Four days came and went amid much turmoil and discussion, and the Misfortune drew closer towards her goal. Kane led them aboard the launch with a somber air, for wizards were a fickle sort, recluse and deceptive. Thalon stayed with them to guide them the rest of the way, much against his liking. He’d never felt comfortable on land where a thousand things could go wrong. But it was he, out of the entire crew, who had been the distance to the wizard’s home and back, and it was his task to finish.
The launch ran aground a short while later, and the passengers disembarked in a file. They could make out the rise and fall of a city on the horizon. The old pirate explained that it was halfway between Redemption and the northern port of Une.
“That is Kratchen,” he pointed. “It’s not near as rough as Redemption or Doom Town and hardly as inhospitable, but there are bad spots. We will do well to avoid them.”
They found a transport awaiting them, probably at the wizard’s request, making their journey slightly more enjoyable. The ride was stiff and filled with bumps, but it saved them from walking the two miles into town.
“There is the statue of Krinson Haddle,” Thalon announced. There was a certain regality to his voice. “It was he who rose up against the Berserker oppression and fought to keep us free. Every child on the Isle knows Haddle’s deeds. Heroes are few and far between and are necessary for our continuation. Krinson Haddle will remain a hero for the people to look to when the hour grows dark.”
Nathan leaned close to Emerald so only she could hear and asked, “Why have I seen that face before?”
“He was born in the old empire and was the guardian protector of the King’s daughter, Jiena,” she explained. “Legend tells that he was ordered to abandon his king in the darkest hour to save the rest of the royal line. He escaped the Berserker armies and returned some years later with an army of his own. They retook Furnace Island but were unable to get back into the desert.”
“And from that, the Wastelands are the way you know them now,” Thalon interrupted. “Had he only been able —”
“For some reason, this place seems worse than all the others,” Nathan said.
They wormed past a crudely constructed fence and came to a stop outside of a broken-down inn. The wood was old and rotted, and it had shingles peeling from the roof. The windows were blocked from the inside with a dark fabric, and they could smell smoke coming from the cracks in the frame. Thalon jumped off, telling the pirate twins to guard their guests until he found out if it was safe. Their yellow eyes flared against their blue skin as each nodded.
“Great boss you’ve got,” Snake Eyes snorted. He didn’t like the idea of placing his life in the hands of others.
Kuln, the ship’s cook, shrugged. “It’s not my place to decide. I prepare the food and fight when I get the chance to. The only reason I’m even here to begin with is because I was born here.” His voice turned angry. “What’s your story, soldier boy? We heard the Imperium was cutting its losses and turning to run. Why are you still here?”
“I don’t know. Revenge sounds like such a harsh word, and desperation is too far gone to be of any use,” Snake Eyes replied with a rude twist. “I’m a risk taker, buddy, and I couldn’t find a better way to pass the time.”
Time crept slowly. The tension between Kane’s party and the pirates thickened with the growing day, but nothing more was said after Snake’s retort. Nathan found himself wondering what Emerald was going to do with him and her father. She’d promised not to make any decisions until they re-boarded the Misfortune and took port in Redemption. Nathan let out a long sigh. He had thought all of his relationship troubles were behind him on Earth.
Thalon finally emerged from the dank inn with an old man behind him. The pirate’s clothes stunk of filth and smoke and were covered with sweat. He had the look of a man who desperately needed to get off dry land. The man behind him was a different story. His robes were full and flawless, made from a more civilized age and protected with a spell to keep them whole. His beard was pure silver and close kept to his chin. His gaze cast deep, though much of the spark of life was already faded.
“My friends, this is the wizard Ganelin.”
The wizard smiled. “Nonsense. My friends call me Gage.”
“Gage, Ganelin, all the same,” Hosking laughed. “All die in the end. Yes, we die.”
Kane removed his hat and bowed in respect, ignoring the madman. He’d learned of this old wizard and the deeds of his kind when they’d first arrived and saw it only right to pay respects. The wizard smiled and pushed back his robes of billowing crimson and gold. He recognized that this was his final hope at finishing his task and returned the bow.
“I have been waiting for two hundred years for this day,” he said in cracking voice. Much emotion tried to win free, but he held it back. “The liberation of the Wastelands and my return home. My sins will soon be held accountable, but let us not talk of such things now. Come, we have much to prepare.”
It took another full day’s ride before they arrived at the home of Gage the wizard. The house was bereft of glory, future or past, and was made of simple brick, stone and steel. Nathan had been expecting something vastly different. Simply put, it was a well-lived in house, quaint and homely. The sweet smell of fresh-baked bread mixed with herbs and ancient potions greeted them at the door.
Gage left them with instructions to put up their gear and disappeared not long after. His personal assistant was on his way, he explained, rounding the corner. They were beginning to remember what it was like to breathe real air again when Klaa ambled his way towards them. The smallish creature bowed low and introduced himself, the force of his telepathy dizzying those who hadn’t encountered a Kordite before. He smiled without emotion and explained that the effects would soon pass.
He welcomed them in his own fashion, ushering them into his home quickly. Another storm was rumbling down across the valleys, and it would do well to be inside while it passed. They soon found themselves standing in a large, circular room filled with chairs and old, dusty bookcases. The wizard’s library. Klaa offered them seats and to help themselves with the two bottles of off-world whiskey sitting on the marbled table in the center of the room. A small fire burned in the fireplace on the far wall.
