Helscape’s midnight moons glowed an eerie blue. Under a normal sky, the colors were mesmerizing, but the volcanic activity on the island turned the world a foul gray. Kane was alone on one of the balconies, having earned the wizard’s trust, watching the world go through its changes. Days of lore came to him in dreams. Foul-smelling clouds floated past, shifting into the countless faces of all who’d been close to him at one time and were reduced to memories.
The question of why had been haunting him since Gage finished his tale. Why did this man wait so long, for so many to die, before stepping forward to claim himself? So many people had died from his silence. All Kane could do was see past his anger and let his heart cry.
Forgotten images of his family drifted by. His father, once proud and strong, was torn asunder by Berserker claws. Troai Kane had owned his own barter post, helped by his wife, Selmas, and their children. Aradias was the youngest of the pack and found ways to amuse himself with the store of items. He’d been enchanted with the tales told by bounty men and soldiers roaming the Wastes and so desperately wanted that life. His sins were answered when the Berserkers came calling.
His mother, a lovely woman in a rugged way, was stolen by the night, as were all of his brothers and his sister. A lifetime was dedicated to their memory, and now he could only feel failure. The Berserkers were stronger than ever, and he was reduced to a cripple. Eyes clogged with tears, Aradias lifted his hand to the image of his crying mother. They cried and pleaded with him to release them. To save them from damnation. Troai Kane stepped forward, a look of consternation crossing his brow, and shook his head. They could not rest until Aradias fulfilled his quest. Destiny had designs for the boy. One by one, they faded away.
Emerald’s cat-like footsteps went unnoticed, for he was too haunted by his past to care. She arrived just as he was placing his hands in his palms to cry the pain away. It was a universal pain, though hers was of different origins. Unsure if she should get involved with his emotions, Emerald turned away.
“Don’t go,” Kane whispered. “I think I need my friends more than my solitude.”
Her hand tenderly lay upon his. “You cannot fall apart now, Aradias. This is when we need your strength most.”
“They’ve stolen everything I ever found worth living for. My friends. Family. What am I to do when this deed be finished? It hurts so much.”
“I know,” she soothed. “It will all be over soon.”
Her own words stung her. She’d spent the majority of her life thinking her father had been killed only to find him again. That was proving too much to deal with. She was falling in love with a man from another world who already had a wife and children. Her mother was long dead and sorely missed.
“The Gods humor is twisted. It is time to rise above this, old man, and meet the challenge. Even when hope is forgotten.”
“I know,” he said. “Yet I cannot find the convictions to blame this wizard for all of the pains suffered and harm done. Our own sins seem more suited for such guilt. I will be fine come the morning.”
She knew it was a lie but leaned forward to him anyway. Her smiled beamed with a fondness of long-time friends and pushed the gloom shrouding his soul away.
“Maybe I am blessed to have friends like you.”
A kiss to his cheek, and she was gone back inside to be with her lover. They’d done their best to keep it secret from the others, but Kane knew her better than she knew herself. His heart lightened and knew happiness for her.
A strange sensation came with the breaking dawn. Hope was now among them, and it whispered of secretive plans and forthcoming battles. Gage was exuberant, looking many years younger than he had the previous night. Two standard months, and his past was going to gain resolve. It was more than enough time to formulate achievable battle plans. They filled their bellies with a final meal, and Snake took the lead on loading their baggage.
Kuln helped shut down the kitchen, slipping an odd pan or two into his sack. The Misfortune was as far as he was going, but Gage helped teach him new spices and ways to prepare simple dishes.
Peace came to Aradias Kane during the night, leaving him in the suddenness of tranquility for the first time since his childhood. Today, he felt he could tackle the world.
“It’s time,” Thalon said in passing. He was the most anxious to leave. There were too many unworthy deeds in the air of Ganelin’s home.
“I’ll be right there.”
Kane made his final farewells to the ghosts of his past, and high above the drifting clouds, fortune smiled down upon him.
“The air is sour,” Hosking announced, hands planted firmly on his hips as he stood on the wizard’s doorstep.
Snake Eyes and Nathan exchanged cautious glances. The Mad Hosking, as he had been taken to being called, was growing more unstable as the days went by. The Viper had already offered to put the man out of his misery when the need arose.
