.
Leaning back and casually lighting a cigarette, Snake Eyes said, “There you have it.”
Snake Eyes exhaled a cloud of smoke. “People tend to get a little crazy the closer to death they get.”
Too many emotions were running for Nathan to sort out. He knew he was falling in love with her and hoped she was doing the same. He saw the old visions of a family left behind when they talked, but she made him feel more alive than he’d ever been. He was forty-three this year and finding himself thrown into the tumultuous position of a teenager. Snake’s subtle urging was enough to make him get up and go down to her, much to the other’s delight.
He found her sitting on the wagon’s back step, softly humming to herself. Nathan had to stop and smile. There weren’t many things able to make him do that. Nathan stopped and stared. Her beauty warmed his heart. The simple thought of her made him feel things he hadn’t remembered. Content, Nathan smiled. He found himself studying the way her hair tumbled down over her shoulders, tickled in the winds. Her eyes were bright beyond measure and held a special life in them, especially when they looked upon each other. It seemed almost a shame to disturb her.
“I almost thought there was a song bird down here,” he said, taking a seat next to her.
The sound of his voice made her jump. “You startled me. I wasn’t expecting company, Nathan.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I can go, if you like.”
Her arm wrapped around his. “Who said anything about that?”
They smiled together.
“I do have to ask you,” Nathan said, “what’s the deal with you and this boatman?”
Another shudder passed at the mention of his name. “He scares me,” she whispered.
“That’s not like you.”
A shadow passed behind her eyes.
“He is an Ense. They come from the Northlands, a bitter land of ice and snow. They are demons, every one of them.”
“This one doesn’t seem so bad,” he said in a vain attempt at soothing her pains. He could tell she wasn’t in the mood to tell the whole tale, and that was fine. Judging from her demeanor, he wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.
“Damn it, I’m serious! Theirs is an evil falling short only to the Berserkers.” It took all she had to keep from crying. “Nathan, they killed my father.”
He felt his heart drop at her sorrow. He cried for her, slipping his nervous arm around her slender waist.
“No one’s going to hurt you if I have anything to do with it,” he whispered in her hair.
Her smile was thin, but she said no more.
“You return much sooner than usual,” Gaalk told the Viper. “I’ve got a good job lined up.”
Kane didn’t like how the conversation was going. It was bad enough half of Black Tide and a few raiders knew of their journey, but Gaalk was in a position to talk to too many people.
“How long have you been captain of this ship?” he asked, trying to redirect the topic.
The giant smiled again. “That is an old question. I came to this land ninety years ago, already worn from many decades of war and conquest. The pirates of Furnace Island were having trouble keeping the way open against the Berserkers, so I joined a host of friends seeking glory. And such did we reap! Those were grander days, I’m afraid. I was the youngest of the bunch, and little good it did me. Now I am all that remains.”
He mused to himself for a bit and then continued, “They died over the years; the last must have been fifteen years ago. I’ve been alone ever since.”
Gaalk kept the remainder of the voyage in silence.
“Expect our return by the next full moon,” the Viper told him from atop his horse.
“Until then, may fortune favor you.”
Gaalk left them to their winding road and raised the ramp. He’d been troubled for the last part of their trip and couldn’t figure out why until they off-loaded. There was a smell on the woman he remembered from long ago. Old memories came back to him and turned to nightmares of deeds he was ashamed of. The boat moved in a new direction, but her pilot stayed in the past.