“That was nice of the little guy,” Snake Eyes said, watching Klaa move off to the kitchens to finish preparing dinner.
“I’m starting to get the feeling that no one wants much to do with us,” Nathan said. He didn’t like being invited and then left on his own. “This is a waste of time.”
Emerald clutched his arm, shaking her head. “Give them a chance. Remember, this could mean the difference between life and death.”
“Yeah, but for whom?”
Alone and in an unfriendly world, they sat and drank. There were no stories of old, no dreams of future celebrations to be passed around. Night rolled in, and still there was no sign of their hosts. The heavy liquor helped calm their rumbling stomachs but did little to ease their suspicions. They’d been there for hours and had not seen one glimpse of either host.
“If this wizard is so damned important, why is he toying with us like puppets? Is it we who need him or the other way around?” the Viper scoffed.
Snake Eyes looked up. “For once, I agree with him. This is ridiculous. We could be halfway across the desert by now.”
“We need him to survive,” Kane said, trying to defuse the situation before it got any worse. “If his being there means some of you will go home again, I will not attempt to dissuade him.”
“Ever the hero,” the assassin laughed. “Your nobility sickens me.”
Klaa returned to lead them to the dinner table before Kane had the chance to reply. He stayed with them while they ate, answering what questions he could. The food was exotic and flavorful, filled with spices and seasoning. Their trembling stomachs satisfied, Klaa led them back to the library and supplied them with fresh pipe tobacco. He came back once more a few hours later to lead them to their rooms.
One by one, they were shown their rooms, the massive wooden doors magically shutting and locking behind them. When asked why, Klaa shrugged and said the master held few in his trust and that there were things within the keep that could harm them. The Kordite finished seeing to his last guest and returned to his kitchen to clean up.
Sometime during the dark hours of the night, Snake Eyes was shaken awake by distant rumbling of some giant beast marching across the lava fields. He crept from his bed to sneak a glimpse at what could cause such commotion and was sickened by shock. A monstrous lizard running on two legs was stalking a herd of smaller lizards on all fours. Deep screams and shrieks echoed over the world as the beasts fought and killed. Two of the smaller ones lay dead with the rest of the herd moving away to forage for food. Snake Eyes crawled back into bed, having seen enough to twist his stomach. He lay there for a long while wondering what was in store for them at the end of the road.
Breakfast smelled even better than dinner from the previous night. Each of them got up to bathe and dress. An eager air settled over the house. They’d waited long enough here in the middle of nowhere, and it was time to undertake the next leg of the adventure. They found plates already prepared for them once they filed down into the dining area. Even Kuln was impressed with the extravagance of the feast shown.
“Did anybody notice anything strange last night?” Snake Eyes asked.
“Other than being locked in our rooms like prisoners?” Nathan returned.
“There are a great many dangers out here,” Thalon helped. “It was wise to keep us away from the night.”
Nathan got up from his seat and began browsing through the wizard’s books. None of them were in languages he could understand, but the pictures were nice. He found himself amazed with the size of the petrified tooth being used as a bookend. It was as long as his forearm and wickedly curved to a point. He barely touched the tip, and it drew blood.
“The tooth of a sand dragon,” came an old voice from the doorway. “Not quite so dangerous as it once was.”
They rose as a group and stared at their host. He didn’t seem as old as he had the day before. There was an air of royalty about him, lending him a certain importance.
“I welcome you to my home, be it humble,” Gage smiled. “And I do hope my lack of attention was not taken in mistrust. You see, a terrible thing happened at the expense of my trust once, and I cannot afford to let it happen again.”
“We were beginning to think there was a mistake,” the Viper stood forward to say.
“And plenty have been made, but none at the moment,” Gage tersely replied. “I would sit back down and be patient if I were you, assassin. Oh, yes, I know you. I know you all. Indeed, I’ve had my eyes on you for some time now, waiting to see who would be strong enough and who would come seeking me out.”
“I thought it was you who summoned?” Thalon asked.
Gage nodded. “So I did. But one can hardly send forth the summons without knowing who is alive or not. Be at ease, Thalon Zimbele. No harm will come to you or your precious crew. My intentions are purely invested with these fine people accompanying you.”
That old feeling of something bad crept into Nathan’s soul. He couldn’t place his finger on it, but there were dark forces at work here.
“I really should apologize for my lack of availability, but there is much I need to get done and such a short amount of time,” the wizard went on. “All will be told this evening, explained to the fullest of my abilities. And perhaps you may learn something of yourselves along the way. This is going to be a grand adventure. Epic, at the least.”
“Great,” Snake Eyes said dryly. “Just what I’ve been looking forward to!”
His words were meant with sarcasm but reflected all of their moods. Gage pretended to ignore him. Hosking erupted in a giggling laughter from his far corner. The sound sent chills throughout the room. Emerald clutched onto Nathan’s thigh just enough to make him flinch. The smile she wore was as promising as Gage’s words, but he saw her real fears mirrored in the beauty of her eyes.
“Alas, I must leave you again,” Gage said, “but for the day only. After dinner, when we all have full bellies and a good pipe in our mouths, we shall sit and learn the events that brought you to me. If there is anything you need, anything at all, do not be afraid to ask. Klaa will be more than happy to assist. Until tonight.”
Gage bowed low and swept from the room. The waiting began anew.