“So where are we going to find a big enough wagon?” asked Nathan as he and Emerald walked down the half-filled street.
“Old man Barley owns a shop on the outskirts of town. He’s been a friend for years. He should be able to help us.”
“I hope he doesn’t expect it back.”
Noon came and went, and still the temperature climbed. It was the typical misery Nathan had come to expect. He hated this place even more than his own miserable life back on earth. A hot breeze irritated his exposed skin, and he snarled. Emerald caught the expression and suppressed a giggle.
“Enjoying yourself?” he asked, a taste of annoyance on his tongue.
“There are other ways to enjoy oneself, but that was amusing, yes,” she flashed a warm smile. “You act like you’ve never been in a desert before.”
“I have, but that doesn’t mean I like it,” he said.
“Nothing about it?” she teased.
He struggled to keep from grinning like a stricken school boy. “Well, maybe not everything. There might be one or two things I can think of to like.”
Her laugh echoed down the street, causing more than one head to turn.
“Well, well, would you look at that,” a gruff voice said from across the street. “Such a pretty little thing. How’s about you forget that maggot and see what a real man can offer?”
Nathan looked up to see five men staring back at him. The speaker was built like a bear and nearly as hairy. Two of them were insect-like, the rest human. Nathan groaned.
Fighting the Berserkers was bad enough. He didn’t know how he was going to get out of this mess.
“Piss off, mac. I don’t have the time to play.”
They laughed. “He doesn’t have time to play. All the more reason to give up the girl and go about your business.”
The man started to move off the porch, a malevolent intent blazing in him. Nathan tensed, ready to fight. The silver flash hummed through the air, striking less than an inch from the post by the bear’s head.
“I suggest you go about yours,” Emerald growled, another throwing knife already in her hand.
The smaller man whispered, “She’s a Slayer.”
Emerald winked. Bear growled, but there was no force in it. Slowly, without taking his eyes off of them, he and the others backed away. She recovered the knife and returned to Nathan’s side.
“Nice. Can’t say that I’ve ever been rescued by the woman before.” He smiled.
Emerald wrapped her arm around his and said, “Don’t get used to it. My favors usually come with a price.”
Nathan resisted the urge to follow that one. “Got a boyfriend?” he asked.
She gave him the warmest smile he had ever seen. “I’ll let you know in a little bit.”
“So tell me about your homeworld,” she said as they continued on to Old Man Barley’s. “Kane tells me that there are whole fields of green.”
Recent conversations had given him much to think about. Life continued to spiral out of control, waltzing with purpose down strange, wonderful highways no human should ever learn. He’d found someone to share, commiserate in his personal torment, but that did little to assuage the guilt of being trapped on an alien planet so far from home.
Home. The word almost sounded wrong. Nathan placed his head on the pillow and tried to think of all he was missing. Ultimately he concluded it wasn’t actually that much. An ex-wife and a child. His life wasn’t exactly the best there was. He worked too much. Smoked too much and didn’t give much of a care to most matters. Nathan grinned like a fool as he realized he’d turned into a real son of a bitch.
His biggest fear was that more of the Berserkers were loose on Earth. Binghamton wasn’t a very large city but it was only a few hours west of New York. Should those monsters manage to make it that far… He let the thought drop, knowing there wasn’t a thing he could do about so long as he was stuck here.
The collapse of part of Rook Mountain made going back through the portal all but impossible. There had been hope of returning once the Imperium finished crushing the Berserkers but now that hope was naught but muted glory. Nathan was stuck and decidedly out of his element.
“What in the hell have I gotten myself into?” he asked the ceiling.
Life wasn’t supposed to be this hard. By this stage of his life he’d expected to have a well developed retirement fund, a happy family, and a boat to cruise up and down the lake on perfect weekends. His current situation was a far cry from that lofty dream. Misery didn’t seem strong enough to describe what had happened since being pulled out from under the mountain.
