Seven days had passed since the Bazaar. Tensions were still high; understanding was still low. Aeg still slept, still murmured. The Mutant Witch, hunted and haunted, had added strange things to the great circular daycounter – whorls of stones, precisely-placed eyes, a foul-smelling sort of stew. I had kept my distance.
I paced back and forth alongside the sand schooner, my boots creaking on the old wooden planks. It would be an Age before the next Barrelhead Bazaar. Even the Salvage Auction seemed like it lay on the far side of forever. Only a few days had passed since the night of booze and blather at The N, where we’d tried to piece together Aeg’s story, where we found that all of us had only heard the same things over and over again. I’d come to suspect there were things that, even in the depth of dream, Aeg would not let himself remember anymore.
I was tempted to blow the horn, to call another Bazaar, to summon other scavvers by any barren excuse. But I could justify nothing. And so I paced, my stomach – and my thoughts – writhing and churning like a sack of live grubs. I stared at that seat by the fire where Aeg had first spoke to us, had filled in those gaps, as wide and deep as the Fissure, in our understanding. The Wastes are no pace for “if only,” and yet… Hope and hunger have ways of honing the imagination.
And so, when I heard the horn, I was sure it was all in my head. But it continued, a series of sand-shaking blows. Perhaps someone spied the Dune Trapper, I thought, and was summoning aid. Perhaps someone had seen dangerous Outlanders on the horizon. I hurried over to see who raised the call.
I was not expecting to see Doktor Aeg. Though he was still clad only in the tattered roughspun trousers he’d been found in, still bore the chain around his waist, he seemed better. Many of his wounds had healed. He no longer staggered or swayed; his strength had returned. He carried a new mask of elaborately crafted metal, shaped like a bird’s skull, etched with elaborate patterns, accented with leather and glass. He stepped away from the horn and slipped it on.
A few of us gathered: Tralala ((Tralala Loordes)), twitching, scratching at sand fleas. GutterBlood Spoonhammer, grinning. Sommer, the Slytooth ((creamysoda)), cackling a greeting. And, a rare sighting indeed: Mirar ((Mirar Sciarri)), the Mutant hermit of the High Mesa, tapping around with his totem staff and grumbling. The horn, he said, had woken him.
I scanned the horizon and asked Doktor Aeg what was going on. “Are they coming?”
“They who attacked ye. You’d said they’d be comin’ back soon…”
He paused before replying, slowly, “I don’t know…”
Aeg sat down on a barrel in the sand. “While it is not the peak of the moon,” he said, “I have urgency. If you were alarmed, I am sorry for the deception. I must trade.”
Tra was quick to ask what he needed. I said that she’d called up another Salvage Auction, that even more people would be around to trade with soon.
“ButnotwithDebslok’straders,” he mumbled.
“While kind folks have been leaving me gifts that I am not worthy of, I feel like I should better support myself… even if I have to start over.”
“Well, what yer missin’ so’s to get yerself back to work, Dok?” Tra asked.
The Doktor considered. “I don’t have much, and I don’t want gifts. An’ if you trade with the traders a lot, I want nothing to do with you!” He looked over his shoulders as if he expected to be jumped from behind.
“How much of a lot is a lot?” I asked.
“Enough to get me in more trouble,” he replied, anxiously scanning the far sands.
“Was time you was up on feet, birdface,” said Mirar. “Ears tired of your bad dream mumbles.”
“Bad… dreams?” Aeg replied.
We told him that he’d been muttering in his sleep about where he’d been and what he’d seen. Mirar said he’d heard him through the stones.
Aeg looked intensely uncomfortable, stammering a little and rubbing his head. “Don’t… I… Well… uhhh… Hmmmm…”
I asked if he was sure he was all right.
“My cuts are better, my bones are mended… but I am having trouble remembering before the time I came home. I do remember that someone took me, and that someone took all my stuff. Some kind people have been leaving me food, water, and this finely crafted mask.”
My stomach sank – and grumbled. I opened up a can of Dinki-Di and ate of it, saying between bites that I’d hoped he might remember more once he awoke.
Aeg stared hungrily. “I will give you the leg of this chair for the rest of that! Two legs, even!” he suddenly declared.
“Dok, it’s easy t’ see why you ain’t a trader….” Tra said.
But I’m an even worse one. I said he didn’t have to give me anything, that a halfcan of food was the least I could do for all the times he’d helped me.
But he clasped his head. “NO,” he shouted. “WE TRADE.”
