A celebration of grand proportions had been ordered upon the arrival of their last day with the pirates of the Misfortune. Fine ales and wines from the Northlands were brought in, and many meats were prepared. The lower floor of the inn smelled of minced meats and sweet sauces. Incense burned in the corners, and a hired minstrel was thrumming his lute near the fireplace. No one but the crew and friends were admitted that night. It wasn’t uncommon for this sort of thing to happen, but it sparked jealousy and contempt in lesser captains and crews.
Vesper Razorback couldn’t have cared less. He was celebrating the return of a daughter long lost and her budding romance, though the second part was still thought to be confidential in Emerald’s eyes. Morning would see the tiny band, now weighted with a wizard and his assistant, riding back south towards harm, and Vesper had every intention of sending them off right.
Halfway through the festivities, right when the old sailors turned to ancient tales and dreams of glory — inspired by the alcohol, no doubt — Emerald made her way through the crowd and pulled Nathan away. His stomach was too full from so much food to have room for more wine, so he offered no resistance. It took a while to shift through the crowd, for most of her father’s crew was assembled, but they finally gained the top of the stairwell.
She leaned close and kissed his lips, deep and hungry. The tip of her tongue slid into his mouth, and they moaned together. Smiling, she pulled away.
“What was that for?” he asked, chasing her further down the hall.
“Because I can,” she purred.
He smiled and was upon her before she could blink. His weight gently forced her against the wall, pinning her arms above her head. He let his passions out, and she more than welcomed it. His kisses went from her mouth down her neck, stopping at the shallow between her breasts and trailing back up.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what you asked me,” she panted through breaths.
Their combined heat was dizzying with lust. Neither had felt so alive in years. Leaning close, she nipped his ear and let her hands run through his hair.
“Not yet,” she whispered. “Make love to me first.”
Fueled by desire, Nathan hefted her lithe body in his arms and carried her down to their room where they stayed until a pirate came through with the wake-up call.
A now-empty mug in his hands, Vesper wiped the froth from his lips and roared. The ale was some of the finest he’d had, and there was plenty more to consume before the suns rose. Snake Eyes, deciding not to be outdone, was matching him mug for mug. He wasn’t so sure it was a sound idea, but he’d already come to accept that they were all going to die anyway, so he might as well enjoy what time he had left. The old pirate slapped him on the back and ordered another round with a hearty laugh.
The images of his daughter and her lover escaping caught the corner of his eye, and a sudden sadness entered him. He loved her with all his heart but didn’t know where to begin when it came to being a father. His life was spent ranging the seas, full of conquest and fortunes. Victory and defeat were often the same, for sacrifices needed to be made. Vesper could feel another sacrifice coming on.
The serving girl returned with another tray of ale, bringing him back to the task at hand. Foam spilled down the sides, and the pirates cheered. Snake Eyes raised his glass and laughed, hardly noticing the contest brewing between them.
“Lad,” Vesper told him. “You’re a fine young man, but I’ll be damned to the Seven Hells if I let an offworlder outdo me when it comes to Helscape ale!”
The pirates cheered as both men put their mugs to their lips and drank deep. Festivities ranged on into the middle hours of the night. Of Gage, there was no sign, not that anyone actually looked for him. The Mad Hosking had disappeared as well. It wasn’t like him to be social these days. Instead, he chose to watch the dangers unfold and earn the secrets of the night atop the roof. The Viper sat off in a quiet corner smoking his pipe and enjoying a drink or two. He liked the company even less than Hosking and had much on his mind. The dreams from a week ago haunted him every time his eyes closed.
Four tables had been put together in the center of the floor, and there sat Kane, Xill, Thalon and Kuln. Thalon spoke to Kane of recent dangers on the northern routes through the Waste and warned him of a greater threat brewing. The other two talked about different types of food they specialized in. Xill was an avid cook back home and enjoyed the process of learning new recipes. It was a secret no one in the Imperium had ever found out. To them, he was a stone-faced killer in the heat of battle.
