At some point we are going to get to the end of this story.
“How long do you think he’s going to keep us waiting this time?” the Viper asked. Every minute was one spent regretting the decision to come along, treasure be damned.
“Not long at all, I’m afraid,” Gage answered. He stood in the doorframe, dressed in robes of plain gray. Thick despair clung to him, tightening their collars. Gage ambled to his chair in the middle, waited for them to all take a seat, and began the telling of a tale long in the making.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment. Now that it’s arrived, I hardly know where to begin. It was nigh on three hundred and fifty years ago when my people came across this planet on a deep space exploration. The Imperium had already discovered it but deemed it of little importance. It was a primitive world. There was no structure for education or technology. Culture was practically a curse. Our leaders decided that four should be sent to Telgeise in the attempts to bring it closer to civilization, something we wizards had been doing for countless generations.
“I was just a boy, really, when they chose me. But I knew this would put me in good standing for a place on the Supreme Council when I reached the proper age. The four of us already knew each other. There was nothing special about any of us, really. One man in particular stood out from the beginning, though. His name was Aragin Mephistile, a bold man not much older than I but one with the gift of vision. He had the makings of a grand wizard from birth and was destined to excel at whatever task put to him. But there was always something sinister in him. Buried.
“I’m not sure when, but Aragin slowly began distancing himself from us. He became irritated much too easily over the simplest things and was losing all patience with the local populations. His attitudes steadily worsened. Some of us thought him sick. One day, we woke up, and he was gone. A message left explained that mankind was not strong enough to remain a dominant species. Madmen from across the world soon flocked to his banners. Our people were of a kind nature and seldom hurt others unless it became necessary. We’d been to a million worlds, visited countless species and helped them advance.
“Aragin must have been mad not to realize his full potential, or perhaps he did. We learned he was gathering a small force of scientists from other worlds. None of us knew exactly what he was doing, but there were dark portents in the skies. Many fiendish experiments were conducted before the Council saw fit to put an end to his madness. He had grown deranged with lunacy over the span of those dark decades, and he’d also made an army. Reports started coming in from across the river of demons rampaging at will. I believe that was the first time I had ever known fear. Aragin’s genetically superior beings were beyond his control.
“Myself and Neiyo Hidtrea gathered a token force from the local regency of Draken and set out towards his desert castle in the hopes of dissuading him before the Council sent in an army. Aragin met us on the rampart walls with mockery. He said we were fools doomed to spend eternity in failure. There was clearly no dealing with him. My friend had gone mad. The hardest thing I ever had to do was give the order to fire. If he wasn’t going to surrender, then I had orders from the Council to finish the task.
“The first attack was horrible. Neiyo and I raised a valiant defense, but to no avail. Less than twenty of the soldiers remained, and Neiyo was horribly slain by their apparent leader. Aragin spared the rest of us with a warning to never return.
“We knew we could not go home until Aragin was dealt with. Years went by, and both armies grew. There were small battles and skirmishes up and down the Frontier for a good time. Lord Governor Cayix was tired of waiting and took it upon himself to dispatch his army west towards the Angril River. His guessing paid off, because our spies returned the next day with news of a massive army heading our way. The conflict had blown up into open war. Cayix got to the river first and began deploying his forces on the western banks. They had three bridges at their back, should the need to retreat arise, and nearly two full days to draw up his defense.
“Two weeks did we do battle. Tens of thousands from both sides died. I can still see it from time to time. My friends all died there, and I alone was left to confront my old friend.
Aragin had grown frustrated with the staunch defense meeting him and sent half of his force to secure the northern bridge. Control over the rest of his army was given to their leader, one named Kargosh. If ever there lived a nightmare, it was truly he. Rage and hatred filled him, and he wasted no time in taking it out on our men. Hard pressed to hold the southern bridges, I was forced to ride north and try to prevent Aragin from crossing the river.
“I was too late. They’d already gained the bridge. Somehow, Aragin spotted me, and the battle drew to a halt. He was going to kill me on his own. We met in the middle of the span and did battle. I was tested to the length of my ends, and it took every ounce of strength to throw him back into the desert. Aragin was always stronger than the rest of us. We won the day at a terrible cost. Nine thousand men died that day.”
Gage seemed to grow distant the deeper his tale became.
“Kargosh had taken a heavy beating as well and was fighting a brutal withdrawal back across the dunes. Ten thousand Draken men pursued them with revenge in their hearts. Cayix called a halt at what is now Minion and ordered them to dig in and wait. Supplies and reinforcements were sent to them as quickly as could be arranged. I left to meet with Cayix in secret council in his chambers in Draken. The enemy’s secrets had finally been discovered, he told me. They were all genetically created and incapable of reproducing.”
“This news came as a blessing, but I was troubled nonetheless. I first heard the name Berserker then, and it perplexed me to find the meaning. You might find this next bit interesting, Nathan Bourne of Earth.”
Shocked with the proclamation, Nathan leaned forward and asked, “How do you know where I’m from?”
Gage smiled. “I am a wizard. The journey from one planet to another is long and boring. I spent many long days and nights aboard my ship accessing the archives on Homeworld. The term ‘Berserker’ comes from the Viking mythology of your planet Earth. In essence, the demons you hunt were born on your very own world.”