“Why shout, Birdbrain?” asked Mirar.
“Yes. You’re right. I shouldn’t shout,” Aeg said.
Taken aback, I said I hadn’t meant to wound his pride or anything, that I was only trying to be appreciative. And so we traded, my Dinki-Di for his scraps of wood.
The Doktor looked at Mirar, who was rummaging around in one of the bags that hung from his belt. “What sort of things… did I say?”
“To trade for? You no say. What you want?” the hermit replied.
“I might have somethin’ for yah, Dok…” Tra said, slapping at her fleas. “And it comes with its own itchin’ livestock….”
“Maybe,” Aeg replied, “but do you trade a lot with the traders?”
“I ain’t one to waste my possibles on them bastids. Offerin’ me bits o’fur….” Tra replied.
Aeg tucked a few bits of fur back into his pockets.
I told him that I ran for Alden only a couple times a moon and had only really traded with Scythejaw to get my hands on the curious Spray Paint.
“I need the scrap back! I don’t want to get in trouble!” Aeg cried. “Here, take this, please!” He handed back the Dinki-Di I’d given him.
Irritated, confused, and thoroughly worried, I handed back the chair legs. “Ye ain’t talkin’ sense,” I told him. “An’ I don’t know if it’s because there’s things ye know that ye ain’t said, or if it’s just ’cause ye took a bruisin’ on yer brainbox, but…”
“Who’s gonna give you trouble, Dok?” Tra asked. “Ain’t nobody here complainin’ about nuthin’…”
“Now who’s makin’ all these new rules fer tradin?” asked Gutter, stepping forward. “Cuz it sounds like some bogwater te me.”
The Doktor rubbed his side.
“I visit once…” Mirar began. “You yell the rain was ash, and people wore it on skin.” He pointed at the whorls of pigment on his ochre skin. “Wear on skin like this?”
Doktor Aeg balled his fists, tense. “…No… “ he whispered. “…They wore it all over…”
“All over? Sound like second skin. Not sacred signs like mine,” Mirar replied – leading into a brief spiritual debate between himself and Tra.
I told Aeg I’d been writing down the things he’d said to me, and the things other people had told me he’d said to them. I unlatched the book from my thigh and began flipping through its pages.
Aeg rushed to his feet. “I NEED THAT BOOK.” With his long, lanky arms, he grabbed at it and tried to wrest it out of my hands.
I clutched it tightly, my fingernails digging into the ancient cover. “This ain’t jus’ yer words, Aeg! Is words an’ things from all sorts o’ folk, from spans on spans… “
“You thief now, Birdface?” asked Mirar.
Aeg stumbled back, confused. “I’m no thief!” he stammered. “I’ll give you… NO! I can’t trade with you… ” He clutched his head again.
I offered to give him one of the pages, one where I’d been trying to rewrite his dream-murmurs in order.
“Give it to the fire over there.”
I kicked at the sand in frustration. ”Do ye WANT help or no?”
Aeg rubbed his head and slumped back down onto the barrel. “I don’t know anymore.”
“Do you know chamber with big chief chair? Talked bout that in sleep dream mumbles,” Mirar said.
Aeg cupped his face in his hands. “… It’s obvious I said things I maybe should not have said while I was sleeping… so there ain’t no use in trying to hide it. The rub is, I don’t remember too much.”
I cautiously flipped through my book again, looking up frequently in case he was going to lunge at me again.
Instead, Aeg changed the subject to trade, asking if anyone had meat, offering to trade the scraps of wood and broken glass from the wreckage of his home. But the trading was tense. He would not trade with anyone affiliated with the Traders – not for meat and not for knowledge.
Gutter said he wasn’t in Debslok’s pocket, and offered up some meat wrapped in cloth.
As Aeg considered the deal, Irk arrived. The Doktor hid his face.
Behind him, the hermit Shaman placed pieces of scrap upon the sand, then unwound a ball of twine over them, linking the scrap together.
I gritted my teeth. “So, what. Ye ain’t gonna let me tell ye what ye mumbled. Ye cain’t ‘MEMBER what went on t’ tell us, yerself. Some hideous fuckoff Throne Giant is out there gunnin’ for ye, an’ for ALL us, an’ yer gon’ jus’ refuse the least li’l bit o’ help I got t’ offer?!”
Tra joked that I should have a swig of my hooch to calm my nerves.
“Still might be a puddle of it splash’t up in the cave,” I said, rubbing the scar on my cheek.
