The journey to the Angril River went without event, boring them greatly in the process. Emerald found that the latent fears of the boat man were gone. He was just another being trying to make a living. No more did he hold her father in his hands. The atmosphere around them brightened the longer they rode. Hangovers slowly dissolved, and, with the dangers still days, even weeks away, there was nothing to dampen their spirits. At least not until Gaalk’s ramp dropped, and they found they weren’t going to be alone.
Three men as different as night and day stood arrayed across the hull. There was a hint of wickedness in one, while another carried a smile. They’d been waiting here for a few days now. The leader stepped forward, hands out to show he wasn’t planning any trickery.
Gaalk stepped between them. “There will be no trouble aboard my vessel.”
His deep voice rolled across the aged wood.
“I’m not here to cause trouble, pal,” the leader said. “I just have a few questions to ask the assassin here.”
The look of confusion was mirrored by the rest of the group. “How do you know me?” the Viper stepped forward and asked.
“Mercenaries,” Kane uttered. “This may be dangerous.”
“I highly doubt that,” Gage replied. It had been long since the last time he’d been forced to use his magic in battle, but there was little doubt in their minds of its potency.
Xill leaned close to Snake Eyes and asked, “Isn’t that Kelg?”
“Squaffa!” Snake Eyes said. “How did he get here?”
Halfway across the deck, in a position with cover readily available, Ardn Kelg took in their opponents. He was as surprised to find Snake and Xill staring back at him as they were. Feeling a sense of obligation, Kelg titled his head ever so slightly.
“I figured a man like you was the solitary kind,” Fint said. “But we’d been hearing reports of you traveling with a large group of misfits.”
“Too bad there’s no more room for you three,” the Viper snarled. His nerves were on edge, and his instincts screamed trap. “What’s this all about?”
“Not so close to shore. Let’s get out into the river a little where there are no hidden ears.” The mercenary smiled.
With no other choice than to carry on, the Viper bade Gaalk raise the ramp and put to the river.
Alone on the upper deck, Fint and the Viper had plenty of time to discuss present matters. Neither was trusting of the other, but Fint’s words held the taint of truth, twisted in his own way as they were.
“Word is you were the one who sold the Imperium the location of the Berserker Hive. Or should I say you sold them to Smythe Menzel,” Fint said.
“What if I did?”
“It’s all related. I don’t intend on telling who hired us or even why, but I will say that my team was working directly for this worm. His orders came from higher in the ranks, but that’s another story, and I’ll deal with that personally. What you need to know is that Menzel tried killing us about a month ago. Why? My guess is they didn’t need us to do their dirty work anymore. Oh, yes,” he added when he saw surprise in the Viper’s eyes. “We followed you and the Slayer for most of a year.”
“Spies,” the assassin growled.
“I prefer to look at it as exceptional reconnaissance.” Fint smiled. “We gathered information on the Berserkers and the people hunting them. The last couple of months were spent finding places for the Imperium to hide a base of shuttlecraft. Apparently, they planned on taking these things prisoner. Then General Pierce comes to town and gets wiped out. A sad story, but not entirely his fault. He was sold out. I know it, and so do they. No one’s been able to put their finger on who, though.”
“What’s this have to do with me?”
Fint shot him a stern look. “Be patient; we haven’t got that far. Menzel went off into the desert one day, ordered there by his bosses to meet with the Berserkers. What they didn’t know was that old Smythe had ideas of his own. He went to make a deal that was in his favor. He offered them the division’s movement schedules and routes, and they offered riches beyond belief. Smythe Menzel sold out his boys and let them all die.”
The Viper wasn’t ready to believe just yet. “Told you all this, did he?”
“He didn’t have to. My man Faul over there is quite good at persuading people to talk. He’s rather crude at times, but his talents are well worth having to deal with that.”
The Viper glared, unimpressed and steadily growing agitated.
“You still don’t get it?” Fint asked, returning the stare. All the smiling was finished. He’d tried to make his peace with the assassin and was fully committed to gutting him and tossing him overboard.
“People tend to talk too much, which you already know, and your name keeps popping up. Every time I turn around, I seem to find out something new on you. Why is that? The first time I saw you was when you were on your little quest with the Slayer out into the desert. Remember that? Me and Faul watched you battle it out with the Berserkers and go your separate ways. It took me a little time, but I was able to figure out what you were looking for. Every man has a price.”
“I also know that men like you know this part of the world better than you know yourselves. There’s nothing I can offer you that will be more than the treasure you stand to gain should your quest become successful, but I need to know where Menzel’s going and how to get there. He set me up, and I intend on having his head as a trophy for it. Tell me what I want to know, and we’ll never cross paths again.”
It was the Viper’s turn to smile. This was going to prove easier than he’d thought.
Dust and sand kicked up by Fint’s engines spit viciously at them. They flinched and jumped under the barrage but never took their eyes away from the departing ship. Gaalk was already busy loading another group of passengers and had little or no interest in the ones he’d left standing on the riverbank. The Viper was half-expecting Fint to wheel about and gun them down. It was what he would have done.
