The Beginning of the End
Gage stood upon the shore with mixed emotions. The Misfortune hovered a mile off the coast. It’s massive iron bulk in stark contrast to the roiling anger of the lava sea. Reflections painted the pirate vessel in dangerous patterns. They reminded him of the old times, when he first arrived on Furnace Island in exile.
Some memories shouldn’t be revisited during quiet moment of introspection. The humiliation of defeat robbed him of hubris- the very same hubris that had seen the four wizards arrive on Helscape so long ago. His dreams crushed, hope dissolved over the course of the long war, Gage ran from everything. His dreams, his former colleague and friend, those broken, scattered tribes of humanity that had once looked to him for guidance. Everything.
Shame forced him from the major cities of the Wastelands. Gage was just as much of a villain as Aragin had turned out to be, reviled and hunted by his former allies. Civilization threatened to devolve. He was powerless to stop it. And he wasn’t sure he wanted to. Helscape, as the locals took to calling it, was aptly named. Everything thing about this planet whispered of Hell.
Furnace Island was the only logical place to begin his self-imposed exile. Filled with volcanoes and less than desirable people, it was the perfect place to go unnoticed. He’d moved around between Doom Town and Redemption, taking odd jobs that were pale comparisons to the lofty ideals with which he’d first landed. The academy of wizards on his homeworld had a longstanding order that, should an expedition end in failure, there would be no return. The shame of failure proved that they were not ready to assume the title of wizard. For Gage there would never be a return home.
Lava bubbled, spitting gouts high into the night sky. He’d grown accustomed to the vile substance. Accustomed without amusement. Furnace Island was a miserable place that only the very desperate chose to call home. He’d quite forgotten what took him all the way north to Kratchen. The foolish desire to eliminate contact with all life perhaps? Not that it mattered. People were just as foul as the Berserkers. The world was better off without him.
And yet here he was again. Sucked back into maw of an ever dangerous entity intent on breaking the world through petty misdirection. Life hadn’t changed at all during the time of his exile. Gage thought of his companions, questioning if they were the best for the task at hand. A broken man bent on revenge. A man who, by all rights, shouldn’t even be here. Two soldiers knowing they should have returned to their unit to leave this miserable world. A woman with twisted emotions still unsure of her place in the world. And the assassin. A man whose only solace came from the amassing of wealth at the cost of others. He snorted. A poor bunch indeed. The only one who made sense was the man with the fractured mind. Insanity made people do odd things.
It is time. The others have boarded the shuttle and are ready to depart.
Gage sighed before looking down on his stalwart companion of many years. Klaa was a good friend, one who didn’t mind invoking the old wizard’s ire when necessary. If only others along the way would have done the same…
“Thank you, Klaa.”
Is all well? You should not be down here like this.
A quick smile. “Yes. I was reflecting on old times.”
Living in the past does not serve the future well. It is now that must be attended. We cannot change what was.
“No, I don’t suppose we can. Come, let us begin the next stage of our final adventure. I find I am suddenly most eager to find out what tomorrow holds.”
Side by side, they walked back to the boarding shuttle, leaving the ghosts of the past alone on the shore.
The Misfortune was warmer than Nathan remembered. Crewmen went about their appointed tasks with unusual mirth. Each man and woman on Furnace Island knew of the reclusive wizard living far to the north. A man of reputed power. A legend with the ability to grant their deepest desire should the petition be strong enough. Just having him onboard promised great fortune for all.
Or so they believed.
One similarity between Earth and Helscape seemed to be the superstition of sailors, or so Nathan had heard, having never been around ships before. He couldn’t deny the rousing cheers and general good nature among the crew since the small party had returned. He prayed it was enough to transfer over to his tiny band of weary misfits. They needed all the help they could get.
Nathan wandered the upper decks of the Misfortune, hands clasped behind his back in an old military position he’d never quite forgotten, mind locked in past conversations. There was no way around the fact that he had budding feelings for Emerald. It had been so long since he’d felt this way towards any woman. Meaningful relationships weren’t the sort of fairytale he was meant for.
But no longer, or so he hoped. Emerald was everything he had ever looked for in a woman and more. Her propensity for violence was tempered by the well of emotions lying deep within. Nathan knew she had great capacity for love and could only hope for it to be directed towards him.
So distracted in thought he almost walked into Kuln at the turn of a corner. The bigger pirate adjusted the large bag hefted on a shoulder and shifted his comment from curse to laughter.
“These aren’t places for a stranger, Nathan Bourne,” he rumbled.
Nathan, after apologizing for the incident, said, “I figured it would do me good to walk around a little. Guess I wasn’t paying attention where I was. Where am I anyway?”
“Why, down in the galley prep area,” Kuln said. “You’ve gone from the passenger area down to kitchens. Care to help out? Feeding this swine crew is hard labor on the best of days.”
“I think you might not like the results. Cooking was one of the reasons my wife left me,” Nathan joked.
Kuln snorted, “Try feeding this lot everyday and see how loved you are. As you are, the fasted way back is up those stairs through the hatch.”
“Don’t mention it. The galley is always open if you want to throw on an apron,” Kuln said as Nathan made his way up to the next deck.
“I’m just saying, we could make a killing here.”
Xill folded his massive arms across his chest and frowned. “Are you trying to get us killed?”
Snake Eyes paused, eyes crossed in confusion. “Killed? How? By whom? We’re among friends here.”
