We crested a dune and found ourselves near the skeleton of some enormous ancient beast. Some distance from the skull, part of a weathered ribcage stuck up from the sands, canopied with crudely-stitched hides.
Gutter pointed a gnarled greyish finger. “That’s the place I saw that foul creature.”
At the far end of this grim shelter, a low fire burned. And at the near end…
A spindly, sinewy something sprawled upon the sand. Even from the dune, we could see it was taller than any Human, taller even than most Mutants. We approached – Malice marching ahead recklessly; Irk striding forward as cool as if he were walking home. Ned crouching, rifle in hand. My gait a stumbling mix, unsure whether to stride or stall. As we drew near, we saw that its long legs were covered in nothing but ragged pants of sackcloth, that the rest of it was covered in nothing at all. Even the creature’s head was bald. Its pallid yellowish skin was mottled with feverish pink, striped with gouges and scars, and scattered with scales.
It barely moved. I wondered if we were too late. Ned drew a bead on it, in case we weren’t.
A voice like sand itself hissed at us: “…water…”
With uncommon caution, Malice extended his waterjug. “Aye, I brought yeh water.” I stepped closer and held out my own.
The creature drew a knife.
It rose swiftly to its feet, but it swayed like a tree in a stiff breeze, the knife arcing and glinting in the air.
I raised my hands to the air, water sloshing from the jug, and tried to reassure the creature I wouldn’t hurt it – “Not if I ain’t gotta!”
Ned lowered his rifle, trying not to agitate the creature any further.
“Water,” it rasped again.
Malice pressed the jug into the creature’s hands; I held mine out again, as well. The creature studied the jug in it held – then threw it at Malice’s head.
Malice recoiled as the jug struck him. “’EY, GAWDAMMIT, ‘AT’S GOOD WATER… THA SHIT!? Fuck it. Go ‘a’ead ‘n die.” Grumbling, he walked toward Ned – who had taken aim once more, muttering darkly about how he’d never seen something so nasty.
Nearly unheard in all the commotion was Irk’s straightforward question. “Creature! Are you Aeg?”
It gave no response, but slumped to the ground, huddled in a defensive crouch. Its long arms swatted at visions, then curled up to protect its head.
Its whisper was barely audible over the wind. “Don’t hit me anymore!”
“It suffers,” noted Irk.
Ned hung his head in dismay, rifle still at the ready. “Pour water on his head an kick’m in the ribs….tell’m to git wit it…”
I frowned, and I offered my own water again – guessing that perhaps it wouldn’t take a drink from a Ghoul.
It said nothing, but simply stumbled, sat, slumped by turns.
“Creature! How do we help you?” Irk cried.
The realization crept up slowly, like dawn over the dunes. My mind, in muddled twilight, could barely make out the edges of the idea. Bogwater isn’t pure enough. He wants something different. Flaskwater! Fissure water! The kind heated to boiling by the lava!
Only one person has been so adamant about using that hot water…
Ned had wondered. Irk had asked. Now I was almost certain.
I rummaged desperately through pouches, then laughed bitterly. “Cures! I only got flasks o’ CURES! The one time I have Cure an’ want water…”
The stranger laughed. An arrhythmic, too-slow, too-loud laugh. Mirthless, mad-tinged. A laugh like a guard dog’s bark.
I noticed the red-tinged scars around his mouth.
Irk whispered, “This creature can not be the doktor of many skills, this one is cracked in the head.”
“DOES HE GOT DAT RUST MOUF!?” Ned shouted.
The creature laughed again. “No.”
Wheezing again, crouching again, he called out again for water. Irk took a long step back – and Ned did the same. “Dat boy is sick as a rotten grub.”
I asked whether anyone else had any Fissure water. None had any on them; Malice’s was in his locker all the way in the Junkyard. I had empty flasks, and said I’d get some fresh from the Fissure. I turned, ready to run.
But I saw the array of weapons – Ned with his rifle, Gutter with his Vicious Clobberin’ Stick, Malice with his own stick – and I hesitated, wondering whether they’d just put the creature down.
Standing, stumbling, he brandished his blade again. He spoke in a voice like the wind through dead grass.
“Bring me water, or I make the sands wet with your blood.”
Though he looked weak, it was clear this was no shallow threat.
Irk vowed he’d stay and watch. Knowing him to be a Mutant of his word, I thanked him and ran full pelt for the Fissure.
I was lucky. The hot water was mostly undisturbed, and I was able to fill all three of my empty flasks before barrelling back through the Fissure, shoving Saul aside, and clambering up the rusty track (like hell I would wait for the lift.)
Southwest into the sand seas, no time to even nod to Malice as we met, split again. Descending a dune, then – disoriented. Was it farther south? Was I too far west? Was I too late? Sand slipped under my boots as I ran up another dune. A sigh slipped through my lips as I looked east and found everyone.