Finally, when the fun started dying down, Vesper climbed atop the center tables and barked for silence. The sudden quiet was deafening.
“My friends, this has been a momentous occasion with much cause for celebration!” he began. “Not only have I found my beloved daughter after all these years, but I have found her in love! Perhaps there will be grandchildren someday.”
His crew laughed and exchanged handshakes.
“Sadly, we must bid these fair people farewell. Dawn will see them steal my daughter away towards the Wastes where I’m afraid great peril awaits.” His eyes leveled on Kane. “It’s not my place to try and talk you out if this folly. A man must be able to make decisions for himself in this world. Use the wizard, Aradias Kane, and use him well. He is all that stands before you and doom.
“But enough talk of gloom and despair. Gentlemen, raise your glasses so that we toast this brave band of souls.” They cheered again, as eager to finish their mugs as to praise their friends.
“May the light of the Gods go in your presence, and may you only know victory,” Vesper announced, citing an old pirate saying handed down through the generations.
“And may someone wake up this young soldier and put him in his bed. He should have known better than to try and out-drink the captain of the Misfortune!”
They looked to where Snake Eyes lay snoring with his head on the table.
Swift winds raced through the city streets, fueled by the combined heat of the rising suns and an erupting volcano to the east. All told, the world reminded Nathan of Hell.
Dark red skies swirled with black clouds and wicked lightening. Strange creatures walked through the mists, casting only shadows towards civilization. He couldn’t wait to get back to the relative normalcy of the desert. On the other hand, he was lying next to the woman he loved and in the company of good friends.
The light tapping on his door was the last thing he wanted. Helscape’s twin suns were still rising, and he knew most of the crew was in no condition to begin the day. Sounds of their merriment had kept him awake most of the night. Emerald had seemed to have no trouble falling asleep. They’d made love for as long as their bodies could take and washed in the shower before going back to bed. She had fallen asleep the moment her head touched the pillow. He’d wanted to, but there was too much on his mind.
She still hadn’t mentioned what she was thinking about the question, as Nathan had come to call it. Her unexpected giddiness and provocative nature sent him thinking many thoughts and he was unsure of them all. He tried thinking back to the return from Kratchen. They’d had plenty of time during those three days, but she didn’t really sit down to talk to her father the way he would have expected if she chose to go with him.
The tapping grew more persistent, and he slid into his jeans, trying to make himself at least partly presentable. The door opened, and he found himself staring into Thalon’s eyes. They were bloodshot and heavy from the combination of too much alcohol and not enough sleep.
“I hope this is really important,” Nathan warned.
“Trust me, offworlder,” Thalon replied. “I wouldn’t have gotten up if it weren’t.”
“So what’s the deal?”
“Captain Razorback wishes to speak with his daughter at her earliest convenience.”
Nathan instinctively turned to check her sleeping form. His heart warmed at the sight of her tanned body half-covered with the sheet. Everything from the base of her spine was visible. He absorbed the curve of her back, the hard muscles, and the gentle rise and fall of her breathing. The way her hair draped across her shoulders. He knew at that moment that he was in love.
“He’s awaiting her in room three.” Thalon turned away and walked off.
“Thanks,” Nathan mumbled.
“Thank me by hurrying up so that I may get a few more hours of sleep,” he called over his shoulder.
Gage was the last to climb aboard the wagon, letting his friend Klaa go ahead of him. He didn’t care for riding horses much these days, and though the wagon was going to be uncomfortable enough, a little spell here and there just might ease some of the aches. It was the dawn of a perfect day to begin this last part of his sad tale. Elsewhere, the suns were shining down upon the stirring world, lending the desert a firm glow. A good way to begin the journey, he thought again.
Vesper and his crew stood gathered to bid them farewell. Kane offered them a final wave and rode off towards the Angril River. Emerald smiled to her father, Nathan’s hand in hers. Nathan watched her eyes sparkle in a different way. One day, he was going to have to ask her what those two had talked about. For now, he was content to see her happy again. She found out when Redemption was miles away that leaving wasn’t as hard as she thought.