He looked at me curiously. “Why did you write down the things I said? Did I say a lot?” He glanced warily over his shoulders again.
“Dok, yer wanderin’ in yer bone bowl, ain’t yah?” Tra said.
We told him he did say a lot, that it was all in bits and pieces, that we were trying to put them together in ways that made sense.
Mirar spooled his twine again and rearranged his scrap into new positions.
Eyes downcast, Aeg asked me, “What did I say?”
I told him that, best we could figure, the first thing that happened was that somebody attacked him while he was making the Stew. They hit him from behind with something metal.
Aeg gazed into the distance. “…I woke up in shackles on a sand skiff that was going very fast…”
I told him how he’d said he went through some sort of huge tube in the earth, and into some enormous cavern – a series of them, may filled with scrap.
“No,” he said, “it wasn’t that soon…”
Fast as lightning, Tra turned toward me. “…Full up w’ scrap, yah say? Some caves?”
Meanwhile, Irk watched Mirar, fascinated, ignoring Aeg’s story. The two Mutants warily got to know each other – the hermit introducing himself as Mirar of Clan Wurmwood – “But no clan no more;” the Exile thumping his chest and introducing himself as “Irk, of… this place,” his head hung low.
Aeg went on. “After I woke up, we were already far beyond the smoldering mountains.”
Mirar gathered his scrap into a small heap with a hole in the middle. His weathered hands poured sand over them.
I trailed my finger down my page, far down the list. I hadn’t thought that happened until later – sometime when he was taken even farther away. I shrugged. “Ye woke up a LOT o’ times, Dok.”
“In the distance, I could see the dark cloud from a volcano,” Aeg said. “We seemed to be heading there…” He spoke slowly, as if the words were hard to find – or simply hard to speak.
“Then at some point ye was in front o’ some giant fucko onna throne. Ye was whipped,” I added, the contempt creasing my face and hardening my voice. “Throne Giant were able t’ hol’ ye up w’ one fist an’ still stare ye in th’ eyes. He tol’ ye he’d let ye live, so long as ye told folks you was what happened to folks who help Debslok.”
“Multa…” Aeg whispered.
“Multa?” I repeated, peering up from my page. I had never heard the name. Nobody who’d spoken with me had heard the name – or, at least, they hadn’t shared it.
“…Multa…” he said again.
“Multa,” Irk said to himself.
This strange name, from a strange place, with strange and heinous ways…
Still speaking slowly through the fog of memory and pain, Aeg went on. “I asked him, ‘I’m what happens?’”
I nodded. “An he whacked ye, an’ thass when yer ribs broke.”
“I be happy to give ole Throne Giant a big hug and dose of the the itchers….” threatened Tra.
“That was a mistake!” Aeg cried, holding his torso. “He picked me up, higher still! He said, ‘You tell them all that King Multa of the Ashen Traders made an example of you!’”
I could only stare, stunned. Aeg’s gaze bounced around the horizon like drops of water on a hot skillet.
Extracting a stub of charcoal from my pouch, I slowly added new notes to my book. “Kings,” I said, spitting onto the sand.
Mirar swept his hand over his sandcovered hill of scrap, collapsing it.
“He threw me across the room, and his friends beat me up until I was unconscious… No!” Aeg suddenly shouted. “Don’t say his name. They’ll come for me. If you trade with the traders, they’ll come for you, too!”
“Spares us the trouble,” I said with a grin. “We been tryna figger out how t’ go fer THEM.”
Mirar, stonefaced, leaned closer to Aeg. “This real story? Or you just take trip?”
“He’s been recovering for weeks now, laying in bed, Mirar,” said BlackWidow ((BlackWidow Sinister)), emerging from the shadows.
The old hermit just chuckled and went back to toying with his scrap. ”I knows! I hear his snore sleep thru the stones.”
The Doktor kicked a small stone into his scrap pile, to the hermit’s consternation.
Irk snorted indignantly. “I go to the traders each day; I will not fear ash men or their threats.”
Aeg cast his eyes at the sands again and replied to the Exile. “I’m not… what I should be…. I am sorry for that. But they do not have any sort of honor; they will get you when you least expect it.”
Stunned by the apology and by the direct address, Irk said nothing, but thoughtfully watched the Doktor.
I asked if these Ashen Traders had some good reason to hate Debslok so much – if she and the Traders we knew had been up to some foulness the whole time.
“I ain’t trustin em, that’s fer damn shur,” Gutter said.
