So friends, we at last are coming down to the end of the road. Bittersweet after so long, but a necessary closure. Hopefully you have enjoyed this ride of youthful imagination. Ok, sure, I’m getting closer to 50 than I care for but I wrote this tale back in my mid 20s. In case you didn’t know, I’ve also written more than 20 novels from sci fi to military fantasy, children’s book and a how to book. Swing by and check them out. Hell, snap up a copy or two and drop an honest review. Even I love a good stocking stuffer.
Black Tide had never looked lovelier than it did the morning they rode into town. The last three weeks were spent traveling back through the deep deserts, stopping at villages when they could and enjoying thankful hospitality. Most of their wounds were healing, though the emotional scars would be there forever. One of the horses had to be put down, but there was no lack of mounts. Xill had even managed to fix the wagon, making it much easier to carry the wounded and what rations they had left. Kane spent much of the journey in the wagon with the Viper’s falcon staring down at him through calculating eyes. The bird hadn’t left his side since they came out of the Hive.
The journey was hard and mostly uneventful, a fact they were grateful for. A large group of bandits or raiders would have made short work of them in their present conditions. The dying wagon groaned and creaked into town under the sympathetic stares of the townsfolk. Many were still packing for the long trip across the river, for the word of the Berserkers’ defeat hadn’t spread. Nathan wondered how long it was going to take for things to settle down and return to a long-forgotten normalcy. Few of the living knew the world before the Berserkers, and from what he’d seen so far, the people of Helscape seemed too afraid to make their world into something better.
Braxton Skrapp nearly had a heart attack when the survivors strode through his doors. They were fewer than when they’d left, but truth be told, he wasn’t expecting any of them to return. He hurried them away from the crowds of onlookers, back to one of the few private rooms he maintained, and they talked long into the night. Stories good and bad were told much too fast for him to keep up, but the old man patiently sat and listened. All of their pain and suffering was pouring out, and it was the least he could do. The conversation finally died away at sunrise.
Braxton stood up to stretch. “I’m proud of you all. Mayhap the peoples of the Wastes will feel the same someday.”
“If they ever learn what really happened,” Nathan said.
“What about the Imperium? What happened to them?” Snake Eyes asked.
“A good question, lad. I figured you’d be wanting to get back home soon,” Skrapp answered. “They left here not long after you did. Great metal birds came and took the wreckage out of the Gap. Bodies too. Never seen so many heads held low. A sad sight, indeed. Most of them already left the planet, or so we’ve heard up here. That’s what started the big panic. Folks are leaving just as quick as they can gather their belongings. People are still scared, especially after them soldiers left.”
Hope flared in Snake’s chest. There was a chance they might get home after all.
“I’m proud of you, Aradias, my boy,” Skrapp admitted, his aged hand on Kane’s shoulder. “Yer war’s finally over.”
“Is it? I’m not so sure,” Kane replied.
“What do you mean by that?”
Kane explained after a heavy sigh. “They were preparing for an invasion when we got there. Remember when I told you how they managed to escape through the portal under Rook Mountain? I believe they were getting ready to invade Nathan’s world.”
Nathan’s face flushed at the mention of his name. Thoughts of his world being ravaged the same as Helscape turned his stomach. It wouldn’t take long to turn Earth into a similar nightmare.
“So I assume you won’t rest until this new threat is over?”
“It is a hard life we live, Braxton Skrapp, and the roads we travel are long and winding. The Berserkers must be stopped.”
“You’ve done your part, Aradias,” Emerald spoke up. “They’ve been broken. Let someone else fill your role. No one asked you to risk so much.”
“My family did.”
“Then honor them. Put your swords down, and live the life you had stolen from you. I have no desire to put you in your grave before the Gods see fit.” There was a tear in her eye and a sob in her words.
Nathan couldn’t sleep. He was exhausted from weeks on the road and the all-nighter they’d just finished, but too many dark thoughts of the future were keeping him up. The only thought keeping him going since his arrival was trying to get home. Now that the war was over, and the road lay open before him, he was afraid. Too many ties with this new world had been forged. He’d found love where he least expected it, found a handful of close friends, and was starting to feel comfortable here. What was happening?