“We won’t be once they realize you’re cheating.”
“I don’t believe this. You’re supposed to have my back, not try and talk me out of a great idea,” Snake Eyes protested.
“Great idea? These are pirates, Sergeant. Men with no compunctions about sticking a knife in either of us,” Xill said.
“Wait, who said I was going to cheat?”
His tone belied a feeling of hurt.
Xill barked a deep laugh. “You always wind up cheating.”
“Only because everyone is! I have to keep it competitive.”
They paused as Nathan ambled down the hall. His distant stare made him the prime opportunity to avoid getting deeper into their argument.
“Hey, Nathan! Quick question,” Snake Eyes all but shouted.
If Nathan rolling his eyes was the desired effect they succeeded. Handsomely.
Xill chuckled. “I told you he was smarter than us.”
“When did you…shut up. Nathan, what do you think about cheating just to stay ahead? I mean not because you just want to, but because you have to.”
“As a rule I try to avoid circumstances where I might be tempted. Or getting involved with friends when they generally have bad ideas.”
Snake Eyes pointed an accusatory finger at Xill before his corporal could get in another barb. “You make it sound like we’re bad people.”
“Not bad, just misguided,” he laughed.
“You got a point. Where are you coming from?”
Nathan gestured back down the hall. “I was trying to get my thoughts together and wound up in the galley. Kuln wanted to put me to work.”
The soldiers exchanged doubtful looks. Xill shook his head so gently Nathan failed to spot it.
Playing along, Snake Eyes reached over to place a consoling hand on Nathan’s shoulder. “To be fair, you did cook for us once or twice since we’ve met and, I really hate to say this, no really, but I’ve never felt closer to being poisoned.”
“Lovely,” Nathan said.
“Just trying to cheer you up.”
“Yeah well I think I’m good.”
Snake Eyes beamed. “That’s the spirit! Now that you’re free we need an extra set of eyes in a risky dice game.”
“How does this end well?”
Xill chimed in, “It mostly likely won’t, but the fun is in watching Sergeant Kimel get his face bruised when they realize he cheats.”
“I don’t cheat!” Snake Eyes all but shouted as the trio marched away.
For some, the inherent desire to carry on in the face of extreme adversity was just enough to maintain that fine line between sane and insane. Many cracked, the pressure overwhelming them to the point of gross incompetence. But for a few, that select group of individuals so small the rest of the world hardly stopped to notice, that balance was forever marred by the need to overcome and succeed.
Kane stood on the deck, enjoying the few brief moments of peace before the Misfortune got underway. This far north of the lava sea the air was almost breathable. Temperatures dropped considerably, giving him the impression that not every part of Helscape was intentionally miserable. His mind suitably distracted, he failed to notice the Viper stalk up from behind.
“Wouldn’t do to stay out here. Imagine how bad off the others would be if you should accidentally fall overboard,” he said.
Kane frowned. Any wishes of remaining alone lost. “What do you want?”
“Just a chat.”
“That doesn’t sound like you,” Kane said.
The Viper edged closer to stand beside him. He glanced up, noticing for the first time that Kane was nearly six inches taller. “Perhaps I’m a changed man.”
“Doubtful. People like us seldom change.”
“Fair enough,” the Viper said. “What do you think our odds are with that wizard onboard?”
There it was. No beating around. The assassin went straight for the throat, just as Kane suspected he would.
“Much better than they were,” he replied.
The Viper snorted, softly yet forceful enough to give Kane pause.
“Is there a problem?”
“A big one. Just because we have that half cracked old man doesn’t mean he has the strength to beat the entire horde. We don’t even know how many Berserkers there are, dead or alive.”
“No one does,” Kane said. “What matter is that? Our destination and mission will not change based on Gage’s abilities.”
“Or perceived inadequacies. Face it Kane, he’s past his prime. Enough to cause detriment to whatever slim chances of success we might have had. Which, I might add, were already too small to begin with.”
Frustrations beset the Slayer. This was an old conversation. One he’d had with himself since awakening in that bed in Black Tide after the massacre in the Gorge. Not once did he ever assume this quest would be easy. The Berserkers remained the dominant power in the Wastelands and, should they ever muster the strength to cross the Angril River, threatened to subsume the entire planet. It didn’t take much imagination to see every man, woman, and child being systematically murdered by the monsters of the desert.
“Chances don’t matter as much as you might think,” Kane countered.
“Says you. I don’t take chances unless I know they’re going to work out in my favor. You should know better,” the Viper said. “Death chases us. It has for a long time. Not us, but you. I’ve felt it lurking ever closer from the moment I sought you out. I don’t like that feeling, Kane. Not how I work.”
“What would you have me do? Abandon all now because the odds appear insurmountable?” Kane shouted. His rage finally grew uncontainable and he lashed out. “This is my quest. My decision. No one invited you. Stay here. Live a long, uninteresting life while the rest of us go forth to whatever destiny awaits. Yes, be it death or victory.”
The Viper opened his mouth but Kane cut him off.
“No. No more words. Your opinion is noted and unnecessary. So either step in line with the rest of us or get off of this gods damned boat. Now!”
Knowing there was no point in further conversation, the assassin submissively back away. There was still plenty of time before they returned to the Wastelands, and a hundred places to leave the quest along the way. Treasure be damned.
The Misfortune lurched ahead and began the long, tedious trek back to Redemption.