“I do not know,” Aeg replied, still downcast. “All I know is there is suffering for those who do trade with Debslok’s traders.”
“Ain’t a stretch to think them Ashies are lookin’ to take over what Debslok’s got goin’ here…” Tra mused.
Recovering, his head high, Irk spoke. “Then I will meet them in battle.”
“They won’t meet you in battle,” Aeg cautioned. “That is not their way. They will come when you are alone. …And unarmed.”
I’m sure he was trying to calm us down, to keep us mindful of the danger, to help keep us from doing anything reckless. As he has since he first came to The Wastelands, I’m sure Aeg was trying to keep us safe.
But an odd thing happens when you ask a Wastelander to value their safety over their identity. Or their safety over their freedom. Or their safety over that of their allies.
Damn near every voice rose up in defiance.
“Well, look,” I said, “there ain’t many of us what AIN’T traded w’ them Traders a time or two. They’re gon’ have to mow down damn near all us. They’re gon’ get all the fight they want!”
“Aint particular about what theievin’ trader I does business with,” Tra declared. “…But ole Dok here…he ain’t nuthin’ but a blessin’ to us in times o’need. He ain’t one to take our scraps and keep ’em fer hisself.”
Irk shouted, “Then I will hide in the shadows and wait for them!”
Sommer let out some low growls and yelps, then spoke in fractured common. “…’Des come… al’s fight….”
Aeg seemed amazed by the outpouring. After a moment to collect his thoughts, he spoke to us in turn. In turn, we all replied.
To me, he said “They will come for you, one by one.”
“One by one, I’ll fight ’em off. Die tryin’, mebbe. But better die than ‘bey no king.”
To Tra, he said “Thanks; that makes me feel like I belong, finally.”
“Yer one of us, Dok… Haha, fer better er worser….”
To Irk, he rose and he spoke: “I am an exile, by right of the tribes.”
Aeg stepped closer. The warrior Exile stood, as stoic as stone, saying nothing.
“I am dead, through the efforts of trying to save people.”
Aeg stepped closer again. Irk redoubled his grip on his Scav Knife, eyes unwavering.
“I live again from being left alone, and weak blood.”
Aeg stepped directly in front of Irk.
“BUT I WOULD NOT HIDE IN THE SHADE.”
His voice was cold condemnation. But Irk weathered it like a stone weathers a breeze. “You spoke of no honor among them,” he replied. “When the enemy is crafty, the hunter must match them.”
Aeg offered Irk a small scrap of tattered black cloth. Irk gazed at it for some time before taking it, carefully, between two calloused green fingertips.
The Doktor explained that it was a piece of his old robes. “I used this to hide what I was, and it has sown distrust among the mutants towards me. I am afraid to be taken alone in the night. I have no kin, because…”
Aeg paused and glanced at Gutter. “I loathe to be a ghoul. I find no solace in my form.”
The grizzled Ghoul just smirked.
Aeg turned back toward Mirar. “My tribe deemed me unworthy a long time ago.”
The hermit sighed.
Again, Aeg looked to Irk. The warrior gazed at the sands.
“I, too, am exiled from my tribe,” Irk said. “This dishonor, I understand. And to be… dead, yet walking… this, I do not understand. But I know I will not cower before any but The King of Fire!”
Quietly, mournfully, Aeg replied, “…and the Fire King let me become what I am. I know not what the witch says, or Mirar thinks, but I have had too long to think about what I am. So if you will at least tolerate my thoughts, perhaps I can share what I think of it all? You need not look down, for I am less than you in the traditional ways.”
Leaning on his totem, the blind hermit spoke, all jesting gone from his voice. “What tribes, Aeg? Look here: We are few. Tribes are far or gone. What is ‘exile’ in this place when many tribes, my tribe, lie dead in sands and rocks and time. You are mutant. You are ghoul.” His voice became a whisper. “You are friend.”
Aeg returned to his perch on the barrel. We all told him we would listen, but he was still weighed down with doubts. “The witch, she is very strict in the old ways…” he began.
“Her tradition is strong; her magic is powerful,” Irk attested.
Tra muttered, “She a damn crazy nut.”
“When you broke the bottle in my cave, I woke up. I know she wanted to kill me, and I would have let her, if not for that moment.”
I frowned, touching the scar on my cheek again.
“She is … troubled… by you,” Irk explained carefully.
“The witch is smart; perhaps you can tell her.”
Irk shrugged his knobbly shoulders. “I can say it, but I do not know if she will hear.”