The Traitor God was one of those books sitting on my tbr shelves (yes, I said shelves…) for over a year. The cover intrigued me but after a string of strikes (The Tiger’s Daughter- yawn, nothing really happened in that one, The Battle for Hell’s Island- good Lord the writing is so dense, and several others) I decided to give it a go. I wasn’t disappointed.
The main character is one messed up dude. Forced to flee his home because of what he was born as- to be fair, no one wants to have a mind controlling Tyrant around to take over everything- He struggles with who and what he is. Magic is no joke in this world. Be the wrong kind and magic police are coming after you.
An unexpected death causes him to come home and the book takes on a whole film noir feel- which I absolutely love. Between old detective movies and the entire genre, this book fits in nicely for 3/4. Then the big bad is revealed and everything goes to hell. Enemy invasions, traitors, corrupt gods. You name it.
The story was well done as well as the main character’s struggles to avoid becoming what everyone is afraid of. I think that was what drew me in after the initial feel of the book. Also, it’s hard to actually like the main character. He’s not the sort of guy you want to sit down and have a beer with.
4 out of 5 stars and I’m looking forward to reading the next chapter.
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.
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.
Howdy friends. It’s been a long while since I last posted anything. Life is hectic that way, isn’t it? Not only do I now have a booming business on Fiverr helping other authors with their bios and back covers, I am in the death throes of finishing my thesis for a masters in digital communications from Chapel Hill. Throw in a family and trying to find time to keep writing and I am spent!
But that doesn’t mean you have to suffer for it! I’ve redesigned this blog to make it friendlier, and touched up my website based on what I learned in school. Right? Who said you’re too old to learn anything new!
My entire plan from the beginning has been to turn my writing into a legitimate business, something too many authors fail to understand. Writing a book is easy, what comes after is the real struggle. Anyway, welcome back and look around. There are some great changes added and I can’t wait to hear what you think.
After a brief hiatus we are getting down to the nuts and bolts of things. Don’t mind the site too much as we are undergoing a bit of restructuring- all with the intent to bring you the best viewing experience. This is about to become a one stop shop for reading and (hopefully) a little buying and sharing among friends. Sit back and relax. The ride is about to pick up.
The Horde Prepares
Buried beneath the shifting sands a grand turmoil emerged. The Berserker horde reveled in their dominant victory over the Imperium. Skulls, weapons, and armor were paraded around the underground city in triumph, all under the watchful gaze of Kargosh, the First One. Only once before had his forces been cast in a position for total dominance. Just once in their long history.
Kargosh scowled, dusty wings shifting restlessly. The moment of his ascension was approaching. That point in time when he would rise above the expectations of the Creator and become a god to his kind. Ironic, considering they were genetically manipulated creations quite without souls.
“You summoned me,” Mnemlath said from bended knee.
Nostrils flared as Kargosh spun. The disdain with which he gazed upon his subordinate was plain for any to see. Berserkers seldom bothered to hide emotions. It was a strength of species that kept the very best in positions of power. Kargosh despised Mnemlath. Knowing he would have already killed the lesser Berserker if the need for battle ready warriors was prevalent, the First One abided Mnemlath’s casual disrespect. For now.
“Our warriors must not devolve, Mnemlath. The victory against the fleshlings was significant but the war is not yet won.”
Mnemlath clenched his clawed fists. “There are none to oppose us.”
“Arrogance is your weakness, Mnemlath. The enemy is broken but not beaten. Our kind has fought for over four centuries and have not achieved a lasting victory.”
Fumes snorted from flared nostrils. “The fleshlings have no strength left, First One. Many Slayers were among the armored ones. Who can now oppose us?”
“The enemy comes in many forms. While we are confined to this world they have many. How many more resources can they throw at us while our numbers continue to dwindle?”
The lesser Berserker tensed, anger threatening to boil over. “We dwindle because of you! Centuries have we avoided finding the technology to rebuild our race. We die because of you.”