“Did anybody at least bother asking for a ride?” Snake Eyes asked. Incredulous stares came back at him.
“Oh, come on! They have a ship. They fly while we put up with weeks of murderous sunlight and harsh conditions. They get a ship!” he protested.
“And you have a fine horse, my dear boy,” Gage laughed. “We all ride, when you take time to think about it.”
“Think about the horses, for that matter,” Kane added. “Would you abandon them to the desert?”
“We could have left them for sale here with Gaalk. Take the supplies, and we’re at the Hive in, what, a day, maybe two? Seems like a better plan to me.”
“I’m not convinced he was going our way,” Gage said.
“Trust me, kid, you don’t want to go where they’re headed,” the Viper said in a low matter-of-fact voice. “He’s not the kind of guy you do business with and walk away.”
And you are? Snake Eyes wondered.
“Traitor scum,” Hosking snapped. “Should have killed them. No good. No good at all.”
“Come on,” Kane finally said. “We’re wasting time.”
Dawn of the fourth day saw them come to the edge of a set of ruins long forgotten by the living. Most of the structures were scarcely knee high, having been either buried by the cruel sands or burned from a holocaust long ago. A line of broken tombstones marked the far edge of town. This was the village of Rivide, once home to Aradias Kane and his friends and family. Nothing therein lived, not argot nor wild zoranth. Rivide was as dead as it would ever be.
Earlier that night, Emerald pulled most of them together and explained the place they were about to enter. Kane knew where he was going and needed as much time alone as possible to finally put his demons to rest. The others held back a way with the wagon to let the Slayer return to the ruins of the place he once called home.
He stopped short of the border, a perplexed look troubling his brow. “Wizard, there is a spell on this place. I would have you lift it.”
Without so much as a nod, Gage sent his senses out towards the spell. Its strength was overpowering. Great, indeed, for such a ghastly memory.
“It is a strong spell. Rival to one of the Grand Wizard’s on my home world. I may not be able to lift it, but I shall try.”
Old powers rushed back to him. The world shifted uneasily around his ankles. The desert became aware of this new power and saw it as a threat. Reacting to the land, his body battled. From the dull gray of a mystic past did his body change into an aquatic blue of oceans yet unmade. The ground tried to flee. Gage’s lips moved in unspoken cadence, the ancient words of incantation being uttered for the first time in a century. A normal color returned as he folded his arms across his chest to wait.
A great disturbance was raised in the ruin’s center. It started with a brief flicker of light, steadily feeding on the emotions put into it. And then, a broken building three stories high came into view. Shadows and fires played together until the ruined structure stood under the sunlight for the first time in ages. Aradias stared at it with minor satisfaction. This was once a house where men could pray to what Gods they chose.
It was once a marvelous alabaster and covered in ornate sculptures and carvings of dragons and winged saviors. Stained glass once filled its windows, but were reduced to reflections of broken teeth. Survivors from the initial onslaught crammed inside to avoid being discovered. They moaned and prayed for salvation, but it was the Berserkers who came to deliver it. One hundred men, women and children died in the main hall. The ensuing fires were only partially successfully in gutting the remains. A young Braxton Skrapp and the boy he’d found saw to the remains, but the smell of death lingered still.
Emerald ushered them forward now that Kane was walking within the confines of his ancient home. The horses pranced about, nervously enjoying the attention given after so long a ride. A hasty campsite was established. They planned on staying long enough for a hot meal, and then it was back to the roads. Busy with their daily routines, they failed to notice the Wastes changing. The winds died away, letting the suns burn hotter. A sudden calm swept through the ruins.
Stopping what he was doing, Snake Eyes looked down at a scrub brush floating past his feet. Alarms went off, but he couldn’t figure out why. Then it struck him. The weed was tumbling in the opposite direction of the winds. Confused, he looked around to find the rest of them rolling backwards as well.
“What in the Hells?” he asked aloud, pointing towards the far horizon.
One by one, they stopped what they doing to look in that direction. The horizon was blurred in a golden brown wave so high it blocked the suns. The center seethed black and growled foul curses into the air. It was heading right for them.
“Sandstorm,” the Viper smoothly said. “A big one at that. We need shelter, or that thing will rip us apart.”
“This is an ill omen for a quest so young,” Gage said.
“Can you work a spell big enough to protect all of us?” the Viper asked. “We don’t have much time. Tie everything down inside the wagon and move it behind these ruins! Everyone else move inside and start blocking the windows and doors.”
The urgency in his voice was enough to spur them into action. Winds picked up with gale force, throwing debris and sand at them. A chilling howl echoed across the empty lands. The desert was angry.
Kane grabbed the Viper by the arm and said, “Get them inside. I’ll go around and check on the wagon.”
“Can you do it?” the assassin asked Gage.
The old man smiled. “Another minute, perhaps two. Magic can’t be rushed if you want it to work right.”
“We don’t have a few minutes.”
“See to your friends,” Gage went on. “I’ve been through far worse than this.”