“Not all tribes hate ghouls,” Aeg said. “Ghouls and mutants are more friends in other places than they are with humans. There is a mutual understanding that we are different.”
“My people… do not think this way,” stated Irk.
“For too long, I have been puzzled at what I am. I may have been an exile, but before that I believed as strong as the witch does. To wake up one day, as the thing you hate, dead from the thing you were trying to help people survive from, felt like a punishment for so long.” Aeg spoke his sorrows plainly, as if explaining how to tie a knot or dress a kill. “Then the witch, a staunch believer in the old ways, was brought to the brink of sin, but chose to spare me.”
Slowly, Irk spoke. “This… way… that you are… You wish to continue this way?”
“I was ready to die, there, at that time. But everyone left..” Aeg said, gazing into the sky.
“Then you do not want to continue… as.. what you are?” Irk said, puzzled.
“So I got up to eat,” Aeg continued. “I stared at the smoldering embers of my kiln, throwing broken bits of my lab into it to keep the fires going.”
He looked to Irk, then to the earth. “Is it not true that if a mutant becomes a ghoul, that the fire of the soul is slowly consumed into nothingness?”
Gutter spat something grotesque into the sand. “Y’all muties are a funny bunch. Ye stand on mutha death’s soil at’s made from the corpses a everythin’ thet’s ever lived, praisin’ the king o’ fire and shittin’ on the ground et gave ye life.”
Irk stared at the ground in long contemplation. “I do not know what is true anymore.”
“But that is what they say?” Aeg prompted.
“This is the wisdom of the ages, yes. For my people, it is worse than death. But I… I do not know.”
“Yer can live without a soul,” Tra said, straightforwardly. “Ain’t like a important bit like yer blood sack… Now, cut that out, and yer likely to shirvel up, like.”
Aeg turned back to Mirar. “When a fire is out, the embers remain, and if you gather them up it can help start a new fire?”
The hermit nodded.
“What fire will you start?” Irk asked.
Aeg looked to him and took off the ornate mask once more, showing his gaunt face, his sunken eyes, the deep dark scars at his mouth.
“I died a long time ago,” he said. “The people I lived with after I was an exile, they too also died… I do not know what became of my tribe, for I have not seen its sigil in a long time. But I remember it.”
In the sand, he drew a symbol: a buzzard before the sun.
Aeg looked to Mirar and to Irk. “Have you seen this? Do you remember?”
“My people did not mix with other tribes. I have never seen this,” Irk said, shaking his head.
“Have I SEEN what?” Mirar replied.
“RIGHT,” said Aeg. “Give me your palm.”
“Hmph. Smartass ghoul,” Mirar muttered. Still he walked to Aeg and held out his palm. In it, Aeg traced the same shape.
“Buzzard symbol familiar but Mirar is old. Many trade or fight here with Wurm Tribe when Mirar was young,” he said with a shrug.
Wandering in from the Sand Seas, Jubal Quintus waved.
Gutter stared at the symbol in the sand. “Funny yer tribe carries da symbol of a creature that thrives off death,” he said with a smirk.
Aeg chuckled darkly. “You mean, brings you to the Fire King?”
“If at’s what you wanna believe,” Gutter replied, the insouciant grin still on his grey face.
Irk grumbled grimly about buzzards, while Tra asserted they were “just somethin’ else to eat.”
“No one remembers my tribe but me,” Aeg said. “No one remembers the people I lived with but me. The winds carry the memories away, the sands consume what remains.”
“All we know will crumble and end badly. This is the way of things,” Irk agreed.
“Perhaps the Fire King intended for me to fail, so that I would see the humans’ way of things,” Aeg mused. “Maybe he let me fail in trying to help them, so that I too would know their suffering. And then maybe, he let me have weak blood, so that I could carry on these memories in the embers of my soul. Maybe I am destined to find the lost tribes, and reignite their memories and customs. Or the embers of my soul are to help others burn brighter.”
Irk nodded. “Maybe there was a plan; maybe there is no plan. Either way, you are here. If there is a reason for it, then it is the one you make.”
Aeg seemed resolute. “If I am to burn out, let me reignite the fires of those around me.”
“So if we are to live near as tribes and people,” he added, “I do not want war. I just do not want to be alone.”
Drifter, Sommer’s Slytooth mate, prowled up to her. The two rubbed noses.
“War is on the table in the short time since you woke?” Jubal said, frowning. “I mean, scuse me for sayin’ since I just got here, but warrin’ wit who?”