Kargosh roared. The sound so mighty rock and dirt collapsed down from the ceiling in a rush. For his part, Mnemlath refused to quail, holding his position even as rock smashed into his shoulder.
“The rule of the Berserker horde is mine and none other. Unless…you think you are strong enough to challenge?” Kargosh whirled, spreading his wings in a bold display of power.
This was an inevitable moment. Two apex predators; one waning the other waxing. Another in an endless string of trials by combat. Kargosh had beaten them all and fed their broken corpses to monster in the lake. Mnemlath was by far the strongest, and highest ranking. A true challenge. But not now.
“Perhaps you are right. Perhaps it is time to resume the quest for reproductive technology.” Wings folded with a crisp snap. Dust clouds sprinkled slowly to the floor. “The portal under Rook Mountain, the one build by the Creator, Death Shrike’s warriors claim it led to a glorious new world ripe with technology. I believe the time has come to exploit that resource.”
Mnemlath jerked back, suddenly suspicious. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine The First One setting him up. Lesser Berserkers had fallen prey to simpler devices. “How?”
“Prepare a force to invade the new world. Steal what we need. The time of the Berserker will rise again,” he said.
Mnemlath remained unconvinced, knowing that the immediate threat on Helscape needed to be dealt with first. “We must secure the deserts before journeying to another world. We have the enemy where we need them. Attack until none remain.”
The idea wasn’t without merit. The vast majority of fleshling forces in the Wastelands were either dead or wounded to the point they were non mission capable. A sizeable portion of Slayers, bounty hunters, and opportunists lay dead in McGregor’s Gorge. Winged agents soared over the eastern portion of the Wastes at night, counting troop numbers and enemy disposition. Kargosh wasn’t willing to rest on the laurels of a single victory. They’d battled too many times in the past and the Berserkers always wound up losing any hard won ground.
Fleshlings reproduced at great speed and in quantity whereas his kind was unable to. Every death suffered hampered his war machine. His army still numbered in the hundred thousands but continued to shrink with each new engagement. Defeating the fleshlings now was doable, but at what cost? Kargosh wasn’t willing to throw away the bulk of his strength in a cleansing action that wouldn’t be maintainable.
He closed his reptilian eyes and recalled the massive battle along the banks of the Angril River. The loss of life, on both sides, had been appalling, ending only in the eventual retreat of his horde. Would today mark another such occasion? Did his horde have enough strength of will remaining to maintain the initiative without denigrating their own combat power to irreversible low levels?
“What of the fleshlings to the city in the east?” Mnemlath asked.
Kargosh clicked his jaws. “They are of no immediate consequence. We will send the bulk of the horde after them while they recover. Keep them occupied enough they cannot mount a counteroffensive. We shall own the day, Mnemlath.”
Wheels began to turn as Mnemlath envisioned the moment when he would finally challenge Kargosh for domination of the Berserker horde. Soon, but not yet. He lacked the support necessary to remain in power for an extended period.
“Who shall lead the force to the new world?” he asked.
Kargosh resisted the urge to give in to temptation. Sending Mnemlath would be too easy. The risk was great, as was the potential for failure or worse. No, he decided it best to keep the impetuous Mnemlath close at hand. There’d be time enough in the future to put an end to any dreams of power once the fleshlings were dealt with and the technology to create delivered unto them.
“Pick one. It matters not. I want them ready to move soon. We must take advantage of the fleshling’s disarray while it lasts. Now leave me.”
Mnemlath was dismissed with the subtle wave of a hand, fueling his anger further. The sheer arrogance exhibited by Kargosh sickened him, bolstering the desire to usurp the throne. Mnemlath dreamed of the day when he was able to finally shred his former master apart and claim dominance over the Wastelands. Any who dared challenge would be murdered out of hand. Fleshling and Berserker alike. A new wind was blowing through the endless desert. A wind of change. A wind of glory. All he had to do was reach out and take it.
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.