“My friends, I present you the town of Redemption,” the Viper said with a grand sweeping gesture. “Don’t let it fool you. The only hope therein comes from not being killed in the night.”
Their gaze held on the swarthy city ringed by foothills and broken mountains. Buildings were made of a strange metal alloy none were familiar with. Streets were paved and even had rows of lights lining them. It was an alien world to look upon from the people down to the strangeness of the beasts moving about.
“I advise you to watch your words here. You most of all, law man,” the Viper said. “These are the folk who’ll slice your throat for looking the wrong way. There is a place we can stash the wagon and supplies, but it’ll cost. They don’t take kindly to outsiders, and nothing is cheap around here.”
“We need to find Thalon quickly,” Kane told him. “I don’t want to waste any more time here than necessary.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem as long as he’s there. Pirates don’t tend to stay in port very long. Some fool superstition about being on dry land.”
Emerald leaned over to Nathan and said, “Watch your back.”
The old wagon creaked down the well-traveled road to Redemption and whatever else the Fates held in store.
Redemption was the southernmost city on Furnace Island and the determining factor for travelers wanting to go north. The island was recognized by the regional government in Draken as independent and autonomous. Their technology rivaled that of the planetary government in some ways, for many bright men and women had fled the south during the great wars.
One small town of refugees and thieves had grown into a sprawling community. A dozen towns had popped up across the island, from Doom Town due west to the northern most port of Une, which guarded the Fangs of Tal-Agnon from Northlander raiding parties. The southeastern waterways were guarded by the aged fortress Malad Durn, locked on a tiny isle in the middle of the eastern branch of the Angril River.
Everyone wore a weapon of sorts here, if only for self-defense. Thieves, murderers, pirates and assassins stood on every corner — not to mention the countless creatures roaming the volcanic landscape. Giant lizards stalked here and there in search of a good meal of flesh and blood. The band of seven adventurers saw many of these on their ride from the riverbanks.
Now, they stood upon the crest of the last rise before town. The Viper cautioned them against drawing their weapons prematurely. Doing so would only attract unwanted attention and could quite possibly get them killed. They grumbled and complained, but none were in a hurry to die. Natives spotted the wagon ambling down the road, and whispers started spreading. Some said they were captains of grand vessels ready to sail to the Northlands and end the fear of invasion for good. Others warned of bounty hunters come to claim more heads for the lords and regents away south. They nodded and passed the newcomers, always a hand on the hilt of a sword or the grip of a blaster beneath their drab cloaks.
Many of them recognized the man in black with the gleaming bird upon his shoulder. His name was synonymous with death and cause enough to give them wide berth down the streets. It was easier to avoid the threat concealed behind his demon red eyes than to face it. Nathan found it odd that the assassin was the most comfortable here. He figured the Viper’s reputation would put him on edge rather than in the thralls of respect from the people moving around them.
None of them noticed the balding man step from the shadows across the street to mark their progress. His narrow eyes took in their armaments and movements. They carried enough to start a fair battle yet walked like ordinary travelers seeking shelter. He was most impressed with the woman in their midst. This was uncommon. The band rode on until all he saw was their backs. The balding man drew his hood about him and slipped back into the shadows to make his report.
“The stables are at the end of the road,” the Viper told them, “but whether we’ve already been seen, I do not know. I have doubts that anyone will voluntarily ward our wagon and horses. This place has a bad feeling to it of a sudden. We’re taking a terrible chance in coming here.”
“Chance is often the basis for victory,” Kane said and rode on.
Redemption had an oddly calming effect on Nathan the further he rode through it. His mind told him he was surrounded by thieves and criminals, yet here he found peace. The respirators he wore lent them an air of anonymity despite their alien nature. A sick part of him was enjoying the grime and ash of the city. The city looked foul. Indeed, the entire island was locked in struggle between day and night, lost somewhere in the middle. The combination of Helscape’s twin suns and a hundred active volcanoes gave Furnace Island a dark red tinge staining everything in sight. It wasn’t far off from his visions of Hell.
They gained the stables without any altercations, though they passed by a number of fistfights and drunken brawls. The Viper told them it was an hourly occurrence and bade them ignore it unless it happened to them. Finding someone to watch over the wagon and horses proved easier than they’d anticipated. The stable master was a swarthy man with shifty eyes promising to keep their possessions as safe as they were his own. Kane didn’t trust him, but there was little choice.
“Shouldn’t we leave a guard?” Snake Eyes asked.
He didn’t care that there were five hundred other beasts and wagons already stabled. None of them were important to him, as he was guessing they weren’t to the stable master or his men.
“No. Not here,” the Viper said. “What good would it serve? He’d have no way to contact us should anything happen. Do try to relax. It’ll make things flow much smoother that way.”
The Viper led them down the stench-filled streets to where the pirate Thalon was going to meet them. Their nerves were on end regardless of how much they tried to relax. Every so often, Xill would spin around to protect their rear, giving the locals a look at the ion rifle hidden under his jacket. Thirty minutes later, they stood upon the steps of the Kaliya.
“This is it,” the Viper said.
Their relief was cut short by a battered man crashing through the double doors and landing out on the hard street. He hadn’t the time to groan before his attacker came storming after him. The ogre was almost four hundred pounds with little fat or brain capacity. His face was contorted with anger.
“Ya wormin’ thief!” the ogre bellowed. “I’ll learn ya to pick my pockets!”
The man on the ground tried his best to roll away and give himself a small chance of escaping. “To the Hells with you,” he spat at his aggressor. “You’re no better than the rest of us. When I tell them in Doom Town, there’ll be war on your head.”