“They won’t bring war, they’ll take you. Don’t trade with the traders,” Aeg hissed nervously.
“There ain’t nobody livin’ here now who weren’t given such life from ye,” I told Aeg. “Ye kept us goin’ when we was at our sickest, our hungriest, our coldest.”
“Your spirit is giving,” Irk said to him. “To make the cures, to make the stoo. This is kindness of the heart. Maybe a heart needs to be old and dead for these things; I do not know. But… It is good.”
“The mutants do not understand me. I do not understand me,” Aeg replied.
“You are mutant, you are ghoul, you are healer. One can be many things here,” Mirar told him.
Aeg looked to Irk once more. “Why do you practice the old ways if you are an exile?”
Irk gazed at the sand and spoke, slowly, thoughtfuly. “To be a warrior, to live by honor… this is not a bad thing for one who is exiled. I was rejected by them, but I do not reject in return. This is… my way.”
“That was my way, too,” Aeg said. “But I was not allowed to go back to my tribe, and I was to afraid to seek out other mutants. So I made friends with the humans.”
“If you are dead, maybe this is YOUR way,” Irk said.
Gutter clapped his weathered hands. “A mutie that has a brain bigger en a rat; gotta give it to ye.”
“You tell that witch I said thank you,” Aeg said, “and that I don’t want no trouble, and you tell her my story – the good and the bad.”
“I will speak to her. She will hear what I have heard…” He gazed at the sky again. “But I will not enjoy it.”
“Maybe if we can’t be friends, I could tell her the stories of my tribes so they are not forgotten.”
“If she will listen, I will speak. That is all I can do.”
Seemingly satisfied, Aeg spoke to the now-larger crowd. “Well. I brought what remains of my home to trade for food. I am not looking for handouts, I just want fair trade from people who DON’T trade with Debslok’s traders. I don’t want trouble from that. I got plenty of wood and glass, some metal.”
“Then you do not want trade from me…” Irk replied. “Alden and the Pigman, these I see each day.”
“You all should not trade with them! You will end up like me.”
Jubal took a step closer. “Ya mean skinny?”
“No, tall,” Aeg replied.
“Not the worst deal I heard so far,” the old trader said with a shrug.
“I ain’t care!” I said. “We gotta do as we need t’get by. We cain’t let some king out in the Nothin’ decide what it is we do!”
“You shouldn’t,” Aeg warned us.
“I will trade with whatever creature I want. I will not be frightened by this,” Irk said staunchly.
“Like Ned is always sayin, erry king is meant fer dead,” Gutter added, eyes skyward.
“I ‘preciate ye lookin’ out fer us,” I told Aeg. “Ye ever have done. But…”
“…What if they come for me again…” Aeg whispered.
Once again, near everyone spoke of how we’d be on our guard to protect him. Though Jubal, ever the practical strategist, cautioned that there weren’t enough of us to be sure. “Gonna need to know which way they come, an’ watch thataway.”
“Maybe this hoomin sheriff can help to protect the cave. I do not understand his laws, but he can be trusted,” Irk suggested.
I spat into the sand. “Fuck a king, an’ fuck a Share-If, too.”
The Ghoulcat ((KittyKat Borkotron)) wandered close, curious. Aeg tried again to trade with some of the new arrivals, but he asked each one if they traded with Debslok’s traders – and most everyone had too much association with Debslok’s traders for him to feel safe. Only Mirar, Gutter, and Jubal were unaffiliated – and most didn’t have what he wanted.
Doktor Aeg turned to Gutter. He opened the pack of scrap that contained the splintered remains of his home. “Mr. Blud… How many days of protection can I buy for this?”
The Ghoul grinned slowly. “A bit.”
Mirar sputtered. “Protection?”
“We’re going to get food and supplies,” Aeg whispered. “I can’t trade with these people…”
The old Mutant scowled a bit, but said nothing for a few moments. “Mirar live here long time alone. You welcome. Scavengers welcome. Trade war not welcome.”
“War ain’t nothin’ for no one to rush into, but if folk are raidin’ us, we gotta defend,” Jubal said.
“Well… keep my cave clean while I am gone,” Aeg requested, tossing his sack of scrap to Gutter. With a swift thwack, Mirar extended his totem and struck Aeg on the shin.
Pulling his Slugthrower from beneath his cloak, Gutter chambered a round and then shouldered the sack. “Much appreciated.”
The Mutant hermit grumbled and turned toward the sound of the gun.