His strong eyes centered on Nathan, making him uncomfortable. Nathan knew a little about the old Viking myths and legends but certainly not enough to qualify him as an expert.
On the other hand, he was beginning to understand why they were able to invade his home.
“Yes,” Gage answered his silent question. “We have been to your world. Specifically, during your Middle Ages. There are many detailed references to your Norsemen and their winter travails. Aragin considered himself a scholar and must have read about them on the journey to Telgeise. Ah, the dangers of too much knowledge! It proved too much for him and brought about his downfall.”
“I can understand the Berserker thing, but how did a gateway to Earth appear under Rook Mountain?” Nathan asked.
“Aragin created it!” the wizard replied. “He saw it only right that the planet from which his ideas spawned should be next among his conquests. Many spells and souls were used to feed his magic, and of that, I will speak no more. I discovered this after the war and set a containment spell around it. Judging from your arrival, I would say that it was finally broken, leaving the Berserkers free to range across both worlds. But I have not finished speaking of the war.
“Cayix sent heralds to every city and town in the eastern counties, and a grand army was raised. We set out a month later under the Lord Regent’s sapphire banners to take back the world and set things right. There must have been a hundred thousand soldiers. Very awe inspiring. The Berserkers came down to attack twice and ran in defeat both times. They weren’t very sound warriors in the early days. Soon, it was decided to send a raid with the purpose of seizing Aragin’s laboratories at Fulcrum’s Outlook. He was foolish to keep them so close to the front lines.
“The cost of life was tremendous, but we came away with the victory. His labs were destroyed and kept under constant watch. Reinforcements continued to pour into Minion. Aragin had not been idle through his defeat. He took Kargosh and as many of his monsters as he could and retreated into the deep deserts, leaving only a token force to fight and delay us. Our generals wanted to push on, but the soldiers had seen enough.
“Most were volunteer citizens doing the right thing and were lonely for their wives and families. Cayix himself grew weary of the constant combat and agreed to let the enemy retreat. A heavy garrison was left at Minion, and most of them wound up bringing their families with them.”
“I went east with Cayix and the main army, but my heart was restless. Aragin was out there and still a threat. I returned to the Wastelands on countless occasions to seek him out, but he was not to be found. It was as if the desert came alive and took him.”
“Change was sweeping the east. Many newer senators saw the Berserkers as a western problem. They were reluctant to send their men to fight the battles for someone else. This ultimately led me to leave Draken. There was no longer a place for a wizard who helped create the problem. So I moved to Minion. Not long after, while standing upon the guard wall, I was visited by a handful of demons. They told me of Aragin’s sudden illness and his desire to meet with me. I made ready to fight them but stopped when they named me. My trust had already been betrayed, and I was loathe to die at their hands. I agreed to accompany them only after careful deliberations.”
Snake Eyes and the Viper exchanged looks of disbelief.
“I cannot remember how long we rode, but it was long and far and down roads which no longer exist. Half a day past the Black Pits, we came to the underground hole Aragin claimed as his throne. I was taken deep into the living world and saw many things I will not speak of. The cavern was large and had many tunnels. I made out the ruins of a once-great castle and a lake filled with a foul liquid. The stench of decay and rotting flesh was overpowering. Apparently, our war had more success than we’d believed. They led me to the inner sanctum of my old friend, and it hurt my heart to see him. He was a weak, old man now, having spent his energies in the development of his monsters. The toll was a heavy one. I forced my smile and sat at his side.”
A single tear rolled down the old man’s cheek.
“He looked me in the eyes and asked where the others were. I explained their fates, and he cried in regret. Then he told me something I shall never forget. He asked for my forgiveness for what he’d done. ‘For the monsters of my madness have doomed this world forever,’ he said. ‘No one is safe. Leave this place while you may. There will be no one to control them when I am gone. No one at all.’
“‘You’re wrong, old friend,’ I told him. ‘I cannot return home until they are destroyed and this madness is put to rest. I am the last guardian of the old ways.’ A smile crossed his face, and his last breath passed his lips.”
The room was locked in an awkward silence. Only the sounds of burning wood went around. None of them could believe the magnitude of what they’d heard, for it was beyond their imaginations. The enemy could be seen in a clear light for the first time. Kane found himself with hope again.
Nathan asked, “You’ve been alone here ever since?”
Gage nodded. “Yes, but not alone. Klaa here fought beside me at the battle of the Angril. And I have always known that you would be gathered in my halls. A band of heroes to bind the light under the blanket of the storm. Honored guests, you are not only the salvation of this world but my passage back home. I will not accept failure a second time.”
“You intend on going with them?” Thalon asked. “Death may be your reward, wizard.”
“Does it matter? I’ve been forced to live with defeat long enough. Knowing it will be over soon, for good or bad, is quite agreeable.”
His eyes closed for a moment, and then he said, “But come. Talk of defeat often is enough to serve the enemy’s cause. It is getting late, and I find myself suddenly eager to begin this final journey. We shall make to leave for the docks when the dawn comes.”
Ganelin rose from his leather cushioned chair and bowed before excusing himself for the night. He could almost remember the face of the woman he’d once loved. Soon, my love, he told himself, soon.