Ogre kicked him square in the jaw, crushing bones and cartilage. Tears streamed down the little man’s face to mix with the drooling blood and saliva.
“You bastard,” he whispered through shattered teeth. His hand snaked down towards his blaster.
“I don’t think so, Grime,” said Ogre. “There will be no war seeing as how you’re not going to make it to Doom Town.”
The cold steel of Ogre’s pistol leveled on Grime’s head. He let out a low sigh and squeezed the trigger. The tiny crowd that had formed began to break up and go about their business. The show was over. Ogre wiped the blood and brain matter from his boots and went back inside.
“Lovely place,” Snake Eyes said and followed the others inside.
The Kaliya was unlike anything Nathan had ever been in. Lighting was intentionally limited, and luxurious tapestries ran to the ceiling. It must have been popular among the locals, because every couch and lounge bed was filled with pirates, outlaws and scantily clad women. Snake Eyes particularly enjoyed how the women walked about topless. This was definitely his type of place.
A man with skin the colors of fire stepped in front of them, his muscular arms crossed over his chest. He had a long mane and watched them with feline eyes. Leather gloves carefully concealed his razor sharp claws and quite possibly the levels of his own bitterness as well. His voice came out as a low growl.
“You are late. Mr. Zimbele has been expecting you. Come with me.”
His immense form pushed the pockmarked door to where the private rooms were kept. He parted the velvet curtains and gestured them in. Trap or no, they were left with no choice. Thalon was inside, along with a half-naked female friend of exquisite beauty. She was deeply tanned and had long, flowing hair down to her middle back. There was no fat on her shapely form. She was topless, her breasts firm with small, dark nipples. Ornate bracelets climbed the length of her forearms and ankles, and her transparent skirt was slit up to the joint of her thigh. She watched them with disdain as she slipped back into her top and walked away. Nathan felt drowned in the thick fragrance of perfume when she passed.
“I was beginning to think you weren’t going to come,” Thalon said with his best diplomatic tone. “Please make yourselves comfortable.”
A flicker of recognition passed his eyes when he saw Emerald, as if to say not yet. It was still too early and not his place.
“Have the Mistress bring in a few bottles for my distinguished guests,” he said to the feline warding the room.
The old pirate settled his gaze on Kane and asked, “Was there trouble along the way?”
“Nothing to concern yourself over. We handled what was given to us, and here we are. That is what’s important.”
“What’s the plan now?” the Viper asked, impatient with the feeling out process.
Thalon smiled. “Straight to the point. I like that. My captain has been hired to take you north to Kratchen and the wizard’s home. Certain matters have pushed our timetable forward, making it necessary to leave as soon as possible.”
“Why rush? We just got here,” Snake Eyes said. He was more than ready for a good drink and a warm woman to whisper his troubles away with.
“One does not trifle with a wizard’s patience, my friend. My job is to get you there safely and expediently.”
A slender blond wisped through the thin curtain to deliver five bottles of the house’s best stock. The Viper was the first to make himself comfortable, propping his feet up on the couch and lighting his long stem pipe. He soon lost himself in the sweet flavors of the pipe tobacco and Redemption’s best ale.
“This is quite the place,” Nathan observed with a grimace when the ale burned down his throat. It was quite possibly worse than the stuff back in the Wastes.
“We like to think so. Much cozier than other places. Everything you see is either contraband or black market under the regional governments. Seeing as how we don’t fall under their jurisdiction, Redemption is a grand place to discover your desires,” Thalon said. “There are no threats of outside intervention, which gives us the opportunity to live as we choose. Of course, there are unwritten codes here and those who will break them. I believe you witnessed such on your way in?”
“What about the boat?” Kane asked, already tired of pointless conversation.
“It’s one of the better ones, if that’s what you mean. Definitely one of the largest.”
“How long will the voyage last?” Nathan asked.
“It’s a full five-day trip, but she can make it under four. She’s the fastest ship on the Lava Sea. We seldom worry about attack. In fact, it’s been seven years since the last time we were boarded by a rival boat. That ended with their doom, I’m proud to say. The captain’s a well-respected man. Most ships give us a wide berth and hoist their colors to honor the peace.”
Talk went on long into the night, for it was the pirate way to tell tales and stories in celebration of momentous events. They completed their arrangements for the following day and talked no more of business. Thalon spoke of great crusades on the Northlands of the monsters in the frozen waters of the Northern Ocean. The soldiers countered with wars on distant planets and visions of despair. The ale kept coming faster the more the night marched on.
Kane excused himself somewhere after the midnight hour. He’d passed on drinking, deciding it was time for a clear head instead. It did him good to see the way the others were bonding and enjoying the times. He doubted there would be any more after they returned to the Wastelands.
It took all he had to ignore Emerald’s soft voice. He wanted to be alone. Their earlier conversation in the desert opened his heart and mind to accepting her but committing to such proved more difficult than he had hoped for.
“Damn it, Kane, look at me,” she demanded. Her tolerance for his childish behavior was gone. “I don’t know what I’ve done, but it ends now.”
“My heart dropped the day you discovered what we were about,” Kane slowly turned and said. “I don’t want you here anymore than the others. This whole endeavor is no more than suicide, Emerald.”
“You know I respect you more than any man alive, but we are responsible for our own choices in life, be they good or bad. This was mine,” Emerald said. “I thought we were beyond this. It seems I was wrong.”
A tear came to his eye. He knew she was right and was in no position to debate her wishes. His own selfishness prevented him from seeing the assets placed in front of him. Should it come to death, there was no finer company he could ask for. Finally, he nodded and thus accepted Emerald as one of the band.
She leaned forward and gave him a tender kiss on the cheek. “You’re never going to have to worry about being alone again, Aradias.”