“So, what of the rest of us, eh, Aeg?” I asked. “What’re we s’posed to do? Jus’ sit on our thums?”
“For now, yes. My meager offerings won’t buy me much of Mr. Bluds time. I will be back though; everything I owned was taken, smashed, or burnt.”
“We hauled out there t’ find ye, brought ye back, tended to ye, jus’ so ye can wake up, reject all we e’er done, an’ LEAVE agin?!” I couldn’t help but be exasperated. The wider Wastes are dangerous, and surely we some of us could have gone instead. Surely he didn’t have to put himself in such danger again, so soon after he recovered.
But it was as it was before, as it ever will be, whenever you ask a Wastelander to value their safety over their identity.
“I cannot be who I was, until I find the things I need. I cannot trade with Debslok’s traders, or people who trade with Debslok’s traders!”
Meanwhile, whispering, Irk and Jubal tried to fill in the curious Ghoulcat. “Debslok’s traders have been attacked by Ash somethings. A trade war…” Irk murmured.
“An’ is we be on Debs… Deblo… him side or Ash’s side?” she replied.
“Undetermined,” Jubal said, glancing at her.
“Debslok crew is Alden and the Pigman and the ugly one. I favor them over these new violent traders,” Irk stated.
“Don’t be takin’ the face of it as the truth, mutie. We don’t know much yet ’bout the new comers,” Jubal replied.
Gutter scanned the crowd, his weapon rested – but ready.
“Not to say nothin’ on Gutter’s skills w’a Slugthrower,” I said, “but… if’n ye’d jus’ let ALL us help ye, if ye’d not let them fuckos out there boss ye ’round…” I grasped desperately at anything that might convince him to stay. If identity mattered more than safety, and trading with us could put him in danger, then surely he – and we – could shoulder that danger. With more of us at the ready, and on our home turf, I hoped against hope that we could provide just a little more protection than peril.
“You weren’t there,” Aeg whispered. “…You weren’t… TAKEN. From your HOME. BEATEN to near death, and left to DIE. So excuse me for being selfish for once. Let me be who I am, let me give away the last broken things I own, so I can rebuild a clean life.”
“But yer gon’ get yerself dead out there agin! Fer good! W’ more of us tradin’ w’ye, helpin’ ye, wouldn’t that make ye safer?”
“Well, if Mr. Blud does his job, I should be fine. Multa knows where I live, now where I am. If I am not home, I am safer.”
Jubal tried to wrest more information from Aeg before he left. “Jus’ tell us which way they come an’ go from; you gotta know that, right?”
“They come from the places you can’t see. Far beyond the sand seas, past the smoldering mountain.”
A fretful look on his face, Mirar sketched curves and peaks into the sand.
Aeg looked to him and said he’d bring him something nice.
“Hmph. Bring peace and quiet.”
“…And ain’t nobody know how to make the most of food like I can,” Aeg said, reassuringly. “…I will get by.”
“What if the Rustmouth comes back?” Irk asked.
Jubal was brusque. “We die.”
“I go’ let me be a crazed ghast an eatcha all afore I die,” snarled Kitty, her tattered ears perked with gruesome excitement.
“I don’t have the equipment to make cures,” Aeg explained. “That is why I am hiring Mr. Blud to help me get food and scavenge the fringes of the city to the north. What was its name again?” he asked Gutter.
Mr. Blud stared in shock at the Doktor. “Aw, hell, Northgate,” he said with a sigh.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Blud, we ain’t going in. Just near.”
“Damn right we ain’t,” Gutter replied.
My worries only deepened. Any place that could put a fear into GutterBlood is a place of terrible danger indeed.
Doktor Aeg looked at the sand in silence. “…I …I don’t mean to abandon you… It’s just I got nothin, and I ain’t tradin’ with no folk who trade with Debslok is all…And if I gotta take care of anyone, I need my equipment… Mr. Blud has the scraps of what is left of it, and we’ll find or make some new stuff while we’re out.”
“Not everyone does trade wit’ ol Whatsernuts, but….most do,” Jubal admitted.
“Then tha trader scit ain’t no good if we cainn’t trade wif it!” Kitty said with sudden realization. “Who trade fer werfless pieces o’ metal but Delo’s crew?”
“I’ll take it off yer hands,” offered Jubal.
In one last desperate grasp, I asked Aeg, “What ye e’en need! A bucket? We got buckets! Cinderblocks for smashin’ plants? We got that! Long as we’re careful w’ the flasks we got left, is okay if ye cain’t make more…”.