Eventually, while desperately trying to fall asleep without success, he came to the inescapable conclusion that loneliness drove his actions. Alone and moderately afraid, Nathan stumbled from one misadventure to the next in the hopes of escaping an almost overbearing experience. He’d surrounded himself with an assortment of characters he felt he could trust, though that decision was far from final on a few, and gradually accepted that they offered the same camaraderie as his time in the army. Forget the fact that one of them had three eyes.
His final thoughts before drifting off to sleep were that perhaps he wasn’t as lonely as he initially thought.
“We need to talk,” Kane told Nathan after the last man left his recovery room. It was the end of the week, and final preparations were underway.
Locking his arms behind his back in the fashion of an old sage, Kane said, “I wish you to reconsider your decisions. This is not your fight. The dangers far outweigh the rewards. There is a strong chance you may not return to your home world.”
“That disaster back in the Gorge wasn’t my fight either,” Nathan replied. “I make my own choices, Kane. There comes a time in every man’s life when he loses the selfishness and all he has left is what’s inside. This is my time. I’m finally a part of something greater than myself, and it feels damned good. Besides,” he grinned, “I think I’m starting to like it here.”
That last was pure fiction. Aside from Emerald Razorback he hadn’t found much of anything to like about the Wastelands.
“I don’t want your blood on my hands.”
“It won’t be if what you say is true. We’ll all be going to meet our Gods soon. The greatest freedom a man can have is choosing his death,” Nathan replied. “Not to change the subject, but I think you need to talk to Emerald. This is the second time you’ve rejected her, and she’s hurt by it. She won’t say it, but I can see it in her eyes.”
“She and Braxton are the closest thing I have to family. What sense does it make for all of us to die?” He turned his back on his friend.
Nathan sighed. He’d run in to obstinate people before and, it appeared, that the ones here on Helscape were no different from those back on Earth. “If that’s the case, then what sense does it make for one to live after the others are gone? Personally, I’d rather die among friends than alone.”
Alone. The word stung Kane. It was his life’s story. There’d been acquaintances, a fleeting friend here or there, but nothing more solid. His emptiness was a testament to the Slayer’s life. So it had been since their violent inception, and so it would always be. Kane weighed the words heavily before rejoining his friends.
“Ah, but it reminds me of the old days,” Braxton said when they finished loading the wagon with the last of the supplies. “A noble quest fit for kings.”
Xill’s eyebrow raised in question. “Were you here in the old days?”
Braxton frowned. “I ain’t that damned old, ye crackpot! I was just makin a comment.”
“And how you wish you were coming and all of that squaffa,” Snake Eyes said with a smile. “I’ve heard this one before.”
“Ha ha!” the old man thundered. “Ya know me better than I know myself. You’ll do fine out there, lad.”
“I sure hope so.”
Braxton walked off laughing. The others were finishing packing their bags, leaving Snake to guard the wagon. The assassin was already gone. It wasn’t a big deal, but he was the one responsible for planning half of the mission and knew a great many secrets deemed important by them. The least he could have done was show his face when they left Black Tide.
“Lads, them Berserkers have raped the Wastes for two hundred years. There was an empire once. A human empire or so my da used to tell. Good men came and built a paradise out there. The Berserkers wrecked it all. My home. Tonight, you accept the mantle of change. May the Gods bless you on your way.”
“And fortune favor the foolish,” Nathan added.
“The suns are setting,” Xill said. There was an ominous tone in his voice. “It is time to begin.”
“So it is.”
The playful looks of innocence were lost as they shuffled their way to their mounts. Seriousness set in. Braxton stopped by Kane’s horse for a last word.
“I don’t suppose we’ll meet again, old friend,” he told the one hand Slayer. “Do me proud, boy, and take this with ya.”
The parcel was wrapped in a dusty cloth, having been secured there for decades. Kane was reluctant to accept it, but Braxton insisted.
“Tis an old dagger I found long ago. Some rumor that it came from the old empire. I dunno. But if it did, maybe you can help return it to the purpose it was designed for.”
Kane clutched the weapon to his heart. “I will use it only when necessary. May we meet again, Braxton Skrapp.”
The old Slayer turned and ambled away. It was a day for youth. His had come and gone, and there was nothing else to say. The fate of the world rested in their hands now.