Running to the last, Malice and I returned to the ribcage. The gaunt figure lay sprawled again beneath its canopy. Panting, I said I’d found water.
There was no reply.
I let out a streak of swearing that could have stripped the rust off iron, and I pushed the flask into a long-fingered hand.
There was no movement.
“Pour it into the mouth,” Irk urged.
Gutter was still wary. “Careful, it may have great big fangs or twenty tongues.”
I picked it up again and tried to pour the water between his cracked lips. As soon as the first drops fell, there was a flash of movement. I felt a tug. He’d clasped the flask and began to chug it – soon draining the entire thing.
He thanked me – and demanded more.
I passed over another flask of still-hot water; he drank it almost to the dregs.
“So this means no blood spillin’ now, aye?” I asked, Vicious Clobberin’ Stick still in hand.
He poured the last of the flaskwater into his large hands and rubbed his eyes.
The voice was less raspy now. Familiar – but still hard to place.
Gutter’s eyes widened. “What the hell?”
Irk, his head to one side, looked amazed.
I stared up – way up, now that he was standing fully upright – at the stranger. No, not a stranger at all. “You… you ARE, ain’t ye…”
He looked around from face to face, smiling – then his eyes seemed to fix on the horizon. “Where… where are we? Am I close to home?” He wheezed again. I told him we were probably closer to his original home, now.
“They took my everything,” he said, “So I do not appear as I normally do. I am sorry for how I appear. It is I, Aeg.”
We all asked who’d done this to him. He gave no clear answer: “They did…” He sat down again in the sand. But he said they hadn’t left him there – that he’d been walking for a long time. He clutched his side, wheezing again.
“I suppose… I owe an explanation… for my shameful appearance,” Doktor Aeg began.
“Aside from the… cuts and bruises.. This is how I have been… for a long time.”
“A long time ago… I was born to a mutant tribe…”
Malice, his jaw slack, let his stick drop to the sand. Ned raised his goggles and stared, speechless. Irk cast a pitying look on the Doktor, who frowned at him again.
“An’ here I’d always thought ye was a bird unner there,” I murmured through my shock.
“Let us walk. Even though I am tired, I have been here too long,” he continued. “Which way is home?”
Some fingers pointed east, some northeast.
Aeg said he had nothing left but that broken blade and the tattered rags he wore.
“The sun is not my friend. It… JUDGES me.” Another hard look at Irk.
Gutter took off his hat and offered it, to shield him from the sun. I offered my stick for him to lean on while he walked. Ned offered a mask. Malice offered some purps to ease the pain.
The Doktor accepted all but the last two. He looked to Ned a moment. “I think I am done hiding my face.”
We walked slowly over the dunes, pausing now and again as Aeg veered and swayed. Soon we saw a familiar sight. “Oh, the spire! We ARE close to home!”
Aeg’s delight was only matched by our caution. Ned scanned the dunes as if he had a neck full of ball bearings. Gutter muttered of how he hated that rock. I looked up anxiously at its summit.
The Doktor stopped in the shade. “Let’s rest a bit, but not too long…”
“How bad do I look?” he asked.
Gutter gave a dry laugh. “You look like hell itself chewed ya up and spit ye out.”
Aeg clutched his side and winced. “I feel like it, still.”
We offered him food and Medkits. He accepted the food – but not the Medkits. The wounds were too old now, too deep, he said.
And he denied Malice’s offer of a purple mushroom. “No thanks Malice, I’ve had enough tripping to last me through the year.”
Malice snacked noisily on it himself. “Wutyamean by ‘at?”
Aeg looked at the Ghouls. “You know how you feel when you don’t have water for a long time?”
“Dried up and stiff.”
“Like an egg on a skillet.”
“Ya feel like a piece ‘ah dried meat….”
Gutter, Malice, and Ned replied. I shrugged out of my jacket.
“And you know what happens mentally to ghouls that don’t have moisture…” Aeg continued, frowning down at his yellowish hands.
The Ghouls all nodded, solemn. “Aye. Ye go all Ghast,” said Malice.
Aeg’s sadness condensed into rage. He hurled the walking stick at Irk.
“I WAS A MUTANT!” he shouted. “UNTIL THE KING OF FIRE SAID THAT I WASN’T!”
Irk nimbly dodged; my stick struck the dune beside him. “I did not make you ghoul! Also not the King of Fire!”
Aeg took another swig of water and collected himself again. “No. You did not make me a Ghoul. I have been one longer than anyone here has known me.”
A look of horror contorted Irk’s face.
Aeg did not elaborate. “The sun is shifting, and I am almost out of water. Let’s head to the cave nearby for a rest.”
We trekked onward. Aeg mentioned that, if we ever get lost, the spire points toward the cave. Sure enough, we soon stood before its entrance..