The others were all trying to go their separate ways, back to their own worlds. Why was he having doubts? Was it because of the possibility of Berserkers on Earth? Emerald’s sudden stirring broke his concentration.
She wrapped a warm arm around his waist and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I’m just thinking about home.”
She kissed his hip. “I know how you feel, Nathan. I really do. Being separated from all you know is a hard adjustment, but you have a good heart. That’s a rare thing for a man to have in this part of the world. Oh yeah, and you have me.”
“I doubt you’ll ever let me forget it. But it’s not that. I don’t know how long I’ve been away or what has happened since then. I don’t know if I really want to go back.”
She kissed him again, a little lower this time, and smiled. “We can always come back and get hired on by my father. We already know most of the crew, and it’s not the worst place to raise a child.”
Nathan laughed. “I’ve never thought of myself as a pirate, but the thought of not having any debts or bills sounds encouraging.” He paused. “Did you say child?”
Emerald pulled him down to her lips and rolled on top of him, covering his mouth with her
Days came and went much the same as they always did. There were no dragons to fight. No pirates calling in odd hours. They spent less time with each other until they hadn’t been together as a group in over a week. Kane finally sent summons to meet at the Inferno one final time. Hugs and handshakes went around until they settled down to good ale and talk of how each had spent the last few days.
“My friends, it does my old heart good to see each of you well again. At least as well as can be expected,” he said with a glass raised high.
“Speak for yourself,” Snake Eyes muttered, hand over his arrow wound.
“You did get shot, you know. The real reason we are here is to say farewell. Our wounds have healed, and there is little left to accomplish together. It is time to part ways, though I do not do so lightly.”
“We’re heading south in the morning. Going to try and catch the last of the Imperium before they leave us for dead,” Snake Eyes said. Xill merely nodded at his side.
“On to more adventures?” Nathan asked with a rueful smile.
“No more adventures,” Xill answered. “I’m going home to try and start a family.”
The image of a bunch of little Xills running around made Nathan grin. “I suppose we need to get going too.”
Kane’s nod was approving on all accounts. “It’s been long since I knew happiness. May the Gods bestow their grace on each of you no matter where you find yourselves.”
That final dawn began much earlier than any of them really wanted it to. The suns were barely up by the time the two soldiers were no more than a slim trail of dust winding down the road to Minion. Emerald shed a tear for them. It was almost like losing another family. Sometimes, life could be too cruel, even for a retired Slayer.
It was their turn to leave at last, weeks after Snake Eyes and Xill were gone. They had enough supplies to get them to Rook Mountain and back, should the need arise. Nathan hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but nothing was definite on Helscape. He stood patiently by the horses while Kane and Emerald said their goodbyes.
“You’ve always been a sister to me, dear Emerald. I shall miss you most of all.”
She smiled and caressed his cheek. “Keep hope, Aradias. We may yet return.” They hugged, and Kane walked to Nathan.
“It’s been a good fight, old man,” Nathan said returning the handshake. “Take care of yourself, Kane. You’re a good man, and these people are going to need a lot more good men before this is all said and done. You’ve got the hardest part still ahead. These folks are real lucky to have a man like you looking after them.”
“So our paths finally untwine. The road was long, my friend. If ever you find yourself around Black Tide, you won’t have to look far to find me. Go well, Nathan Bourne.”
Not wanting to look back, Emerald urged her horse forward. There was new world waiting for her, and she suddenly found herself eager to discover it.
Kane stopped them right before they were out of earshot. Both turned back towards the waving man.
“Mr. Bourne! Perhaps our children won’t have to see tomorrow’s demise after all.”
Nathan smiled and waved, and then both he and Emerald were lost among the swirling desert sands. Aradias Kane stood alone in the half-empty streets of Black Tide, much as he had when this strange journey began. His thoughts wandered back over the deeds of legends, where eight strangers dared change the history of the world. A gentle breeze tussled his hair, already changing from black to gray. There was a new day upon him, and nothing in it had ever been experienced. Aradias Kane couldn’t wait to see what the new world had to offer.