“Tinkctures, herbs, special glass shapes, powders, sand, lots of fiddly delicate stuff,” Aeg replied.
I sighed. Apparently more had gone into the Cure than we could see.
“Are you ready, Mr. Blud?” Aeg asked.
The Ghoul kicked at the sand. “I reckon so.”
“Well. I’m all packed, I guess,” Aeg said, having given the last of his broken everything to Gutter. “Let’s go.”
“I will speak to the Witch,” Irk reaffirmed.
Drifter stood and performed an elaborate ritual gesture toward them both.
I stepped close to Gutter. Through gritted teeth, I said to take care of Aeg. To come back soon, and safe.
“‘Course, darlin’,” he said with a smarmy, goldtoothed grin. He shouldered his Slugthrower.
I turned to Aeg and extended my hand – then paused and stuck it back in my pocket. “I’d shake yer hand, but if they’s watchin’ as ye say, they might think we made us a deal. G’luck out there, Dok Aeg.”
“I don’t need luck; I got Mr. Blud.”
“An’ he got his Slugthrower.” I said, with a weak laugh.
“…But thanks for the thought,” Aeg added.
The two began to walk over the sand. Aeg paused a moment. “Mr. Blud, do your fees include equipment rentals? If so, do you have bolt cutters?”
“I cut bolts wif my teeth,” grinned the Ghoul.
“Chew on my ‘belt,’ then,” he said, gesturing to the length of chain that still encircled his waist.
Gutter made no motion to do so – but, at Aeg’s request, did take the lead. They would need to make good time to find food and construct a makeshift weapon.
And so they walked into the north, Gutter with his piece at the ready, Aeg still in the chains of a so-called king, having given his last and least for a few days’ protection.
We watched them vanish, like the sun, on the horizon.
We talked amongst ourselves some after that. I don’t remember on what, much. Securing supplies, gathering weapons, how to ready for war the likes of which we’d never seen. Though we’d perhaps be lucky if it came to that, if we weren’t all just snatched away in the night, one by one, like grains of sand in the wind.
In my home settlement, we said that the winds were the voices of the dead. A breeze might tousle your hair like your eldmother once did, or shove you like a scornful brother. But, at times, the winds grew violent. They would come from all directions at once, swirling, howling, impacable. We said that “our ancestors are arguing,” and would argue ourselves about what the spirits wanted. But on one thing we agreed: we must keep our precious things close, because whatever thing blew away, it could not be brought back. The spirits decided we were not meant to have it, and a doom would ride on those who defied it.
This is the height of the Season of Violent Winds. In so many spans, it has brought danger; it has taken things away. It is the season when the Rustmouth plague first came. The season when Hambone Slash grew so clotted with corpses of that not even the Ghouls could enter. The season when, with the shift of the wind, Malady Bog became an impassable mire of toxic gas and foul spores. When the storm surge came to scour the Cape of Ruin. When the last of Kronbelt fell to the sands.
It’s hard not to fear that this will be the season that takes Doktor Aeg, too, and Gutter alongside him.
It’s hard not to fear that they, too, will be called away by the voices of the dead.
A halfmoon has passed, and there are no signs of Gutter or of Doktor Aeg.
I wish I could set aside my worries. Mr. Blud is clever, canny, uncompromising – and fearsome with a gun. Time and hunger cloud the memory, but I believe the Tin Man himself had Gutter at his right hand when confronting Gill over the last, locked Masheen. Aeg could ask for no better bodyguard.
But the Wastes are wider and weirder than I know. I don’t even know some things about my own past; to scry futures about Outlanders is beyond my ken. I know nothing of Multa or the Ashen Traders. The little I’ve heard of their ways is unfathomable – a culture of cages and kings. But, based on Aeg’s story, I doubt they are forgiving.
It may not matter if we stop trading with Debslok’s Traders now, or if we spend every last disc we’ve saved, or if we toss all our scrit to the Sea. Still Multa may come. All of us who’ve traded with Alden, Scythejaw, or Saul, all of us who have ever run a strange crate back to The Heap or harvested mushrooms in Hambone, all of us who have spent scrit – even Candy Scrit… all of us are in danger. Multa has marked us.
Perhaps all we can do is prepare. As ever, keep ourselves fed, keep ourselves stocked, keep ourselves armed. Look out for ourselves. Look out for each other.
Look to the north. Look to the southwest. And listen for word on the wind.