“Under ground?” questioned Irk.
Doktor Aeg, wheezing, glared daggers at the sun, then stepped inside the cool, damp cave. We followed, all of us reluctant for one reason or another – taboo, spiders, angry foxen – and stood in the main chamber for a while.
Suddenly, Aeg’s eyes went wide. “Can you hear that?! I hear water!”
He rushed down a narrow, winding passage to a lower cavern – with a waist-deep pool of clear water.
Gutter followed eagerly. Irk held back, his vast brow furrowed in unpleasant thought. “So… every mushroom I have eaten has been touched by a ghoul mutant?!”
The Doktor stepped into the pool and began to wash out his wounds. The other Ghouls waded in, as well, the clear water soon turning murky.
Aeg asked if any of us had any spare rags, or if we knew any basic medicines. There was little we could offer.
Irk looked at the ceiling of the cavern as if he expected it to fall on him. “How… can you live in a cave…?”
“You wouldn’t drink this, or take anything down here, would you?” Aeg said.
Irk snorted. “This is away from the King of Fire! No mutant of pride would stay here, or take of this place!”
“That’s right,” Aeg replied, a sad smirk on his sallow face. He stepped out of the pool.
“I am sorry Irk. None of this is your fault,” he continued.
“This I said to you,” replied the Mutant.
“I have been full of anger for so long. I guess these wounds let it bleed out.”
“When a creature is weak it will live on rage power,” Irk said, thoughtfully. “But this is not the way you have… seemed for so long.”
Standing in the cool of the cave, Aeg began to tell his story.
“A long time ago when I was much younger, I did not pass my trial. I was forced to become an exile.”
A look of shock passed over Irk’s face.
“As the word passes from tribe to tribe, none would have me. Sure, I was the tallest, but I am weak. But human gangs and clans would have me. So I found myself with them.”
“Even then, it is hard for a mutant to mingle among the humans. Some would tease me about tradition, even jokingly as friends, it still cut deep. I could not pass my trial, so I could not be what I wanted. So I at least tried to help.”
Irk’s shock became bitter sadness.
“If the Fire King would not have me, the dark places would,” Aeg stated. “So I said TO HELL with tradition, and I found my own way.”
But his look of determination soon faded to confusion. “I still don’t know if what I do is right.”
Irk tried to console him. “Your stoo helps many. Any warrior could be proud of this.”
Aeg simply scowled a little and said we should get back home. “If I remember correctly, the oasis is nearby.” He turned to climb the steps again.
I tried to reassure him, as well. “Ye figgered out th’ Cure. Ye saved all us. An’ mebbe other settlements, where’er the Traders take it.”
Aeg paused, but did not turn back. “I didn’t figure out the cure… in time.”
He walked on.
We followed, tracking eastward. Soon we stood on the shores of the Oasis. Malice cautioned us that fox Manimals dwelled there, too – and that they didn’t much like Ghouls. Still, it was beautiful as always – the glimmer of sunlight on the waters, the bobbing of the lilies and mosses, the swish of the cattails, the soft sway of the ferns that grew in rich silt.
Aeg, still swaying himself, stared at the slow swirls of green slime. His fingers traced the deep red scars on his mouth.
“I TRIED TO SAVE THEM!”
His shout shattered the tranquility.
“…I tried,” he whispered.
“My human friends… They got the Rustmouth when I was still a mutant. So I used what I learned from the tribe to make a cure. …I worked on that cure night and day… My friends were dying around me, and… I could not… help them.” He crouched on the silt, hanging his head.
“Then… I got the Rustmouth… And I could not help myself.”
We tried our best to console him. “Ye did as ye could, Aeg… that matters. That counts…” I offered.
Ned nodded. “See ya helped a buncha folk an dey greatful….dats sumt’n to be proud ’bout, Aeg.”
Malice said, “Think ’bout it this way, Aeg… ‘Ey ain’t sufferin’ no mer, ‘n yeh foun’t a new callin’.”
Again, Aeg’s woe became anger. He rose, gulped down the last of the water, and flung the empty flask at Malice. “New calling! NEW CALLING!”
Malice, undeterred, nodded. “Aye…Now yeh actualleh succeed at ‘elpin’ ’em.’”
Aeg slumped down and crouched upon the silt again, his head buried in his long, pale hands.
“Ain’t no place for a mutant to die alone, in the dark… Only to wake up as a ghoul!”
“Well, shit, would yeh ‘ave rather woke up dead?” asked Malice, ever pragmatic.
“When I woke up,” Aeg continued, “I felt compelled to chase down the illness and fix it. So I put on the robes and mask, so that I would not be chased away, the horrible thing I am.”
“I could not tell… even by smell…” murmured Irk.
“An’ ye ain’t horrible! Yer scales is purty, an’ I like yer headdots,” I declared.