Laughing, Snake Eyes said, “Hey, General, you want to go get on your horse so we can get back to the ship?”
Gage finally came outside. He was glad to be free of this self-imposed prison and regain a small semblance of his pride, as it should have been done years ago. Prospects of leaving a lifetime of work behind, perhaps to death, in order to return to a world much changed in the years of his absence haunted him. He wondered, for the thousandth time, if his family had been put to shame for his failings as a wizard. Surely everything and everyone he knew back home would have changed, and for the first time, he wondered if going home was his best course.
Xill noticed the concern and asked, “What troubles you, Master Wizard?”
“Nothing. I just have a bit of thinking to do.”
As a soldier and noncommissioned officer, Xill found it his responsibility to maintain the welfare of his troopers. This mission held no difference for him. The more that lived meant a better chance at victory. The wizard was the most critical key.
It wasn’t until halfway back to Kratchen that Nathan finally made up his mind. He was suddenly nervous as a schoolboy and unsure how to approach the subject. Only a stubborn nagging pushed him forward to where Emerald was sitting. He was already beyond forty years old and flushed with embarrassment at his actions. His thoughts were jumbling together, and his heart beat in confusion. He honestly thought God enjoyed toying with his simplistic emotions.
“Emerald?” he timidly asked.
She returned his smile, for she already had a feeling about what he was coming to say. The memory of finding her broken and alone in the Gorge flashed by, and she was just as beautiful to him then as she was now. He failed to see her skin flush a deep red under the warmth of his smile.
“I love you, too,” she whispered in his ear.
Overwhelming pressure washed away, leaving him in pure bliss. He hadn’t even felt this way with his wife. And here, on a world that shouldn’t exist and a place he was never meant to find, a woman of such beauty and kindness came to him and proclaimed a mutual love. The first part of his struggle was done, but the second was eating a bigger hole.
“You have no idea how much that fills my soul,” he said. “Because I do love you, more than anything I ever have.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately. This world is a strange place for me, and I’m still unsure what the future will bring. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t belong here. I’m going to try and go home, and I want you to come with me.”
That was much harder to say than a simple I love you. He scowled to himself.
“I know this is all of a sudden and probably an unreasonable request of me, but my heart seems to be guiding my tongue. I’m not sure I can ask because of what you’re going through with your father. The nagging in my brain wouldn’t let up. I don’t expect an answer now, or even a week from now. I just figured I’d ask now to give you enough time to think about it.”
She gave him the warmest smile he’d ever seen but remained silent. Her hand covered his. The hard part was over, or so he believed.
They stopped at midday to have a bit to eat and stretch their legs. Riding on the transport was crippling and tedious. Nathan went off a short way to be alone. He had a few apprehensions about coming events, but the love in his heart helped ease them.
“Getting sentimental on us?” the Viper crooned.
“What do you mean by that?”
The assassin laughed. “It doesn’t take a wizard to know what you and the woman were talking about back there. We’ve been in each other’s company enough, but don’t you fret, Law man. Things like that happen to everyone from time to time. I suppose it does the heart some small measure of justice knowing the offer’s there. You only need concern yourself with one thing.”
“She’s in no hurry to lose her father again. On the other hand, she’s spent her whole life thinking him dead. Makes a nice twist, doesn’t it?” He was grinning at Nathan. “Love isn’t always as strong as people think.”
A mighty effort was required for Nathan to stay calm and focused. They had never gotten along, not from the first time they’d laid eyes on each other, and here the assassin was dispensing romance advice. Maybe the Viper had a heart after all.
“How would you know about this?”
He’d clearly been waiting for the question. “Because, lad, I was married once, a long time ago. Best finish your chow. I think they want to be moving on.”
Kratchen finally came into sight, and none was gladder than Nathan to have put the trip behind him. Between the Viper’s musings and the mixed signals Emerald was giving him, Nathan was in need of a stiff drink or ten. They could see the Misfortune’s massive bulk in the distance, gleaming brightly from the lava beneath. The days of dreams and prayers were closing, and a bitter reality was setting in.