Aeg’s pain seemed unreachable. “I refused to make friends, because I knew they would all die if I did not make things better.” He wheezed, winced, clutched his side again. “You are all my friends… But there are people out there…who are not our friends..”.
He stared into the distance. He rubbed his wounds “They made me give them the cure…I’m not supposed to help.”
We asked who this “they” was – survivors of Rustmouth from before?
There was no answer. But we spied a streak of orange in the near distance. Drifter, the fox Manimal who’d claimed the Oasis, was circling, bow in hand. I remembered Malice’s warning, and greeted the Manimal cautiously, unsure whether he’d force us away.
“We should go. I don’t feel safe,” Aeg said, his eyes still distant.
“We will keep you alive,” Irk assured him as we walked North. I kept a cautious eye on the Oasis. Drifter, still armed, followed from some distance behind.
Soon we made it through the remains of old Kronbelt, out of the Sand Seas at last. We stood at the broken steps of Cormac.
“This is where I met some of you,” Aeg said.
Almost five spans ago. When The Sick was at its peak, when our knowledge was at its least. When all we’d tried had failed us – even faith. [[ See http://press.the-wastelands.org/2012/06/04/mouths-of-rust-and-beaks-of-plaig/ – Ed.]]
I thought, not for the first time, about where we’d be if Aeg had never come here. If we’d never heard his cries. If we’d dismissed him as a con man. If he’d betrayed us.
Aeg gazed out over the sand, over the settlement. We watched with him.
“It’s beautiful, ain’t it?” Gutter said.
Aeg only whispered, “…They’ll be here soon…”
He returned Gutter’s hat to him and turned to enter the ruins.
Malice reflected for a moment before blurting out, “So Aeg’s a ghoul.”
Coldly, The Doktor pushed him. “I’m a mutant,” he insisted.
He passed through the winding entrance. His whisper echoed in the nearly-empty cavern. “Oh no. All of my stuff, my work…”
We surveyed the now-familiar wreckage. “We prolleh shoulda warned ‘im…” Malice murmured.
“Aye, they fuck’t it up but good,” I said.
Ned asked if Aeg had any idea who’d done it. But he didn’t seem to hear us. He just stared at what remained of his home.
“I… I’m nothing now.”
“Not true, Aeg…” Malice replied. “Yer a Wastelander.”
“Many would help rebuild, many have been searching for you,” Irk added.
I nodded. “An’ yer Doktor Aeg. Yer that tall leggity feller what helps folk. An’ now, we gets t’ help you.”
Aeg thanked us – and said his thanks were all that he could offer now. “I know you’ve gone very far out of your…” he began – then stopped, his body going limp for a moment, listing over.
Malice darted forward to grab him before he fell. “You said sum’n was comin’. Should we ‘spect companeh?” he asked urgently.
The Doktor didn’t reply. He only made a request. “…Can you help me clean up this mess, so I can rest?”
We set to work – righting tables, picking up broken glass, sweeping away junk. Almost everything valuable was gone or broken – his papers, his jars, his tools, the stew bucket. All but his bed and the oven he used to form flasks.
Aeg made his way toward the bed, then stopped short. He gazed down at the tacky crimson stain upon the stone. “Wow. That’s a lot of blood.”
I saw movement at the entrance of the cave – and saw Drifter walk in, bow in hand. I made the hand sign for Shelter, and I made the hand sign for Safe. I knew no other signs that would come close to explaining what we were doing, why we’d been on his turf, what we were trying to secure there and then.
“I hope you don’t mind if I lay down?” asked Doktor Aeg, his customary politeness returned – if for now. He settled onto the bed, curled on his side – his lash wounds still too open for him to lie on his back.
“ I do not know when I will be able to write what I remember down,” he wheezed, “or how long it will take to heal…”
He began to mumble. “Oh, this bed. …so comfortable…”
“Now, ’bout ‘at comapneh, ‘e were speakin’ o’…” Malice began.
“Yer sure some Kits ain’t gon’ help? An’ I still got more water…” I ventured.
Drifter crept toward the bed, snuffling at the air. He frowned.
“He’s out cold,” Gutter said.
Ever since then, Aeg’s been sleeping.
He’ll respond sometimes to touch, though – and for a few brief moments he’ll wake and murmur something about what happened to him. About what he must be dreaming, reliving, over and over again.
Not one word of it’s been good.
We’re piecing it together slowly fragment by fragment. I’ve tried to gather all the scraps of his dreams that I can, from anyone willing to share them. As ever, though, the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. The Sand Seas themselves still seem so distant to me, so strange, so dangerous. But, beyond their borders, there are threats we never even imagined.
This we know for sure: Whoever did this to Aeg is still out there. He is powerful. He has much scrap; he has many followers. He will not stop. He will do this again – to Aeg, to Alden, to anyone.
And his eyes are upon us.